How A Wrinkle in Time Changed Sci-Fi Forever

BYRON EGGENSCHWILER
BYRON EGGENSCHWILER

Madeleine L'Engle sat in front of her typewriter in the Tower, her private workspace in her family’s isolated, 200-year-old Connecticut farmhouse. It was her 40th birthday—November 29, 1958—and she was at a crossroads. Though she had published five novels since her mid-twenties, she was far from a household name, and lately she was having trouble selling her work. She considered her thirties a “total failure” professionally. “Every rejection slip—and you could paper walls with my rejection slips—was like the rejection of me, myself, and certainly of my amour-propre,” she wrote. While her career floundered, her husband had temporarily given up his acting career and started running the local general store.

Now, her latest manuscript, The Lost Innocent, was out with a publisher. Two editors were enthusiastic, another “hated it,” and a fourth was still to be heard from. At midday, her husband called. He had gotten the mail. The book had been rejected.

The blow felt like “an obvious sign from heaven,” she wrote, “an unmistakable command: Stop this foolishness and learn to make cherry pie.” L’Engle covered her typewriter, vowed to abandon it forever, and walked around the room, sobbing.

Then, suddenly, she stopped crying. In her despair, she realized she was already considering turning this moment into another book—one about failure. She would write. She had to write. Even if she never had another work published. “It was not up to me to say I would stop, because I could not,” she wrote. And the novel that lay around the corner was about something far greater than failure.

In October of 1936, an urgent message had arrived at Ashley Hall, a private girls’ boarding school in Charleston, South Carolina. It was addressed to Madeleine, a senior, and it bore the news that her father, Charles Camp, was ill with pneumonia. He’d recently attended his Princeton reunion, where he appeared the picture of health, but upon returning home to Jacksonville, he’d begun to deteriorate. L’Engle grabbed a trusty copy of Jane Eyre and boarded a train for Florida. She arrived too late to say goodbye.

Her father had traveled the world as a foreign correspondent, worked as a freelance writer and critic, and written mystery novels. The family moved repeatedly: from New York City to France, and then to Florida. At each juncture, L’Engle was sent to boarding schools or placed in the care of a nanny. “My parents had been married for nearly 20 years when I was born,” she wrote in her memoir Two-Part Invention: The Story of a Marriage, “and although I was a very much wanted baby, the pattern of their lives was already well established and a child was not part of that pattern.”

Early on, she sought company in books and writing, penning her first story at the age of 5, and at 8 starting a journal. She played the piano and lived in an “interior dream world.” At school, she was the odd girl out. A limp made her bad at sports. Classmates and teachers called her stupid. One teacher accused her of plagiarizing a poem that won a contest (her mother brought in a pile of stories from home to prove she hadn’t). Those experiences, along with her father’s death, left a rift that she would confront again and again in her fiction. From the beginning, her novels centered on teenage girls who don’t fit in. Her work abounds with lost and estranged parents, family conflict, and the trials of young adulthood.

She kept writing while attending Smith College, where she edited The Smith College Monthly (there, things got heated with Bettye Goldstein, the future Betty Friedan, who turned the literary magazine into an outlet for political debate) and published short stories in magazines like Mademoiselle and The Tanager. When asked by her first editors how she’d like her byline to appear, she chose “to be known not as Charles Wadsworth Camp’s talented daughter but rather, in a cleaner victory for her, as ‘Madeleine L’Engle’” (her great-grandmother’s name), writes Leonard S. Marcus in the biography Listening for Madeleine.

After college, she moved to New York City and published her first two novels within a year of each other. She also pursued a short-lived career in acting, winning spots in the Broadway and touring productions of Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard. On tour, she fell in love with a cast mate, Hugh Franklin, who, years later, would become famous as Dr. Charles Tyler in All My Children. They married in January of 1946 and lived in Greenwich Village (downstairs from Leonard Bernstein) before purchasing a farmhouse in Goshen, Connecticut. They had two children and adopted another, and immersed themselves in the community and their local Congregational church.

It seemed idyllic, but tensions were bubbling. In her thirties, facing repeated rejections from publishers, L’Engle privately wondered if her professional aspirations had compromised her personal life. “I went through spasms of guilt because I spent so much time writing, because I wasn’t like a good New England housewife and mother,” she later wrote in her memoir A Circle of Quiet, “and with all the hours I spent writing, I was still not pulling my own weight financially.” She yearned for proof that her divided attention to career and family had been the right choice. Instead, on her 40th birthday, she got another “no.”

