On Adaptations (cross-posted from my live journal)

goshen in winter

This photo of Goshen is courtesy of TripAdvisor

So they are again trying to film one of my childhood favorites, Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. Honestly, it’s a book I still love, and I am filled with trepidation. Oh, I’ll go see it when it comes out next year. I’m almost certain to, unless it’s completely panned. But the Canadian TV movie from ten or fifteen years ago was a very mixed bag, and I’m very much afraid this version will be, too.

 Why? I admit I was a little startled when I read that the director insisted on having primarily people of color in the cast. And then I thought about it. It does change the story, which is set in rural New England in the early 1960s. African Americans really didn’t live in small New England farming villages after WWII. They did before the war, and the loss of this population is one of many American tragedies and injustices. But_

 One of the points of the story, and, indeed, of the series, is that Meg’s family are outsiders. Making Kate Murry of African descent, and her children mixed race, is a good way of emphasizing this. And these are beautiful children! If they can act the parts and get the characters across, it doesn’t matter in the least that they don’t look like the characters in the book.

 But I’m disappointed that the filmmakers didn’t bother to film in the book’s actual setting. To me, one of the great pleasures of Madeleine L’Engle’s books is the love and care with which she evokes the New England landscape. A Wrinkle in Time begins, very specifically, in northwestern Connecticut in early autumn.  Madeleine L’Engle lived in Goshen. The early scenes in Camazotz are meant to look like on of the local mill towns. This—the foothills of the Berkshires, and a part of the Appalachian chain—is a lovely landscape. It’s not spectacular or dramatic, but it is quietly, subtly beautiful. I’m sorry they didn’t see fit to film the book where it was set.

 But it’s the cast list that really gives me pause. What on earth have they done to this story! How different from the rather messy earlier film will it be? Examples:

1.     Who on earth is Veronica?

2.     There are not just one, but two, lifeguards. Why? Whence come these lifeguards, and what are they doing in the story?

3.     Why is Calvin’s father listed in the cast while his mother—a very major character later in the series—is not?

4.     Speaking of characters who come to matter later on, where are the twins?!! True, Sandy and Dennys have minor roles in this story, but they do have things to say, specifically about the happy medium. As the family is “outside” the village, so the little boys are “outside” their family; the normal ones in a bunch of geniuses. I really like the dynamic between them and Charles Wallace, and between them and Meg. And, like Mrs. O’Keefe, the twins have their own book later in the series.  So why leave them out and add a couple of characters who aren’t in the book at all?

This failure to respect the book, as shown in the cast list and the shooting locations, is what worries me. Not the races of the main characters. Speaking of leaving out characters, where is Aunt Beast? She’s not listed at all! And she’s very important to the plot, and her scenes are among my favorites in the book.

 Now, an adaptation from novel to film is, of necessity, an interpretation. I understand that. It’s going to be the director’s vision, not mine. I also understand that sometimes, you have to make changes in order to visualize an internal story. An adaptation does not need to be slavishly accurate to be truthful.

 The movie I’m thinking of here is Whale Rider. My parents thought Lisa Gerrard ought to have won an Oscar for her score for this movie. I thought it should also have won for best adapted screenplay. You can see the extremely moving final scene here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TKBR9IgmDms

 Here’s what’s fascinating about the adaptation: Witi Imihaera’s book is in some ways quite different. The young main character, Paikea (Kahu in the book), is only 7 or 8 years old in the novel. The film makes her 11 or 12. Also, the book, brief as it is, tells three intersecting stories; that of Pai/Kahu’s young uncle Rawiri, that of the elderly whale who is seeking the human who rode him long ago, and that of Kahu/Pai, struggling for her grandfather’s acknowledgement and love. In the book, we actually get the viewpoint of the whale! There is also a lot more than we see in the movie about young Rawiri’s drifting and his experiences of racism.  His is the main viewpoint. But-

 The film is utterly true to the essentials of the story. The characters and their relationships are heartbreakingly real. The film also captures a particular setting and a way of life. Most of all, the main themes of love, responsibility and leadership are captured intact, and even expanded on.

 This movie asks viewers: what does it mean to lead? What is leadership? And every major character, at one point or another, shows leadership. Pai, of course, should have been the chief’s heir, had she been a boy. She has all the qualities of a chief, and her struggle is to make her grandfather see this. But she must also find her own way to lead. Her father, who should have been chief, is instead an artist, and a highly skilled one. Her uncle Rawiri is a born leader, but has been passed over because he’s the younger son. This is part of the reason he’s drifting. Pai’s grandmother and her friend/rival Hemi also show leadership at key points in the story.

 I don’t want to say more in case you haven’t seen the movie yet. Please go watch that clip! My point is that the screenwriters made a couple of dramatic changes to the book. But they were completely faithful to other parts of Imihaera’s novel, especially the characterizations and themes.

 Like “Whale Rider”, “A Wrinkle in Time” is about a young girl finding her own way forward. Both of these very different stories deal with a girl’s self-knowledge. Pai /Kahu is always certain of her value and her role, in spite of the setbacks she suffers. Meg is not at all certain of her own value or “superpower”, which is why it matters so much that she speak it aloud. Both film and book move me to tears. But will the upcoming movie have the same power?

 I hope so. The failure to include the twins in the cast, to me, is a very bad sign. But  we can only wait and see, and hope for the best.  As I said, I am going to see this movie, anyway. Fingers firmly crossed!