Losing Mythic Structure: A Wrinkle in Time

Updated: Jun 3, 2021

I have wanted to write this article for some time, but hesitated because I didn’t want to disparage the work of creative professionals I admire. I have tons of respect for Ava DuVernay, Oprah Winfrey, Mindy Kaling, Reese Witherspoon, Storm Reid, Chris Pine, and Tendo Nagenda who championed the film getting made. This story is very complex, and difficult to tell. I read the books as a little girl, but intentionally avoided reading them again when I learned that the film was in production.

The film version of A Wrinkle In Time as it was told in the 2018 version directed by Ava DuVernay, received mixed reviews. It is my opinion that these are due to the film not fitting a Mythic Structure that audiences could resonate with. The story attempted to unify the Hero’s Journey through the film, it also had elements of the Queen’s Path, but lost track of both structures through the course of the film.

Mythic structures are important in stories. The most famous and well-known mythic structure is The Hero’s Journey and if you look you can find it almost everywhere. George Lucas famously used The Hero’s Journey as the mythic structure for the original Star Wars films. Lucas conferred with Joseph Campbell who codified the original format of the Hero’s Journey through his lifetime of research and his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces. There is another structure for women’s stories/women’s characters. The Queen’s Path illustrates a mythic structure that sees women begin as undifferentiated characters and then find themselves placed on one of two paths. The first path sees women in the “traditional” role of compliance, availability, and relationship. In the model I call this archetype, Maiden In Search of Relationship (MISOR). The other archetypal pattern I call Magical, Isolated, Powerful, and Endangered (MIPE).

Being placed in one of these lanes marks the beginning of the story for most female characters. It can also be a significant part of the character’s backstory. What happens next is the character has to face her “lane” and make a decision about how she will navigate. She is not given a CHOICE about which lane she is in, and most times the character will, after some frustration, choose the lane she was given, and double down on it. I’ll occasionally use stories and films to illustrate the point.

For this example, one of the most vivid examples is in the film Frozen. Elsa and Anna are playing as little girls when Elsa’s magic gets a little ahead of her. The separation of the girls into their respective lanes comes as the result of the “curse” of the magic. Elsa is forced to hide her power, and Anna lives in isolation. Anna becomes a MISOR, and Elsa, a MIPE.

The next phase of the journey sees this character confronted with the results of her choice. Has she given into a myth of “Happily Ever After” where her story will end with marriage and childbearing? Or will her story end with her being isolated and alone, but powerful and independent? These are the traditional tropes in stories. Another example for this stage of the Queen’s Path can be seen in the film, The Devil Wears Prada, when Andy gives in to the temptations of Runway Magazine’s fashionista imperative, and becomes one of the Runway Girls. Andy chooses the path of the MIPE in the steps of Miranda Priestly and Emily the bossy assistant.

The next decision for the character implies that she will either find a way to unite those two divided pieces, or she will be stuck in one lane forever. It is in choosing and uniting that the character finds embodied transcendence, a story point unique to this mythic structure. The transcendence brings her unity, and she finds herself at a new tier, one of self-sovereignty, where she has the power over herself necessary to face the challenges before her in a completely new, embodied and balanced way. She has become a queen. A great example of this Queenly unity can be demonstrated in the recent film, I Feel Pretty, when the lead character Renee finally realizes on the stage of the LeClaire makeup event that she was never physically different. She is able to unite the two sides, the confident MISOR, and the MIPE who had lots of insecurity. In the end she winds up with the job, the guy, and a newfound identity for herself, truly confident, complex, and connected.

It is important to note that MISOR and MIPE are not fully exclusive realms. A character (or a person) is bound to have characteristics from both categories. What matters is how the character is treated by others. In I Feel Pretty, the beginning of Renee’s transition begins when she notices that a “beautiful” girl at the gym can also feel insecure and dejected. In Legally Blonde, this moment for Elle Woods happens when she is able to bring her detailed beauty knowledge to the legal case before the court, and wins the case because of her difference, not in spite of it.

Back to the film we’re looking at in this post, in A Wrinkle in Time, there were a number of characters, maybe too many for audiences to follow through the film. There were the three celestial beings who guide the children through their journey: Mrs. Who, Mrs. WhatsIt, and Mrs. Which. There were the three children, Meg, Charles Wallace, and Meg’s friend, Calvin. And then there are the parents, the two scientists, Drs. Kate, and Alexander Murry. And then there are the ancillary characters, the Happy Medium, Red, and the big baddie, The IT. These are a lot of characters for a mythic story. Let’s start with the Celestials.

The Celestials appear to lean on the Queen’s Path a bit. Mrs. Which is clearly the most Queenly of the three, the oldest and wisest, who guides the other celestials and the children along the route to find Dr. Murry. However, her character doesn’t have enough history or development for us, the audience, to see the connection between her, and the other two celestials, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Whatsit. There was some reference to the MIPE and MISOR archetypes in these characters, with Mrs. Who embodying the calm side of the MISOR, and the powerful side of the MIPE. Meanwhile, Mrs. Whatsit seemed to embody the bubbly, scattered version of the MISOR, and the nonchalant power of the MIPE. The two characters of Mrs. Whatsit and Mrs. Who would have enjoyed a deeper connection with the audience had they been more clearly defined in one lane each. Mrs. Which, the character more aligned with the Queen Archetype could have embodied that queenliness through her actions and her relationships with the other two Mrs’. She could have been less stern, and more explanatory about the uniting power of choice. She could have channeled her inner Glinda the Good Witch from The Wizard of Oz. But instead all three celestials seem to find themselves scattered across the attributes of the Queenly archetypes, without a great deal of character development to hold them together.

