DECEMBER 10, 2012
MADELEINE L’ENGLE’S A WRINKLE IN TIME is one of those books that I read compulsively as a child, in my under-the-bed fort, smearing the pages with potato chip grease and chocolate. L’Engle’s novel was first published in 1962, well before my time; it was a book that my grandmother had bought for my mother and that she had bought for me, even though she couldn’t quite remember the plot or why she had loved it so much. In A Wrinkle in Time, Meg and Charles Wallace Murry, the children of genius scientists, and their friend Calvin O’Keefe, must travel across the universe and save Meg and Charles Wallace’s father from a darkness that threatens all of existence. In the subsequent books in the series (collectively known as the Time Quintet), Meg travels inside of Charles Wallace’s mitochondria to save him from an inexplicable disease; in A Wind in the Door (1973) and A Swiftly Tilting Planet (1978), Charles Wallace travels through time on the back of a unicorn to shift a chain of events that would otherwise result in nuclear war; in Many Waters (1986), the Murry twins Sandy and Dennys are transported back to Biblical times, right before the Great Flood; and in An Acceptable Time (1989), Meg and Calvin’s daughter (spoiler alert, they get married) Polly is trapped in pre-Columbian Connecticut after accidentally slipping through time while visiting her grandparents.
A Wrinkle in Time is part of a subgenre of young adult literature in which ordinary, plain children are called upon to do brave, incredible things with the help of newfound powers, and then, inevitably grow up to be extraordinary, attractive adults. In my solitary fort, I ate it up (along with the chips and chocolate). I was Hermione Granger, frizzy-haired and mocked and too smart for my own good. I was Bastian Balthazar Bux from The Neverending Story, chubby and lonely and transported into an epic adventure through the pages of a book. I was Meg Murry, bespectacled, outcast, and misunderstood. Superimposing myself onto Meg, I tessered across the universe with witches who quoted Shakespeare, flew on the back of an angel, fought against the Black Thing shadowing Earth, saved my father and brother from a giant brain that turned people into living automatons, and was cradled in the arms of a kindly fur-covered tentacle beast. I grappled with my own fears, of losing my parents, of being unpopular, of the world ending. I thought about good and evil, about conformity and difference, about love and hate and the existence of God. (A Wrinkle in Time and its sequels, like The Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings, has been read as Christian allegory, drawing upon biblical themes and sometimes quoting the Bible directly, though it is accessible to readers of any background.) Rereading L’Engle’s classic today, I am astounded by the work that young-adult literature can do, the sophisticated places it takes our minds before we’re old enough to realize just what is happening.
Nonetheless, I have to admit that the text of A Wrinkle in Time, in some ways, has aged about as well as the yellowing, dog-eared pages of my paperback copy. I couldn’t help but laugh aloud at Meg, Calvin, and Charles Wallace’s Cold War era terror when they encounter a room full of “great computing machines” like the ones “Meg had seen in her science books.” (Charles Wallace wonders aloud whether they might be radioactive.) The town-wide smug curiosity about Meg’s missing father indicates a time when divorce was uncommon; it’s hard to imagine having a “postmistress” and “constable’s wife” with an abiding interest in a perceived failed marriage. The book is also full of humorously dated slang; Calvin says to Mr. Murry, “Jeepers, sir. You must have been in a sort of flap” and calls Charles Wallace “old sport.”
With this in mind, I was curious to see what a 21st-century update, in the form of Hope Larson’s Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time: The Graphic Novel, might do for a new generation of readers. Graphic novels are on the front lines of the constant struggle to introduce reading to young people, and, in addition to my general enthusiasm for comics, I have both feet firmly planted in the “anything that gets them to read” camp. Still, all of the anxieties and potential pitfalls of adaptation apply in this genre as in others; I couldn’t help but wring my hands thinking about Disney’s disastrous 2003 attempt at a film version, which features a horrific abuse of CGI and a series of confusing plot and character alterations. Tessering, a “wrinkling” of time and space described in the book as a sort of passing through a void of nothingness, here involves a lot of whooshing and screaming and bright lights as the characters fly through the air. Mrs. Whatsit in angel-form looks sort of like an enormous bust of Jane Lynch sutured disconcertingly onto a pegasus. Mr. Murry’s imprisonment on Camazotz becomes a bizarre plot to kidnap Charles Wallace for his special abilities, with Temple of Doom special effects. Et cetera.
Of course, A Wrinkle in Time: The Graphic Novel is not primarily for readers like me: adults with thickly layered nostalgias for L’Engle’s writing, already possessed of our own images of Mrs. Who, Mrs. Which, and Mrs. Whatsit, and Uriel, and Camazotz, and Ixchel, much less the Murrys’s New England. Or maybe it is. In any case, it seems clear that Hope Larson is one of us. In an interview with Badass Digest, she describes her own fear at the prospect of adapting “a beloved book” and offers the disarming insight that “a great adaptation simultaneously celebrates and destroys the original.” As far as I know, there is not an incredibly organized L’Engle fan base, LARPing the Murrys and collectively turning up their noses at adaptations while eagerly producing their own fan fiction. (Let me know if you’re out there!) Perhaps my trepidation is only the pull of my adolescent attachment; perhaps I’m afraid to lose my own tight grip on L’Engle’s books, on Meg Murry as my younger self.
