History in Films: Clint Eastwood’s Changeling

Eastwood’s Changeling (2008) portrayed the horrifying events which occurred in Los Angeles, 1928. Angelina Jolie’s character, Christine Collins and her eight year old son Walter live in a nice neighborhood. She’s a manager for the phone company and one evening when she returns home late, her son is missing.


It’s a compelling story for many reasons and while the last third of the film brings to light the Canadian ranch of the man who snatched Walter and other boys, I’m glad Clint Eastwood didn’t focus the film on that. Instead, he focused on Angelina Jolie’s role as an independent woman who stood up to the corrupted Captain of the LAPD. Aided by Presbyterian Pastor Gustav Briegleb, (John Malkovich), an activist used to exposing the ineptitude of the LAPD, he comes to her aid and gets her radio coverage.  The disfranchisement (the police send Christine to an asylum to try to keep her silent) and  “finding” her son and presenting him to Christine in front of a large media crowd is the craziest part of the film, for the boy found is not her son. Here’s where the title comes in. Did you get a chance to read yesterday’s post about changelings?


It is incredulous to think the replacement boy would pacify a mother whose child had been kidnapped.  Writer J. Michael Straczynski (World War Z, Babylon 5) researched the events and created a credible script of corruption, deception, and abduction. Did they find the real Walter? I’m not telling.


The telephone operator was one of the only jobs open to women in the 1920s.  Jolie roller-skates across the room from operator to operator and this touch is not only accurate of the job, it illustrates the early days of the public phone system when you asked your operator to patch your request through using a code of letters and numbers based on the neighborhood. Operators could listen in on your conversations, too. In rural areas, you knew her name and she knew the county gossip. The re-creation of downtown Los Angeles during the late 1920s is perfect. Angelina Jolie gives a fine performance in a multifaceted role.  It’s one of Clint Eastwood’s best films, and one I highly recommend watching.

Art and Literature of the Changeling

What’s a changeling? Medieval folktales chronicling the changeling extend beyond Britain to include Scandinavian, German, and Spanish cultures. One definition of a changeling is a baby who has elf-like or strange qualities. Frequently, the story tells of a child who was abducted by fairies. Sometimes the fairies kept the children for themselves, and sometimes they gave them to trolls. In the medieval world, a unbaptised baby was an unprotected baby and could be easily stolen by the devil. The folklore fed parental fears that their babies could be stolen if not careful. Like in Grimm’s Fairy Tales, the forest is the place for unexplained, sinful activities–think of May Day–the day one loses their inhibitions by frolicking in the woods. In literature, if something deviant is going on, it often takes place in the forest where bewitchment happens. Remember in Act II of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the king of the fairies, Oberon, demands his faerie Queen, Titania, to produce a changeling boy?

imagesCAS0L4BN Watch this 1999 adaptation if you haven’t seen the play starring Michelle Pfeiffer, Rupert Everett, Stanley Tucci, and Kevin Kline. It’s wonderful.

Check out Chelsea Martin’s article if you are into the history of fairies at http://fairyroom.com/2012/06/superstitious-accounts-of-elf-like-children/ . She suggests in the medieval world, before there was a lexicon to understand the child with special needs, a child who displayed autistic characteristics was touched by a faerie. It makes sense when you think unexplained events in this time period were blamed on witchery; why not fairies?


John Bauer, 1913, The Changeling


I love the artwork depicting changelings. Swedish painter John Bauer and British illustrator Arthur Rackham are two early 20th Century artists whose subjects were of the changeling. In their art, the child was snatched and lived in the woods with the trolls.


Arthur Rackham, The Changeling, 1903, 1905



Martino di Bartolomeo, 15th century, a devil swaps a baby.

In recent times, the changeling has been a topic of everything from the television series Star Trek (season 2, episode 3) to The Doors song, “The Changeling” and a horror movie with the same name in 1980 starring G. C. Scott.

BeastboyOYL 185px-Talesofthenewteentitans3beastboy

In 1965, DC Comics introduced Beast Boy, a changeling.

So, what’s a changeling? The mysterious child with atypical gifts is how I like to think of them. In darker terms, it’s a child who’s been kidnapped and a substitute put in his place. This brings me to the 2008 film about the true events of a woman who’s son was abducted and a substitute put in his place.

Come back tomorrow for a review on the Eastwood film, Changeling.

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