The film adaptation of The Changeover premiered in Christchurch a few weeks ago, and is now screening in cinemas across the country. If you haven’t yet encountered this melting pot of red-zone Christchurch, subtle romance and sinister magic, I highly recommend watching the movie and reading the novel it was loosely based on.
It’s a measure of how well-loved the book is within the libraries that there have been several reviews written by different staff members over the last few years.
Margaret Mahy’s young adult novel, The Changeover was already several years old when I first picked up a worn copy in my high school library at the age of 15.
I was so taken with it that even before I had finished reading it I was re-imagining it in my head as a movie.
In that peculiarly obsessive way that teenage girls sometimes are about their favourite things my mania lead me to imagined locations and camera angles, and I had a very long list of songs to be included in the soundtrack. Most of which, upon reflection, were terrible.
When Margaret Mahy died in 2012, I felt moved to write a heartfelt blog post about how important her writing, and this book in particular, had been to me.
A couple of years later at a WORD Christchurch panel discussion on The Changeover, I learned that a film of the book was in development and felt conflicted in that way that book fans often do. Because how could that film ever live up to the book, or indeed my own imaginary movie of it?
Stuart McKenzie is, with his wife Miranda Harcourt, co-director of that film which recently finished shooting here in Christchurch.
Perhaps not fully understanding the degree of my fangirl obsession, he agreed to answer some questions about what their version of Mahy’s story will look like.
Margaret Mahy wrote a number of terrific books for young adults – what made you want to film The Changeover particularly?
We felt The Changeover was really cinematic. It’s a supernatural thriller about a troubled teenager who’s got to change over and become a witch in order to save her little brother from an evil spirit. So, it’s got a great central conflict! And its genre is very clear — yet at the same time it puts this compelling twist on it by feeling very naturalistic.
Its themes of love, loss, sacrifice and change are primal. Laura Chant feels like a real person — she struggles with herself and her kind of dispossessed place in the world, but she’s got big dreams. In other words, she’s a complex and powerful heroine who our audience can really identify with!
Another thing that made the book feel so cinematic for us was Christchurch. We updated Margaret’s story to contemporary, post-earthquake Christchurch. For us, the brokenness and reconstruction of Christchurch is like a visual metaphor for Laura’s own damage and subsequent transformation.
The book (and Margaret Mahy herself) are very beloved, by me and many others. Does that place extra pressure on you to do a good job with the film?
All along we’ve wanted to make something Margaret would love: raw and lyrical, tender and tough and true. We wanted to keep the story feeling very contemporary, as the book itself was when it was first published in 1984. Like Margaret, we wanted to find the magic in the real world, not drift away into fantasy.
We were lucky to have Margaret’s blessing from the start. Before she died, she read and loved an early draft of the screenplay. So that was a great feeling to carry through the development of the project and into the shoot itself. She really encouraged us to find the spirit of the story and not be bound by the literal form of the book. We had this quote in mind by the great French film director Jean Renoir, “What interests me in adaptation isn’t the possibility of revealing the original in a film version, but the reaction of the film maker to the original work.”
I guess you could think of the book and the film as two reflecting worlds — much in the same way that Laura herself discovers the connectedness between two powerful realities — magic and the everyday — and finding in fact that they’re really one and the same.
Margaret was always clear that Laura’s changeover into a witch is a metaphor for her becoming a young woman, an active journey to embrace her own creative power. And Laura’s story itself is a metaphor for the challenges we all face in our lives and the changeovers we all have to go on in order to grow.
Oh yeah, back to the question about doing a good job… Yes, we really feel that! And we’ve still got a lot of work to do in post-production. Helps to have great people to work with, which we have.
On the one hand The Changeover, if you’re familiar with Christchurch, is very recognisably placed here, on the other hand it’s also very vague about where it’s set. The name of the city is never mentioned. The suburbs and street names in it are all made up. Christchurch is certainly its spiritual home, but you could make a very good argument that it’s not a story that needs to be specifically told here, and yet you are telling it here. What made you want to shoot here rather than in Auckland or “Wellywood”?
