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.”

22 Fascinating Facts About Doctor Who

Sophie Mutevelian, BBC
Sophie Mutevelian, BBC

Since making its BBC debut on November 23, 1963, Doctor Who has entranced several generations of fans (including a few of its future Doctors) with its quirky mix of history and sci-fi. Here are 20 fascinating facts you might not have known about the groundbreaking series.

1. Doctor Who was created as a kids' series.

Though it certainly maintains plenty of pint-sized fans to this day, the original concept for Doctor Who was specifically an educational program aimed at teaching kids about science and history.

In an interview with the BBC, Waris Hussein—who, at the age of 24, directed the very first episode of Doctor Who—said that the series “was meant to be educational for kids. We were trying to educate kids about certain things about the human condition.”

2. The Doctor didn't become a "Time Lord" until 1969.


Michael Webb/Keystone/Getty Images

While even the most casual of Doctor Who fans can probably tell you that The Doctor is a “Time Lord,” an ancient alien species that has the power to travel through time, the term itself wasn’t actually used until the series’ sixth season episode “The War Games.” His home planet of Gallifrey wasn’t mentioned by name until 1973.

3. The Doctor may or may not be a doctor.

Is the Doctor really a doctor? According to the Second Doctor (played by Patrick Troughton), the answer is yes … or at least he thinks so. In the season 4 episode “The Moonbase,” the Doctor’s companion, Polly, asked what audiences had been wondering for years: “Are you a medical doctor?” To which the Doctor replies, “Yes, I think I was once, Polly. I think I took a degree once in Glasgow. 1888 I think.”

4. The First Doctor's health problems led to the regeneration concept.

William Hartnell, who played the First Doctor from 1963 to 1966, was having health problems toward the end of his run on the series. To ensure that the show could go on without its original star, and to avoid enraging viewers who had come to love Hartnell, the showrunners decided that, instead, they would make the ability to regenerate be a part of The Doctor’s mythology.

5. The Doctor's regeneration is supposed to feel like a bad acid trip.

Years after it was written, an internal BBC memo was uncovered that outlined the “metaphysical change” that would take place as the First Doctor became the Second Doctor. “It is as if he had had the L.S.D. drug,” the memo explained, “and instead of experiencing the kicks, he has the hell and dank horror which can be its effect.”

6. Ridley Scott was supposed to design the Daleks.


Mike Lawn/Getty Images

Considering what he did with Alien and Blade Runner, seeing what Oscar-nominated director Ridley Scott would have dreamed up for the Daleks would have been pretty fascinating. Unfortunately, we’ll never have the chance. Though Scott, who worked for the BBC at the time of Doctor Who’s creation, was assigned the enviable task of designing the show’s devilish Daleks, he ended up leaving the network to concentrate on becoming a director.

Instead, we have the late Raymond Cusick to thank for the Daleks’ iconic design. "People do say I was inspired by a pepper pot—but I always think 'If that's all it takes to become a designer then it's a doddle,'” Cusick once said of the final design.

7. One of Doctor Who's original creators was not happy about the Daleks.

Sydney Newman, the BBC’s then-head of drama and one of Doctor Who’s original creators, was very specific about one thing he did not want to see in the series: “Being a real aficionado of science fiction, I hated stories which used bug-eyed monsters, otherwise known as BEMs,” he recalled. “I write in my memo that there would be no bug-eyed monsters in Doctor Who. And after a few episodes, [producer] Verity Lambert turned up with the Daleks! I bawled her out for it, but she said ‘Honest, Sydney, they’re not bug-eyed monsters—they’re human beings who are so advanced that their bodies have atrophied and they need these casings to manipulate and do the things they want!’ Of course, the Daleks took off and captured everybody’s imagination. Some of the best things I have ever done are the thing I never wanted to do.”

8. The Daleks almost didn't make it into Doctor Who's revival.

When Doctor Who made its triumphant return to television in 2005, it almost happened without the Daleks. The estate of Terry Nation, who created the mutants, had initially attempted to block their return to the new series, claiming that it would “ruin the brand of the Daleks.” At one point, when negotiations between the BBC and Nation’s estate seemed to have broken down, the show’s producers even created a new villain. Fortunately, they were able to work it out.

