MARCH 19, 2018
MEG MURRY, the angry, awkward heroine of Madeleine L’Engle’s 1962 novel A Wrinkle in Time, is “blind as a bat.” She says so in one of her first conversations with her new friend, the lanky and earnest Calvin; later, the mystical Mrs. Who describes her with the same phrase. Meg’s blindness, in L’Engle’s beloved story, is simultaneously fact, symbol, and misdirection: factually, it’s true that her eyes can’t function without her glasses; symbolically, her poor vision represents to the reader the myopic outlook on the world that, over the course of the novel, Meg must overcome; but also — and here’s the misdirection — as L’Engle surely expects us to remember, bats aren’t blind. They just don’t see with their eyes, in the human way: instead, they apprehend the world through other, perhaps richer, senses. At a key moment in the novel — which importantly does not appear in Ava DuVernay’s recent movie adaptation — Meg, on an alien world and temporarily blinded by darkness, describes “seeing” as “the most wonderful thing in the world.” “What a very strange world yours must be,” Aunt Beast, Meg’s alien protector, lovingly chides.
Meg Murry, the central character in DuVernay’s film, also wears glasses. At the movie’s moment of moral crisis (this the first of several coming spoilers), Movie Meg’s glasses are knocked from her face, and for a moment the camera loses focus, emulating Meg’s blurred eyesight. She clutches her glasses back to her eyes and sees a vision — an apparition called up to tempt her — of herself, but “better”: polished, fashionable, feminine, and with straightened hair. Doesn’t she want to look like this, the evil force tempting her asks? This scene of Meg reckoning with her appearance is not in the book, and its addition to the movie is one way to mark the difference between these two versions of the story — a difference intimately bound up in, but not reducible to, the representational possibilities opened up by the fact that in DuVernay’s diverse cast, Meg is played by the black actress Storm Reid.
The other metric of difference is Oprah. Oprah is cast as Mrs. Which, a magical character who rarely materializes in the novel, but who in the movie manifests as a dazzlingly physical guardian spirit, several stories tall.
Between Meg’s eyesight and Oprah/Mrs. Which’s embodiment, viewers can chart how L’Engle and DuVernay’s stories diverge around their contrasting ethics of the visual. Both L’Engle’s novel and DuVernay’s movie tell the story of Meg, her prodigious younger brother Charles Wallace, and her empathic friend Calvin, traveling through time and space to rescue Meg’s scientist father from an encroaching darkness known as the “IT,” with the help of superhuman beings named Mrs. Who, Mrs. Whatsit, and Mrs. Which. But in the novel, Meg’s problem is that she is too preoccupied with how things look to see their true essence. In the movie, Meg’s problem is that she looks at things — most importantly, at herself — the wrong way.
Thus whereas L’Engle’s novel carefully parses the limits of the visual, DuVernay’s movie considers representation as a vital ethical practice. Their Wrinkles in Time differently understand the relationship between what we see and how we act toward each other in the world. And if both novel and film take seriously the idea of evil — and they do — they situate that evil very differently in relationship to Meg’s story, specifically, to her most importantly characteristic, her anger.
What does Meg’s anger have to do with her appearance? What does it have to do with the history of black representation, and what does it have to do with the racial politics of 2018? One of the most audacious qualities of the film is its existence, itself: Ava DuVernay has made a moral parable that asks all its viewers to consider the power of universal evil through a story about how black girls and women see themselves. L’Engle’s story becomes more alive to its original questions about evil and community with DuVernay’s perspective immersed within it.
It’s not a coincidence that the most historically situating reference in the movie is a quotation from Hamilton, which, like DuVernay’s Wrinkle in Time, is partially a racial parable about representation’s strange temporalities of retrospection and progress: “tomorrow,” harmonizes Miranda/Hamilton in 2015/1782, “there’ll be more of us.” In this insistent, if also fraught, optimism, DuVernay’s movie runs parallel to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical in that both stories seek to find a way to narrate a racial past without being haunted by it. DuVernay wants to make a movie about black joy — to tell a story that is not trapped within black pain, but also not blind to black pain. (And surely about black pain, it is Madeleine L’Engle’s novel — a novel, remember, that is set in 1962, that describes evil and social suffering, and that never mentions race — that truly is blind as a bat.)
