cover of a Puffin Book edition of Madeleine L'Engle's novel "A Wrinkle in Time", photographed next to a mug with a clock depicted on it.

Adapting the Nonvisual: Beyond the Text in “A Wrinkle in Time”

Michelle Anya Anjirbag is a first year PhD student at the CRCLC with an interest in adaptations of fairy tales and folklore. Her current project is on depictions of diversity in post-1989 Disney films. You can also find her elsewhere on WordPress, Twitter, and Instagram.

Adaptations and transmediations (a work translated into a different medium) spark conversations, connections between different versions or iterations of the same thing, and evoke memories of previous experiences with a particular narrative. Part of the beauty and the challenge of reading or viewing works in adaptation and/or transmediation is that the reader or viewer is challenged to reconcile those differences as part of the process of engagement. I think this is especially true when considering adaptations that translate narratives that are largely internalized and driven by a character’s emotional response to their surroundings – such as Madeleine L’Engle’s 1962 A Wrinkle in Time – to a much more visual medium, in this case, Hope Larson’s 2012 graphic narrative adaptation (yes, there are also several screen adaptations, but this piece will not focus on those, primarily). But as we found when our summer reading group considered Larson’s text, before even considering the result of the adaptation process, this is a novel that requires some context.

Shaggy, curly hair. Glasses. Always feeling a little bit wrong. Meg Murry was my introduction to a science fiction heroine, and one of the first times I remember seeing myself in the pages of a book, at a time when a character reflecting my internal state was the best hope I had for some sort of representation (and let’s be honest, that hasn’t actually changed all that much). And so, I read her story over and over again. I don’t think I would have grown into the child I was, and the human I became beyond childhood without Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, and yet, I still hesitate to define it neatly as a book for children.

It hovers, like its protagonists, on many cusps. It can be – and has been – considered and interpreted both too openly and in too absolutist ways. It belongs to the deeply religious, the lightly spiritual, the cynic, and the reader looking for something a little different in both fantasy and science fiction, among others. L’Engle writes as though she knew exactly what she wanted readers to know and think after reading, and yet, I’ve never had the same conversation twice with anyone about this book ­ – and our reading group raised many questions about what this book is meant to be, meant to do, and who it is or isn’t for. It has kept me company through my life, and I have had many different relationships with it at different times in my life. The one thing I have never thought, though, is that it could have been done differently. This is why, I think, I have been wholly surprised by the ways in which successful adaptations of this novel have been achieved across various media.

Translating from a narrative constructed through language to a narrative constructed through image, even when words still accompany it, reveals details about how the artist (and the publisher, or producer, or any financial backer) sees the world and believes is possible to be believed by an audience. Even when considering fantasy or science fiction narratives rooted in “real” spaces, the audience knows that this is not the “same” world that they themselves exist in. It is constructed by someone; things are added, things are left out. For someone working on depictions of diversity, construction of imagined spaces becomes a map to hegemonic structures. Thus, I find assumptions – of what people should look like, of who is automatically granted different kinds of access, of what would seem “normal” or “recognizable” – interesting.

Because I am more interested in that construction – especially in how different iterations construct the same things and either disrupt or compound bias about what becomes normative, my reaction to Larson’s adaptation was mixed. On the one hand, certain things were spot on for me – Aunt Beast could have been pulled from my seven-year-old imagination, the beginning was wonderfully atmospheric, Mrs. Whatsit’s first appearance was perfect, and there was some beautiful illustrative mirroring between the bruise on Meg’s face and the Darkness they were fighting. As a whole, I took the same emotional journey I usually do reading the novel which means I sobbed on a too-hot train to London in early July. But on the other hand, when I stepped back to consider the visuals, I did wonder if Larson had missed something important – and that was the spirit of experimentation and boundary bending that defined not only the novel but its place as an American children’s classic.

From genre-bending to a female protagonist, to blending American liberal religiosity with fantasy and sci-fi, to not fitting the parameters of a neatly defined target audience, A Wrinkle in Time broke a lot of the rules of publishing in the 1960s. I had hoped to see more of that come out of a graphic adaptation, and this is where I felt disappointed. Larson clings, to me, to the Cold War context that informed L’Engle, especially in the depiction of Camazotz. The images pick up on the anxieties that the idea of imposed uniformity posed to the themes of exceptionalism and individualism that were not only a part of L’Engle’s time, but were woven through her novel. And while I appreciate that this might have been done to somehow stay “true” to the narrative, I do wonder if this was the strongest visual approach in 2012.

In comparison, I know that there were mixed reviews to the depictions of Camazotz in the 2018 film adaptation by Ava Duvernay as a beach party, seen as a vast departure from the atmosphere of Camazotz as written. However, I think that by shifting the visualization to something that reflects the current zeitgeist and cultural anxieties about individual engagement and letting something larger make the decisions so that “we” can “just enjoy,” was a calculated risk that ultimately helped to re-contextualize the narrative for a new audience that would not have grown up with an awareness of L’Engle’s cultural anxieties, but can draw connections from something similar in their own cultural context. Additionally, as one member of the summer reading group noted, the color palette was very soothing. This is something I couldn’t reconcile with the fact that Meg’s journey is so emotionally charged. She’s angry, she misses her father, she literally filters her world through that kind of a pain, and I think that the muted visuals downplayed Meg’s reactions which are so important in the novel.

Criticisms aside, I would return to something I said above – this graphic narrative transmediation brought me back to all the times I’ve read it before, and all the times its touched some nerve. It made me pause, and think about different parts of the narrative the might not have stood out to me in previous readings. I really like being made to think, and reconsider my own previous habits of thinking about the things and the books and the narratives that I love and that I’ve grown up with. What I like most of all, is that considering this text in this form has given me a new avenue by which to appreciate something with nostalgia, but also as an academic who is looking forward to the day she has time to do some serious writing on this novel, and its more visual interpretations.

One comment

  1. I’ve just read this book for the first time and am keen to see the film – particularly the portrayals of Mrs Whatsit (very visual) and Mrs Which (potentially not very visual at all?). Plus the strangeness of the worlds they visit. I’d like to reread and pay more attention to Meg and how her state of mind is portrayed.

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