A year later, she went on a 10-week cross-country camping trip with her family. As they drove through Arizona’s Painted Desert, an idea popped into her head. It started with three names: Mrs Whatsit, Mrs Who, and Mrs Which. “I’ll have to write a book about them,” she told her kids.

Sigrid Estrada

On a “Dark and Story Night” (L’Engle’s first line winks at English novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s infamous purple prose), a troubled young girl named Meg Murry can’t sleep in the attic bedroom of her family’s big, drafty farmhouse. She goes downstairs to find her younger brother, the genius, mind-reading Charles Wallace, already warming milk for her cocoa. Their father, a government scientist, has been missing for more than a year, and at school, Meg’s classmates tease her about it.

Then, out of the storm appears Mrs Whatsit, who will in time prove to be a celestial being. She shocks Meg’s mother by mentioning a mysterious word: tesseract—the method of time travel Meg’s father was working on before he disappeared. Soon, Charles Wallace and Meg, along with Calvin O’Keefe, a popular boy from Meg’s school, are dashing through time and space with Mrs Whatsit and her two pals, Mrs Who and Mrs Which. Their aim: To combat a darkness threatening to take over the universe and find Meg’s dad, who has been engaged in the same battle.

It’s a fantastical story featuring interstellar travel; alien planets; an evil, disembodied brain; and a world under siege from an unknown force. But ultimately, A Wrinkle in Time is grounded in human concerns that L’Engle knew all too well. “Of course I’m Meg,” she once said. Where the stories of Meg and her author diverge, aside from the interplanetary jaunts and interactions with mystical creatures, is that Meg saves her father. In doing so, she becomes empowered with the knowledge that she can take care of herself, even if she can’t save the world. “Indeed, the crux of the book rests on Meg’s coming to understand that her father cannot save her or Charles Wallace, or make the world a less anxious place,” wrote Meghan O’Rourke for Slate in 2007. “Part of the task she faces is, simply, accepting the evil that is in the world while continuing to battle against it.”

Editors, though, didn’t see what was special about the work. “Today I am crawling around in the depths of gloom,” L’Engle wrote in her journal after one suggested she cut it in half. Time and again, her manuscript was turned down. It dealt too overtly with evil, some editors said. Others couldn’t tell if it was for children or adults. L’Engle loved sharing her rejection story, Marcus writes, “varying the number of rejections she had endured—had it been 26? 36?— with each retelling.”

She told at least two stories about how it was finally accepted: In the most common, a friend of her mother connected her with John Farrar of the publishing company Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Soon she was signing a contract, but with low expectations: “Don’t be disappointed if it doesn’t do well,” they told her. In the second, more dubious version, Farrar was leaving the church where he and L’Engle worshipped when he noticed an envelope containing the manuscript on a pew and, in a publishing miracle, saved it. Finally, in 1962, two and a half years after the book’s inception, it was published.

The following year, A Wrinkle in Time was awarded the John Newbery Medal, one of the most prestigious honors in children’s literature. (When told the news, L’Engle responded with “an inarticulate squawk.”) She would go on to publish, on average, a book a year for the next 40 years. Financially stable from her writing at last, she also felt the professional validation she’d been craving for so long. Looking back at that fateful 40th birthday, she wrote, “I did learn ... that success is not my motivation. I am grateful for that terrible birthday, which helps me to wear glass slippers lightly, very lightly.”

Still, there’s no doubt that she felt euphoric on the night she accepted her Newbery award, even if not everyone present enjoyed the moment. After the speech, the story goes, an acquaintance went into the ladies room, where one of the many editors who had rejected the book leaned over the sink and drunkenly sobbed: “And to think I turned down that manuscript!”

The reception of Wrinkle was far from universally positive, though. It was a weird mashup of genres combining science fiction with fantasy and a quest; a coming-of-age story with elements of romance, magic, mystery, and adventure. There’s a political, anti-conformist message, and at its heart is the importance of family, community, freedom of choice, and, most of all, love. In some ways, there was too much room for interpretation in L’Engle’s themes. Secular critics deemed it excessively religious—L’Engle was a devout Anglican—but religious conservatives, who have repeatedly tried to ban it, argued it was anti-Christian.

