Madeleine L'Engle Goes to the Movies
Cornelia Duryée Moore's story sounds like something from a fairy tale.
"I got hit in the head with my godmother's magic wand, and she said, 'Hello, Corrie—this is what you're going to do for the rest of your life!' So I said, 'Yes, please!'"
To be more specific, Moore's godmother—Madeleine L'Engle, author of science-fiction novels (including A Wrinkle in Time and her popular Time Quartet) and inspirational memoirs—bequeathed to her a remarkable gift: the rights to adapt twelve of her early stories into plays and movies. At the time, Moore was in her third year of seminary; she promptly quit in order to attend film school instead.
And she's making it happen. Taking Camilla, a play that L'Engle wrote in her twenties and later revised into a novel, Moore has completed a wonderful film called Camilla Dickinson, which features an impressive, accomplished cast. The film is complete, but doesn't yet have a distributor or release date; Moore and her production company are now pursuing possibilities.
To L'Engle fans, Camilla is unfamiliar. But before penning the Time series, her autobiographical Crosswicks Journals, and her reflections on faith and art in Walking on Water, L'Engle wrote coming-of-age novels for young adults. They may not be as strange and speculative as her classics, but they reveal an author finding her voice and unabashedly expressing her passions to the world. (Oprah Winfrey, for one, has taken note: In the July 2009 issue of her O magazine, Camilla was highlighted as one of Oprah's "Summer's Best Reads.")
The story, set in 1948, follows Camilla—a 15-year-old trapped in the turmoil of her parents' failing marriage on New York's Upper East Side. Her mother, Rose, is childlike in her tendency to treat her daughter like a doll, and in her desire to live in a romantic fantasy. (She's having an affair with a businessman.) Meanwhile, Camilla's father, Rafferty, is withdrawn; L'Engle calls him "a glacier of a man."
Camilla, who dreams of becoming an astronomer, seeks refuge in her friendship with a spirited young woman named Luisa, and she finds escape and romance with Frank, Luisa's charismatic brother, a boy that Camilla's parents believe is "dangerous."
Filmmaker Moore believes 15-year-olds were "younger" than they are now—they were not saturated with media, and so learned about the world of adult life more slowly. Frank leads Camilla into a larger world of possibilities … and temptations.
Moore sees similarities between Camilla's story and L'Engle's own accounts of childhood. "There are large parts of Madeleine's story in this story," she says. "It's tragic and beautiful and painfully awkward, the way adolescence is. It's about flailing around and … trying to find out who you are."
Camilla is also a testament to L'Engle's faith. She never considered herself a "Christian writer" (in the sense of seeking to evangelize) but a writer who happened to be a Christian. Her stories steer clear of sentimentality and sermonizing. In Camilla Dickinson's most poignant scenes, she wrestles with big questions: Are we "accidental"? Or have we been planned? If there is a God, why does he allow bad things to happen? And what is expected of us?
"All of Madeleine's beautiful work is so full of light," says Moore. "We need more films that are full of light. I wanted to get this film made in a way that Madeleine would really love, to honor her."
'Gobsmacked' by a Great Cast
Moore found an accomplished producer in Larry Estes (Smoke Signals, The Heart of the Game), who says he appreciated Moore's "singleness of purpose about telling the stories she wanted to tell." When casting directors Kerry Barden and Paul Schnee (The Help, WinWin) joined the effort, the floodgates opened.