'A Wrinkle In Time' Writer Jennifer Lee On Adapting A Beloved Classic Novel [Interview]

Madeleine L'Engle's 1962 sci-fi novel A Wrinkle in Time has been a staple for young readers for decades. A made-for-TV adaptation was released in 2003, and when L'Engle was asked if it met her expectations, she responded, "Yes, I expected it to be bad, and it is." (Harsh!) The author died in 2007, so it's a shame she wasn't able to see Ava DuVernay's new movie, a thematically honest and largely accurate adaptation that cost over $100 million.

One of the women responsible for bringing the story to the big screen is writer Jennifer Lee (Wreck-It Ralph, Frozen). I had the chance to sit down with Lee at the film's junket last week and chat about working with DuVernay, the ways she diverted from the original novel, and the unexpected timeliness of this story in the wake of a recent national tragedy.

Jennifer Lee interview

Tell me about working with Ava. What was your relationship like with her?

It was an extraordinary experience. She's a writer, so there are so many things she understood, and we can have a shorthand, a different level to the conversation. She was the dream person to come on, and I really thought this was me handing the movie over. I thought she was going to do the rewrites. I was ready to do that, because I was like, 'To her? Yes.' Because I was such a fan of her work. But she, wonderfully – and I'm sure everyone is saying this about her – she was like, 'You're not going anywhere.' She was so collaborative, and we walked through the script and went through all the things that she loved and she's kept them. And then the things where she wanted to try new things, and I was like, 'Absolutely.' I would do rewrites in different stages. When the actors came on, I would do some rewrites with her. But every night before whatever she was shooting the next day, we would connect and make sure there was nothing else. I would look at all the dailies. She kept me involved all the way through, and it meant a lot to me. I learned so much from her. She didn't have to, but she did.

You spoke in the press conference about making changes from the original novel, but what was your actual approach in doing that when you sat down to write? Was it just keeping in the aspects of the book that inspired you? How did that work?

First, you do this outline of things you need and feel and want. I wanted this to be much more anchored in Meg's journey. In the book, she gets a lot of help and the Mrs.' can take over at times. She's not always driving it, and I really wanted to make everything challenge her. So I knew I had to strip away some of the support she had. I knew those types of things, but really, I kept just re-reading the book as I was writing. I would never re-read in [such a way that I'd be] writing a scene, go to the scene in the book. I would just keep re-reading it and writing thoughts. I had this one version that had writing all over it. Sort of absorbing it. When I was writing, whatever of that came in, came in. Then you go back to polish. But it was this thing of feeling like, 'I need to live in this world and create from a truth in it.' And oftentimes I found there were pieces of dialogue that were given to a different character who I really felt, from the context of how we're doing this, would say it. I never felt limited. In fact, I felt like if I tried to stay true to the book, I'd be like all the other iterations that didn't make it, because it's not a cinematic journey. It's a novel. And I needed to create a cinematic journey.

I've heard Ava say in interviews that one of her big draws to this project was the idea of her being able to create worlds. What did that look like for you, both on the page and then actually seeing her vision realized?

It was amazing. She shared with me all the visual development art as it was coming in so it could re-inspire me as I was rewriting. From the start with Uriel, one the things that started in the script was that I knew Uriel is this fantastical world. We all know the part with the sniffing of the flowers in the book, but the concept of a land where the flowers are alive in a different way – they communicate, they fly – that idea, I had. And she kept that. I thought that would just inspire her, but she kept that. And then creating this where you see these other pods. She embraced it and ran further with it. She said, 'All the plant life is alive and is the light in this. What does that look like?' So she elevated it to a place where I was like, 'This is the most incredible thing I've ever seen.' And like, The Happy Medium, the concept of balance. Everything we had in there were little balance beams, more like balanced objects. Weights and balanced objects everywhere. He was obsessed. And she turned that into a whole world. So there were occasionally seeds that she took. But Camazotz, she did the whole 'land is monster' thing and rising up, that came from her and it blew me away. It was just a lot of re-inspiring each other.