As you say, Christchurch is the “spiritual home” of The Changeover and we always wanted to make it here. I was born and bred in Christchurch and spent my early teenage years in Bishopdale which Margaret calls Gardendale in the book.
The Changeover was welcomed to Christchurch by Ngai Tahu in a moving whakatau — as a production we felt hugely embraced by Christchurch, the people, the Council, the environment itself.
Miranda and I were determined to film in Christchurch because its flat vistas give the film a unique look. Cinematographer Andrew Stroud and Production Designer Iain Aitken helped us reflect the everyday and often unexpected beauty of the place.
Christchurch also allowed us to explore the division between social worlds which is a key feature of The Changeover. Laura comes from a solo-parent family struggling to make ends meet. By contrast, Sorensen Carlisle lives in an architect-designed home with fine art on the walls and a sense of history and sophistication. The developing romance between Laura and Sorensen means first differentiating and then bridging these two worlds.
Mahy herself described The Changeover as having a lot of folk tale elements – there are “evil” step-parents and an enchanted brother, for instance – but also that “the city is simultaneously a mythological forest”. Will your film retain those suggestions of a modern day fairy tale?
Yes it does and that is in the very DNA of the story. At heart The Changeover is an emotionally powerful female rite-of-passage keyed into a primal fairy tale tradition. It’s true that those fairy tale elements are more overt in Margaret’s novel.
We wanted the film to feel very contemporary and naturalistic so in our story the fairy tale nature is felt rather than seen. We often thought about Bruno Bettelheim’s groundbreaking study on fairy tale called The Uses of Enchantment. He says, “This is exactly the message that fairy tales get across to the child in manifold form: that a struggle against severe difficulties in life is unavoidable, is an intrinsic part of human existence — but that if one does not shy away, but steadfastly meets unexpected and often unjust hardships, one masters all obstacles and at the end emerges victorious.” That is something we experience through Laura in The Changeover.
In terms of characters, it strikes me that Sorensen Carlisle, at least how he’s written in the book, is something of a contradictory figure – dangerous yet vulnerable, jovial yet dark, aloof yet intense – that must present some challenges when it comes to casting. How difficult was it to find someone who can be all those things in a convincing way?
We had great casting agents in NZ and in the UK. We looked long and hard to cast this film. When we auditioned young UK actor Nick Galitzine we knew we had found our mysterious and compelling Sorensen Carlisle. And Nick and Erana James who plays Laura Chant have a powerful chemistry together. We have always said that this intensity is our special effect!
Reading the book as a teenager it was incredibly important to me that Laura was of mixed racial heritage both in a personal sense, as it was quite unusual to read about someone like me as the heroine of a novel, but also in that it marks her as being different and something of an outsider, which I think adds to her story. I’m really pleased that you’ve cast a part-Māori actress in the role. Was that always the plan?
This was totally important to us too. We love how in the book Laura is part-Maori but Margaret Mahy doesn’t make a big thing about that, it’s simply part of the unique world of the story which in fact helps make it feel universal. It’s true that Laura being part-Maori means that by her very nature she finds herself between two worlds. That’s the journey Laura is on — to open herself to new worlds, new experience.
We looked for many years for our Laura Chant — and we kept coming back to Erana James who we had met early on in our process. Of course, financiers want to cast someone in a central role like this who already has a profile. Erana hadn’t acted in a film before so she was unknown in NZ let alone internationally. But with the support of the NZ Film Commission we made a “tone reel” last year with Erana playing Laura. She was fantastic in it — and the international people involved in the project — like our sales agent and even Tim Spall or Melanie Lynskey — could immediately see that this young woman had something special.
Could you hope for a better villain than Timothy Spall?
