"The central doctrine of Christianity, then, is not that God is a bastard. It is, in the words of the late Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe, that if you don’t love you’re dead, and if you do, they’ll kill you."--Terry Eagleton

"It is impossible for me to say in my book one word about all that music has meant in my life. How then can I hope to be understood?--Ludwig Wittgenstein

“The opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice."--Bryan Stevenson

Friday, March 09, 2018

Wrinkling A Bit More Than Time

To begin with, I'm not going to see the movie version of "A Wrinkle in Time" because what I've seen of it in trailers so violates my memories of the book (one of my favorites, still) that I'm not interested.  The three "witches" are portrayed in the book as old women of the type so commonly discarded as "old" and even "witches," when they are anything but (they aren't even human).  The film version gives them bizarre makeup and comically colorful costumes that seem designed simply to be seen in film, and nothing more.

But it's more than that, and the film is now prompting some interesting discussions of Madeleine L'Engle's Christianity in circles where I wouldn't expect to find it.

Jennifer Lee, the screenwriter of the film, seems to have started things off with this quote about the screenplay and the source material:

The book is pretty open about its Christian ideals and the movie doesn’t directly reference them. As a fan of the book how do you approach that aspect?

What I looked at, one of the reasons Madeleine L’Engle – as I’ve been told; I never got to meet her – but one of the reasons it had that strong Christian element to it wasn’t just because she was Christian, but because she was frustrated with things that needed to be said to her in the world and she wasn’t finding a way to say it and she wanted to stay true to her faith. And I respect that and I understand those feelings of things you want to say in the world that need to be said that are out there. In a good way, I think there are a lot of elements of what she wrote that we have progressed as a society and we can move onto the other elements. In a sad way, some of the other elements are more important right now and bigger – sort of this fight of light against darkness. It’s a universal thing and timeless and seems to be a battle that has to keep being had.
It also feels like this is a movie that celebrates inclusiveness and diversity, so having it be about one religious denomination wouldn’t really be keeping with that theme. Does that make sense?

It does. And I can’t put words in her mouth – and I worked with one of our producers, Catherine Hand, who was very close to her – but that wasn’t her intention. Her intention was looking at the ordinary real hero in an extraordinary situation. The power of love in this world, and we stayed very true to that. And her lens through it was Christianity and everyone has a different lens in. And that’s what inclusiveness is to me in this film, is really looking at all of us have a role to play in this no matter where we come from or what we look like.

I should say upfront that movie adaptations are problematic.  The film version of "The Hobbit" added too much backstory from The Lord of the Rings, but the movie version of LOTR made the arch-archaic style of the novels almost unreadable because the film (with some unfortunate lapses) is so much more enjoyable than the books (the dialogue alone is a vast improvement).  Still, I have a vague memory of John Updike writing an essay about the film version of his novel The Witches of Eastwick, where he argued that if you like the movie, you should read the book.  I enjoyed Updike's novel (I was going through a phase), but not being a fantasy writer he didn't include scenes of witchcraft which would call upon special effects to replicate in film.  In film, however, the word "Witches" in a title means special effects had better be involved, and they were; not to the benefit of the story the movie told, which was not exactly the story the book told in any case (again to the detriment of the movie).  It's in the nature of adaptations, in other words, to change the source material, and I wasn't going to see a movie of a book I love so much, anyway.  But this discussion of L'Engle's Christianity is one I can't step away from.

Holly Scheer argued, solely on the basis of that Jennifer Lee interview, that removing Christianity from the story removes the "soul" of the story.  That was a prediction because the film wasn't available for her review, but Tara Isabella Burton and Alissa Wilkinson and Aisha Harris all basically agree with her.  And that, to me, is fascinating.

What is most interesting is the idea that Christianity is not confined to the evangelical brand.  Granted, the reviewers are at various pains to distinguish L'Engle's religions belief as Episcopalian, and Burton name-drops both Kierkegaard and Tillich as, basically, dog whistles (or gravitas, take your pick).  What is not noted, but is even more important to L'Engle's Christianity in the novel, is how it is used, as it is in the Harry Potter novels, to illustrate the power of powerlessness.  Oh, and the fact that the protagonists of both stories are trying to save individuals, not the world.

