Can A Wrinkle in Time Ever be Successfully Filmed?

A Wrinkle in Time 2018 film

The 60th anniversary of Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time (1962) capped a wave of nostalgia for this classic for children of all ages — including the 2018 film adaptation.

A Wrinkle in Time follows the story of siblings, Meg and Charles Wallace, in their cosmic search to find the whereabouts of their missing father. 

The story is cinematic in all ways possible; however, it has already had two unsuccessful attempts at being brought to the big screen. Why have both of these films flopped? Can A Wrinkle in Time ever be successfully filmed?

I vividly remember the first time I read this novel. I was in eighth grade, and I reveled in its whimsical details. A Wrinkle in Time is a complex novel that has resonated with generations of readers.

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A wrinkle in time by madeleine l'engle

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle (1962) 
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A cosmic fantasy with approachable characters

The main theme — the idea that being unique should be celebrated — is universal. It can be applied to social media today, and the resulting “sameness” that comes from it. It’s a children’s book that deals with not-so-childish subjects; the loss of a parent and the turmoil that accompanies it, and the fear of inadequacy and how to overcome it.

A Wrinkle in Time is also an irresistible combination of fantasy and science fiction that can’t help but stand out. Meg and Charles Wallace find help from three angelic women who guide them in their quest to find their father and save the universe all in one sweep. It has underlying elements of magic that meld with scientific ideas, such as traveling through dimensions and spacetime.

It isn’t often that a children’s book can successfully combine a surrealist cosmic fantasy with tangible, approachable characters. Like many kids, I related to Meg, with her braces and just-so-average nature. Like Meg’s Charles Wallace, I too have a younger brother.

It almost felt as if I was reading a story about my own life. For a young reader, the imagination you bring to a novel like A Wrinkle in Time makes it all the more mystical, all the more relatable. I knew when I was reading it that I had come across something significant.

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Scene From A Wrinkle in Time 2018

A Wrinkle in Time (2018 film) official trailer
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A Wrinkle in Time, the 2018 film: Hype vs hope

When I heard that A Wrinkle in Time was coming to the big screen in 2018, I begged my friends, a bunch of twenty-year-olds, to accompany me to the theater. I was so excited to see how a book I had adored when I was young would be brought to life.

Unfortunately, I left the theater with the sense that I had been misled. The film came so close to encapsulating the things I loved about the novel, but fell short, leaving me feeling unsatisfied. 

The film was targeted towards children, so maybe I shouldn’t have gotten my hopes up. Yet, it wasn’t underwhelming because it was for children, it was underwhelming because it failed to illustrate the book.

With a critic rating of 42% on Rotten Tomatoes and an astonishingly low 26% audience score, it’s safe to say it was not well received. It was comforting to know I wasn’t the only person who was disappointed.

Critic Alex Hudson wrote, “A Wrinkle in Time feels like a missed opportunity.” Another critic, Jason Fraley, put it perfectly: “Some stories work far better in literature than on the screen, as the screenwriters scrap necessary connecting tissue to trim the runtime down to two hours.” 

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Wrinkle in time film

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Casting decisions

The film was directed by Ava DuVernay, the producer of Selma. She made a point to diversify the cast list, which I wholeheartedly celebrate. Meg was played by Storm Reid, who undoubtedly stole the show. She did an amazing job at portraying the character I loved so dearly.

DuVernay’s decision to cast this iconic literary character as a black girl was refreshing, and her other casting choices made the film more relatable as a whole.

It was an interesting decision to make Charles Wallace’s character an adoptee in the film. It didn’t go along with the plot line of the book series, in which the entire family is directly related to their father, resulting in their “special powers.” It’s unclear what the intent was to add the adoption plot line, or whether it was really necessary.

The film was also visually pleasing. It was colorful and lush, exactly what I envisioned when reading it as a kid. In theory, the film should have been a hit.

The all-star cast alone was worthy of much attention. Featuring Reese Witherspoon, Mindy Kaling, and Oprah Winfrey, acting as mentor figures for Meg and Charles Wallace, had the potential and talent to add a fun dynamic to the storyline. However, all the star power simply overshadowed the storyline.

In the film, many of the characters strayed away from their lovable traits. I found myself seriously disliking the characters that I had once loved. Ms. Whatsit, played by Witherspoon, was transformed into a snide character spouting sassy remarks, as opposed to the eccentric and all-knowing guardian that I loved in the book.

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A wrinkle in time 2018 cast

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Plot holes and lack of character development

It was off-putting to see a timeless novel fizzling into an unrefined story line, updated with unnecessary modernity. I found the film version of Charles Wallace written in such a way that I couldn’t help but dislike him. His character is supposed to be a quiet prodigy, instead, he’s portrayed as a pompous, talkative kid.

The personalities of the characters may have been altered to establish some 21st-century relatability in the movie version, but their likable qualities were erased in the process.

The actors seemed forced into roles they didn’t completely understand, and as a result, their performances fell short. The surrealist, astronomical flavor of the novel boiled down into a glitzy mess with glaring plot holes — and little to no character development.


So, why didn’t it work?

Translating A Wrinkle in Time to film wasn’t exactly a novel idea, so to speak. It had been attempted before, as a mini-series, in 2003. I’ve scoured the internet to find this series, curious to watch it, to no avail. The only option seems to be to buy the DVD, and most of us no longer have the disc drives to play this kind of media.

I was left to trust the author’s own words about the series; Madeleine L’Engle declared: “I have glimpsed it … I expected it to be bad, and it is.”

The book-to-film success rate is known to be low. So it isn’t entirely a surprise that the film didn’t stand up. Successful film franchises like Harry Potter or The Hunger Games are few and far between, which is what makes them special.

A Wrinkle in Time is an older novel. It doesn’t deal with a magical high school or dystopian societies that make for an epic, easily consumable cinematic experience.

A Wrinkle in Time is convoluted. It’s whimsical and unique, with an essence I desperately wanted to see on film. But it seems doubtful that it can be captured on film. The 2018 mega-film had a $100 million budget and still managed to miss the mark. Why?

The answer may have to do with what makes the book so unique in the first place. It simply wasn’t built for film. Some novels can afford to cut plot corners when translated to film, but A Wrinkle in Time can’t. It’s a macrocosm, its own little universe that takes a well-tuned eye to successfully dissect.

Many successful adaptations rely on authors being on set, guiding the directors and cast to achieve a realistic vision that pleases the audience that loved the story first — the readers.

That’s what made the film version of To Kill a Mockingbird, a book from the same era, so successful — Harper Lee was always on set as the 1962 film version of her 1960 novel was being produced. Neither the 2018 nor the 2003 mini-series did this.

L’Engle passed away in 2007, and wasn’t able to see the 2018 rendition of her novel. I wonder what she would have thought of it, and in my view, she would have absolutely done things differently.

The good news is the novel you grew up with and loved is still in print and readily available at bookstores and libraries. If you never read it as a child, it’s never too late to discover it as an adult.

I recently reread the novel, and it captivated me just as much as it did the first time. Madeleine L’Engle’s celestial universe of mystique and wonder, and the lovable characters that explore it, still live on, in our imaginations and our hearts.

Contributed by Jess Mendes, a 2021 graduate of SUNY-New Paltz with a major in Digital Media Management, and a minor in Creative Writing.

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