You are so right! But what drew us to Tim in the first place is that he could reveal the humanity in Carmody Braque. It’s this which makes him such a powerful adversary for Laura — because there is something of Braque in Laura herself. A desire to live more fully and expand her horizons.
We are so lucky to have Timothy Spall in The Changeover. He is mesmerising. I think Margaret Mahy would have been thrilled!
It’s clear from his answers that Stuart McKenzie is as much a fan of The Changeover as I am, so I feel much more relaxed about the movie adaptation now.
In addition to the film coming out late next year, McKenzie says there will also be a movie tie-in reprint of the (currently out of print) book. So roll on 2017!
The most lauded Australian drama of the last year, this bold, superbly acted debut from acclaimed theatre director Simon Stone reimagines Ibsen’s The Wild Duck in a contemporary small town.
Based on Welsh novelist Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith, this outrageous and lusciously erotic thriller from the director of Oldboy transposes a Victorian tale of sex, duplicity and madness to 1930s Japanese-occupied Korea.
A plane crash, government corruption and nuclear warheads are just some of the ingredients for this taut Danish docu-drama, set in the aftermath of the Cold War. Based on a book by the award-winning journalist Poul Brink.
This incredibly moving and fascinating doco takes us into the interior life of autistic Owen Suskind, and explores how his love of Disney animated features gave him the tools as a child to communicate with the world. Based on the book by Ron Suskind.
Not your conventional biopic, this enthralling dramatic exploration of the legacy of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda conjures up a fiction in which he is pursued into political exile by an incompetent detective played by Gael García Bernal.
Vanessa Gould’s fond and fascinating documentary introduces us to the unseen women and men responsible for crafting the obituaries of the New York Times.
A Quiet Passion
Cynthia Nixon, Jennifer Ehle and Keith Carradine star in Terence Davies’ lively, witty and ultimately intensely moving dramatisation of the sheltered life of 19th-century New England poet Emily Dickinson.
In Alison Maclean’s vibrant screen adaptation of Eleanor Catton’s debut novel, a first-year acting student (James Rolleston) channels the real-life experience of his girlfriend’s family into art and sets off a moral minefield.
“Terence Davies’s Sunset Song is a movie with a catch or sob in its singing voice: a beautifully made and deeply felt adaptation of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s 1932 novel of rural Scotland.” — Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian
I have to confess that the only reason I picked up J. G. Ballard’s 1975 novel of inevitable social decline in a well-to-do apartment block was because I’d read an article about the movie version due out later this year starring Tom Hiddleston.
I’d watch Tom Hiddleston in anything, so I figured I’d read the book before the movie comes out. And in my own mind I think I was already imagining an action movie with a British Bruce Willis before I even cracked the cover of the book. Which was a bit silly, really. Having read J. G. Ballard before I should have realised he is not Michael Crichton. His books, though they may have action, are not the “novel as screenplay” blockbuster variety. They are rather more harrowing than that.
High-rise follows three main protagonists, all of whom live in a new high-rise apartment block in London which is populated by nice, reasonably well off types – studio technicians and air hostesses, tax consultants, dentists, book reviewers, and doctors. The children are clean and well-fed, the furnishings are aggressively tasteful.
Naturally we should expect things to take a turn for the worse, but Ballard lets us know from the very first sentence where this is all going –
Later, as he sat on his balcony eating the dog, Dr Robert Laing reflected on the unusual events that had taken place within this huge apartment building during the previous three months.
Which is possibly one of the best opening lines of a novel I’ve ever read but if you’ve got better ones I’m sure you’ll share them in the comments.
Robert Laing is a divorced doctor and med school academic who lives in the middle sector of the building, on the 25th floor. The other two main characters are Anthony Royal, the architect of the high-rise who lives in a penthouse on the 40th, and Richard Wilder a documentary filmmaker who lives with his wife and two sons on a lower floor. They each represent one of the social strata that the apartment block separates into once “hostilities” begin. I suspect the names “Royal” and “Wilder” are not accidents.
