What's the 'A Wrinkle In Time' news story? Flashback to wisdom from Madeleine L'Engle

So what is the story with the new Disney version of the classic, Newbery Award winning novel "A Wrinkle In Time" by the late, great Madeleine L'Engle?

I'm talking about a news story here.

I'm talking about the attempt -- another one -- to make this beloved youth-fiction classic into a blockbuster movie. Why is it is causing discussion, debate and even controversy? Yes, I'm asking this because that's what we talked about this week in the GetReligion "Crossroads" podcast. Click here to tune that in.

Is it news because it appears, to one degree or another, to be a box-office flop? Is it news because, at Rotten Tomatoes, only 40 percent of critics like it? That's bad, but the score from ordinary people in theaters was even lower, to the tune of only 34 percent positive reactions.

Director Ava DuVernay was not amused and argued that race may have had something to do with it, since she -- as a star African-American director -- changed the racial mix of the cast.

It's clear that some of the movie's supporters thought race was a crucial part of the mix, as seen in this NBC commentary: " 'A Wrinkle in Time' isn't a film for critics. It's Ava DuVernay's love letter to black girls." And over at CNN there was this: "Watching 'A Wrinkle in Time' is a political act."

So one more question: Why write a religion column about this book and its author?

That's what I did this past week, for the Universal syndicate. It did that because, nearly two decades ago, I had a chance to spend two hours talking to L'Engle about the crucial themes woven into her book. In particular, I asked her if there were concepts and even quotations from her novel that needed to be in a film adaption of it. Here is a key piece of that column:

It would be hard, explained L'Engle, to grasp this book's cosmic war between life and death, good and evil, darkness and light without two crucial passages.
A key character is Mrs. Who, who speaks only in famous quotations. She is part of a trio of mysterious characters -- guardian angels, according to L'Engle -- who help the children in the novel. To explain the power of "light," Mrs. Who quotes the Gospel of John: "The light shineth in the darkness, and the darkness comprehended it not."
Also, in a climactic word of encouragement to heroine Meg Murray, Mrs. Who quotes St. Paul's first letter to the Corinthians: "The foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men. ... God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things that are mighty."
None of the novel's Bible quotations made it into the Disney film, but there were new quotes from popular music and the musical "Hamilton."

The key is that "A Wrinkle In Time" is a beloved book for a number of great reasons. It is, in many ways, one of the great books ever written celebrating young, brainy science nerds (I am the father of two such humans). Youth-lit experts and librarians (like my wife) love it. At the center of the book is a large, brainy (that word again) and deeply Christian family led by two scientists (the mom and the dad).

Ah, there is also the fact that L'Engle wasn't just a Christian, she was a brainy (that word again) Episcopalian who knew how to push some of the same apologetics buttons as a C.S. Lewis, while also reaching out to a diverse audience of believers and unbelievers.

Thus, this is a hard book to turn into a Disney product. In my column, there was this:

"L'Engle's work is a highly imaginative one in which good and evil can literally be sensed and felt by the characters," said Barbara Nicolosi Harrington, a former Catholic nun who now teaches screenwriting.
These kinds of inner, spiritual realities are hard to visualize on screen, plus it's clear that the "heart of L'Engle's work is deeply Christian," she said. "Surely these themes would cause ambivalence or disgust in secular filmmakers. Now you have a recipe for the gutting of a beloved Christian classic into a weird, even creepy mess."

So why would film magnates want to do that?

Well, the logical reason is that they wanted to go after a larger, international audience that might have been offended by a lot of Bible material and one reference to Jesus.

But what if taking out many crucial, defining images and quotations actually weakened the movie and, thus, ticked off the large army of readers who really, really, really loved this book book?

Back during the press events for the trilogy of "The Lord of the Rings" movies, Peter Jackson was asked (by me and others) if he considered removing crucial elements of that story, including a few rather obvious symbols of author J.R.R. Tolkien's strong Catholic faith.

Jackson admitted that he was tempted. But over and over he said that, in the end, he decided that there was nothing to be gained by betraying one of the largest and most loyal groups of readers on our planet. (Yes, he should have thought about that more when creating his video-game versions of "The Hobbit.")

Is this what happened with "A Wrinkle In Time"? There may be a story there.

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