***This article contains spoilers for the plot of A Wrinkle in Time.***
Disney puts a certain stamp on stories: A little humor here, a forced romantic interest there, and some vague messaging about love conquering all to tie it together. Sometimes this formula works to elevate a story. Other times, it thins out an already elevated narrative, excising meaning and depth in favor of fluff and good feelings.
The latter is sadly the case with Ava DuVernay’s A Wrinkle in Time. Many excellent reviews have already covered how the most recent movie adaptation of the beloved Madeleine L’Engle children’s science fantasy novel changed the story to resonate with Disney’s vision of truth—a vision at odds in many places with the theologically laden work written by L’Engle in 1962. Watered down to a feel-good narrative about finding one’s true self, becoming unified with the universe, and battling an encroaching darkness with personal, inner light, the movie focuses on awkward pre-teen Meg Murry (Storm Reid) and her need to self-actualize. But despite changes that erased much of L’Engle’s direct Christian references, DuVernay’s take on A Wrinkle in Time is not without virtue, beauty, and redemption, particularly in following the narrative of Meg’s brother, Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe).
Even Disney could not take the fangs of virtue out of Charles Wallace, nor, in this movie, do they try. It’s as though screenwriters Jennifer Lee and Jeff Stockwell recognized that the story rises and falls on Charles Wallace’s faith—faith in people and powers external to himself, contrary to the theme of his sister, Meg, who needs to find faith in herself. Without the steadfastness of Charles Wallace’s faith, the metanarrative of A Wrinkle in Time falls apart. Charles Wallace is like Lucy Pevensie of The Chronicles of Narnia: a precocious child with enormous faith in powers seemingly absurd and absolutely outside his control. As the story asserts, Charles Wallace is an odd child. A boy genius who loves big words, “cooking milk” during thunderstorms, and talking with strangers, he’s preternaturally sensitive to the inner lives of his family, but also to the outer and the “other.”
Because Charles Wallace is a child, he accepts the supernatural without question, and that is something older people rarely do. The “other” manifests in the form of three “Mrs”: Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon), Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling), and Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey). Supernatural warriors for Good and Light, these Mrs show up in response to a human cry for help they heard across the universe—a cry that came from Meg’s father, Mr. Murry (Chris Pine). Mr. Murry, a famous scientist who had been studying the process of tessering—or traveling through space and time by, essentially, wrinkling space along a particular frequency—has been missing for four years. He’s trapped by a great dark force called the It, but his family only knows he’s gone, and they don’t have any idea if he’ll ever return.
In the movie version of the story, Charles Wallace is adopted into the Murry family, and was only two years old when Mr. Murry went missing. While Meg, older by several years, and their mother (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) despair of Mr. Murry ever returning, Charles Wallace never loses hope. He boldly, and loudly, defends his sister from bullies at school, he shames those who should be wiser than he is, and he tells people their place in life before they know it themselves. He is a true example of 1 Corinthians 1:27, “But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong.”
Many people would find it absurd to follow the smallest, youngest, and weakest character on a journey across space and time, but that is exactly what happens in A Wrinkle in Time—it is exactly what must happen. The Mrs come to the Murry household in large part because they are drawn there by Charles Wallace, who says he has been “expecting” them. Charles Wallace even encourages Mrs. Whatsit when she despairs on the journey to rescue Mr. Murry. “Keep the faith, Mrs. Whatsit,” he says. He has faith Meg can save their father, he has faith the Mrs can show them the way, and he has faith their father is alive and capable of being saved at all.Although the movie makes no mention of God, it demonstrates how pure intellect devoid of faith is also devoid of love and of hope.
And the end of the journey, when they are on the cusp of rescuing their father, is where Charles Wallace’s faith is put to the test. But it’s also where the irony of the competing worldviews—between DuVernay, Lee, and Stockwell’s vision of A Wrinkle in Time and L’Engle’s vision—come to a head. There we find an untenable syncretism of beliefs. All along, Mrs Which has been telling Meg Murry she needs to self-actualize. But that is only a message that holds true for Meg in this story, because when the It gets ahold of Charles Wallace and shows him his true potential, Charles Wallace’s self-actualization turns him into a monster.
When Charles Wallace succumbs to the It, his faith is blinded by his pure intellect—which was always his greatest temptation—and his fall is the most tragic point of the story. It is also the point where we can see the greatest reflection of L’Engle herself, who perhaps wrote Charles Wallace as a childlike image of both her strengths and her weaknesses. In her memoir A Circle of Quiet, she writes, “[M]y intellect is a stumbling block to much that makes life worth living: laughter; love; a willing acceptance of being created….With my naked intellect I cannot believe in God, particularly a loving God.” Charles Wallace, when he gives himself over to his pure intellect, becomes so inward-focused he can no longer see anything outside himself. This is what succumbs him to the darkness of the It, truly, because an inward-focused person has faith in nothing “other” or outer.
Rolland Hein, professor emeritus of English at Wheaton College, writing on L’Engle and the book version of A Wrinkle in Time, says, “L’Engle suggests the danger confronting any society is mindless conformity to pure intelligence divorced from all else that makes people fully human: emotions, intuition, imagination, common sense, humane judgment, and above all faith….The faith that rejoices in one’s being created by a loving God in whose hands one’s destiny lies is not opposed to reason, but transcends it, resting upon a different foundation than a purely intellectual one.” Charles Wallace demonstrates this sort of faith throughout the movie up until the point where he gives himself over to the It—which is an act of pride in the book (although it’s a little unclear why he does so in the movie).
When Charles Wallace loses his faith, he needs Meg to save him—not through becoming one with the universe or shining her inner light or through self-actualization—but by reminding her little brother of the faith he had in her before the It took him. By telling him he loves her and she loves him. She saves him through the power of love, reminding him to hope and have faith, as he had spent so much of the movie reminding others.
When 1 Corinthians 1 speaks of the weak and foolish things of this world shaming the strong and wise, the passage goes on to give warning against boasting in ourselves. In verse 31 the apostle Paul says, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” Charles Wallace, an odd child, is a paragon of what it looks like to have faith like a child until the It twists him to boast in himself. Although the movie makes no mention of God, it demonstrates how pure intellect devoid of faith is also devoid of love and of hope. DuVernay’s version may not be a perfect adaptation of L’Engle’s ideas, but in Charles Wallace’s arc, it is still a beautiful reflection and reminder of what it looks like to have faith like a child, and what happens when a person gives up that sort of faith and turns inward to self.