Books-turned-movies become entwined, perhaps especially so for children’s books.

Share story

Lit Life

It was a dark and stormy night.

In her attic bedroom Margaret Murry, wrapped in an old patchwork quilt, sat on the foot of her bed and watched the trees tossing in the frenzied lashing of the wind.

— opening lines of Madeleine L’Engle’s “A Wrinkle in Time”

I didn’t read “A Wrinkle in Time” as a child, so I caught up with it last weekend, curled up in an armchair on a stormy afternoon. The movie version, directed by Ava DuVernay, is arriving soon (March 9), and already pictures from the trailer and posters are in my mind, permeating softly into the book as I read — particularly the three irresistible unearthly beings who guide heroine Meg on her journey. Mrs. Whatsit, with her “voice like an unoiled gate,” is played by Reese Witherspoon. Mrs. Who, whose “enormous glasses caught the light … and shone like owl’s eyes,” is Mindy Kaling. Mrs. Which, who has a voice so authoritative it can shift moonlight, is none other than Oprah Winfrey. Moonlight, watch out.

As of this writing, the movie’s still sight unseen for me, but I’m charmed by the idea of this charismatic trio. (Wouldn’t you love to just hang with Reese, Mindy and Oprah? I would.) And the diverse casting throughout the film lets every kid in. Meg is played by newcomer Storm Reid, whose look of tentative wonder on the movie poster seems exactly the right note. Though the character is written as white in L’Engle’s 1962 book, she’s cast as biracial; her parents are played by Chris Pine and Gugu Mbatha-Raw.

When future kids read L’Engle’s book, some of them might be picturing those faces; just as so many of us, when thinking of Harry Potter, picture Daniel Radcliffe. Books-turned-movies become entwined, sometimes whether we want them to or not. A lot of us insist that the book is always better (this is, I can assure all who have yet to meet “Twilight,” not necessarily true), but we’re still often eager to see the movie, to see how it compares to the version playing in our heads.

The association of an actor with a literary role can stay with us throughout our lives. A few years ago, I had the enormous pleasure of interviewing Julie Andrews before a book signing — and I couldn’t shake the thrilled feeling that I was talking to the heroine of my early childhood, Mary Poppins. The character in the P.L. Travers books is rather different from the movie — she’s definitely more prickly — but just try reading the books without hearing Andrews’ lilting voice. Imagine the burden felt by Emily Blunt, who’s stepping into Andrews’ shoes for the upcoming “Mary Poppins Returns.”

Filmmakers have an enormous responsibility in casting movies of beloved children’s books; there’s such a deep well of affection for these characters, and we all know, or think we know, exactly how they should look or sound. I’ve long been annoyed by the otherwise lovely 1994 movie version of “Little Women” — a book I read so repeatedly as a child I nearly wore out my hardcover copy — because casting the delicate-looking and light-voiced Winona Ryder as Jo is Just Wrong. (Young Kirsten Dunst as young Amy, however = perfection.)

But sometimes, casting against type works beautifully. Try to imagine “The Wizard of Oz” without Judy Garland’s vulnerable adolescent Dorothy — in the book, the character is described as a “little girl,” and the role famously almost went to the 6-years-younger Shirley Temple. I remember reading “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” as a child and picturing Garland — who seemed old to my 8-year-old eyes, but unmistakably Dorothy — as the girl in the book, hearing her voice as we stepped into Oz together.

And those actors who personify our childhood literary favorites will always play that role for us, for better or worse. I’ve lately been catching up with, and enjoying, “Call the Midwife” on Netflix — but I can’t look at Jenny Agutter’s Sister Julienne without picturing possibly my favorite book-turned-movie: “The Railway Children,” a 1970 British film based on the Edwardian-era novel by E. Nesbit about three children who live with their mother in the country and don’t understand why their father is away.

Agutter played Bobbie, the oldest of the children and the one on whom the plot ultimately hinges, and if you haven’t seen this enchanting film, I don’t want to spoil anything for you. (Though I will say that the ending of “A Wrinkle in Time” reminded me of the many happy tears I’ve shed over the final chapter of “The Railway Children.”) On the page, Bobbie is a sensitive, sensible child who desperately wants the happiness of those around her; Agutter played her with a quiet, gentle sweetness.

Other children’s books-turned-movies with delicious casting: “The Fault in Our Stars,” by John Green, filmed with Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort. “I Capture the Castle” by Dodie Smith, with Romola Garai, Rose Byrne and Bill Nighy. (If you don’t know this novel and you liked “Downton Abbey,” have I got a treat for you.) Frances Hodgson Burnett’s “A Little Princess,” with Liesel Matthews and Eleanor Bron. William Goldman’s “The Princess Bride,” with one of the funniest casts ever assembled for a children’s movie. And of course, the Harry Potter kids, who were mere babies in the first installment and who grew up in front of us, becoming confident and accomplished actors beloved by an entire generation.

I’ll be watching and reviewing “A Wrinkle in Time” next week, curious to see how the vision of DuVernay and screenwriter Jennifer Lee dovetails with that of L’Engle — and how the cast makes the roles their own, for us and for all the readers who follow.