Hollywood has long thought that overtly Christian messages turn off moviegoers. However, the cataclysmic failure of one of the most heavily hyped movies of 2018 may prove just how misguided that bit of advice is.
Madeline L’Engle’s “A Wrinkle in Time” is one of the most beloved young adult books of all time, and a movie adaptation of it seems like it would be a slam dunk. It seemed even more assured of box office success after Oprah Winfrey stepped in as one of the film’s stars, along with Reese Witherspoon and Chris Pine.
According to Fox News, the production cost $103 million — not huge money by Hollywood standards nowadays, but certainly not chump change for Disney, who released the adaptation of the 1962 science fantasy novel in which 13-year-old Meg Murry must save both her father and the universe as she travels to various corners of it.
The film was put into the hands of director Ava DuVernay, who made the competent historical drama “Selma” and the critically-feted social justice-centric documentary “13th,” which argued that the American prison system was equivalent to modern-day slavery. That may have been what some like to call a red flag, but for her political inclinations, DuVernay was certainly more than qualified as a director. What could have possibly gone wrong?
Plenty, as it turns out. According to The Hollywood Reporter, “A Wrinkle in Time” only earned $33.3 million in its first weekend, well behind “Black Panther’s” $41.1 million.
That came in well below expectations — and while the film only cost $103 million to make, a good rule of thumb is to double the cost of production to estimate the break-even cost, due to marketing expenses. Furthermore, the film only earned $6.3 million in the foreign box office, meaning it will almost certainly end up being a massive financial disaster for Disney.
There are plenty of reasons one could give for “A Wrinkle in Time’s” failure. “Black Panther” has been cleaning up at the box office for weeks now, and “Wrinkle” only managed a 42 percent rating on film review aggregate site Rotten Tomatoes. (“A Wrinkle in Time is visually gorgeous, big-hearted, and occasionally quite moving; unfortunately, it’s also wildly ambitious to a fault, and often less than the sum of its classic parts,” the site’s critical consensus read.)
However, Kim Renfro of Insider had a different theory behind “Wrinkle’s” failure at the box office: the religious elements of the original source material were very conspicuously expunged in the film version.
“The film’s version of events strips away explicit mention of God or religion, instead trimming down the central conflict to one between ‘evil’ and ‘light,'” Renfro notes. While she admits the adaptation isn’t perfect, “the removal of L’Engle’s religious overtones leads to a key issue.
“By removing the religious themes, the movie version of ‘A Wrinkle in Time’ loses part of its narrative arc. This leads to a confusing storyline and muddled message.”
Renfro also notes that L’Engle felt that Christianity was central to the novel’s theme.
“If I’ve ever written a book that says what I feel about God and the universe, this is it,” L’Engle apparently wrote in her journal, according to Renfro. “This is my psalm of praise to life, my stand for life against death.”
Renfro also notes that several explicit references to Jesus, God, angels and messengers of God are conspicuously absent from the film.
And yet, in spite of this — or perhaps because of it — the book has a wide and devoted following, and not just among the kind of people whose fiction-reading habits are limited to “The Shack” and “Left Behind.” (Not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course.) In fact, I don’t know of too many people who would identify “A Wrinkle in Time” as a Christian book. It’s a book that happens to include religion — in part because it was published in 1962, when such things weren’t taboo.
Unfortunately, one look at the box office returns for “A Wrinkle in Time” and one might conclude Hollywood may not be on the right track when it comes to God and religion. Perhaps that’s something to keep in mind if Oprah wants to run for president in 2020.
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