9. Douglas Adams wrote several episodes of Doctor Who.

At the same time he was creating episodes of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy for BBC Radio 4, Douglas Adams was commissioned to do some writing for Doctor Who. According to Adams, the first episode of The Hitchhiker’s Guide “more or less coincided with the summer period at the BBC, where, in order for anything to get approved, you have to wait for people to come back from whichever beach they're lying on. So that took a long time. While I was kicking my heels, I sent in my pilot episode to the then script editor of Doctor Who, Robert Holmes, who said 'Yes, yes. Like this. Come round and see us.' So we discussed ideas for a bit, and I eventually got commissioned to write four Doctor Who episodes. It took a long time to reach that decision, and then, after all this period of nothing happening, I was suddenly commissioned to write four Doctor Whos and the next five Hitchhikers all at once."

10. The Doctor hawked computers in the 1980s.

In the 1980s, personal computers were still pretty futuristic. So it makes sense that Prime Computer would enlist Tom Baker, who played the Fourth Doctor from 1974 to 1981, to serve as their spokesperson/spokestimelord. His faithful companion Romana (Lalla Ward) made an appearance, too.

11. It took six years to trademark the TARDIS.

In 1996, after years of selling TARDIS-branded merchandise, the BBC attempted to officially trademark The Doctor’s preferred mode of transportation—but the move was met with resistance from the Metropolitan Police, as the time-travel machine is essentially a police box. Six years later, in 2002, the BBC finally won the case, while the Metropolitan Police were ordered to pay £850, plus legal costs.

12. David Tennant became an actor with the specific goal of playing the Doctor.


Chris Jackson/Getty Images

When the Tenth Doctor was just a kid, he knew exactly what he wanted to be when he grew up: the star of Doctor Who. It was Tom Baker’s version of The Doctor in particular that inspired David Tennant to become an actor. He carried around a Doctor Who doll and wrote Who-inspired essays at school. "Doctor Who was a massive influence," Tennant told Rolling Stone. "I think it was for everyone in my generation; growing up, it was just part of the cultural furniture in Britain in the '70s and '80s."

13. Peter Capaldi was a major Whovian, too (and wouldn't leave the BBC alone).

Twelfth Doctor Peter Capaldi was obsessed with the series as a kid, too. As a teenager, he created a ton of Doctor Who fan art and even managed to get some of it published. More than 40 years before he became The Doctor, some BBC staffers already knew his name—because he used to inundate them with letters requesting production photos and begging to be named president of the show’s fan club.

“He haunted my time running the fan club, as he was quite indignant he wasn’t considered for the post,” recalled Sarah Newman, an assistant to the show’s producer at the time, who was forced to tell the teenage future-Doctor that they had already named a president.

14. Catherine Zeta-Jones could have been The Doctor.

Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

Though Jodie Whittaker is the series' first official female Doctor, she's not the first actress to be considered for the role. Back in the 1980s, Sydney Newman had an idea for how to revitalize the show: regenerate the Time Lord into a Time Lady. For years, the show’s producers have toyed with the idea of making The Doctor a woman. In 2008, showrunner Russell Davies broached the idea yet again, citing Catherine Zeta-Jones as his top pick to replace Tennant.

15. Benedict Cumberbatch and Hugh Grant both turned down the chance to play The Doctor.

Catherine Zeta-Jones isn’t the only famous could’ve-been Doctor: Hugh Grant was offered the role of The Doctor when the show was being revitalized, but reportedly turned it down because he worried it wouldn’t be a hit. Sherlock star Benedict Cumberbatch also said no. “David and I talked about it but I thought it would have to be radically different,” Cumberbatch said.

16. Matt Smith auditioned to play Sherlock's Dr. Watson a week before auditioning for Doctor Who.


Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Though Cumberbatch was always the first and only choice for Sherlock’s lead role, a number of actors—including Matt Smith—auditioned to play his sidekick, Dr. John Watson. Smith auditioned for the role just about a week before he went in and read for the Eleventh Doctor. Fortunately, the latter worked out for him. (Steven Moffat was the showrunner on both Doctor Who and Sherlock, though Broadchurch creator Chris Chibnall took over those duties beginning with season 11.)

17. Jodie Whittaker was Chris Chibnall's first choice to play the Thirteenth Doctor.

Jodie Whittaker stars as The Thirteenth Doctor in 'Doctor Who'
Sophie Mutevelian, BBC

Jodie Whittaker wasn't the only newcomer to the 11th season of Doctor Who: Broadchurch creator Chris Chibnall, who worked with Whittaker for years and has written for the sci-fi series in the past, was tapped as the show’s new showrunner. While it’s always a big deal when the Doctor regenerates on Doctor Who, Chibnall made it clear that he wanted the next Doctor to be a woman. And Whittaker quickly rose to the very top of his list of the very few actors who could pull the role off.

