Old Favorites in a New Light

My back to school treat: a new fountain pen and pen case.

I’ve made it through the first two weeks of Fall semester and my first three weeks as department chair (or, as I now refer to it, “brush-fire fighter”) more or less intact. But I’ve ended my workdays too tired to read much.

So I turned to old favorites in formats less taxing for my tired brain than text: Hope Larson’s graphic adaptation of Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time  and the audio book of Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South, read by Juliet Stevenson. Here’s what I learned from experiencing these books in a new way.

I enjoyed Larson’s adaptation largely because it’s faithful to L’Engle’s text–she draws from the original for her dialogue and hews closely to the plot arc. Parodoxically, though, I wished that the adaptation had made more of a difference–that Larson had in some way exploited the medium in which she works. This felt like an illustrated version of L’Engle’s story more than a reimagining.

What really struck me, though, was how deeply ingrained in my mind, heart and soul this book is. It’s not that Wrinkle is the only source of some of my beliefs, but it’s an early and important one. (Excuse the crooked scanning).

Two rectangular comics panels showing the face of a man with blank eyes. Text reads: "Why don't you trust me, Charles? Why don't you trust me enough to come in and find out what I am? I am peace and utter rest. I am freedom from all responsibility. To come in to me is the last difficult decision you need ever make."

The Prime Coordinator urges Meg, Calvin, and Charles Wallace to surrender their wills to IT.

When I read the scenes set on Camazotz, where IT, the single brain, controls everyone, I realized how central L’Engle’s philosophy/theology is in my resistance to the fantasy of the care-taking alpha (something much in my mind thanks to recurring/recent Romanceland discussions of the trope).

Wrinkle is not the only place where I got the idea that surrendering your will to someone else, giving up your responsibility to make choices about your life and do hard, scary things, is not fully adult and even sinful–being raised as an Episcopalian like L’Engle and four years at a women’s college, among other things, play a part. But when I saw this scene again/anew, I realized that’s it really a part of my basic orientation to the world. Even though I am often very reluctant, like Meg, to let go of a comforting hand and face a scary thing alone (but not unsupported).

ETA: Let me try to put this better, because I’m afraid it came off as “If you like care-taking alphas, you’re a SINNER!” And what I meant was, I recognized that in large part owing to L’Engle, I have an automatic, almost unconscious association of the fantasy of surrendering responsibility to someone else with a temptation to be resisted. And I think this has a lot to do with why that fantasy doesn’t work for me. It’s all to do with how I judge myself, and nothing to do with judging other people.

The idea that Camazotz was an evil place whose conformity must be resisted was a kernel of hope I clung to in the miserable-in-the-suburbs part of my youth (the comparison to suburban subdivisions is one L’Engle, and Larson, make explicitly, and Larson’s images reinforce the parallel):

Meg,Calvin and Charles Wallace stand looking down a street in Camazotz, with rows of identical houses.

A series of 4 long, rectangular comics panels, one atop the other, showing children at play in Camazotz. They bounce balls (boys) or skip rope (girls) in perfect unison.







I thought Larson made really effective use of the comics form in these panels. I like the off-kilter angle of the street, emphasizing the eeriness of the scene, and the way the number of children grows, and they get smaller, in the sequence of panels on the right. That really emphasized how Camazotz dehumanizes them.

One thing I had forgotten was the way L’Engle talks about the question of free will vs. predestination or the idea that God has ordained how things will turn out. Mrs. Whatsit compares life to a sonnet: we’re given the form, but we can put into it what we will. After years of re-reading this book, I’m still not sure what to make of that metaphor, but I thought how well it fit the medium in which Larson works: a comic is (usually) a series of panels or boxes, but within that basic form we find images and stories of wildly diverse kinds.

As for North and South, my first impression was that listening made me focus more on the romance thread (which is certainly central to the book). That’s partly because it’s where a lot of the action is–though the class themes are woven through the love story, particularly in the dramatic scene where Margaret protects Thornton during the strike. But it’s also because Stevenson is such an excellent narrator and really conveys the emotional nuances of the story.

