The Merry Misandrist reviews Madeleine L'Engle and Hope Larson's "A Wrinkle in Time: The Graphic Novel"
Okay folks, buckle up because I'm about to get VERY controversial here. You thought the last book review about the Israel/ Palestinian conflict touched on some explosive issues? Well, that's nothing compared to this book review. Some sacred cows are about to be gored. So be prepared.
Madeleine L'Engle's "A Wrinkle in Time" is a terrible book.
Yeah, you heard me. "A Wrinkle in Time" is terrible. As a book "A Wrinkle in Time" has some of the worst characters and some of the most miserable and unrealistic dialogue that I have ever read. The plot is okay-ish and there are some trippy scenes (the image of rows of children on a street bouncing their balls and skipping rope in perfect time remains with me ever since I first read "A Wrinkle in Time" when I was in 6th grade) ... but in the end the characters are awful and the dialogue is horrible. And frankly, if the characters are awful and the dialogue is horrible then the book is beyond hope of redemption. I have never known a book to succeed in writing itself towards greatness or even competence when it is saddled with bad characters and bad dialogue. Period.
So why is "A Wrinkle in Time"- widely considered a classic piece of children's fiction- such a bad book? Well, before I get into that in depth let me just give my own personal history of "A Wrinkle in Time." As I mentioned before I read "A Wrinkle in Time" in middle school. Indeed "A Wrinkle in Time" is not a self-contained book but the first part of a quadrilogy. There are four books, all of which I read in middle school. The first book involves Meg and her creepy-ass little brother and an unmemorable teen boy love interest traveling across space to rescue Meg's dad. The next two books are also not very memorable (one involved Meg traveling inside her creepy-ass little brother's mitochondria or something). The last book, "Many Waters," I remember reading and actually enjoying a little bit probably because Meg and her creepy-ass little brother weren't in that book at all. Instead Meg's older twin brothers time travel back to before the Great Flood where they meet Noah (of "He built the Ark" fame) and Noah's family. It was kind of interesting and ethically complicated too because the older twin brothers knew that Noah had to build an Ark before the Great Flood came but that Noah couldn't fit all the human civilization in his boat.... so a lot of good people were about to die. That was a lot more interesting to me than Meg and the creepy-ass little brother battling Nameless Cloud of Evil in "A Wrinkle in Time." Plus Noah and his family were about waist-high to modern humans and all the women were topless for some reason. I remember that.
Anyway, in the "A Wrinkle in Time" series the first book seemed to be the worst to my 12-year-old brain. Back in those days I tended to blame myself if I found a book to be difficult to like, especially a book with a respected legacy like "A Wrinkle in Time." Clearly I was too dumb to understand it or appreciate it. Now that I'm almost forty I've managed to accrue enough self-esteem to realize that no.... no.... 12-year-old me was right. "A Wrinkle in Time" really is a bad book.
So let's review the plot of "A Wrinkle in Time." It starts off strongly enough. Meg Murry, age fourteen, is being kept awake by a ferocious thunderstorm in the middle of the night. She creeps into the kitchen for a snack, where she meets her little brother Charles and their mother. The family settles down for a cozy little midnight snack of liverwurst and cream cheese sandwiches and hot cocoa. So far so good. In fact, this intimate and sweet scene is probably the best in the book. When Meg says that she hates liverwurst and wants a tomato and cream cheese sandwich instead, Charles pulls out their last remaining tomato from the refrigerator. "All right if I use it on Meg, Mother?" Charles asks. "To what better use could it be put?" their mother replies. It's a beautiful exchange. Two sentences, awkwardly spoken (like all the dialogue in "A Wrinkle in Time") but nevertheless indicating that Meg's family is loving if a bit intellectual. Meg has a safe space to go to despite all her troubles at school and fighting with teens.
Anyway, don't let the beginning scene fill you with hope about the rest of the book because the story goes downhill fast. The Murry family's midnight snack is interrupted by a dotty old woman named Mrs. Whatsit. L'Engle obviously wanted to portray Mrs. Whatsit as an adorably eccentric woman but instead Mrs. Whatsit comes of as an insane old bag lady who's about as funny as Jar Jar Binks. Mrs. Whatsit makes Meg take off her wet boots and socks, stinking up the kitchen as everyone is trying to eat. Then Mrs. Whatsit demands sandwiches, falls off her chair (ho ho, how funny!), and lays on the floor, refusing to get up. "Have YOU ever tried getting up with a sprained dignity?" Sigh. At this point the Murry family should call the police and have Mrs. Whatsit bundled off their property. They don't though.
