Watching A Ring of Endless Light on the film’s 20th anniversary was such a sweet nostalgic gift. I remember enjoying the depth of this DCOM. Going into the third grade at the time of its release, Madeleine L’Engle was certainly on my radar. She wrote A Ring of Endless Light and A Wrinkle in Time; I vividly remember reading the latter.
This DCOM was adapted for the screen by Marita Giovanni and Bruce Graham, and directed by Greg Beeman (Under Wraps, Brink!, Horse Sense, and more). It occured to me that of all Disney Channel Original Movies, this one feels most like an episode of a teen drama. No surprise! We’ve got Mischa Barton, who was about to embark on The O.C., in the starring role of 16-year-old Vicky Austin. There’s Jared Padalecki, who was firmly into his role as Dean on Gilmore Girls. And of course, Disney Channel heartthrob Ryan Merriman, who would later appear in Pretty Little Liars. Additionally, this DCOM has so. much. kissing. Here’s why: Vicky Austin is torn between two romances: Adam Eddington (Merriman) and Zachary Gray (Padalecki). She encounters these boys when she and her siblings are staying with their grandfather (James Whitmore) for the summer.
There’s no easy way to say this because it is absolutely heartbreaking: Grandfather doesn’t tell his family that he is dying of leukemia, and he passes away at the end of the film. Until then, he and Vicky share the sweetest scenes, where he is supportive of her poetry and reads her one of his favorites — “The World” by Henry Vaughan. “I saw Eternity the other night/Like a great ring of pure and endless light.” DCOMs don’t usually get very religious, but this titular poem is a fitting reference for Grandfather, a retired reverend. He encourages Vicky’s writing all the way to the end, telling her, “The world needs all the beauty it can get, darling.”
Vicky is contemplating the tension between art and science in her own life. This relates to her very prominent struggle between these two guys she really likes — Adam is incredibly scientific; Zachary is more laissez-faire. This one scene that really stayed with me as a child is when Vicky is talking to her tween sister Suzy about Adam and Zachary. “Adam is so confident, so sure of what he’s going to do with his life,” she says — Adam is a dolphin researcher who is drawn to Vicky’s telepathic connection with the dolphins. Conversely, she compares Zachary to “being out in a storm. Exciting and frightening at the same time.” Zachary, who is in and out of private schools and struggles to find himself after his mom has died, is the antithesis of Adam. Though the guys know they’re in competition for Vicky’s heart, they team up to help stop Zachary’s dad’s company from using illegal driftnets for fishing. If Wikipedia is correct, the entire driftnet plot was new to this movie.
Mischa Barton captures the emotional journey of her character especially well, whether she’s having deep talks with her grandpa, helping a dolphin give birth, or dancing on the beach by firelight with Ryan Merriman. Strictly in the universe of this DCOM, Vicky doesn’t necessarily end up with either of her love interests. However, the odds are in Adam’s favor when he and Vicky promise to write each other letters before she leaves the island. I learned that A Ring of Endless Light is one of five novels about Vicky and her family. Since everything I’m reading online shows that L’Engle’s original story is quite different (and fair warning, much sadder), I might read the whole series and spend more time mentally on Seven Bay Island. I’ll have to insert that incredibly poignant DCOM score by Phil Marshall into my head as I read. He also composed the score of The Thirteenth Year. Both films have ocean scenery and display their characters as mermaids (yep, Mischa Barton briefly has a tail during dream sequences), but that’s basically where the similarities end. Throw in the whimsy of The Thirteenth Year and the heartbreak of A Ring of Endless Light, and you’ve got yourself one heck of a movie night.