From the reviews it seems the movie doesn't change the ending of the novel, at least not fundamentally.  Apparently Meg and Calvin and Charles Wallace (who is adopted in the movie, but Meg's biological brother in the novel, a change, frankly, I'm a bit wary about because of the ending) are enlisted as "warriors" in the movie.  I don't remember any such speech in the novel (my copy is in a box somewhere just now; bookshelves have been moved for some remodeling, nothing is where it should be), and it indeed seems antithetical to the idea of the "witches" as angels, and certainly contrary to the character of Aunt Beast (maybe that's why she's not in the movie).  The significance of the ending of the story is that Meg doesn't win through reason (her father tries to protect her from IT* by having her recite the periodic table of the elements, but that is too rational, too easy for IT to control), but through love.  But Meg realizes her love has to be directed, has to be specific, in order to be real.  She can't love IT, but neither does she need to.  She can love Charles Wallace; she can remember his life as her baby brother, and it is her love that frees him when Charles Wallace is lost to IT because Charles Wallace thought he could, rationally, resist IT.  Meg doesn't defeat it, or banish the darkness, or even save the world.  She rescues Charles Wallace, her brother.

Harry Potter does something of the same, although his sacrifice is more literal than Meg's.  Meg goes alone to confront IT.  Harry goes alone to confront Voldemort, and after his resurrection (what else can you call it?) he defeats Voldemort not with a killing spell, but with his preferred spell in battle:  disarming his opponent by removing their wand.  When I was a kid the heroes in Westerns always managed the impossible shot of shooting the bad guys gun from his hand; it was considered less violent than shooting the bad guy outright, and proof the good guy was never, ever, a killer.  Harry continues in that pattern, but again he doesn't save the world, he saves his friends (and he doesn't save them all).  There is a very Christian humility in that.  The hero helps a few people, suffers losses him/herself, but the struggle goes on.  But most importantly, the hero wins not through power, but through the lack of power.

Even Frodo prevails not because, in the end, his heart is pure, but because Gollum's desire for the ring never leaves him.  In the end the fall of Sauron is predicated on an accident, not on the best laid plans of elves and wizards and men.  The powerlessness of Gollum is greater than the greatest power of Middle Earth.  Harry's sacrifice for his friends is greater than the selfishness of Voldemort.  Meg's love for Charles Wallace is stronger than the grip of IT over Charles' mind.

No one felt compelled to remove the Christianity from Tolkien's story (it's there as much as it is in "Harry Potter."), nor from Rowling's novels.  Maybe between Tolkien and Rowling, L'Engle made her Christianity just a bit more apparent, and that's why it had to be excised.  I'm not sure what ideas the screenwriter thinks we have "moved beyond," but I think it more likely there were ideas there she simply wasn't conversant with.  Aisha Harris noted that: "In casting Winfrey as the sage leader of the Misses, A Wrinkle in Time milks her life-coach persona for all it’s got...."  Which, from the reviews, seems to have been the intent:

[The film] wears an earnest message on its sleeve ― believe in yourself and love those around you, and you’ll achieve your goals ― and leaves the fundamental building blocks at the door.
The novel is earnest (and earnestly funny, though perhaps the humor is too mordant.  More than one review noted the opening line of the novel:  "It was a dark and stormy night."  Not one review, however, noted the nod to Edward Bulwer-Lytton in that line.  Sometimes humor is wasted on adults.), but it never wears its message on its sleeve.  Certainly not a message which sounds like an Oprah Winfrey sermonette.  Seemingly, that's no accident:

Oprah’s stentorian boom delivering pithy counsel straight out of a “Super Soul Sunday” episode? Kinda soothing. 

If this is what we've "moved beyond," then "beyond" is not exactly movement in the right direction.

Then again, it's an adaptation, things have to be moved about.  It would probably have been better to make two movies of the novel, instead of one.  Or to leave it to serialization on, say, Netflix.  Some of the best storytelling on film, outside a Scorsese picture, is being done in TV length films meant to run for 13 hours, instead of less than 2.

Or, if you like the movie, you could just read the book.

*which, per many reviews, I can only conclude becomes "the It" in the movie, a ruinous change I simply cannot fathom.


Blogger The Thought Criminal said...

Oh, it sounds much worse than I'd imagined. In the book the character Oprah plays is almost not there, as I recall, that sounds way too concrete.

I really hope it doesn't overshadow the book, though I didn't care for the other two in the series my nieces got me to read to them I thought the first one was quite good.

I really hope they don't try to make a movie of Way Station.

1:58 PM  
Blogger Rmj said...

It turned into a Quintet (wait, isn't that a musical group?), and I only read one or two more of the total five. Didn't care for them; still love the first one.

And I've yet to hear/read a review that liked the movie.

3:03 PM  
Blogger June Butler said...

Good grief! Jennifer Lee is incoherent in her first quoted response to the interviewer's question. After two reads, I still could make neither head nor tail of her words. Maybe it's just me. The second quote is better. A screenwriter who can't speak coherently about her own movie is a poor promoter.

3:23 PM  

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