Why, Miss A! You’re Beautiful Without Your Shift In Meaning!

A few months ago, we had to explain to my goddaughter the old trope where the hero takes off the heroine’s glasses and says, “Why, Miss A! You’re beautiful without your glasses!” Because…she has never known a world where she can’t get cute glasses in flattering styles and a wide variety of colors. That’s just how glasses are–and not because her parents are wealthy beyond the dreams of avarice, either. Some of my friends who are struggling a lot for money still browse dozens and hundreds of glasses styles on the internet, able to choose from more on their tight budget than the richest could have dreamed of on theirs 50 years ago–especially the richest children.

My parents tell stories of having one choice of glasses, sometimes one gendered choice–here you go, here are your glasses. Doesn’t flatter your face? Too bad, this is what you get. Glasses. Now you can see. The fashion for girls right now is cat’s eyes. Boys get square blocky ones. For me, it was a little better than that, but not much–and they were not well-fitted to my child’s head, on the assumption that kids were growing, and as a result they were always slipping down my nose, and–in a fairly low-parental-conflict childhood–my mother was always nagging me to push my glasses back up.

Meg Murry’s glasses did that too. In A Wrinkle in Time. It was one of the reasons I bonded with her instantly when I first read the book in grade school: ugh, the glasses thing.

My goddaughter doesn’t have that. Meg’s glasses slipping down her nose are an individual character trait for her, not a bonding moment for every kid with glasses. There is no presumption that obviously everyone would look better without theirs, because, hey, there are so many flattering pairs of glasses, she knows so many people who look great in them. She looks great in hers. And if some jerk ever tries to take her glasses off to tell her she’s beautiful without them, she hasn’t been prepared that that’s the only way this can ever work. The idea of finding someone who thinks she’s pretty great with them is not a massive shock. It’s…life, it’s reasonable, it’s how things are.

The entire meaning of that description has shifted.

So you can’t just put Meg Murry in a pair of glasses and film it that way, assume the modern viewer will get it–in fact, you can assume they won’t. Translation is like that. The past, we say over and over again, is a foreign country. Sometimes the recent past even more so, because we don’t think of what we’re not seeing. We don’t have to explain chamber pots and carriages in the Murry home. Glasses are known technology, aren’t they? We understand glasses, don’t we? Oh.

And then there’s the hair.

This article on Meg’s natural hair in the movie is really good, really interesting. It quotes from the book, and I’m going to repeat the quote: “Meg’s hair had been passable as long as she wore it tidily in plaits. When she went into high school it was cut, and now she and her mother struggled with putting it up, but one side would come out curly and the other straight.”

Pretty straightforward, right?

Well.

A Wrinkle in Time has a 1962 publication date. Before the hippie era. So…I think younger readers mostly don’t understand the implications of women’s hair here. The passive voice is not accidental: when she went into high school it was cut. This is basically a force of nature, in social terms of the time. Wearing her hair in the braids that actually worked for (book) Meg is no longer an option because that is little kid hair. If you find a high school yearbook from the early 1960s, especially in a small town, you are not seeing the option of long hair worn straight or in braids yet. That came later. So what has happened here is that there are requirements of existing in the teen social world, between the kid world and the adult world, and Meg’s hair is failing her at them. Imagine one of the bouffants from a 1962 yearbook, but done poorly. That is what they mean by “up.” It is “done,” it is done with a fair amount of AquaNet or equivalent, it is one of the miserable child faces underneath a failed elaborate coiffure, because an extremely simple hairstyle of whatever length was not one of the options at the time.

Some of this is universal. Hair texture changes at puberty–sometimes daily–and it can feel impossible to work with whatever you got. And figuring out what on earth other people think is stylish and why on earth they think that is even more difficult when “people” means “whoever I am randomly assigned by geography” rather than “someone I have any interests in common with.” But…I think that people who post-date the hippie era–myself included, on some emotional levels–have difficulty conceiving just how many more options there are for What People Can Look Like, what we can do our hair like, what we can do our clothes like, what we can reject or choose for makeup or nails or any other grooming options.

And so…if you showed a modern audience. Especially a modern child audience. The vision of Meg that was in Madeleine L’Engle’s head for Meg. The hair that had “been cut” and “put up,” the failed bouffant. It would be fundamentally not understood. Even if she was surrounded by other ’62 teenagers in a ’62 high school. The reaction, I think, would be, “What happened to her hair? Why did she do that?” Because as modern viewers, we just don’t have the context of the range of bad hair in the past. We know what present teen struggles with hair look like. We have no reason to keep the data set for 1962.

Similarly, if you filmed the fancy dress occasions of the 1920s, exactly as imagined by F. Scott Fitzgerald–the brilliantine on the gentlemen’s hair would overwhelm us as modern viewers. And so on through history. It just…gets adjusted for the modern viewer. Inherently. Because the world is large, history is large, we cannot keep it all in our head. Every movie made from a book is a translation. No matter how faithful to the text it tries to be. It’s still a translation. The more so for a movie that’s more than a year or two from its source text.

So–read the article in the link about how Ava DuVernay decided to translate Meg’s struggles with her hair. It is a translation, a visual translation, or a transformation, but it’s a necessary one even if the movie had decided to do other things than what it did with race (of which I thoroughly approve), because the world has gone on. I haven’t seen this movie yet. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to–I hear that it’s one of the most vertigo-inducing movies made in a very vertigo-inducing recent crop of movies. But I think that this particular choice of visual translation of Meg’s struggles with her hair is a brilliant one. It’s one that has some chance of making sense to a modern audience in a way that a literal rendering of the original just couldn’t. And the minute I hear people talk about filming what’s on the page, I know that they’re missing how books and film work differently as media–much less books and film across time.

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