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