The book, published at the beginning of the second wave of feminism, also carried a groundbreaking message: Girls could do anything boys could do, and better. A year later, The Feminine Mystique, written by L’Engle’s former classmate Betty Friedan, would emerge as a platform for the frustrated American housewife, and Congress would pass the Equal Pay Act, making it illegal to pay a woman less than what a man would earn for the same job. To some extent, Mrs. Murry in A Wrinkle in Time is already living the future: She’s a brilliant scientist who works alongside her husband and in his absence, too; later in the series, she wins a Nobel Prize. (Math whiz Meg would grow up to follow similar pursuits.) And Meg, a girl, is able to succeed where the men and boys—Calvin, Charles Wallace, and her father—cannot.

With that character so like herself, L’Engle struck back against the 1950s ideal of the woman whose duty was to home and family (the same expectations that conflicted the author in her thirties). Instead of staying at home, Meg goes out into the universe, exploring uncharted territories and unheard-of planets.

At the time, science fiction for and by women was a rarity. There was no one like Meg Murry before Meg Murry, though she left a legacy to be picked up by contemporary young adult heroines like The Hunger Games’ Katniss Everdeen and the Harry Potter series’ Hermione Granger. Beyond creating this new type of heroine, A Wrinkle in Time, along with Norton Juster’s 1961 book The Phantom Tollbooth, changed science fiction itself, opening “the American juvenile tradition to the literature of ‘What if?’ as a rewarding and honorable alternative to realism in storytelling,” writes Marcus. This shift, in turn, opened doors for writers like Lloyd Alexander and Ursula K. Le Guin. In these fantasy worlds, as in the real world, things can’t always be tied up neatly. Evil can never be truly conquered; indeed, a key to fighting it is knowing that. It’s a sophisticated lesson children thrill to, and one in which adults continue to find meaning.

When asked why she wrote for children, L’Engle would often reply, “I don’t”—her stories were stories she needed to write, for whomever wanted to read them. But she also remembered what it felt like to be young, how endless the possibilities were, real or imagined. If anyone persisted in questioning her, she would sharply inform them, “If I have something I want to say that is too difficult for adults to swallow, then I will write it in a book for children.”

Star Trek: The Motion Picture Is Beaming Back Into Theaters in September

Paramount Pictures
Paramount Pictures

Spanning 13 films, multiple casts, and wildly different visions, the Star Trek franchise has seen plenty of success on the big screen, despite originally debuting as a TV show way back in 1966. Now, to celebrate the 40th anniversary of its maiden movie voyage, Fathom Events is bringing Star Trek: The Motion Picture back to theaters on September 15 and 18.

Directed by Robert Wise (West Side Story, The Sound of Music) and starring the original crew of the USS Enterprise—including William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, George Takei, and Nichelle Nichols—Star Trek: The Motion Picture was a technical marvel back when it premiered in December 1979, sporting visuals that earned Academy Award nominations for Best Visual Effects and Best Art Direction. The score was provided by Jerry Goldsmith, who also earned an Academy Award nomination for his work.

Before the screening of the theatrical cut of the movie, fans will also get to watch the short documentary “The Longest Trek: Writing the Motion Picture,” which details aspects of the film’s production.

Tickets will be available on Friday, August 2, on the Fathom Events website. For now, you can put your email address onto the site to get a notification right when tickets go on sale.

15 Facts About Your Favorite Stanley Kubrick Movies

Evening Standard/Getty Images
Evening Standard/Getty Images

It’s hard to believe that Stanley Kubrick, the personification of the auteur theory, left us more than 20 years ago at the ripe, young (by today’s standards) age of 70. Kubrick's career began with a self-described amateurish feature, 1953’s Fear and Desire—a war film which, in 2012, The Village Voice critic Tim Grierson described as a “pretentious, muddled mess”—and culminated with his final film, 1999’s Eyes Wide Shut.

Over the course of a movie career than spanned nearly 50 years, Kubrick directed just 13 features, which was a testament to the filmmaker's reputation as a consummate perfectionist and stickler for even the smallest of details. In honor of the legendary director's birthday (Kubrick was born in New York City on July 26, 1928), here are 15 facts that you might not have known about some of your favorite Stanley Kubrick films.

1. It took about 10,500 people and 167 days of filming to make Spartacus.

Spartacus (1960) was epic in every way: its $12 million production budget made it the most expensive movie in Hollywood history at the time. Its budget ended up exceeding the total worth of Universal Studios, which was sold to MCA for $11,250,000 during filming. Overall about 50,000 extras were involved.

2. Dr. Strangelove was supposed to be a drama.

The international climate of the early 1960s piqued Kubrick’s interest in writing and directing a nuclear war thriller. Kubrick began consuming piles of literature on the topic until he came across former Royal Air Force officer Peter George’s dramatic novel Red Alert. Columbia Pictures optioned the book, and Kubrick began translating the bulk of the novel into a script.

