Understand that it was more than 30 years since I’d read A Wrinkle In Time when Hope Larson¹ announced that Madeleine L’Engle’s literary executors had asked her to adapt the classic book into a graphic novel. I couldn’t imagine a better mix of talents two and a half years ago, and now that I’ve got my hands on a copy², I am more impressed than ever.
Given that the original Newbery Medal-winning book is fifty years old, and given the entirely valid assumption that anybody that loves comics will likely have read AWIT, this review is not going to follow the usual approaches — plot and story will be freely discussed, no spoiler warnings will be given, and one may safely conclude that AWIT:TGN will fall squarely in the Required Reading category upon its release in October. What we will be talking about is how Larson adapted the source material into a unique offering.
I’m not sure about you, but I don’t think I’ve ever been quite so … let’s say nonplussed as by the first two Harry Potter movies. It was clear to me that the marching orders that Chris Columbus had been given boiled down to Make it as familiar as possible so the kids can follow along, don’t change a thing, and for God’s sake, don’t screw this up and we’ll all be employed for the next decade. The very literalness of the transition from page to screen, the almost complete absence of any real artistic changes meant that the films could bring nothing new beyond the visual design and the quality of the acting.³
By contrast, a little bit after Prisoner of Azkaban came out, I found myself (over beers after the close of day one of that year’s MoCCA Festival) holding the opinion that Warner Bros should just give the rest of the series to Alfonso Cuarón, because that movie cast off the literalism and showed a determination to be its own story. This wasn’t a movie that relied solely on what JK Rowling had written on the page to define the entirety of its world, it filled in between the words to create a dynamic, living, breathing, feels-real sense of place. Instead of viewers being told Only what’s on the page needs to be shown, the message was Here’s what one person’s imagination found in the story, which might not be what your imagination found, but isn’t it cool to think that your imagination can be a participant in the story?
I don’t want to stretch the analogy too far and say that a too-slavish transliteration is to a proper adaptation what the relationship between the hyperconformist world of Camazotz is to the bursting-with-creativity Murry household, but maybe I do. Particularly given the way that comics (as McCloud taught us) actively involve the reader as a co-conspirator in the story, a skillful determination of where to deviate from the source is an absolute necessity for AWIT:TGN to be a worthy addition to the Murry-O’Keefe stories. Fortunately, that’s what it is.
Larson follows the story closely enough that long-buried details of story came rushing back to me, but added nuances that wouldn’t have worked in the original. For example, the anachronistically formal way that many of the characters have of speaking (particularly Charles Wallace, but even the straightforward Calvin is capable of dropping lines like By what countries is Peru bounded?) serves to place the story in a timeless time instead of tying it explicitly to a particular year or decade. Along those lines, I will wager that it was a deliberate choice on Larson’s part to not show cars, phones, or other physical objects that would lead the reader to a too-specific determination of when the story takes place — it takes place in its own time and returns five minutes before it left.
Working with a palette of only black, white, and blue in various combinations (an overall blue wash for flashback, oppressive black for Camazotz), Larson is able in the space of a panel to convey mood and emotion more effectively than pages of adjectives could accomplish. Her character designs don’t look like the characters in my head (or yours either), but they do look like the characters themselves. Meg and Calvin reveal on the page how they feel about themselves — Meg’s shoulders and stance become stronger when she realizes that it’s not possible for others to repair things for her, Calvin’s ears get slightly larger and he becomes gawkier and less guarded when he finds kindred spirits in the Murry kitchen.
Most impressively to me, her renderings of Charles Wallace are subtle and powerful: the slightest change in the tilt of the head, curve of the mouth, or shape of the eyes are sufficient to change him from bemused and friendly to starkly malevolent. For a certain period of time, while their moral framework is still undeveloped, children that can walk and talk and act on their own are just this side of sociopaths, their entire world defined only in terms of themselves. When given over to IT, Larson’s Charles Wallace conveys that cruelty and utter lack of empathy; he is the very embodiment of selfishness and need to see the world conform exactly to his wishes, and it’s chillingly effective.
Larson’s interpretations and adaptations work as well as they do, naturally, because of the strength of the story that they’re built on; she knows when not to change the source material — it’s not possible to improve on defining dialogue like Well, a line or Tesser, sir! — and by recognizing where to keep and where to change, she’s built something that is recognizably L’Engle’s, but simultaneously all her own and easily the equal of the original. But as Meg Murry would angrily remind IT, Like and equal are two entirely different things.
Madeleine L’Engle found ways to tell a story that was about the uncertainties of now (and not-now, and every time), to make concepts like Good and Evil both starkly delineated and subtle, to delight children and piss off those who don’t want children exposed to “the wrong ideas”. Hope Larson found ways to make that story resonate in a new medium for a new generation of readers. In another fifty years, some new practitioner of some new artform will find a way to adapt AWIT for yet another generation. The story belongs to all times, and if you haven’t read it in far too long, you have the perfect amount of time to leisurely reacquaint yourself. Because from October forward, it won’t be possible to fully know A Winkle In Time without also knowing A Wrinkle In Time: The Graphic Novel.
¹ Let me repeat for the benefit of those who only know Ms Larson because of her husband and figure she’s only known because of him, knock that shit off right now.
² As always, my most sincere thanks to Gina Gagliano at :01 Books; L’Engle’s longtime publisher Farrar Strauss and Giroux, their imprint Margaret Ferguson Books, and :01 are all part of the Macmillan family of publishers, thus Gina was able to get me a review copy.
³ The best thing about those first two movies — and this is not meant as a slight — was the casting. The choices of child actors that were (luckily) able to grow into the roles, and of the greats of British film (particularly Alan Rickman) were their enduring contributions.