Over eggs Benedict at Durham's Guglhupf Bakery, former Duke writing teacher Christina Askounis is trying to describe her decades-long association with the author behind some of the strangest, most beloved children's fantasies ever.
"It wasn't quite a friendship, but more than an acquaintance," Askounis says. "A mentor, in some ways. Whatever you want to call it, it was something for which I'm tremendously grateful."
Askounis, who retired from Duke last year, is talking about the late Madeleine L'Engle, author of the classic 1962 novel A Wrinkle in Time. An offbeat combination of science fiction, fantasy, and religion wrapped in a coming-of-age story, it's the tale of a young girl guided by cosmic beings to save her scientist father from an evil force on a distant planet. It predated the likes of Harry Potter by decades, winning the coveted Newbery Medal and the occasional ban from school libraries for its allegorical look at good and evil.
Asheville cartoonist Hope Larson created a best-selling graphic novel adaptation of it a few years ago, and now, there's Disney's $103 million film coming out this Friday, directed by Ava DuVernay (Selma), with an all-star cast including Reese Witherspoon, Oprah Winfrey, and North Carolina's own Zach Galifiankis.
In the early seventies, Askounis certainly didn't have Disney's resources when she scripted a few low-budget adaptations of scenes from the book for Maryland Public Television. (She still has the production on "massive video tapes" she has never converted to digital format.)
"It was part of a series to be shown in schools to encourage children to read," Askounis says. "Madeline came to Owings Mills to videotape a little introduction to the program, and that's how I met her for the first time."
L'Engle and Askounis's paths crossed several more times over the next few years, first at a writers' conference in Bloomington, Indiana, then at an Episcopal retreat in New York City. "She was a staunch Anglican Episcopalian. Her office was in the Cathedral of St. John the Divine for a long time," Askounis says. "The three pillars of the Anglican Church are tradition, faith, and reason. There's a strong intellectual tradition in that faith, and that was part of what drew me to her: we had a similar intellectual vision that came to an intersection of science and religion, and an interest in cosmology."
The combination of science and religious allegory in L'Engle's work resulted in blowback from some religious organizations, which sought to have her work banned.
"That always surprised me, because I thought, wrongly, that Christians would have loved to have this spectacular novelist writing for young people," Askounis says. "She's much less religious than C.S. Lewis in The Chronicles of Narnia, but it suffuses the work. It's there if you're looking for it."
The two remained in touch after Askounis moved to Durham in 1984, regularly exchanging letters and occasionally meeting up for religious and writing retreats. L'Engle sometimes visited the area (I vividly remember getting her to sign a book at Durham's Intimate Bookshop when I was ten) and even provided a rare blurb for Askounis's 1993 novel, The Dream of the Stone, a YA fantasy with several parallels to Wrinkle.
"I had the audacity to ask her if she would read it. I think if I'd been a little older at the time, I probably would have been too afraid to ask," says Askounis, who's currently finishing a new adult novel set on the Outer Banks. "She told me, 'I will give you a reader's reaction, not an editorial reaction.' I will always be so grateful for that generosity."
L'Engle, who passed away in 2007, was wary of her works being adapted to film. Of a critically derided The Wonderful World of Disney version of Wrinkle that aired in 2004, she was quoted as saying, "I expected it to be bad, and it is."
"I asked her one time, before she sold the film rights, if she would like to see A Wrinkle in Time made into a movie," Askounis says. "She said she was unhappy that she would not have creative control—that no one would let her have veto power over what they were doing. There are very few adaptations I feel live up to the books, with fantasy especially. The film looks exciting—certainly, the director is remarkable—but there's many ways it could go wrong."
That said, Askounis believes L'Engle would have had no problem with the most controversial change the film makes to the book: its protagonist, Meg Murry, is a biracial child played by Storm Reid, and the film has an overall Afrofuturist vision that should get a strong tailwind from Black Panther. This has sparked outrage from groups complaining about "social justice warriors" and the "appropriation" of traditionally white characters through diverse casting.
"As far as the appropriation issue goes, [L'Engle] would absolutely have spoken out in defense of the fiction writer's right to inhabit the consciousness and being of any other character, no matter how different from herself," Askounis says. "That's just an imaginative leap that all writers make."
Askounis hopes that, no matter how the final film turns out, it draws people back to L'Engle's work and the messages within.
"I think that it's a very timely story, to have a young girl confronting the forces of evil," Askounis says. "I keep thinking of Emma González, the Parkland shooting survivor. Young people like her are the real-world equivalent of a L'Engle heroine. There are young people today who need stories about standing up to darkness and winning—and understanding the price of victory."