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Movie of the book of the week: Scarlett Cayford on the genius of Margaret Mahy

The hotly-anticipated film version of Margaret Mahy’s novel The Changeover opens in cinemas today. Scarlett Cayford examines the peculiar genius of Mahy, and compares the film with the book.

I associate Margaret Mahy with colour; I suspect I’m not the only one. Part of the reason is the rainbow wig she wore to all her readings, a mass of multi-hued curls springing out from her smiling face, making a literal clown of herself for the entertainment of her readers. Another part is the shades she injected into every single one of her books, technicolour vocabulary that made a mockery of the idea that a picture might carry more colour than a literary description. Her words were worth a thousand pictures; a trillion toppling teeming words, poised to pop like her baby in the bubble.

And the last reason is one of my own: her 100’s and 1000’s sand. You know the rainbow coloured candy you shake on top of cupcakes? She reimagined it as sand. It’s from The Pirate’s Mixed-Up Voyage, a tween short novel that follows the fumblings of a doomed piratical crew, in which they land on an island where the sand was made of hundreds and thousands. I’ve never been able to shake the image and idea; the feeling of the candy between my toes. I used to dream of taking a picnic basket full of buttered bread to those fictional shores, and making endless piles of fairy bread on the shores of the lemonade sea.

I was a weird kid. I didn’t know Margaret Mahy, but she was a weird kid too, her head a mish-mash of tales from the second she could storytell. That weird kid grew into someone wonderful, someone who wrote over 100 picture books, 40 novels, and 20 collections of short stories. Twice winner of the Carnegie Medal, recipient of the Hans Christian Andersen Medal, daughter of a bridge builder, mother to three, librarian, philosopher and hater of mathematics. She grew up in Whakatane, in a house with an outside toilet,She grew up in Whakatāne before moving to Auckland, then Wellington and then from 1965 until her death she lived in Governor’s Bay out of Christchurch. She was a New Zealander through and through – though not one who made her cultural identity central to her works of fiction.

Something that always distinguished Mahy as an author was the universality of her texts, displaced in time and place. It’s something you can get away with when you deploy your words like you’d cast a spell: with trickery, and nuance, and the element of surprise. A vein of fantasy runs through even the most grounded of themes, allowing the reader to cease all attempts to anchor their imaginings. The Lion in the Meadow, her first picture book, is any lion in any meadow. Her books for older readers won awards and achieved fame in the UK at least in part because they absented themselves from the cachet of colonialism. In The Tricksters, it’s not until one throwaway line about Christmas on the beach that the Southern Hemisphere is brought into play as a place – until then it could be Cornwall, Scarborough, any coast, anywhere.

The Changeover isn’t quite like that. Without directly describing a pohutakawa tree, Mahy nonetheless builds the novel inside a New Zealand skin. It’s in the vocabulary, and the humour and the school uniforms; in the state housing and the Thursday late-night shopping. It’s also in the very first paragraph: “Although the label on the hair shampoo said Paris and had a picture of a beautiful girl with the Eiffel Tower behind her bare shoulder, it was forced to tell the truth in tiny print under the picture. Made in New Zealand, it said, Wisdom Laboratories, Paraparaumu. Just for a moment Laura had had a dream of washing her hair and coming out from under the shower to find she was not only marvellously beautiful but also transported to Paris. However, there was no point in washing her hair if she were only going to be moved as far as Paraparaumu.”

The Changeover centres around the character of Laura Chant, a perfectly ordinary New Zealand teenager with a young mother, a younger brother, and an absent father. Her love for her family is her defining characteristic, the one that sets her apart from her schoolmates, focused as they are on crushes and on parties. She’s the kind of heroine we’re familiar with from the likes of Jacqueline Wilson and Judy Blume and Tessa Duder – strong and gifted but kept earthed by familial ties. She lives in Christchurch, in an outer suburb, a flat cracked land without much to distinguish it. But she is a Sensitive, one of witch blood, which means she sees a bit more and feels a bit more, and the novel opens with a premonition of danger and of death.

This premonition is ignored, and so we are introduced to an ordinary life, where Laura gets told off for wearing her skirt too short, and helps her mother start the car by pushing it until the engine coughs to life. Into this ordinary life comes Carmody Braque, an age-old demon, who puts his stamp on the small hand of her small brother, and changes her life forever. The rest of the novel is her struggle to save her brother, which she can do only by changing; changing from a sensitive human into a witch.

