February 18, 2020

Trusting Our Flaws

While watching Disney’s “A Wrinkle in Time” I felt I had been transported to the study halls of my yeshiva — and not in a good way.

Until a week ago, “A Wrinkle in Time” was an award-winning fantasy novel beloved by children, teens and adults for more than half a century. But now, it’s a big-budget flop that tantalizes and teases but ultimately fails to move or inspire.

The movie generally sticks to the novel’s storyline about Meg, a brilliant but troubled young girl whose scientist father goes missing. With the help of omniscient ancient witches, played by Reese Witherspoon, Mindy Kaling and Oprah Winfrey, Meg learns how to “tesser” — find the wrinkles in the universe to travel through space and find her father. The witches tell Meg that her father discovered “tessering” and had been on a space journey when he was trapped by the all-encompassing dark force of evil called The IT. They accompany Meg on her journey to defeat The IT’s darkness with the light of love.

The broad strokes of the story are the same in the book and the film. However, the film does not practice what it preaches. It is afraid to embrace itself.

The lesson of ‘A Wrinkle in Time’ is that we are most powerful when we accept that our flaws are what make us unique.

Madeleine L’Engle wrote “A Wrinkle in Time” in the same spirit C.S. Lewis wrote “The Chronicles of Narnia” series: A fable with modern, liberal Christian values. In the novel, Christianity is part of the story. In the movie, it does not exist.

The novel often explains the supernatural with fantasy physics, giving it a very academic and science-y feel. The witches are considered angels of light and are quirkier in the book than in the movie. Their conversations are more thought-provoking and frequently riff on philosophy and religion in ways that challenge the readers.

Meg is darker and stranger in the book than in the movie and her father is more flawed and less forgivable in the book.

I understand that Disney stripped the movie of its strong, Christian overtones and made its difficult themes more palatable for fear of alienating audiences. Instead, it decided to tell the story with a “universalist” message.

This form of insular thinking also plays out in our religion. The Orthodox Jewish community also is afraid of the outside world. Unnecessary interactions with outsiders often are discouraged, for fear a yeshiva student might bolt if they see too much of the outside world.

The lesson of “A Wrinkle in Time” is that we are most powerful when we accept that our flaws are what make us unique. Erasing our flaws is not the goal. Struggling with our flaws and using our personalities to make a difference in the world is the goal.

“A Wrinkle in Time” succumbed to The IT of strict conformity and groupthink. It is not just a beautiful story being held back by its flaws. The challenging non-universalist “flaws” make it special. They replaced its imperfections with perfect costumes and impeccable set design because they thought we couldn’t handle it. That is why it flopped.

Religion and films like “A Wrinkle in Time” should embrace their limitations and trust their audiences. We can handle it.

Eli Fink is a rabbi, writer and managing supervisor at the Jewish Journal.