It was a dark and stormy night, more than forty years ago in 1962, when a truly unusual book inspired by astrophysics blew in and turned the previously strait-laced universe of young adult literature upside down. Imagine a book banned in the 1960s for its liberal religious views – every teenager in America who could, had to have it. It was scandalously encouraging of the anger of its 14-year-old female protagonist, didn’t pretend that schoolchildren didn’t get into bruising fist-fights, and refused the idea that parents could solve everything.
In an era where morality in juvenile literature was excruciatingly black and white, Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time was life in technicolour. Another four books would follow in L’Engle’s lifetime to form the Time Quintet. Our well-worn copies are ready to be cracked open again just in time for the release of a snazzy, star-studded adaptation of A Wrinkle In Time with Ava duVernay (the last non-heinous director in Hollywood?) at the helm. If you missed the fun, here’s why you should remedy that before the movie comes out - and then cross your fingers and toes that it’s good enough to warrant another four movies.
There’s no denying L’Engle’s books are a little dated. We are past the time where we can stomach teenage boys addressing each other as “old sport,” for example. But duVernay appears to have stripped away much of what now feels typical or banal about the books. There’s a biracial protagonist, three extra-terrestrial witches played by trail-blazing actors (Reese Witherspoon, Oprah Winfrey, Mindy Kaling), and a greying father played by Chris Pine, who’s the book’s damsel in distress: when the story opens, he’s been missing for more than a year since leaving for a top-secret government mission.
A Wrinkle In Time was rejected by 26 publishers for making too many demands on the intelligence of young readers, but that turned out to be precisely what made it a runaway success. It was, for many, the first introduction to light years as a unit of distance and the idea of time as the fourth dimension in space. Perhaps most deliciously, it invented a compelling and ingenious shortcut to space travel – that is, a wrinkle in time. Demonstrated via a ballooning skirt, the space wrinkle is explained as the distance an insect would have to travel from one patch of the skirt to the other. If you fold the skirt, the distance decreases – it wrinkles – and the insect crosses in no time at all. Suddenly, the 91 billion light years Meg must travel to rescue Daddy Pine don’t seem all that far.
The magnetism of the novels is also in the old-school romance of Meg and her schoolmate Calvin, who mirror each other in their awkwardness, and are the antidote to the opposites-attract trope of a million modern high school comedies. There’s nothing like an understated elbow graze and holding hands as they travel through space to make us nostalgic for sweet teen romance.
But most of all, we’re hoping some of literature’s loveliest lines are brought to life by some stellar acting. The dialogue of this richly drawn world is equally rich. That L’Engle was a voracious reader is clear from the books which are peppered with quotes from Shakespeare, Dante, Cervantes, Einstein and more – there’s even an Alice in Wonderland reference thrown in. (BTW, Tim Burton: still upset with what you did there.)
There’s something wonderfully reassuring about old-school wisdom tucked into normal conversation. Mrs Who (who’ll be played by Kaling), a witch who can’t verbalise as well as the children resorts to quotation instead of coming up with her own words. When she hopes to comfort the children she invokes Euripides: “Nothing is hopeless; we must hope for everything.” When she wants to take a talkative Mrs Whatsit (Witherspoon) down a notch, she recalls a French proverb that goes, “The more a man knows, the less he talks.”
This writer found the universe of A Wrinkle In Time a great place to grow up because it doesn’t insist people be transformed into better versions of themselves in the face of adversity. In a favourite scene from the book, Meg is told to channel her faults – anger and impatience – rather than squash them down. That already makes it different from the cheeseball superhero fantasy and nihilist space opera the theatres are full of. If Hollywood has to shake things up in the world of science fiction, they couldn’t have picked a better book than A Wrinkle in Time.
Getting there: The Time Quintet is available here. Ava duVernay’s A Wrinkle In Time releases early March.
This story was contributed by Urvashi Bahuguna, a writer based in New Delhi.
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