During the writing process, however, the director found himself struggling to escape a persistent comedic overtone because he found the vast majority of the political calamities described in the story to be inherently funny. Eventually, Kubrick abandoned the idea of fighting the adaptation’s dark sense of humor and embraced it wholeheartedly. Tone aside, the plot of Dr. Strangelove is strikingly similar to that of George’s novel. There’s one notable exception: Dr. Strangelove doesn’t appear in the novel—Kubrick and writer Terry Southern created the character.

3. Kubrick had some help from Carl Sagan on 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Kubrick began principal production on 2001: A Space Odyssey without knowing how to convey many of the film’s key scenes—most notably the ending, where Dr. Dave Bowman makes contact with extraterrestrial life. One of the biggest problems Kubrick had while developing the movie was how to depict these extraterrestrial life forms in a way that suited his abstract ideas, but could also be covered by the film’s budget. So he asked noted astrophysicist/author Carl Sagan for help.

In his book The Cosmic Connection: An Extraterrestrial Perspective, Sagan explained, “I argued that the number of individually unlikely events in the evolutionary history of Man was so great that nothing like us is ever likely to evolve again anywhere in the universe. I suggested that any explicit representation of an advanced extraterrestrial being was bound to have at least an element of falseness about it, and that the best solution would be to suggest, rather than explicitly to display, the extraterrestrials.”

Though Kubrick would experiment with literal ways to show aliens in 2001, like hiring a ballet dancer in a special polka-dotted suit filmed against a black background, he settled on Sagan’s insinuation of extraterrestrials.

4. Kubrick wasn't initially sold on directing A Clockwork Orange.

The director first encountered Anthony Burgess's novel A Clockwork Orange when his Dr. Strangelove co-screenwriter Terry Southern gave him a copy on the set of that film. Southern enjoyed the biting black humor of the book, and thought Kubrick should consider adapting it into a movie. Kubrick allegedly didn't like the book upon first reading because of the Nadsat language Burgess created for the novel. The language, literally translated as the Russian word for "teen" and comprised of Russian and Cockney rhyming slang, was confusing to Kubrick until he revisited the source material after his efforts to make a biopic about Napoleon fell through. Kubrick reportedly began to change his mind when he considered Alex as a Richard III-type character.

5. Stephen King didn't like Kubrick's version of The Shining.

“I’d admired Kubrick for a long time and had great expectations for the project, but I was deeply disappointed in the end result," Stephen King told Playboy in 1983. "Parts of the film are chilling, charged with a relentlessly claustrophobic terror, but others fell flat.”

He didn’t like the casting of Jack Nicholson either, claiming, “Jack Nicholson, though a fine actor, was all wrong for the part. His last big role had been in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and between that and the manic grin, the audience automatically identified him as a loony from the first scene. But the book is about Jack Torrance’s gradual descent into madness through the malign influence of the Overlook—if the guy is nuts to begin with, then the entire tragedy of his downfall is wasted.”

6. Kubrick got special lenses so he could film Barry Lyndon by candlelight.

All period dramas feature rooms that appear to be lit by candles and oil lamps, but in reality there are usually big lighting rigs just off camera. That wasn’t the case with Barry Lyndon. Kubrick and cinematographer John Alcott wanted to use as little electric light in the production as possible, and went so far as to get special lenses that had been designed for NASA, which he had specially mounted on cameras that could then be used only with those lenses. The super-fast lenses captured rooms lit only by candlelight perfectly, creating a look unlike any other film.

7. Vincent D'Onofrio gained 70 pounds to play Leonard "Gomer Pyle" Lawrence in Full Metal Jacket.

In addition to the weight gain, Vincent D'Onofrio also shaved his head for his role in Full Metal Jacket, and was surprised by how much it affected him. ''It changed my life,'' D'Onofrio told The New York Times in 1987. ''Women didn't look at me; most of the time I was looking at their backs as they were running away. People used to say things to me twice, because they thought I was stupid.'' To this day, it's the most weight any actor has ever gained for a movie role.

8. Eyes Wide Shut is based on a 1926 novella.

Eyes Wide Shut is loosely is based on Arthur Schnitzler’s novella Traumnovelle (Dream Story), which was published in 1926. Considering that the movie takes place in 1990s New York, it is obviously not a direct adaptation, but it overlaps in its plot and themes. “[The book] explores the sexual ambivalence of a happy marriage and tries to equate the importance of sexual dreams and might-have-beens with reality,” Kubrick explained. “The book opposes the real adventures of a husband and the fantasy adventures of his wife, and asks the question: is there a serious difference between dreaming a sexual adventure, and actually having one?”