It's tough to pull off a "you're perfect just the way you are" theme in a movie because it's sort of a cliche and it's often not executed very well. But I think that's this movie's biggest strength, and I imagine it's going to be exactly what a lot of people need to hear when they see this. Can you tell me about getting the balance right in that regard?

Oh, thank you! I think the important thing about it, in like you're saying, 'Perfect just the way you are,' I've often found that when you see that journey, it'd be a journey of taking someone who wasn't perfect and making them perfect and then saying 'you're perfect as you are.' It's like, 'Well, you just all of a sudden took their glasses off and put their hair up. I don't understand.' But it's almost like saying, it's not that you're perfect just the way you are, it's that what you are is exactly what it should be. It's exactly right. There's no judgment in that. Now what? If you took that out of your life, if you didn't have the scrutiny of yourself, you just said, 'I am this for a reason and that reason has a role to play in the world,' what would you do? That's the difference – the activeness of it. Meg doesn't lose her flaws. She doesn't end up prettier at the end, or end up any less dramatic and emotional and needy and wanting. She just realizes all of those things contribute to my ability to do something extraordinary. So I feel like it's looking at it slightly differently, and in more of a way that feels possible in real life, you know? Not necessarily going to Camazotz (laughs).

I'm a big fan of your animated work. Wreck-It Ralph is one of my absolute favorites, and Frozen is excellent. You're writing and directing Frozen 2. How did you approach writing that script so that it didn't just become a copy of what everyone loved about the original?

The big thing for us – and I'm being careful because I can't give away anything. I'll get in so much trouble. I think the big thing for me is, we weren't going to do a sequel. [Co-director] Chris [Buck] and I were like, 'That story's done.' But then one day we just made the mistake of talking about something and going, 'Oh my gosh. That's the thing we still haven't explored, and it's important.' Then I spent time writing these journals as the girls. I didn't do it from exactly what you said, because I can't. And if we tried to do it that way, I think we would have something very hollow.


So just like the first one, I approached it from the inside out, because I have to. So I hope – but in some ways it gives it that inevitable feeling and yet surprise. 'Oh, it's going there!' But yet it completely feels like that's the journey they have. So that's my hope.

A Wrinkle in Time Trailer

Cool, I'm looking forward to that. Getting back to A Wrinkle in Time, this is your first writing credit for a live-action movie. What was it like seeing your words come to life through human actors instead of through animators?

What I loved so much is that every time I'd watch the dailies or I'd go on set and watch, I'd get re-inspired. And then anything we hadn't written yet would often evolve slightly because of that. So what you're able to do – in some ways, animation's so decadent because you can do anything and everything, and I love that. But what I loved about this was how much of a back and forth it was all the time. I thought when they went into shooting, I'd be done. I'd be like, 'I won't be so busy.' But it didn't work that way. Once you give it over to the actors, they make it something new and fresh. I loved that.

Did you have a favorite moment that you saw being filmed?

Yeah. Gosh, there's a beautiful scene with Oprah and Storm where she's going into Orion, and Oprah says, 'All the things that had to happen in the universe to make you exactly as you are.' That blew me away. I was in tears when she saw her father. The truth in that. What it would look like to say, 'Where have you been?' and yet to be so desperately overwhelmingly happy to find each other. That scene. We had dialogue for that scene and we just let that go completely.


Just be in the moment. Whatever they said there, they just said to each other. That was extraordinary. There were so many like that, but those two came to mind.

There's a line about fear turning to rage and rage turning to violence that feels, unfortunately, especially timely right now. Did it feel that way when you were writing it?

Kudos to the book, as much as there are some things you can anchor in the times of the '60s, they're part of human nature and what we're struggling with all the time. Interestingly, they became more poignant throughout the process of this film. I started it four years ago. It was a different world than it is now. But it is about – that battle always happens. It's constant. And that was very apparent as we were writing this. Those lines just meant more. Originally, they were written to help the audience understand what The It is about, but as you hear it now, it means something wholly different. But that's, to me, what I love about films. Hopefully this is the kind of film, like the book, where, no matter how the world changes, you'll see different things. That's part of what we wanted to do in respect to the book. Let's create something that's evocative and not so reductive, because the book is so evocative.

A Wrinkle in Time arrives in theaters on March 9, 2018.