I can’t say how many times I’ve read A Ring of Endless Light by Madeleine L’Engle, but I’ve probably read it through about three, and revisited various chunks of it several more times.
I also can’t say why I make myself suffer by watching move adaptations of my favorite books, but I’m about to watch Disney’s 2002 adaptation on Amazon Prime, starting Mischa Barton as Vicky Austin, Ryan Merriman as Adam Eddington, and Jared Padalecki as Zachary Gray. Maybe… no, there’s literally no good reason for this. Whatever! Doing it anyway.
Here we go.
[LOL, it’s a square! How quickly things change. SPEAKING OF]
The Changes – First Impressions
Intro: The movie opens with a dream-like mermaid sequence because it’s Disney. OH BUT THERE’S A GIANT FORESHADOWING IN THE FORM OF A NET! Movies have to be more exciting than books, and that means more external conflicts, because audiences are apparently dumb and easily bored (thanks for your faith in us, movie makers). This was to be expected.
Rob: The main character Vicky’s little brother, is a budding entomologist. I don’t remember this fascination with bugs from the book, but that’s cool. The character fits in the everyone-but-Vicky-is-a-scientist family.
Suzy: Vicky’s younger sister. Interested in astrophysics instead of medicine, but still a scientist. In the book, she’s already bloomed, whereas Vicky is like halfway bloomed (basically, book Suzy’s a super-smart hottie, and Vicky’s used to being outshined by her popularity). In the movie, Suzy seems much too young for that to be an issue (only a rosebud, although still sassy!), so we’ll see how the sisterly dynamic differs.
Vicky: Still the daydreamy poet. 🙂
John: Vicky’s older brother. No sign of him so far.
The parents: are where, exactly? Is this old man not dying?? Who the heck is going to take care of him as he declines??? Yes, actors cost money, but…
OMG do they not know he’s DYING??? I think they don’t know. Oh………
The House: It’s not a converted barn with rooms where the stalls once were. I would pay good money to see a replica of the house as it’s described in the book. At least there’s a porch and a loft. 🙂
Leo: There’s no character named Leo listed on IMDB. That’s not surprising, as a love triangle is probably easier to handle than a love square, but I’m still disappointed, and concerned that Commander Rodney’s death may have been wiped out of the story completely. (In the book, Leo’s father has recently died saving Zach, another member of the love square, from drowning, after Zach attempts suicide; Vicky and Leo comfort each other, but Leo likes Vicky more than she likes him.) I guess there’s only so much death Disney can allow per movie?
Adam: What is this baby-faced little person doing here and where is the Adam of my dreams?? Oh that’s right, he’s only about 19 in the book. Well, never mind. I suppose I should give him a chance; he does seem nerdy enough.
Zach: Oh, Zachary Gray. Good old reliably stuck-up Zachary Gray. Not as pale as he should be (in the book he’s more the hot vampire than the hot vampire slayer), but he thinks he’s better than everyone else, so he’s recognizable enough.
Oh Lord, the grandkids definitely don’t know their grandfather’s dying.
The Plot: The overall plot is similar to that of the book: kids visit their dying grandfather, Vicky spends time with multiple very different guys, learns she can communicate with dolphins.
New Subplot: As revealed by The Net of Foreshadowing, there’s a new and completely unnecessary subplot involving a threat to the dolphins. Now, I only eat dolphin-safe tuna, but this seems like a distraction from the fantastical and existential elements of the story, which are what make the book so good. There’s no need for a human enemy: are time, tragedy, dysfunction and depression not enough???
Oh no, the love triangle is heating up! Apparently, Zach’s old man is behind the illegal nets that are hurting the dolphins, and Adam knows! Oh, conflict!!
The Dolphins: They changed the dolphin family tree a little, but that’s nothing major. However… well, I shouldn’t complain that a dolphin that dies in the book lives in the movie. Given that the dolphin caretaker scientist character, Jeb, isn’t in the movie, the death wouldn’t serve much purpose. Also, I’m guessing Vicky doesn’t have an emotional breakdown near the end from all the DEATH.
I’m still watching. I didn’t make it through the first fifteen minutes of the 2003 A Wrinkle in Time, and haven’t faced the 2018 version because I just don’t need to be hurt like that again, okay, not even for Chris Pine. But movie A Ring of Endless Light is less disappointing so far.
I predict the next half of the movie will be mostly taken over by dolphin vs Mr. Gray drama. Of course, at some point, Vicky will learn that her grandfather is dying, and, well, we’ll see how these movie magic makers handle that.