The book goes on. Mrs. Whatsit leaves. The Murry family makes breakfast before school the next day and the reader starts to get her first taste of the awfulness of the dialogue that marks the rest of "A Wrinkle in Time." Meg's older teen brothers scold her over the breakfast table and oh boy is the conversation badly-written! Not only is the dialogue unnatural and stiff and unlike anything a human being would say let alone a teenage boy.... it also seems to be about 60% mansplaining. As I reread "A Wrinkle in Time" I couldn't help but be amazed at how many of the scenes seem to involve some male figure mansplaining or acting in a condescending manner towards Meg. Her older teenage brothers mansplain to her and her mother. "You have a great mind and all, Mother, but you don't have much SENSE. And certainly Meg and Charles don't ... Don't take everything so PERSONALLY, Meg! Use a happy medium for once!" says Sandy, Meg's sixteen-year-old brother. And frankly if a sixteen-year-old boy has ever used the term "happy medium" naturally in a sentence then flying centaurs really do exist. Meg's creepy little 5-year-old brother Charles also mansplains to her ("You have to be patient, Meg") but some of the most problematic mansplaining comes from Meg's fourteen-year-old love interest Calvin. "Come on, Meg. You know it isn't true, I know it isn't true," Calvin says in one scene after Meg becomes understandably upset over the implication that Meg's dad may have disappeared because he fell in love with another woman. "And how anybody after one look at your mother could believe any man would leave her for another woman just shows how far jealousy will make people go."
Wow. So many problematic ideas in that statement. Yes. It is impossible for a man to leave a woman if the woman is beautiful. Beautiful women never have unfaithful husbands. Oh, and dear reader, please read the sentence "And how anybody after one look at your mother could believe any man could leave her for another woman just shows how far jealousy will make people go," and imagine those words coming out of the mouth of a fourteen-year-old boy. If you find that you can't imagine that at all, congratulations. You know how actual people talk.
Scene after scene in "A Wrinkle in Time" is filled with this horrible, unrealistic dialogue. I don't know when I started to realize that "A Wrinkle in Time" was just a flat-out terrible book. Maybe it was when Meg randomly made what was supposed to be a joke but comes out as weird word salad. "Mother, Charles says I'm not one thing or the other, not flesh nor fowl nor good red herring." (Meg, seriously..... what the fuck?) Or maybe when Meg and her mother have a conversation but they sound less like a mother and daughter and more like some 26th century robot actors trying to interpret ancient 20th century flesh-people plays for modern robot audiences. "I'm blessed with more brains and opportunities than many people," Meg's mom says casually to Meg, "But there's nothing about me that breaks out of the ordinary mold." Bravo Madeleine L'Engle! What amazing dialogue! *air kiss.* I have never read such natural conversation since that infamous bad Japanese video game translation: "All your base are belong to us."
The plot of "A Wrinkle in Time" is only marginally better than the dialogue. Meg, Charles and Calvin travel across space with the help of three witches so they can rescue Meg and Charles' dad. Oh, and they have to battle a Nameless Cloud of Evil. The Nameless Cloud of Evil doesn't really have a motive. It's just an Evil Cloud that consumes planets and turns civilizations into Orwellian dictatorships. Meg and Calvin rescue Meg's father from one of these planets but they have to leave Charles behind and Meg almost dies when they time-warp (or "wrinkle") off the planet. In another hair-tearingly awful example of Madeleine L'Engle's stiff, unnatural dialogue, we get a scene where Meg lies on the grass close to death. Meg's dad hasn't seen her since she was a little girl and Meg's dad also has been imprisoned in a hellish suspension for half a decade. Instead of weeping over his daughter or laughing in relief over his release from prison or screaming in horror over the fact that his youngest son is still imprisoned across space ... Meg's dad decides to chat about physics with Calvin. "Time is different on Camazotz, anyhow. Our time, inadequate though it is, at least is straightforward. It may not be even fully one-dimensional, because it can't move back and forth on its line, only ahead- but at least it's consistent in its direction." Yeah, sure, fine man. So are you going to start CPR on Meg? Or...?
Hope Larson adapted Madeleine L'Engle's "A Wrinkle in Time" to graphic novel format in 2012. L'Engle originally wrote the book in 1962. Larson's illustrations are competent but not very memorable. Larson frankly sacrifices too much of her own talent in order to remain slavishly faithful to Madeleine L'Engle's original text. The adaptation is bulky, retaining too many scenes that really should have been cut. "A Wrinkle in Time: The Graphic Novel" would have really benefited with a more ruthless editor. I would have loved an abridged version of "A Wrinkle in Time" with maybe an adapter who was unafraid to re-write some dialogue. A lot of the problems with Larson's "A Wrinkle in Time" adaptation have to do with the source material, however, so the graphic novel already started out with two strikes against it.
Because, as I have said before, "A Wrinkle in Time" is a really bad book.