When a novel makes the transition from book to screen, one of the most common criticisms we tend to hear is that the adaptation has strayed too far from the source material. Perhaps the screenwriter has chopped out sub-plots and beloved characters with abandon. Maybe they’ve taken the opposite approach and stuffed in a few extra narratives for good measure, after learning that their budget has been bumped up, or unconvincingly turned an ambivalent ending into a big happy Hollywood finale. It’s much rarer to hear complaints that a show has stayed too close to the source material – but that’s precisely the problem with Apple TV+’s The Changeling.
Based on the 2017 novel by Victor LaValle and adapted by Saving Mr Banks and Fifty Shades of Grey screenwriter Kelly Marcel, the eight-part series is dense and self-consciously, overwhelmingly literary. It is packed with allusions to myths and legends, and there are books everywhere – its central couple Apollo (LaKeith Lee Stanfield) and Emma (Clark Backo) are a rare book dealer and a librarian. LaValle himself crops up as the series’ narrator, speaking in aphorisms that feel written to be read rather than heard, and his characters are constantly quoting from stories. All of this probably makes for rich and rewarding reading, but it also ensures a disorientating viewing experience.
The Changeling begins as a love story of sorts. Apollo falls for Emma when he sees her calmly dealing with a distressed visitor at the public library where she works in Queens, New York City, and starts to turn up there regularly to ask her out. “Some may call that stalking, Apollo called it persistence,” LaValle’s narrator says in one queasy voiceover. But Apollo’s tactics, the show implies, are fine, because his absent father Brian (Jared Abrahamson) used the same method to eventually win over his mother Lillian (played by Alexis Louder in flashback and by Adina Porter in the story’s present day) – persistence slash stalking runs in the family, and it’s not long before Apollo and Emma are married, then expecting their first child.
The baby, named Brian after the dad who Apollo barely knew, has a very dramatic, very New York birth: Emma goes into labour during a power outage on the subway, while a break-dancing group performs to distract the other passengers (the fact that this scene feels among the more realistic and grounded moments in the show speaks volumes).
At first, things are idyllic. Apollo, whose biggest ambition is to be a good father as an act of redress for his own complicated childhood, proudly places a dusty fairytale book he received from Brian Sr on the baby’s bookshelf, ready for storytime. But this creepy tome, with its references to fairies stealing children away and its weird Arthur Rackham-style illustrations, is the first signal that all is not well with this young family. Soon Emma becomes convinced that baby Brian is not her child; she also starts receiving unsettling photos of her husband and son, which appear to have been taken by some secret observer and disappear within moments.
Queen & Slim director Melina Matsoukas, who helms the first episode, and Jonathan van Tulleken, who takes over after that, both do a good job of conjuring a sense of lurking unease in these early instalments, and it seems that the show is gearing up to serve as a thoughtful exploration of postnatal depression, shot through with some fantastical elements. Backo excels in these scenes, as Emma struggles to reconcile her indifference for her baby with the initial rush of love she felt after the birth, when she vowed to protect him with her “breath and soul”.
After Emma commits a shocking act, Apollo embarks on a strange journey that will cause him to cross paths with a strange book collector, who has his eye on Apollo’s first edition copy of To Kill a Mockingbird, travel to a shadowy island ruled over by a group of women, and learn more about his wife’s gap year encounter with a Brazilian witch who may or may not have cursed the couple. Throw in a plot line devoted to unpicking his mother’s back story, which is under-explored until the very last minute, and the fact that our lead character keeps shouting “I am the god Apollo!” at key moments, in a way that is more earnest than ironic, and you have a garbled narrative that is constantly on the verge of collapsing under its own weight.
What we’re left with is a series that is too tonally messy to pull off the interesting allegory it is attempting. It’s a shame, and a real missed opportunity: we deserve a bold drama that is unafraid to deal with the alienating effects of postnatal depression and psychosis – but The Changeling is not that show.