Needless to say dog-barbeques are far from the worst thing that occurs within confines of the apartment building over several months. As often happens in dystopian fiction society recreates itself, evolving and changing, with barbarism becoming the lingua franca. It’s Mad Max made of concrete.
Without knowing it, he had constructed a gigantic vertical zoo, its hundreds of cages stacked above each other. All the events of the past few months made sense if one realised that these brilliant and exotic creatures had learned to open the doors.
Or perhaps High-rise is an urban Lord of the Flies but instead of being marooned the inhabitants of the island simply refuse to leave. In this respect the book reminded me of Chuck Palahniuk’s Haunted in which wannabe novelists are “trapped” in a theatre as part of a writers’ retreat. They can leave any time they like but won’t, even as food becomes scarce. They all become monstrous in pursuit of survival… and the great story that will make them bestselling authors.
In the high-rise survival is down to luck, tribal alliances, force of will, or as Wilder discovers – actually being the fittest.
…the higher up the building he climbed, the worse the physical condition of the residents – hours on the gymnasium exercycles had equipped them for no more than hours on the gymnasium exercycles.
That passage was the closest I came to a laugh during the book, and it came in the form of a wry chuckle. The problem with Ballard is much the same issue I have with Palahniuk actually – none of his characters are especially likeable.
Some authors can take an unsympathetic character and let you live in their skin to the extent that their likeability isn’t important – you empathise with them regardless. You care what happens to them despite their flaws. In High-rise I felt like everyone was a brutal lunatic and I wanted to be rid of them as soon as possible. In the end I just wanted the book to be over so I could share my headspace with normal non-dog-eating individuals.
The saving grace of the book, for me at least, was a small section at the back, an interview with the author. As anyone who’s read the book, or seen the film of Empire of the Sun will know, Ballard’s family were living in Shanghai during WWII when the Japanese invaded and he spent several years in an internment camp. In the interview he reveals how this experience of observing a society shaken to pieces influenced him, and which ultimately comes out in High-rise. –
I suppose one of the things I took from my wartime experiences was that reality was a stage set. The reality that you took for granted – the comfortable day-to-day life, school, the home where one lives, the familiar street and all the rest of it, the trips to the swimming pool and the cinema – was just a stage set. They could be dismantled overnight, which they literally were when the Japanese occupied Shanghai and turned our lives upside down.
Though the writing is elegant and sharp I can’t say that I actually enjoyed High-rise. It remains to be seen whether the film version will “Hollywood-ise” the novel to make it more palatable to a broader audience who might actually like to see Tom Hiddleston climbing elevator shafts in a singlet. I for one would welcome it.
You may not have come across these elegant, unassuming ladies in our library shelves, well groomed in dove-grey covers and creamy-white spine labels. Don’t be misled by their quiet twinset and pearls demeanour. Take a chance and have a browse! You might be seduced by their petticoats, their gorgeous end papers.
Who are Persephone Books and what have they to say for themselves? Let me have the pleasure of introducing you.
The name is a clue. In Greek mythology Persephone, daughter of Zeus and Demeter, being rather beautiful, is stolen away by her Uncle Hades to become his wife and queen of the underworld. She emerges only in spring, thus becoming goddess of Spring and Vegetation.
Persephone publishers chose this imagery for their mission of rescuing twentieth century works published over 60 years ago, largely by women, which have been neglected and in danger of falling into obscurity. Intelligent, thought provoking and beautifully written fiction and non-fiction, focusing on women’s lives in the difficult and changing world of the first half of the last century. They talk about relationships, sexual politics, domesticity, war, separation, austerity, single women, work, social comedy. They are often subversive but in a quiet way; feminist before Women’s Lib kicked in.
These are books written about people and places and a way of life that no one seems to write about nearly as well anymore. The kicker, of course, is that they are all just flat out great to read.
The collection currently stands at 110 titles. Christchurch City Libraries have 13 of them. Personally I’d push for more. A further mention of their petticoats! For the lovely endpapers Persephone have cleverly chosen prints of fabrics current in the era of the books’ original publication and which complement the emotional tone of the books. For me these greatly add to the retro appeal and sensual pleasure of these publications.
In her mother’s day a pregnant woman spent a good deal of time on a sofa, thinking beautiful thoughts and resolutely avoiding unpleasant ones; people took care not to speak of anything shocking or violent in front of her. Nowadays shocking things turned up on the doorstep with the morning paper; violence was likely to crash out of a summer sky on a woman who could move only slowly and who was not as spry as usual at throwing herself on her face in the gutter.
The stories portray the lives of Londoners, mostly women without men, who have normal, day to day human concerns while coping with the deep anxieties of living through the continual bombing, with gas masks, blackouts, lack of sleep, food shortages, the evacuation of their children, fear for their menfolk overseas. The “stiff upper lip” was their way of handling such a ghastly time. Did you know that the death toll for British civilians in WWII reached 62,000?
Ruth is a housewife trapped in a commuter suburb, and heading quietly for a nervous breakdown while her husband, sons at boarding school, and daughter at university live their lives elsewhere. The women around her are…
Like little icebergs, each [wife] keeps a bright and shining face above water; below the surface, submerged in fathoms of leisure, each keeps her own isolated personality. Some are happy, some poisoned with boredom; some drink too much and some, below the demarcation line, are slightly crazy; some love their husbands and some are dying from lack of love; a few have talent, as useless to them as a paralysed limb.”
Dorothy Whipple in “They were Sisters” They Were Sisters (1943) explores the very different marriages of three sisters (shades of Chekhov) Lucy, Charlotte and Vera. On the surface a gentle read but lurking underneath is the shadow of domestic violence.
Others titles are much more light hearted and fun. I especially enjoyed romping through Miss Pettigrew Lives for A Day by Winifred Watson (1938). Miss Pettigrew, a staid middle aged, recently laid off governess, is mistakenly sent to work for night club singer, Delysia Lafosse, glamorous, ditzy but generous hearted, and in the course of 24 hours finds her life transformed. A truly “ripping” read full of comedy, poignancy and loose living 1930s-style.
In Cheerful Weather for the Wedding (1932) Julia Strachey writes about truly awful things that can happen in the last hours leading up to a wedding. The bride-to-be fearing she has made a dreadful mistake, drinking a lot of rum, her ex boyfriend arriving, her mother constantly praising the weather, peculiar relations abounding and who knows what’s going to happen next!
Both of these have recently been made into films, which shows the extent of their contemporary appeal.
I’m hoping, Dear Reader, that something here piques your curiosity and you have a real good winter read.
How many times do you read a book and like it, then hear that it is being made into a movie? It seems that a really good book may have qualities that don’t translate to a good movie.
It was said once – and I can’t remember who said it – that more bad books make good films rather than the other way round. Mario Puzo’s The Godfather is a good yarn, but a long way from being a great piece of literature. The film version, however, is one of the great American movies of all time with the bad bits – especially the sex scenes that even Harold Robbins might laugh at – jettisoned.
What can make a book fall over when it hits the screen? Reviews have been less than enthusiastic for the film version of S. J. Watson’s Before I Go to Sleep and it may be that gimmick-style revelations at the end can’t work when the many readers of the novel know them. Will this make the film version of Gone Girl, expected soon, go the same way?
There are, however, some interesting adaptations coming up and they may work well on the screen. The film of Z for Zachariah, the classic YA novel by Robert C. O’Brien, may be the first major movie filmed on location in Port Levy and a cast that includes Chris Pine, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Margot Robbie sounds promising.
Further up the island, in the Marlborough Sounds, filming has begun on an adaptation of the excellent novel by M. L. Stedman, The Light Between Oceans, the story of a lighthouse keeper and his wife who find a boat washed ashore with a dead man and an infant on board. Their decision to raise the child as their own drives the plot of the novel which is actually set in Australia. The film has Michael Fassbender, Rachel Weisz and Swedish actress Alicia Vikander in the cast.
