One of the book’s most memorable bits — a scene that expanded my mind when I read it as a boy, and still shapes my thinking today — involves an explanation of space-time and the idea of a tesseract: a folding (or wrinkling) of space-time via a fifth dimension to travel instantly between vastly distant locations. (“The shortest distance between two points is not a straight line.”)
A version of this scene was shot for the film, with Meg herself presenting the principle in class (complete with a plastic model of an ant taking the place of the imaginary ant in the book’s in-text illustrations). A scene like this could have showcased the side of Meg the filmmakers want viewers to see: brainy and academically capable.
Alas, it seems this was too cerebral or something, and was cut. Now the idea of a tesseract is given a rushed explanation in a scene with Mr. and Mrs. Murray, and the key visual is only glimpsed in a computer animation in the background. How can filmmakers inspire young viewers if they’re afraid to ask anything of them?
The finished film tries to highlight Meg’s gifts in a ridiculous invented action scene evocative of a young-adult apocalyptic survival movie. “It’s a physics thing,” she says modestly, but the stunt they’ve just tried is the sort of thing that only works in video games and movies that are too much like video games.
The need to present an affirmative image extends to Meg’s parents. I appreciate the warmly rendered early scenes with the Murrays all together before Mr. Murray’s disappearance. Yet for all her father’s apologies to Meg for having left her and the family, the film doesn’t dare to touch on Meg’s deep disappointment on being reunited with her father and discovering that he isn’t the all-powerful figure capable of setting all to rights that she’d built him up to be in her mind.
Kaling’s Mrs. Who still speaks in quotations, although her frequent biblical references have all been excised, and there are fewer classical and historical references and more Outkast and Lin-Manuel Miranda. She doesn’t come across as someone who has trouble verbalizing; she just says quotes for no reason.
The dropping of the Biblical references is not incidental. When Mrs. Who quotes 1 John — “The light shineth in the darkness, and the darkness comprehendeth it not” — that has thematic significance: The darkness, the Dark Thing, is strong, but light is stronger; this is not a dualistic, Manichaean story.The movie’s tagline — “The only thing faster than light is the darkness” — seems to reverse this: Darkness has a natural advantage. The line doesn’t appear in the book, and I doubt L’Engle would approve. (That the movie conflates the darkness — the Dark Thing — with It, which is merely a local manifestation of darkness on Camazotz, is just one more disconnect.) Compared to this, Disney’s Narnia films retained far more of the Christian milieu of Lewis’ stories.
The aversion to religion is nowhere more evident than in the rousing enumeration of the Earth’s great fighters against the darkness. In the book, Jesus is given the first place, though there are others: artists and scientists (Leonardo, Shakespeare, Bach, Curie, Einstein) as well as Christian and non-Christian religious figures (Buddha and St. Francis as well as Gandhi).
The movie relegates all this to an afterthought, adding some racial diversity to the list (Nelson Mandela, Maya Angelou) and dropping all the religious figures, definitely including Jesus.
“Tomorrow there’ll be more of us,” smiles Mrs. Who benignly, quoting Hamilton. Tomorrow-land, according to Disney, may be a utopia with all kinds of diversity, but it seems there’s only room for one gospel.
It would be nice if there could be some kind of diversity training for Hollywood, so that the folks there could learn how to at least imaginatively enter into the world of Christian believers rather than just blindly pave it over with the spiritual goop of Affirmations, Feels and Intuitions that tends to be what passes for “spirituality” these days.
On the other hand, given the grotesque witness of what currently passes for Christianity in the US today, one can scarcely blame non-Christians in Hollywood for not wanting to dive into the septic tank on the off chance that they may find a diamond.
But it is heartbreaking that L’Engle’s Christianity, which is not hard to find or understand, was not merely ignored, but buried.