9. Kubrick lied to George C. Scott in order to get funnier takes in Dr. Strangelove.

George C. Scott—who plays bombastic General Buck Turgidson in Dr. Strangelove—was hesitant about playing his character too “big.” Kubrick coaxed Scott to deliver broad, animated performances as Buck, promising him that they were merely an exercise and would not be used in the final cut. Of course, the takes that went to print were among the actor’s wackiest. Scott felt terribly betrayed, and vowed never to work with Kubrick again. Although Dr. Strangelove remained their sole collaboration, Scott did eventually come to appreciate the film and his performance.

10. Kubrick pulled A Clockwork Orange from theaters in England because of death threats.

The press blamed the violence in A Clockwork Orange for a series of alleged copycat break-ins and killings in the UK in the early 1970s, prompting calls for it to be banned. The film remained in theaters and available for distribution until an incident caused Kubrick to request that Warner Bros. pull the movie from UK cinemas.

While on the Ireland set of his next film, Barry Lyndon, Kubrick received death threats against him and his family. The perpetrators promised to break into their secluded house outside of London to carry out attacks just like Alex and his droogs do in the film. Distraught, Kubrick kept the studio from publicly showing the movie in the British Isles and Ireland until after his death in 1999.

11. There is an original, different ending to The Shining.

It’s not uncommon for a film’s ending to change in post-production, but Kubrick changed the ending of the film after it had been playing in theaters for a weekend. The film version is lost, but pages from the screenplay do exist. The scene takes place after Jack dies in the snow. Stuart Ullman (Barry Nelson) visits Wendy Torrance (Shelley Duvall) in the hospital. He tells her, “About the things you saw at the hotel. [A lieutenant] told me they’ve really gone over the place with a fine tooth comb and they didn’t find the slightest evidence of anything at all out of the ordinary.” He also encourages Wendy and Danny to stay with him for a while. The film ends with text over black, “The Overlook Hotel would survive this tragedy, as it had so many others. It is still open each year from May 20th to September 20th. It is closed for the winter.”

12. Jack Nicholson improvised his "Here's Johnny" line in The Shining.

Jack Nicholson is responsible for the only line from The Shining to make it onto AFI’s Top 100 Movie Quotes. While filming the scene in which Jack breaks down a bathroom door with an axe, Nicholson shouted out the famous Ed McMahon line from The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. The catchphrase worked and stayed in the film. Some behind-the-scenes footage, which can be seen here, shows Nicholson’s method acting before filming the iconic scene.

13. Dr. Strangelove inspired actual changes in international policy.

While certain critics, politicians, and military personnel alike dismissed Dr. Strangelove as farce and fallacy, the terrifying plausibility of the events at play in the movie struck a nerve with Washington D.C. Government agencies including the Pentagon’s Scientific Advisory Committee for Ballistic Missiles examined the film and Peter George’s Red Alert as a means to qualify the likelihood and prevent a Strangelove-like scenario in the real world. As early as the mid-1960s, procedure was shifted so that no one government individual would have access to the complete code needed to unlock a nuclear weapon. By the 1970s, the Air Force began employing coded switches that would disallow the unauthorized instigation of nuclear arms, as represented by the actions of General Ripper in the film.

14. Anthony Michael Hall was offered the part of Joker in Full Metal Jacket.

Kubrick originally offered the part of Joker to Anthony Michael Hall, but an eight-month long argument about monetary compensation eventually ended the collaboration. "It was a difficult decision," said Hall of his departure from the project. "Because in that eight-month period, I read everything I could about the guy, and I was really fascinated by him. I wanted to be a part of that film, but it didn't work out. But all sorts of stories circulated, like I got on set and I was fired, or I was pissed at him for shooting too long. It's all not true."

15. Kubrick passed away less than a week after showing the studio his cut of Eyes Wide Shut.

Kubrick died less than a week after showing what would be his final cut of Eyes Wide Shut to Warner Bros. No one can say how much he would have kept editing the film. One thing that was changed after his death: bodies in the orgy scene were digitally altered so that the movie could be released with an R, rather than an NC-17, rating (although many claim that Kubrick intended to do this, too). According to Kidman, "I think Stanley would have been tinkering with it for the next 20 years. He was still tinkering with movies he made decades ago. He was never finished. It was never perfect enough."

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