One of my favourite writers –if you like state of the nation novels – is Dave Eggers and the film version of A Hologram for the King is an interesting choice for a big American film in that it’s about a middle class man trying to hold himself and his family together as the world economy falters by trying to sell himself and his ideas to the burgeoning Arabian world. Tom Hanks is in the lead.
The dystopian world of J. G. Ballard is perfectly captured in his High Rise which is set in a luxury high rise building where things start to go wrong, leading to a major social breakdown. The novel, firmly set in the Thatcher era, has been on the cards for decades and is only now coming to film with Jeremy Irons, Tom Hiddleston, Luke Evans and Sienna Miller in the cast.
Nicole Kidman’s career may be faltering at the moment, but good on her for buying the rights to one of the most outrageous and funny novels, around, Kevin Wilson’s The Family Fang, featuring the worst parents imaginable, a couple of performance artists and their children who live in permanent embarrassment at the idiotic performances their parents dream up. Kidman and Jason Bateman play the parents with Bateman directing. Continue reading →
Damien Echols was one of three teenagers arrested and charged with the murders of three eight-year-old boys in West Memphis, Arkansas. Echols was fingered as the ring leader and was sentenced to death. All three men were eventually released in August 2011.
Echols’s early life was one of poverty and despair, living in miserable circumstances in an unhappy family setting. He mentions that he spent hours in the West Memphis Public Library, as he was a keen reader, and wanted to educate himself. He continued reading through his time on death row.
He describes the long build-up to his arrest, where he started to get attention from the police and the events leading up to the arrest. The most harrowing part of the book is obviously his time on death row, where he gives insights into the inmates’ daily lives, the abuse suffered from prison guards, and so on. It takes you through his journey of swinging emotions triggered by hope one minute and despair the next, his search for spirituality, and his interactions with the people he met (including Peter Jackson) who helped him in his fight for freedom. What really shines through is his courage and determination, and his amazing ability to remain sane in insane circumstances.
I like Tim Burton‘s style. Big Fish is one of my all time favourite films. And even though I’m not a big fan of musicals, I could appreciate the grim artistry of Sweeney Todd. That’s the thing about Tim Burton – some of his movies may not be that great overall (I cringed at his remake of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), but you have to respect the guy for his bold vision. So when I heard Tim Burton was taking Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland and making it his own, I was looking forward to seeing the result.
But then I read a bad review. Correction: it wasn’t bad, it was scathing.
[Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland is] the kind of film that you don’t just dislike or even hate, but one that your body physically rejects like a dodgy organ transplant. (from review)
Suddenly I wasn’t in such a hurry to get to the cinema. And it got me thinking about the power of reviews. What someone says about a film/book/album (or anything else one may have an opinion on for that matter) can greatly influence your own interest in that thing. I’m not just talking about the reviews you read in the paper or online or hear on the radio or TV either. The trusted opinion of a friend is likely to be even more persuasive than that of an unknown critic.
What books or films or music have you got into because of a good review? What have you avoided because of a bad review?
No matter if the review is good or bad, though, it is still publicity. And as the saying goes: “Any publicity is good publicity”. Indeed, Tim Burton may make money out of me yet. Call it morbid curiosity, but part of me still wants to see Alice in Wonderland just to know what everyone is complaining about. There is also another part of me that wants the opportunity to make up my own mind. While others may not have liked the film, I might love it. By choosing not to watch the movie, I could be missing out on something potentially wonderful (excuse the pun).
Which leads me to a very important question: What have you read/watched/listened to and enjoyed even though you were advised against it? Or absolutely despised, while everyone else raved?
Have you seen Alice in Wonderland yet? If so, what did you think? Is it worth paying a small fortune to see in 3D at the cinema, or should I wait until it comes out on DVD, or steer clear of it altogether?