There is always something lost, or exchanged, when the imagined world evoked by the written word, unique for every reader, is replaced by a provided set of visual references. In this particular case, the artist is faced with translating the unbelievable, even the metaphysical, into visual imagery, and within a relatively constrained form. Larson, author of graphic novels including Salamander Dream, Gray Horses, Chiggers, and Mercury, is a great pick to adapt A Wrinkle in Time. In her previous work, she proves a deft illustrator of fantasy and the fantastic worlds of children, and a writer with a noted commitment to young people and YA graphic literature. There is an element of the magical both in her illustrations and in the tales she tells. For example, Mercury tells the linked coming of age stories of Josey, a girl in 1859, and her present-day ancestor, Tara. The characters echo each other physically and in their experiences, in a story populated by ghosts and other hints of the supernatural.
In A Wrinkle in Time: The Graphic Novel, Larson offers a textually faithful adaptation of L’Engle’s original; quite a bit of the dialogue is intact and unchanged, and retains the stilted formality of early 1960s New England. Mrs. Murry asks, “Would you like a sandwich, Mrs. Whatsit? I’ve had liverwurst and cream cheese.” When Mrs. Whatsit asks for Russian caviar, Charles Wallace responds, “You peeked! We’re saving that for Mother’s birthday and you can’t have any. And you musn’t give into her, Mother, or I shall be very angry!” Larson also faithfully translates Meg’s internal monologue, which, given the properties of the comics form, actually gives her precedence over L’Engle’s omniscient third-person narrator — a subtle but very effective shift.
Larson also skillfully brings to life the awkward blossoming teen romance between Calvin and Meg. And she does a wonderful job representing the in-betweenness of tessering through time and space: Meg visually shatters like broken glass when she is almost taken by the Black Thing, as her father’s arm reaches from off the page, into the stark and skewed panel, trying to hold on to her. On the other hand, many of the most terrifying scenes from the novel lose their chill factor. The general creepiness of the town, terrifyingly controlled by a giant pulsing brain named IT, is lacking, although the 1950s suburban “little boxes made of ticky-tacky” aesthetic does come through. Charles Wallace starts off looking like the creepiest of Kewpie dolls, so his being taken over by IT isn’t particularly noticeable, much less horrifying and heartbreaking. Similarly, the man with the red eyes in Camazotz resembles a goofy cartoon alien (as opposed to the most heartless school administrator you ever dealt with), and IT’s lackeys are dehumanized, becoming black blobs that sort of belie the whole mind control thing. Aunt Beast and the denizens of Ixchel look, mercifully, less Wookie-like than in the Disney film (it’s possible that they recycled the suits). Ixchel, admittedly, presents a challenge to any illustrator, since its people do not use sight as a sense, but rather sense the nature of things, in addition to looking rather bizarre. L’Engle writes:
They were the same dull gray color as the flowers. If they hadn’t walked upright they would have seemed like animals. They moved directly toward the three human beings. They had four arms and far more than five fingers to each hand, and the fingers were not fingers, but long waving tentacles. They had heads, and they had faces. But where the faces of the creatures on Uriel had seemed far more than human faces, these seemed far less. Where the features would normally be there were several indentations, and in place of ears and hair were more tentacles. They were tall, Meg realized as they came closer, far taller than any man. They had no eyes. Just soft indentations.
Larson’s interpretation of the Ixchel follows L’Engle’s description quite closely: they are tall, humanoid creatures with multiple arms, waving tentacles, and indentations in the place of facial features. They are supposed to be terrifying on first sight and beloved by the time Meg has to return to Camazotz to save Charles Wallace, the oddly comforting stuff of nightmares. However in piecing together the beasts of L’Engle’s story, the Ixchel seem goofy and flat, like enormous rag dolls, a somewhat inadequate end product in bringing the sci-fi creatures into the visual realm.
It is possible to imagine that Larson will face a tough audience of adult readers who grew up with L’Engle’s Time Quintet, who, like me, still keep their childhood copies on their shelves, a fan-base that might see A Wrinkle in Time: The Graphic Novel in bookstores and ask, like I did: Why did they need to adapt A Wrinkle in Time?! It’s already perfect! It is at least equally likely that readers whose copies of the Time Quintet have grown dusty on their shelves, or have been lost over the years, will see the adaptation and be reminded of their love for the series, will pick it up for their children or grandchildren to be swept up into L’Engle’s universe in a whole new way. A Wrinkle in Time: The Graphic Novel is a love letter to a book that Larson (and I) both adore. Sit with the images — one artist’s gorgeous interpretations of L’Engle’s universe — and perhaps remember how you once imagined those fantastic worlds.