What 'A Wrinkle in Time' Gets Right About YA

There's no 'Hunger Games'-style politics or angsty 'Twilight' romances in Ava DuVernay’s film.
Courtesy of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Love resides at the core of Ava DuVernay’s adaptation of Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. This of course could be said about most of the young adult adaptations that have populated screens, to varying degrees of success, after the tested formats of franchises like Harry Potter, Twilight and The Hunger Games. But DuVernay’s feature feels different, a step away from its YA contemporaries in that it remains unconcerned with love triangles and caste systems seemingly developed to throw a wrench in the dating ambitions of young protagonists. A Wrinkle in Time is about love, but it presents the emotion as something much bigger than romance and idealized relationships, instead focusing on self-worth and the love of one’s own faults as well as virtues.

YA novels and their subsequent adaptations are so often bound by complex rules, rebellions formed against dystopias founded on Randian notions of self-interest and superiority, often to the point of trivializing human nature and the workings of social order. And if not rules of a social and political nature, then YA films are most likely concerned with rules of magic and science fiction, complex spell casting and special powers bound, sometimes unfortunately so, by the source material’s narrative needs and limitations. While L’Engle’s book, published in 1962, isn’t explicitly concerned with the rules of society (the protagonists’ journey does hinge on giving humanity a fighting chance against evil) it does feature a myriad of hefty science fiction ideas to buy into alongside its focus on love and forgiveness. Simply put, L’Engle’s novel stands, to this day, as one of the more complex works of YA fiction. DuVernay doesn’t shy away from presenting this complexity though her own visual lens, what with a Wrinkle in Time’s talk of tesseracts, love as an transdimensional energy, the personification of the universe, and Reese Witherspoon’s transformation into a giant lettuce leaf. But the film isn’t particularly interested in following any sort of rules to ground these concepts in a way that allows them to be explored to the point of making sense outside of the emotional context they provide. The complexity of science fiction here seems repurposed to fulfill the film’s need for dazzling visuals, rather than to bend the mind. What DuVernay’s film seems most interested in is bending heartstrings.

Meg Murry (Storm Reid) is burdened by her own self-doubt and feelings of inadequacy in the aftermath of her father’s (Chris Pine) disappearance. DuVernay’s film focuses intently on her struggle for purpose, using her as a stand-in figure for a world of intelligent children left behind to an emotional insecurity they can’t find their way out of. The film takes every possible opportunity to remind viewers of this journey, whereas more subtlety and less exposition could have been more effective. The mileage viewers will get out of this emotional arc will largely depend on their own personal connection to these childhood-born insecurities.

Accompanied by her younger brother Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe), who has ill-defined preternatural abilities, and friend from school, Calvin (Levi Miller), Meg is guided by three aspects of the universe, Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, Mrs. Which (Witherspoon, Mindy Kaling, and Oprah Winfrey) who prove to her that she isn’t ordinary. DuVernay, and screenwriters Jennifer Lee and Jeff Stockwell, successfully manage to avoid the chosen one trope by making Meg one of the chosen many, special not because the universe has willed her to be so but because she can ultimately recognize and accept herself. The rules of dimensional travel may be a bit of an afterthought, but the redefinition of being chosen is presumably a heady enough concept for younger viewers raised on notions of a singular, special hero or heroine.

While the film does establish a connection between Meg and Calvin, it highlights the sweetness of their friendship. There is the possibility for young romance, but it is secondary to Meg finding her father and her self-esteem. Meg and Calvin are drawn to each other because of their respect for each other’s intelligence and their shared experiences of absent fathers, though they are absent in different ways. It’s refreshing to see a young heroine who isn’t forced to choose between her desires and those of a significant other. Calvin’s role is purely one of support, and he neither saves Meg nor provides the answer required to fulfill her emotional journey. This relationship alone sets A Wrinkle in Time apart from other recent YA adaptations. The claim could be made that this makes the film skew slightly younger in its reach, the purity of it feels like a necessary shift towards modernizing and understanding the very young adults these films center around and are made for.

While A Wrinkle in Time isn’t entirely cohesive or successful as an adaptation, there is an admirable purity in DuVernay’s aims and the creation of a blockbuster spectacle that is less concerned with exploring the universe and nature of these children’s powers than it is in exploring the emotional vulnerability of lost children who have to learn to love themselves. Though heavy-handed at times, A Wrinkle in Time does present a unique vision that is perhaps most interesting in what it attempts than what it achieves. The boldness of sincerity in which Ava DuVernay creases the edges of our notions of YA films is something to be appreciated and not to be missed.