This shouldn’t be taken as a full endorsement of the movie, which suffers from uneven acting and editing, and thus at times is a little, like, boring, to watch. But something happens in it that is worth paying attention to.
A certain kind of girl reader — for instance, myself — places a high value on books about certain kinds of girls: angry ones. And there were not many books in my childhood that featured a girl who was as angry as Meg Murry. L’Engle’s Meg Murry is, after all, angry all the time. She is angry at her teachers, her school principal, everyone in her town, and, most of all, at herself. She thinks of herself in the harshest terms — “Meg, the snaggle-toothed, the myopic, the clumsy” — and understands herself as a “delinquent,” a “monster.” “She looked at herself in the wardrobe mirror and made a horrible face. […] Automatically she pushed her glasses into position, ran her fingers through her mouse-brown hair, so that it stood wildly on end.” Meg also desperately resents, even as she fiercely loves, her beautiful mother. “Surely [gossip] must hurt her as it did Meg. But if it did, she gave no outward sign […] — Why can’t I hide it, too? Meg thought. Why do I always have to show everything?” Her anger plays out all over her face.
L’Engle’s Meg is not only angry, she is also ugly — a category that you might not believe in, but that L’Engle’s novel does. In it, some people are beautiful (Meg’s mother) and some are not (Meg), and there’s a difference between them and how they’re treated (Meg is reassured that she will someday be beautiful, but never told that she is beautiful as she is). Meg, however, much like Jo March, her angry predecessor with a lovely (and anger-managing) mother, does have a “one beauty,” her eyes, and these are obscured by the coke-bottle glasses that she requires to see at all. Please note: The thing that makes her able to see the world changes the way she’s looked at. As a young reader in the 1980s, I had to imagine my way into a world where a girl’s glasses would be so thick they would distort her face — just like I had to imagine my way into a world where I was meant to be charmed by Calvin, as Meg is, when he removes her glasses, stares at her transfixed, wipes her tears, and tells her to put her ugly glasses back on. “You’ve got dreamboat eyes,” he says. “I don’t think I want anybody else to see what gorgeous eyes you have.” Meg “smile[s] with pleasure” to hear this possessive compliment. It was unclear to me, as a girl, if Meg’s pleasure was part of her healing or part of her damage.
Storm Reid, who plays Meg Murry in DuVernay’s movie, feels similarly angry and messy and clumsy. Like the novel’s Meg, she feels like an outsider, bullied aggressively, if not engaged in the regular sort of physical combat that the character in the novel is. Reid’s Meg wants to be not herself.
But Reid is also a very beautiful girl, and this is important, because while Meg in the book needs to realize that she is not reducible to her physical appearance, Meg in the movie needs to realize what the viewers can already see: that she is lovely, lovely, lovely. Ugliness in DuVernay’s movie is not a real thing in the way that it is in L’Engle’s novel; or, if it’s real, it’s a matter of attitude and behavior rather than physicality. Meg might feel a visual difference between herself and the popular girls in her school, but there’s nothing about her appearance that registers her as different, even unfashionable or uncool, to viewers. (Here DuVernay is almost burdened by Reid’s physical presence: even in scenes that narratively depend on Meg’s clumsiness, that clumsiness is always clearly a performance put on over Reid’s graceful movement, which we never don’t see.)
Certainly there is nothing uncool about her super cute glasses. While DuVernay’s direction at other points in the movie plays with the idea of visual distortion — the movie’s first shot of Meg, for instance, shows her through a beaker that skews her face — Movie Meg’s glasses do not warp her face in the way that Novel Meg’s do. Unlike for Novel Meg, for Movie Meg the problem of how she sees is separable from how others see her. It is not, however, separable from the problem of how Meg sees herself.
