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.
Laura Chant lives with her Mum and beloved little brother Jacko and she has ‘warnings’. Odd sensations overcome her. She’s had them before, when their Dad left the family home and when she met Sorry (Sorenson) a prefect at her high school. And now she’s had another one.
Warily she continues through her day at school, picks up Jacko and walks home, everything as normal. Except on the way they pass a shop that was never there before and the strange, rather sinister old bloke inside bothers her enormously…
Jacko’s health starts to deteriorate, his life hanging in the balance, and Laura is convinced it’s because of the man in the shop. Her Mum is struggling to make ends meet, keep her job and be a loving Mum, there for her children. It’s tough going and Laura’s mad ideas are just not going anywhere. Laura feels herself to be alone.
So she turns to Sorry for help, knowing, believing he is a witch.
The Changeover is classed as a teenage story with supernatural elements. I first heard it as an adult, as it was read on a children’s holiday programme. I missed the last few episodes and headed to the library. I had to know what happened. There appears to be more going on with Sorry and Laura than meets the eye and what happened to Jacko? Are Laura’s bizarre theories correct? I was so pleased I tracked the book down.
Whilst I have read sci-fi and Fantasy, The Changeover avoids both genres. It’s a darn good story with witches and a bit of magic thrown in and it works. I was caught up in a great story and characters. Jacko is a small boy I wanted to live, not die and I found myself driven to read on, to urge Laura to put some of her thoughts into action, to save him if she could.
As a young woman New Zealand author Elizabeth Knox met Margaret Mahy and got to know her well. In her introduction to the latest edition she writes of the her hero Margaret Mahy:
“I’m thinking of her laugh, her hats, her dogs and cats, her winter coughs, her knitted coats, her rainbow wig, and very imposing penguin suit. I’m thinking of her long sentences and pithy quips; of the rose window of the top bedroom of her flat in Cranmer Square; of her empty refrigerator, of her very model of a modern Major General and, in the same vein, her virtuoso “Bubble Trouble”, and the loving rapture in her grandson Harry’s eyes when he watched her perform it at the launch of Tessa Duder’s book”.
A recent reread of The Changeover as a middle aged adult and I still loved every minute of it AND there’s a movie coming in September AND its filmed in Christchurch, New Zealand, Margaret Mahy’s home town. Will watching a favoured book turned into a movie be iffy? Possibly (watch the trailer below and judge for yourself). But I will go and pay homage to a wonderful writer.
by Margaret Mahy
Published by Hachette New Zealand
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!
Let’s talk about that much-maligned beast, the supernatural teen romance. No, not sparkly vampires and werewolves and love triangles. I’m talking about romances that pretend to be something else, self-aware and awkward and occasionally grumpy. Love where there’s no romantic comedy Big Understanding, just characters growing together over the course of the book, facing their own hardships and taking it out on each other. Characters who help each other but still work for their own solutions, and who change without changing into a Romantic Entity. My favourite romances occur in the margins of the plot, so it’s no surprise that Margaret Mahy’s The Changeover hits all the right notes for me.
Laura Chant knows the morning the book begins that something’s going to happen — she’s had a Warning, just like the morning before her dad left — but her Warning is brushed aside in the chaos of breakfast and getting her little brother Jacko ready for the day. Laura’s mother Kate needs to leave for work and has no time for feelings of doom, and Laura herself half forgets once out the door. You’ll be shocked to learn that there is an incident with the superbly creepy Carmody Braque later that day, and that Jacko’s health starts deteriorating with supernatural rapidity. Obviously it’s up to Laura to stop Jacko being leeched away, and who else can she turn to but teen witch Sorensen/Sorry Carlisle? Sorry tries hard to be Tall, Dark and Mysterious, but let’s pass over the Twilight comparisons please because in trying he’s funny, which is not an adjective I would ever apply to Edward Cullen.
I’ve described The Changeover as a romance — well, that’s what it says on the cover — and while I do enjoy Laura and Sorry’s confused romantic tension, to leave it at that is to do the book a disservice. Yes, Laura and Sorry’s fledgling friendship makes me laugh, but Laura’s relationship with her mother, Kate, is also warm and real and occasionally laugh-out-loud funny; Laura’s reaction to her mother’s new boyfriend is predictably conflicted; and her feelings for little brother Jacko are key to the whole plot. His sudden magical illness is frightening and inexplicable the way illnesses at that age usually are, and while Laura is determined to fix it, the solution is by no means guaranteed.
Do you, too, like humorous quirky fantasy with awkward romance? Maybe you will be interested in listening to others discuss The Changeover! Join Stuart McKenzie, co-writer and producer of the forthcoming Changeover movie, and young adult writers Elizabeth Knox and Karen Healey, as they discuss with children’s literature specialist Bill Nagelkerke the importance of this great teen novel and its ongoing relevance.