The Rest of the Story
Adam and Vicky’s Relationship: We enter the second half with some phony-baloney scientist vs. poet drama between these two. Instead of being thrilled to be part of Adam’s experiment, while yearning to be closer as he puts on the brakes (due to trauma from a girl in a previous book, The Arm of the Starfish), movie Vicky has run from Adam’s assertion that she’s been telepathically communicating with dolphins, and from him. Girl literally took her bike and went home, insisting she’s not a child after all but stomping her feet at him. This might have made more sense if 1) she hadn’t already told her grandfather that she’s been telepathically communicating with dolphins and been encouraged by him to accept this as real, and 2) Adam didn’t seem even younger than she does, but what do I know? I’ve only read the book over and over. *takes a deep breath*
Vicky and Zach’s Relationship: As in the book, Zach is fascinated by Vicky’s wholesomeness. The relative stability in her life is something Zachary’s never had, and deeply needs – especially after his mother’s death (and his failed suicide attempt, in the book only). There’s nothing so dark in the movie – no taking Vicky around those turns too fast in his little sports car because life is just a game, at least so far, and only a mention of flying lessons. Instead Zach has been playing detective, spying on his father’s illegal operations and helping Vicky and Adam SAVE THE DOLPHINS. So Zach gets to be a little bit of a hero, which isn’t exactly UN-Zach-like; I can see him doing something like this to amuse himself, and of course to spite his father. However, in the book An Acceptable Time, which is set after A Ring of Endless Light, we see that Zach really hasn’t developed much moral courage or character, as his cowardly actions risk Poly O’Keefe’s life. Is movie Zach inexplicably more reliable, or will he disappoint us?
Plot and Theme Stuff: Or… maybe the second half will be a lot of romance, like Vicky teaching Adam to dance on the beach. That’s cool, and better than my prediction. I do miss the deep conversations Adam and Vicky had in the book, though. Here’s part of one from the book:
Adam: It really teed you off, my calling you a child, didn’t it?
Vicky: [grinning] It did.
Adam: Okay, let me try to explain. It isn’t just chronology. It’s a quality, too, that I don’t think you have to lose when you’re fully mature physically. Your grandfather has it, and he’s one of the most mature people I’ve ever met. It’s a kind of freshness that cuts through shams and sees what’s really there. [pauses, gulps coffee] In this psych course I took, it’s called archaic understanding.
Vicky: What’s that?
Adam: It’s understanding things in their deepest, mythic sense. All children are born with archaic understanding, and then school comes along, with the pragmatic Cartesian world-”
Vicky: Oh. Yeah. [feels dumb] I think, therefore I am.
Adam: That’s the guy. The thing is, the Cartesian world insists on keeping intellectual control, and that means you have to let go your archaic understanding, because that means going along with all kinds of things you can’t control. Does all this make any sense?
Vicky: When dolphins went back to the sea, and gave up hands, did they keep their archaic understanding?
Adam: That’s a good question.
Meanwhile, the movie lazily floats in circles around all that, even though the main events are still there. But okay, let’s watch Adam and Vicky slow dance on the beach. That’s cute. No really, it is. 🙂
A Pleasant Surprise: Adam and Vicky actually have a short version of the giving up hands to return to the sea conversation (not the one quoted above) while working on the dolphin telepathy experiment. Not bad, movie. Not bad.
Those Meddling Kids: And it’s Zachary with the video camera on the speedboat! With Vicky, of course. Maybe he’ll put her in some danger like he’s supposed to! (Sorry, Vic.)
Maybe yes – maybe speedboat chicken!
Ah yes, that’s the Zachary from the book. And Vicky accuses him of trying to kill himself, but that could just be hyperbole, so it’s safe for general audiences! At least the movie makes an effort.
All That Death Stuff I Was Going on About: Grandfather has an episode and briefly confuses Vicky for his deceased wife. This also happens in the book – although in the book, Vicky understands why. It’s actually a little scarier because it comes almost out of nowhere (just saying, Disney). But then Vicky and her grandfather talk, and he’s honest with her in a very comforting way, and suddenly it feels like the movie is in fact based on the book.
Oh geez, are they going to kill a dolphin after all? I take back what I said about the dolphin dying! Actually, no, I don’t, because that death did have meaning in the story, but dang, this movie is going to have me crying, isn’t it…
[predicted additional dolphin drama occurs]
Okay, the dolphins are fine, but yeah, the movie has me crying.
The death we knew was coming finally happened. I guess it’s the one death they were allowed.
And they included Rob’s no-eyes-planet theory!!! Okay, I’m placated. This movie is all right.
A Ring of Endless Light is a book with a lot of death that isn’t actually about death, but life. The movie cuts out a lot of that and substitutes some cheesy save-the-dolphins drama (yes, do save the dolphins, but) that’s a poor substitute for tackling questions like,
1. It it possible to be happy when everyone eventually dies?
2. What is the point of literally anything?
3. What does it mean to be oneself, and how does one’s self sometimes get in the way of being?
4. Are science and art at odds with each other? What about science and faith?
5. How do we acquire different types of knowledge?
The movie isn’t entirely shallow, though; the relationship between the grandfather and Vicky feels real and deep, but for most of the movie, only maybe one or two of the above questions are touched on, and it’s barely a touch, more like a Facebook poke.
But it’s worth it to stick around through the silliness, especially for the conversation Vicky and her grandfather have when he reveals to her that he’s dying, and a couple other thought-provoking scenes.
I still think it’s kind of awful that the parents were cut out until the end (yeah, the grandfather just didn’t tell his own daughter he was dying), and I do prefer the Vicky-Adam dynamic from the book, even if nothing so overtly romantic as kissing on the beach happens. And Zach just sort of fades away after seeing Vicky hold Adam’s hand (after Adam almost drowns… more made up for the movie drama), not ever having been quite that bad or that damaged, just sort of foolish and not right for Vicky, and mostly redeemed (he only almost killed her once, but he saved a dolphin).
So, for a Disney TV adaptation of an excellent book, it’s actually kind of passable, which is probably the best rating it could get from curmudgeonly me.