But as I listened, I also found my attention focused on the theme of language/translation that’s so central to the novel. In her childhood, Margaret learns the dialect of rural Helstone, though she also speaks like an educated lady. When she moves to Milton, she has to learn a new language: that workers are “hands,” that mill owners are not really “tradesmen.” In a scene I just reached, her mother reproves her for using vulgar slang, and she says there’s no word better than “knobstick” to explain her meaning–she’d have to resort to whole sentences instead (a knobstick is a scab or strike-breaker). A central part of the resolution to the class conflicts in North and South–both that between the masters and men in Milton, and that between the aristocratic south and manufacturing north–is in learning to understand each other’s perspectives, to find a common language. (The chapter in my dissertation on Gaskell was called “The Talking Cure,” but I am certainly not the first person to note these themes, though I can’t find the reference I’m looking for to save my life). Stevenson’s skill again brings this to the fore as she gives the various characters different accents. Whether they are accurate, I don’t know, but the southern Hales, middle-class northern Thorntons, and working-class northern Higginses all have their characteristic ways of speaking in Stevenson’s narration.

Two rich and enriching adaptations, easier ways of reading but hardly superficial reading experiences. Here’s to more reading time and energy in the weeks ahead!

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6 Responses to Old Favorites in a New Light

  1. kaetrin says:

    I’ve never read Gaskell; I’ve only seen the mini-series. One day I might try the audio though – the book feels too daunting to me but the audio seems doable. I have a couple of Juliet Stevenson narrations on my TBL and I’ve only ever heard great things about her.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      So far, I’ve listened to her doing several 19th century novels I’ve read many times and know well, and she’s been great at all of them. I think she makes these texts really accessible (and for me, it’s definitely less daunting in audio, because you can let the story carry you along and not worry about understanding every word). I’ve now got some Victorian novels I never got around to reading in my TBL; I figured that way I’m more likely to get to them soon.

  2. oliviawaite says:

    1. Finally, I shall cave to the pressure and read Gaskell.

    2. L’Engle as the context for resisting alpha heroes in romance: if you’ve got it, I’ve got it too. I LIVED on that book as a kid. The sonnet thing still bedevils me. In a good way. And I agree: the idea of rescinding decisions/responsibility as a comfort screams red flag to me.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I totally get why that fantasy works for other people and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it at all. But when I got to that scene in L’Engle–which I’d say is the thing I remember best from my many, many readings of the book–it was like a lightbulb went off. There’s something deep in my brain that sees surrender to the will of another as “evil.” In the novel, this is clearly a scene of temptation (and Charles Wallace gives in to it/IT because he’s too confident in his own power to resist).

      Reading this as an adult, I thought a lot about the theological contrast being set up here, too: what is the difference between what the Prime Controller is saying there and “come unto me all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest”? There are certainly interpretations of those words that would liken them to IT (“let go and let God,” maybe), but I don’t think L’Engle is embracing passive obedience. To follow Jesus or fight the Dark Thing alongside Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who and Mrs. Which isn’t presented as an evasion of choice and responsibility, submission to some GOOD power that will tell you what to think. I’d say this book was my first exposure to ideas I’m still wrestling with and probably always will be.

      Er, wow, I didn’t mean to wander off into the byways of faith, but the book certainly opens those questions if you want it to.

  3. willaful says:

    “Parodoxically, though, I wished that the adaptation had made more of a difference–that Larson had in some way exploited the medium in which she works. This felt like an illustrated version of L’Engle’s story more than a reimagining.”

    I had the same reaction to the animated version of Pratchett’s _Weird Sisters_. It brought nothing new to the story.

  4. sonomalass says:

    I saw a fabulous stage adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival this summer. It was so good that I’m seeing it again, this time with my sons, this weekend. This is definitely a case of the different medium adding a lot to the story while being faithful to it.

    L’Engle was a huge influence on me, too. I read the sequels as soon as they were released, because I am old. I can see the alpha caretaker connection, too. In my mind, though, AWIT is linked to something else entirely. I will never forget that after I finished it and went to my father asking for “more books like that,” he gave me C.S. Lewis’s Perelandra trilogy. The stuff of many nightmares.

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