Of course, how she can see herself depends partly on where she is in history. What obstacles will Meg’s world present to her attempt to see herself clearly? The answer is different depending on what year she is in — certainly they would be different in the 1962 of L’Engle’s novel than in the 2018 of this movie. But when time, in the movie, feels out of joint — as it most dramatically does when Meg reaches for a phone, and it’s anachronistically not a cell phone but a phone-phone, plugged into a wall, with a handset and base and long coiling cord — the viewer feels a strange sense of temporal unease that the movie, like many black texts before it, understands as racial. Aligning DuVernay’s film with a long history of black literature preoccupied with the question of progress — consider The Fire Next Time, consider Kindred, consider Beloved — viewers can recognize A Wrinkle in Time’s strange technological anachronisms as a device used to demonstrate that even as the years move forward, racial progress might not. (Here my perspective is shaped by my greater familiarity with the history of black writing than with contemporary black fiction, particularly science fiction, but technologies of the future certainly mattered to past literatures, too.) Within this framework, DuVernay’s challenge as a director becomes more clear: her movie, I think, hopes to create a world for her movie’s black girl viewers that is honest about how it feels to be not at home in history and also brave enough to imagine a future less burdened by the damage of race.
It’s this trick — creating a visual world where an honest history of racial damage can be portrayed without being explicitly shown — that DuVernay needs Oprah Winfrey to accomplish. Oprah, who appears first in this movie in dazzling, bedecked beauty — enormously tall, in the most astonishing clothes. At other moments, however, specifically when Movie Meg gazes at her, Oprah appears in spectacular close-up; long, lingering shots of her eyes and nose and mouth and cheek bones fill the screen. In these close-ups, DuVernay wants the film’s viewers, if not Movie Meg herself, to see a history of everything that Oprah means. This is to say, not just the corporate juggernaut that is Oprah — that is the least interesting thing to say about Oprah, in this context — but rather a black woman transcendently successful in the now who has achieved success not by rejecting but existing in tandem with her history of suffering. And, because this is a movie, the history of suffering she can represent is not only the particular abuse she, the woman Oprah, suffered as a child, but the cinematic history of black women’s suffering that Oprah has portrayed. We cannot understand the close-ups of Oprah in A Wrinkle In Time without seeing them in tension with the faces of black womanhood Oprah has portrayed before — in, for instance, The Color Purple, Beloved, and DuVernay’s own movie Selma. In all of these movies, Oprah has portrayed women of inordinate strength and stamina who are physically and emotionally attacked precisely for the courage they display in inhabiting their strength.
Oprah, who lent her body and her image to the movie adaptations of two of the most important novels about black womanhood of the last 60 years, adds something to A Wrinkle in Time that no one else could add: not only does she make it a movie about black transcendence, but she also makes viewers — particularly white women viewers, like me — consider L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time as a novel aligned with The Color Purple and Beloved, as a novel that, when looked at through its omissions, contains a story about the price that black women pay when white women refuse to see.
In DuVernay’s movie, Mrs. Which and Meg Murry have a special bond they do not have in the novel; they are two black women trying to reconcile how they feel and what they know. It is essential to Meg’s character that she can see, as a mentor, a black woman; it is also essential to Mrs. Which’s character that she can imagine a young black girl who sees her. Mrs. Which is both the opposite of Movie Meg — enormous, confident, knowing — and her parallel: a grown black woman, taking special care of Meg, who is a young black girl, struggling with feelings of abandonment and fear. This reversal plays out in one of the most important changes to the story’s plot. In the novel, “The Mrses” guide Meg and her compatriots to Meg’s father; in the movie, the Mrses only accompany the children as they seek to find their way themselves. It’s Meg’s insight — literally — on which the quest for her father, and the attempt to turn back this evil, depends.
The final act of the movie — when Meg, Charles Wallace, and Calvin travel to Camazotz — includes its weakest, least compelling scenes. While the novel grapples with intensely felt Cold War, McCarthy-era fears — oppressive requirements of conformity, dystopic governmental control, surveillance, and violence — that are portrayed as timely manifestations of ongoing human cruelty and evil, the movie portrays the evils of “IT” as strangely after-school-specialish, and Camozotz is inhabited not by real suffering people but only by apparitions — such as Meg’s vision of her more beautiful self — designed to torment others but not able to suffer themselves. It’s difficult not to feel these scenes as aggressively depoliticized: rather than attaching Meg’s anger to the very real struggles of our moment (Black Lives Matter, to take just one possibility) the movie homes in on how, for literal instance, mean girls are mean because they feel fat. There’s a movie I can imagine being made, one I might have liked better, where evil as manifested in systemic racial cruelty more clearly appears. But that imagined movie would have privileged my point of view, rather than the view of the tweens to whom the movie is directed: and from that vantage point, the racialized microaggressions of teenaged meanness have a resonance that adults should be willing to countenance.
