Adapting a beloved children’s book for the big screen is fraught with peril: The years pass, but formative literary experiences stay with us, becoming part of who we are. It can be jarring to see memories translated by someone else’s vision — a cherished memory in two hours of celluloid.
But Ava DuVernay’s film version of “A Wrinkle In Time,” based on the 1962 sci-fi classic, stays true to the book, a granddaughter of the book’s author told NPR’s On Point Friday.
“I think she would have loved it,” Charlotte Jones Voiklis, who’s also co-written a biography of Madeleine L’Engle, told guest host Meghna Chakrabarti. “Absolutely. And I think she would have been amazed and surprised by it in the ways that we all have been.”
The movie has received mixed reviews. And some audience members have been upset that the film left out parts of the book — including L’Engle’s Christianity.
Voiklis isn’t one of them.
“Yes, my grandmother was a practicing Christian and she was deeply invested and knew the stories of the Bible and she used those in her story, but she would also be the first person to say, 'Just because you quote the Bible doesn't make your story Christian,’” Voiklis said. “And conversely the absence of the Bible or Christian themes doesn't mean it doesn't have something to say about those deeply spiritual themes.”
L'Engle died in 2007.
We also spoke Friday with film critic Aramide Tinubu and University of Pennsylvania professor Salamishah Tillet about the film, and its lessons that reverberate today. Our entire conversation is available here, and below that you’ll find a lightly edited transcript of Meghna’s interview with Voiklis.
Meghna Chakrabarti: What would your grandmother have made of this new film?
Charlotte Jones Voiklis: I think she would have loved it. Absolutely. And I think she would have been amazed and surprised by it in the ways that we all have been, and I think seeing Ava's vision of the book on screen — you have mentioned that the book had a hard time finding a publisher when it was written. They didn't understand it. And they didn't think children would get it. So the kinds of criticism that the film is getting really mirrors the criticism that the book received back 56 years ago, that children won't get it. They're not looking at it from a child's point of view.
Meghna: How much of the book's core theme do you think is successfully or not carried over into the film?
Voiklis: Oh, I think the film does a wonderful job with the main themes of the book. And that's also that evil exists. But love is stronger. And that we all have the tools to overcome it and that we're going to have to do that work. And it's not done just once. Right? I mean at the end of the movie, Camazotz is destroyed it appears. But they have to go. They have to go back home. And one of the things that the movie does as well as the book is show that there's darkness at home as well. But that's not hopeless because what Meg has learned and what we have learned through her and through this new universal vision of Meg that Ava has given us is that we can overcome it. So in the end it's a very very hopeful movie as well as the original source material.
Meghna: I’ve read the book and seen the movie and there were key scenes in the book which I missed from the film. I actually thought that Ava DuVernay kind of oversimplified aspects of the ideas that Madeleine L'Engle was trying to get across in the book. And I kind of missed that, I have to say, in the movie.
Voiklis: I don't disagree with you and I think that one of the wonderful things about the book and as I've talked to people about the book over 40 years is how deeply people love it, how much it affects them, and how much ownership they feel over it because it matters so much to them. So I think a film adaptation of a beloved book is difficult. What Ava has done is she's given us what she sees in the book. And it's going to be different from what I see or what you see or what anybody else sees.
Meghna: So let me put a finer point on it. People have been writing about the biggest thing, the biggest theme that may be missing from the movie and that is the religious or spiritual themes that Madeleine L'Engle weaves through the entire novel. Now there's a deep profound sense of secular empowerment in the movie version. But Madeleine L'Engle was unafraid to write a book that was about spiritual power. And I don't know why Hollywood was so afraid to pull that into a modern day film. And I kind of wish that Ava DuVernay had. Your thoughts?
Voiklis: Well I disagree slightly there because I think yes, my grandmother was a practicing Christian and she was deeply invested and knew the stories of the Bible and she used those in her story, but she would also be the first person to say, 'Just because you quote the Bible doesn't make your story Christian.' And conversely the absence of the Bible or Christian themes doesn't mean it doesn't have something to say about those deeply spiritual themes. So that is that is one criticism I really disagree with. I think it's just important to understand that just because something isn't explicit doesn't mean it's not there. What I miss that's in the book that's not in the movie are, there are certain things, very little things like, oh she didn't cook on a Bunsen burner or those type of things — Oh well. To larger characters, I don't want to do have any spoilers. But again one of the one of the things about seeing somebody else's vision of it it makes you go and think about what you loved about it in the first place.
Meghna: I can't stop thinking about Storm Reid's performance as Meg Murry, and Charlotte, I wanted to hear what you had to say about this because every trouble, every bit of self-doubt, every moment of pain and joy that Storm through her performances as Meg that Reid portrays on screen, she got me, because I kept thinking about all the 12-, 13-, 14-year-old girls of color there who have never seen this honest representation of themselves on screen. I mean I have a little kid in my life who, this is her life every day and to me if nothing else that is the power of what this adaptation is bringing to potentially thousands if not millions of moviegoers.
Voiklis: I think that's very true and I think Storm is a revelation as Meg. ... I think she's doing it not only for young girls of color which I think is really important because representation does matter. But it doesn't just matter for young girls of color. It matters to me as a middle aged white lady to see Storm, to see a girl of color on screen and to hold I think as Salamishah said in her piece to represent a new universal. For us to see Meg, a black Meg as universal, I think is powerful not just for girls of color which is really important but for white folks too.