"I always knew I wanted the Thirteenth Doctor to be a woman, and we’re thrilled to have secured our number choice," Chibnall said when Whittaker's casting was announced. "Jodie is a force of nature and will bring loads of wit, strength, and warmth to the role."

18. Jodie Whittaker doesn't think she was an obvious choice to play the Thirteenth Doctor.

Because so much of Whittaker's past work has been dramatic in nature, Whittaker is pretty sure that it was only because Chris Chibnall knew her offscreen personality that she was even considered for the part.

“If Chris had only known my work, I don't think he would've necessarily thought of me as right for the role, because a lot of my work has been emotional or heavily traumatized, with a quite heavy energy,” Whittaker told TV Guide. “But in real life, I'm quite hyperactive and manic. So I think he saw qualities in me that lent themselves to the role. I was lucky that he knew me personally, and knew that I was a team player and I really enjoyed being part of an ensemble, and I really love filming and being on set. You need someone who enjoys the job, because it's long hours.”

19. A 2008 episode of Doctor Who featured both a future Doctor and a future companion.

The 2008 episode “The Fires of Pompeii,” which recreated the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, was notable for two of its guest stars: Peter Capaldi played a sculptor named Caecilius, while Karen Gillan—who played the beloved companion to Matt Smith's Eleventh Doctor—was cast as a soothsayer.

20. The Tenth Doctor married The Fifth Doctor's daughter, who played the Tenth Doctor's daughter.

Confused? In 2011, David Tennant married Georgia Moffett, who played his artificially created daughter, Jenny, in the 2008 episode “The Doctor’s Daughter.” In real life, Moffett really is The Doctor’s daughter; her father is Peter Davison, who played the Fifth Doctor from 1981 to 1984.

21. A proposed Doctor Who movie, starring Michael Jackson, was abandoned.

In the late 1980s, at the height of Michael Jackson mania, Paramount Pictures proposed a Doctor Who movie that would see The King of Pop play a Time Lord. Obviously, and unfortunately, this never happened.

22. More than 100 Doctor Who episodes are lost.

Back in the 1960s and 1970s, archiving media was a much more difficult—and physical—process. As a result, more than 100 episodes of the show’s original incarnation were deleted, destroyed, or otherwise lost. Fortunately, the series’ fan base has been able to step in and help, providing the network with their own personal copies to help rebuild the Doctor Who library.

One episode in particular, “The Power of the Daleks,” saw new life in November 2016. More than 40 years after it was destroyed in 1974, the episode was recreated as a BBC-approved animated special. It screened in U.S. theaters courtesy of Fathom Events.

Never Surrender: A Galaxy Quest Documentary Is Coming to Theaters

Sigourney Weaver, Alan Rickman, Tim Allen, Tony Shalhoub, Sam Rockwell, and Daryl Mitchell in Galaxy Quest (1999).
Sigourney Weaver, Alan Rickman, Tim Allen, Tony Shalhoub, Sam Rockwell, and Daryl Mitchell in Galaxy Quest (1999).
Paramount Home Entertainment

On November 26, Galaxy Quest—the beloved sci-fi satire that ended up being voted the seventh greatest Star Trek film ever made—will celebrate its 20th anniversary with Never Surrender, a brand-new documentary about the making of the movie.

Back in 2014, E! News celebrated the movie’s 15th anniversary with a mockumentary starring the actors from the show-within-the-show, but don’t worry—this documentary is totally real. Never Surrender: A Galaxy Quest Documentary will include behind-the-scenes interviews and footage featuring the film's stars, including Tim Allen, Sigourney Weaver, Tony Shalhoub, and Rainn Wilson. The documentary examines how fandom shaped the creation of Galaxy Quest and also ensured the film’s enduring legacy.

“Fandom is powered by fans who deeply care about the movies, shows, and games they love,” Michael Chiang, the senior vice president of programming for Fandom (which produced the documentary with Screen Junkies), said in a press release. "Galaxy Quest was the first film that put fans at the center of the action and really foretold the era we’re in now, where fans are the most powerful force in entertainment.”

The documentary will be shown for one night only in about 600 movie theaters across the United States, courtesy of Fathom Events. The full list of theaters is available on the Fathom Events website. Tickets cost about $15 to $18, depending on your location.

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