Let’s look at the children next. Meg Murry is clearly the protagonist of the story. She is the one who the audience is supposed to identify with. However, she has very muddled character development as well, almost from the beginning of the film. She clearly loves her parents and her little brother, but is constantly in conflict with others because of her anger. However, the anger only plays when she gets provoked, and the audience only gets a glimpse of how she is bullied, and where her anger truly begins. A much more effective strategy to highlight Meg’s anger would have been to see her struggle more with all the feelings tied up with her anger, see her torn between becoming more like her nemesis, Veronica, and not see her righteous anger until later.

For Meg to have been on the Queen’s Path, she would have needed to be more obviously split in the beginning of the film. She could have been developed as a character who was much more angry, and that she was in danger of falling deeper into her anger and thus separation. This could have been provided by her mother being a foil of goodness as opposed to sadness, or in showing Meg getting more angry with any of the Celestials, rather than being mildly annoyed at them throughout the story. The filmmakers tried to accomplish this with the character of Charles Wallace, showing him as her foil for goodness, but Charles Wallace was a little too young to take this on, even though he is clearly precocious. In order for this to have worked, the relationship between them would have had to have shown Meg in much greater turmoil between loving her brother, and being angry at her life. That is a level of complexity that might be a stretch for a character who is supposed to only be about 12 years old, though I think it could have been developed more.

Finally there is the relationship between Meg and Calvin. For me this was the most difficult relationship to resolve in the film. Calvin’s character doesn’t do much to bring about change for Meg. Sure he helps her, and his presence once or twice forces her to find her inner reserves and intelligence. But he doesn’t do anything to press her towards the unification from Divided Woman to United Queen. The only person who does this in the film are Charles Wallace and Dr. Alex Murry at the end. Calvin is a relatively unnecessary character in that regard, and is much more sympathetic than Meg, which sometimes makes it difficult to watch.

Towards the end of the film, the Celestials have to leave the children as Meg has managed to tesser everyone to the land of The It, called Camazotsz. In this land, Meg should find it more difficult to battle against the separation of her identities. Instead, she is driven and purposeful, and it is Charles Wallace who becomes the instrument of The It. This could have worked, had Meg had an inner battle against herself (and eventual catharsis or epiphany) in the process. The epiphany comes almost too late when after finding her father, Alex is tempted to leave Charles Wallace behind. Meg is the one who realizes the power of love, and is able to save Charles Wallace and tesser both of them back to their own place and time.

Returning her father, Calvin, herself, and Charles Wallace back home is the “Happy Ending” of the movie. Alex tells Meg that he is proud of her for not giving into his darker temptations to leave Charles Wallace behind. This is a difficult resolution, for in the film, Meg seems to come around full circle, understanding the teachings of the Celestials, with insufficient internal movement to the task she has just accomplished.

That is not to say that the film is not filled with powerful imagery and messages. However, for someone who is not looking to put a structure ON the film, and is instead hoping to be moved by the film on its own, the movie is hard to watch. I had a hard time caring about Meg, and didn’t really feel that she knew why she was on this journey, other than to alleviate her own sadness about losing her dad. Ideally, this would have been developed as Meg having to find him so she didn't fall into one side or the other more obviously. I didn’t feel that the Celestials did a good enough job instructing her in the ways of being a warrior of the light. The characters that had the greatest growth seemed to be Charles Wallace, Alex, and Calvin.

What I wanted from the film was for Meg to have a journey through her own divide, and to become a warrior of the light, and in so doing, she would have become a Queen. I would have liked for the Celestials to have embodied that division a little more so that I would have understood why there was a limit to their knowledge. Mrs. WhatsIt clearly could have been played much younger, and could have received more instruction from Mrs. Who and/or Mrs. Which. This could have been a way to instruct Meg, and could have given Meg things to think about, with Mrs. Whatsit being a model of Meg’s impatience and anger. Mrs. Who held the written knowledge of the world, and could have been used more effectively as a means of guiding the inner dialogue of the film between the realm of the Celestial and the realm of human knowledge. She was somewhat effective in this regard, but it didn’t go deeply enough to the story,

I did appreciate that the film forced Meg to see how other people’s traumas empower their own judgment of those around them. That was very effective, though it did feel like there could have been more struggle for Meg from the beginning of the film.

Finally, I really wanted to see Mrs. Which act as a model of Queenly behavior. I wanted her to bring the other two celestials together as an example of how Meg could heal her own divide. Instead, everyone seemed to be on their own, and Meg had too much to overcome around her as she tried to make sense of the quest to find her father.

It is a visually beautiful movie. The performances are pretty good, considering the holes in the story and character development. It is an unfortunate example of how missing the mythic mark makes for a hard to follow movie. The mythic structures audiences come to expect can help to carry the film forward. Certainly some films can pay attention to those mythic structures, and break them, so long as these are intentional. That will be the source of our next analysis, Disney’s Moana.


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