The most biting disappointment, though, stemmed from limitations of the feminism upon which the story was built. Yes, L'Engle broke with gender stereotypes by making Meg the one who is good at math and science, while Calvin O'Keefe, her nascent love interest, is the "communicator," someone far better at literature and history. She also made not only Meg's father, but also Meg's mother, a scientist. And she chose to make the magical helpers who aid Meg and Charles Wallace's quest women/witches, refusing to embrace the negative construction of the witch as the feminine face of evil. But even while she broke with many gender stereotypes, she also reinforced others (more on them below).
Interestingly, since Larson hews so closely to L'Engle's original text, using her dialogue almost word for word, any reinterpretation comes largely due to the play of words against pictures, not to any changing of L'Engle's words themselves. Two threads that popped out at me in reading Larson's pictures against L'Engle's words were first, the discussions of female beauty, particularly Mrs. Murry's; and second, the many instances of hand-holding in the novel between Meg and others.
With only L'Engle's narrative, readers are given no real sense of what Mrs. Murry looks like. But Larson's drawings give us Mrs. Murry in the flesh. And while Mrs. Murry is a bit more put together than is scruffy Meg, she's no overwhelming vision of gorgeousness. The dialogue balloons here emphasize that it is Charles Wallace's opinion that his mother is beautiful, one that his mother doesn't necessarily share. Meg, in her adolescent malaise, may think beauty is important, but the text does not necessarily share her opinion.
In fact, it is the boys in the novel who insist upon Mrs. Murry's beauty, a fact that the graphic novel format emphasizes. Not only does Charles Wallace think his mother beautiful, but so does Calvin, who laughs when Mrs. Murray tells Meg "You just haven't had any basis for comparison, Meg. I'm really quite ordinary," and denigrates his own mother in comparison:
I used to feel sorry for Calvin for having a family that "didn't give a hoot about me," but now the class dimension of his rejection, as well as the beauty-bias inherent within it, give me pause. I also find it annoying that he reassures Meg that no one would believe her father left her mother for another woman "after one look at your mother." Beauty, not intellectual interests or shared passions, are what keep men glued to women's sides, Calvin's attempts to comfort Meg suggest. Seeing Mr. Murray's photograph, Calvin deems him "not handsome or anything," suggesting that unlike for men, beauty is not that important. Calvin's praise of Meg's "dreamboat eyes" continues to be a touching moment, the first time a bloom of attraction is recognized and returned. Yet recognizing Calvin's investment in the cultural necessity of women's beauty makes it less touching that it once was for me.
Larson is able to make more of an intervention in her depiction of scenes of hand-holding. For Meg, holding hands is a sign of relationship, a sign of love, as in the early illustration of Meg and Charles Wallace above, from early in the story. But in the novel, reaching out for someone's hand can also be seen as a sign of Meg's weakness, or perhaps instead of Calvin's active, masculine strength: "Calvin reached out and took Meg's hand with a gesture as simple and friendly as Charles Wallace's"; "Meg stumbled as the land sloped suddenly downhill, but Calvin's strong hand steadied her" (50). In the graphic novel, however, such narrative tags disappear, replaced with pictures which give no sense of who took whose hand first, and no indication of any stumbling on Meg's part. Though Calvin appears in the lead in one pane, the two others show Meg and Calvin side by side:
Later, before they "wrinkle time," Meg asks the witches if they can hold hands while doing so. The novel notes "Calvin took her hand and held it tightly in his" (76), but the picture suggests a mutual holding-on:
The next time we see Meg and Calvin holding hands, it is not out of fear or the need to protect or be protected; it is a sign of their mutual discovery of a way to communicate with the beast creatures who have no sense of sight (a discovery which in the novel Calvin makes alone, sitting on the opposite side of the table from Meg):
At novel's end, hand-holding becomes a sign of goodness, of the spirituality of the three witches, and above all, of the power of love: "Then there was a whirring, and Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. which were standing in front of them, and the joy and love were so tangible that Meg felt that if she only knew where to reach she could touch it with her bare hands" (190). Though Larson does not reprint Meg's interior thoughts, she does conclude with a final picture which makes that metaphorical hand-holding literal, and doubled: the mature romantic love between the newly reunited Mrs. and Mr. Murry, and the tentative, blossoming affection between two adolescents learning to value their own, and each other's, true worth.
Madeleine L'Engle, A Wrinkle in Time: The Graphic Novel. Adapted and Illustrated by Hope Larson. FSG 2012.
Next time on RNFF:
Feminism in the Romance Classroom