Recently I watched the film adaptation of The Changeover on Netflix. (IMDB link.) It stars Timothy Spall, Lucy Lawless, Erana James and Nicholas Galitzine, and it was an interesting (although flawed) film.
The story revolves around Laura Chant (who, in the books, is 14, but in this film, looks more like 16 or 17). She’s the daughter of a single mum who has to spend a lot of time taking care of her younger brother Jacko (he’s five in this film, but three in the book) because her mum is always working. The film brings out some of her conflicted feelings about this situation—her love for Jacko, her resentment at having to play caregiver, her struggle with wanting to be free as an adolescent, and her desire to support her overwhelmed mother. One afternoon on the way home, the two meet a man who is never named (played by Timothy Spall; in the book, he’s Carmody Braque). He has an odd little shop, which they go in to explore, against Laura’s best instincts, and as she tries to get Jacko to leave, Carmody offers him a stamp, which he accepts—only the stamp ink seems to burn him and won’t come off, even with washing. In the days following, Jacko falls ill and the medical professionals are stumped as to what’s wrong with him. Only Laura understands that it’s somehow due to Carmody, but of course no one will listen to her. So she turns to the one person she thinks will: school prefect Sorenson “Sorry” Carlisle—who Laura knows for sure is a witch.
The writers decided to ground the story in a particular time and place—Christchurch after the earthquake—rather than the more suburban Gardendale subdivision of the book. I rather liked that: it gave the film an almost surreal look—this little story playing out in an almost apocalyptic ruined landscape with abandoned buildings, car parks still partially underwater, shops operating out of shipping containers, and empty green lots where there should have been family homes. The Carlisle place was also heavily modernised—more to emphasise the class difference between Sorenson and Laura Chant than to give a nod to the history of the location (though the Carlisles are still apparently well known in the community).
Overall, I liked the film: I like what Erana James did with the character of Laura—how she brought out those aspects of a young girl coming of age, struggling with her present circumstances, having a sense that something’s wrong and not knowing what to do about it, and being drawn to Sorenson for reasons she can’t quite explain. I liked Nicholas Galitzine as Sorenson, though it frustrated me that his character remained mostly two-dimensional eye candy. (In the book, you learn quite a lot about Sorenson—his back story, why he is the way he is, his complicated relationship with his mother and grandmother. I like the way Mahy portrays him: on the one hand, he’s an awkward, almost nerdy teen boy; one the other, he’s a little dangerous—a little unsafe—but in the way that fascinates and electrifies Laura because it hints at something more grown-up and intimate.)
The arc of the book is mostly the same, though there are some extra plot complications thrown in that I thought were rather unnecessary and seemed to designed to give Timothy Spall more screen time. (That said, he makes a terrific Carmody Braque, so I can see why the filmmakers wanted to use him more.) These additions also detracted from the main story arc of the book, which is all about Laura and her transformation—the changeover hinted at in the title—and how she comes into herself and her own power and then uses that power to (*spoiler alert*) rescue Jacko. I felt that if they had axed some of that unnecessary plot stuff, they could have made room for more significant material from the book—like Laura’s complicated relationship with her father (who doesn’t appear in the film, but the script hints at some other more mysterious backstory, when what Mahy wrote was perfectly serviceable and also fit in with the main story arc)—as well as Laura’s changing relationship with her mother when her mother begins a new romantic relationship. These relationships served as foils to her relationship with Sorenson, and while the chemistry between the two leads was undeniable, there were things about it that were a little clunky. The final scene in particular bothered me: I liked that she had agency and power, and I liked the banter between them, but the way the movie closes felt more like fan service or fan fiction than remaining true to the spirit of the book.
One final bit of criticism: I felt there were too many close-ups—particularly of Laura—and not enough wideshots to give you a sense of where she was. Or the wideshots came way after the close-ups, which left me feeling disoriented most of the time. I wasn’t sure if that was deliberate, or if it was meant to evoke a certain kind of mood. In any case, it just annoyed me.
After watching the movie, on the first day of the new year, I decided to go back and reread the book. It’s an old favourite—one of my comfort reads, though I often forget about it. I think I first read it back in high school (it may have been a set text) and then acquired my own copy (with its terrible cover, which you can see above). It won the 1984 Carnegie Medal—two years after Mahy won it for The Haunting. I was something of a completionist back then: The Changeover was my gateway into Mahy’s work, and after that, I read as many of her novels as I could get my hands on—The Haunting, of course, but also The Catalogue of the Universe, The Tricksters, Aliens in the Family, Dangerous Spaces. Strangely I remember very little about them; only The Changeover stuck with me after all these years.
I think it’s because it’s young adult fiction at its best: as I said, it’s a coming-of-age story, but it’s also something of a fairy tale and a tale of first love—a teen romance with supernatural elements before paranormal romance was a thing. The story, the characters and the themes all come together in a beautiful way, all related in Mahy’s gorgeous prose. I don’t think I appreciated her descriptions when I was a teenager (and am only paying attention to them now because I suck at description): e.g.
“Hurry up, Chant!” said the prefect at the gate. It was Sorry Carlisle himself, checking that people riding bikes were doing so in a sober fashion, not doing wheelies or riding on the footpath. “First bell’s gone!”
He had grey eyes with the curious trick of turning silver if you looked at them from the side. Some people thought they looked dependable, but to Laura there was nothing safe about them. They were tricky, looking-glass eyes with quicksilver surfaces, and tunnels, staircases and mirror mazes hidden behind them, none of them leading anywhere that was recognizable.
Laura and Sorenson looked at each other now, smiling but not in friendship. They smiled out of cunning, and shared secret flicked from eye to eye. Laura walked past him in at the school gates, bravely turning right into the mouth of the day, right into its open jaws which she must enter despite all warnings. She felt the jaws snap down behind her and knew she had been swallowed up. The day spread its strangeness before her resigned eyes, its horror growing thin and wispy as it sank away. The flow came back into the world once more, and the warning became a memory, eagerly forgotten because it was useless to remember it. The warning had come. She had ignored it. There was nothing more to be said. (p. 13)
It’s so different reading a book you loved as a teenager as an adult: there were things I don’t think I grasped the first time I read it—things more to do with the minor adult characters and the way they were depicted, their internal motivations translating into particular actions. I could see more of the strokes Mahy applied to Laura’s character arc—for example, how growing up made her more appreciative of the fact that her parents were only human, and because they were only human, they were deserving of her compassion and forgiveness. I remembered, as I was reading, a lot of things I had forgotten—tropes, ideas, character traits that had tunnelled deep inside of me and taken root, spreading through my subconscious so that they now infuse some of the DNA of the novel I’ve been writing. It’s in little things—things that no doubt no one but me will notice. But they’re there.
Finally, The Changeover reminded me of one of the life goals I’ve held for a long time—something that I’m not sure I will ever be able to achieve. But it’s this: some day I hope to write a book that becomes someone else’s comfort read—a book that becomes a favourite that a reader revisits regularly throughout his or her life—a book that this sort of reader would turn to in times of tribulation, sadness and suffering. Part of me thinks this is a laughable goal because it’s so subjective—so dependent on the reader and who he/she is. And nevertheless, I dream.