Sunday, November 30, 2008

Some Thoughts on "Changeling"

[Author's note: DO NOT READ unless you've seen Changeling, as it contains major spoilers.]
I went to see Changeling last night, which was mildly watchable, if not very interesting. The problem with this film, like so many Hollywood productions based on true life stories, is that the filmmakers are intent on pummelling any unsightly ambiguities out of the events that might interfere with its adaptation into a prefitting narrative mold. In this process, the characters and events are simplified into good/bad stereotypes so that the story can be spoon-fed to the audience, whom the filmmakers assume are unable to handle any kind of moral uncertainty (Walk the Line is another very good example of this). I also thought Angelina Jolie was miscast (for one thing, she's much more glamorous than the real Christine Collins), and simply wasn't strong enough to carry the film by herself. This is a great shame, as many of the omitted elements have the potential to make the film considerably more interesting and complex. Although the credits arrogantly state that it's "A True Story" (rather than "Based on...") the creators omit some major features of the case, which I'll list here. (One could also point out certain anachronisms, like the use of the phrase "serial killer", or the fact that electroshock treatment was first used until 1937, nine years after the events here take place (I don't mind that too much as it's in keeping with the ethos of the mental hospital; if they'd had the equipment, they would have used it in the fashion shown!)) It's interesting to speculate on why the screenwriter and director felt it necessary to remove the following facts (all culled directly from Wikipedia, except where stated):
1) Walter [Collins] went missing ... after having been given money by his mother to go the cinema.
2) [Christine Collins] was a single mom whose ex-husband sat in jail for helping to run a speak-easy. She was also a professional woman who worked at the telephone company and apparently prided herself on maintaining a nonemotional, businesslike manner when dealing with men in authority ... [After the disappearance, the] boy's father, Walter J.S. Collins, floated the theory that some of his former inmates kidnapped his son, perhaps out of revenge. (Source of this quote here)
3) The police faced negative publicity and increasing public pressure to solve the case, until five months after Walter's disappearance, when a boy claiming to be Walter was found in DeKalb, Illinois. Letters and photographs were exchanged, before Collins paid for the boy to be brought to Los Angeles.
4) During Christine Collins' incarceration [in the madhouse], [villainous policeman] Jones questioned the boy [imposter], who admitted to being 12-year-old Arthur Hutchens. A diner at a roadside café in Illinois had told Hutchens of his resemblance to the missing Walter, so Hutchens came up with the plan to impersonate him.
5) Clark [the young boy in league with the serial killer] claimed that Northcott had kidnapped, molested and killed several young boys with the help of Northcott's mother—Sarah Louise Northcott—and the forced participation of Clark himself. [My emphasis: this is a very serious alteration of the facts!]
6) In the hope of saving her son, Northcott's mother initially confessed to the murders, including that of Walter Collins. She later retracted her statement, as did Gordon Northcott, who had confessed to killing five boys.
7) During the trial Gordon Northcott learned that Sarah Louise, who he had thought was his mother, was actually his grandmother. Sarah Louise stated that Gordon was the result of incest committed by her husband, Cyrus George Northcott, against their daughter Winifred. She also stated that Gordon was sexually abused as a child, by the entire family.
8) Collins went on to win the second of two lawsuits and was awarded $10,800, which Jones never paid. The city council welfare hearing recommended that Jones and Chief Davis leave their posts, but both were eventually reinstated.
9) Arthur J. Hutchins, Jr. wrote in 1933 how and why he fooled the police, the real missing Walter's closest friends, and even Walter’s dog and cat in 1928. Hutchins's biological mother died when he was 9. He pretended to be Walter Collins to get as far away as possible from his stepmother, Violet. Hutchins had been living on the road for a month when DeKalb, Illinois, police brought him in and began asking him questions about Walter Collins. Originally, he stated that he did not know about Walter, but changed his story when he saw this as a means to get to California. After Hutchins confessed to the hoax, he was placed for two years in the Iowa State Training School for Boys in Eldora, Iowa. Eventually, he expressed remorse for what he had done to Christine Collins and wrote, "I know I owe an apology to Mrs. Collins and to the state of California."
10) Straczynski [the screenwriter] originally wrote a shorter account of Collins' incarceration. His agent suggested that the sequence needed more development, so Straczynski had to extrapolate events based upon standard practice in such institutions at the time. It was at this stage he created [the] composite character Carol Dexter, who was intended to symbolize the women of the era who had been unjustly committed.

No comments: