The Changeling

The Changeling


In Western European folklore, a “changeling” is a fairy or troll left in the place of an abducted human child. Where legend and reality blend, there’s the story of a mother being acquitted in a trial on the killing of her “changeling” child and a husband receiving a lesser sentence for murdering his “changeling” wife. Today, we recognize that changeling folklore emerged from a misunderstanding of children with autism and other physical and mental disabilities, rendering the strange stories sad and the characters tragic.

No less a strange, sad tale is the true story that inspired the 2008 film Changeling. Angelina Jolie plays Christine Collins, a single mother in 1928 Los Angeles whose nine-year-old son Walter goes missing. Under pressure to solve the crime, the corrupt police department stages a reunion between Collins and a child they insist is her son. When Collins objects after a “trial period” with the boy, she’s forcibly committed to a psychiatric ward. A local pastor Gustav Briegleb (played by John Malkovich) takes up Collins’ case as part of his larger efforts to unmask and depose corrupt leaders whose collusion extends beyond the police department to political offices and the psych ward.

The cultural context director Clint Eastwood emphasizes is not the romanticized L.A. of the 20s, but the brutal police dictatorship that ruled the streets of L.A. with Gun Squads. Writer J. Michael Strazcynski did extensive research on the original Collins case, often including direct quotes in the script from the individuals represented in the film. For example, chief of police James E. Davis is quoted, saying, "We will hold trial on gunmen in the streets of Los Angeles. I want them brought in dead, not alive, and I will reprimand any officer who shows the least bit of mercy to a criminal." Such “justice” was thought to indicate not a desire to contain crime, but an effort to compete with criminals for unrestrained control.

At a time when public opinion of the police department was critical to maintaining the corruption behind the façade, Collins’ accusation had to be suppressed. "Because the police...refused to admit they'd made a mistake," Straczynski says. "They had to somehow say this woman is nuts—and their best way to reinforce that was to literally incarcerate her." Manipulating the undercurrent of prejudice against women (who had only gained the right to vote eight years earlier), the police projected an image of Collins as an unfit mother who was incapable of recognizing her own son.

Even though the film is based on actual events and characters represent real people, or composites of people who were part of the original story, viewers should keep in mind that there is no such thing as a purely objective re-telling of a story. Like the original changeling myth, there’s always a folkloric tale behind the stories we tell and a motivation behind the stories we choose to invest ourselves in. The challenge is to discern the truths that lie within the myth.

- Kirstin Vander Giessen-Reitsma


Discussion questions

  • In the film, Christine Collins is assumed to be unreliable and overly emotional on the basis of her gender. Do you think this kind of prejudice still exists in contemporary culture? Are there any connections between this film and the reaction to women running for high political offices in 2008?
  • Changeling has been referred to as being “about as feminist as Hollywood can get.” Would you agree? Do you think major release films generally challenge or reinforce gender stereotypes?
  • Reviewer David Denby with The New Yorker criticized the flat characters of Christine Collins and Rev. Briegleb, writing, “She has only one dimension, as a faultless, fighting mom, and she is aided by an equally uncomplicated guardian angel, Reverend Gustav Briegleb…, a severe and entirely impersonal Presbyterian minister who hates the Los Angeles police, and sees Christine as a tool to beat them with. The two of them make a very proper and dull pair of collaborators.” Would you agree that these “good” characters are falsely one-dimensional? Does anyone in the film demonstrate more complexity beyond being a “good guy” or “bad guy?”
  • The story told in the film depicts the suppression of society’s troublemakers by breaking their spirits. Some might say this kind of suppression still exists today from U.S. schools to advertising to torturing suspected terrorists. Would you generally agree or disagree with that parallel?
  • Chief of police James E. Davis says in the film, "We will hold trial on gunmen in the streets of Los Angeles. I want them brought in dead, not alive, and I will reprimand any officer who shows the least bit of mercy to a criminal." Do you see this kind of corrupt justice being played out on the world stage today? Does this film offer any kind of hope for overcoming corruption?
  • Director Clint Eastwood intentionally crafted a graphic public execution scene. In what ways do you think he’s commenting on capital punishment? On the potential of violence to redeem?