After all, the power of evil does emerge in the movie — not in lingering attention to evil itself, but rather by reverse impression in DuVernay’s fantastic emphasis on black embodied joy. If the scenes of “evil” are the movie’s weakest, the scenes of joy are its best. These have to do entirely with Meg’s willingness to see herself as beautiful as she is.
Let me return to the movie scene with which I began: Meg’s encounter with a vision of herself as a “more appealing” girl, the kind who might more easily be loved. This girl does not wear glasses. She has “fashionable” clothes. And she has straightened hair. Movie Meg’s hair matters. Rather than being complimented by Calvin on her eyes, as Book Meg is, Movie Meg is complimented on her hair: Calvin says she has great hair, and Meg, initially, does not believe it. As she becomes more confident over the movie’s progression — as she, in an important scene, sees Oprah with hair like her own — she changes. (At the movie’s conclusion, when Calvin again compliments her hair, she grins at the compliment — and it’s a much better compliment than Novel Calvin’s possessive praise of Novel Meg’s eyes: Movie Calvin’s wonderment at Movie Meg’s loveliness makes no territorial claims.)
I am not the person who can speak to the question of black hair, but here is a partial list of texts that tend to the question of hair as a racial signifier, and that in different ways portray and explain how white America has used hair as a means to evaluate black girls: Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Bondwoman’s Narrative, Our Nig, Ida May, Incidents in the Life of A Slave Girl, The Color Purple — and, perhaps most importantly for Meg Murry’s hair, Selma, Ava DuVernay’s movie. Selma begins by showing four black girls walking through a church, in the instant before they are killed by an explosion — the real life 16th Street Baptist Church bombing. In DuVernay’s depiction of this scene, these four girls spend their last moments on earth talking about their hair.
In the novel, Meg Murry finally is able to overcome “IT” by turning away from appearances and toward love, which exists in an extra-visual state. L’Engle’s novel, in its climactic scenes, likes the bat’s bookish solution to the problem of finding our way: not looking, but language. Literally, at that moment of triumph, the novel breaks into a prolonged poem, or hymn — story and characters falling away in the face of transcendent words.
In the parallel scene in the movie, Storm Reid’s Meg floats ecstatically in time’s wrinkle, in the tesseract that is a state not of disembodied comprehension but radical physical connectedness. The end point of her hero’s journey is this state of gloriously visual apprehension. We see her in a close-up, as we have seen Oprah. And reader: I cried. I thought about how it’s Novel Meg’s whiteness that allows her to become a sort of Emersonian transparent sci-fi eyeball — and how Movie Meg’s physical joyfulness is its own ecstatic political point.
I mentioned at the beginning of this essay that DuVernay’s A Wrinkle in Time does not offer a very satisfying movie-going experience. It’s ironic that a movie that is so much about history and time would have such bad pacing; the movie also runs into difficulties trying to make the hyper-verbal character of Charles Wallace into a living character on the screen. While it makes sense, within the scope of this film, to visually insist on Meg’s loveliness, it works less well narratively to strip Charles Wallace’s social oddness from his character. Similarly, it’s frustrating to not allow the Mrses to look old or unkempt (as a friend pointed out, Reese Witherspoon’s eye shadow is perfect even when she has transformed into a cabbage). It’s excellent to remind Meg that she is beautiful; might we not also allow aging women to show the wrinkles of their own time?
But among all of these qualms, partly what emerges is DuVernay’s not-always-satisfyingingly-resolved, but certainly well-asked, question of how race matters to the visual. Beyond the important, if obvious, point that DuVernay’s Wrinkle in Time’s diverse cast allows it to reflect a different world than the one of L’Engle’s novel, I’m suggesting that DuVernay’s attention to the visual as a racially marked category helps explain what doesn’t work about her adaptation of L’Engle’s novel — and, just as importantly, what does. My goal here isn’t simply to set one account above the other, but rather, to think through what these two stories together help viewers both to understand and to see.