While Laura battles with demons and with the decision to alter the makeup of her very soul, she also deals with the fact that her single mother has begun dating a nice man she met at a bookstore. She looks at her reflection in the mirror and bemoans her woolly hair. She wrestles with her feelings for Sorensen Carlisle.

I wrote an article a little while ago about sex in New Zealand YA literature, which I focused around the work of Tessa Duder. Tessa herself read that article (to my great joy) and came back asking only why I hadn’t included anything from Margaret Mahy. Embarrassing for me, and also an entirely reasonable question, particularly when you consider the text in question, which, while it contains no sex of the literal kind, has such an undercurrent of sexual tension to be almost indecent, when you consider the age of the protagonist.

Mahy writes in The Changeover, “At that moment Sorry seemed brilliant, his own breathing uneven, his eyes almost luminous. Something is going to happen, Laura thought. She was going to be kissed. On one side of a kiss was childhood, sunshine, innocence, toys and, on the other, people embracing, darkness, passion and the admittance of a person who, no matter how loved, must always have the quality of otherness, not only to her confidence, but somehow inside her sealing skin. However, Sorry did not kiss her, but put his left hand on her breast without once taking his eyes from her face or ceasing to smile at her.”

Readers of the Twilight series, of which I am one, will recognise something of Edward Cullen in Sorry Carlisle: older than he appears, more dangerous than he seems, tempting but unsure, older but not always wiser. Sorry, the witch forced to apologise every time he names himself, is a character who makes it clear – very clear – that any time we give Mahy the title of children’s author, we are refusing to recognise the full extent of her talent.

Julia Wells, one time editor of Faber and Faber, said of Mahy, “The reason why Margaret has endured in the UK is because her writing transcends cultural and environmental differences”, and while this is true, it encompasses only part of her capabilities. Mahy, due to the nature of her earliest and most popular work, found herself labeled as an author for children, and never once questioned or debated it, opting only to write more darkly and more beautifully, so that by the end the only thing that truly made novels like Memory, or The Tricksters, or The Haunting fall into the category of Young Adult is where the librarian placed them on the shelf. Duder described Mahy’s work as “a constant interplay of gravity and levity, light and shade, brilliance and something which is at times heartbreakingly ordinary”, illustrating Mahy’s capabilities perfectly – because it is the height of difficulty to make the fantastic seem ordinary. A witch in a school uniform. A demon in a second-hand store. A lion in a meadow.

It’s not just the lingering touch of sex in The Changeover that elevates this book, but the feminism. Laura Chant might have a love interest, but her interest in him pales in comparison to her devotion to her brother, which is the thread that pulls her through her changeover and through the novel. Where you might expect puberty and adolescence to be the drivers of change, instead it is love, and a sense of self – and while Chant might need a guide, she does not need a hero.

The translation of The Changeover into film was always going to be a difficult task, much like that undertaken in the book itself – human into witch, familiar into unfamiliar, one form into another. In the end, what has happened is the reverse, where the bewitching strangeness of Mahy’s novel has been re-wrought as something a bit too close to home, set on streets that are just a bit too ordinary, populated with faces that we know a bit too well. I’m annoyed by myself every time I’m jarred by the presence of something unmistakably Kiwi in a film, but that doesn’t stop it happening – a pohutukawa tree, those grass-lined footpaths, the casual inclusion of a Māori greeting, the iron-roofed houses, a dairy – and underlining it all, the New Zealand accent, blunt and familiar and strange. I think even if you live in New Zealand and experience the above every day of your life until you die, it’s possible to be jarred by its depiction in a cinema, or in a book. We associate the familiar with the every day and the real life. The fantastical, the frivolous, the fabulous – all of that comes from films and movies and far away.

Xena, Peter Pettigrew, and the stalker one from Two and a Half Men all put on beautiful performances, as does Erana James in her breakout role as our heroine Lolly. There are plenty of things I loved and admired about the film, not least of which was the decision to set it in a modern day post-quake Christchurch, where the temporary architecture and the cracks make perfect sense as a background to a book about things coming apart, and being remade.

But I mourn the loss of the magic. The Changeover won Margaret her second Carnegie Medal, and while that can be credited to her unique ability to blend the mundane with the fantastic, it’s the poetry of her prose that must have really sealed it; her way of taking old words and making them seem brand new.

Mahy writes, “She saw dwarfs, lost princes, beautiful girls who had committed themselves to silence in order to save brothers turned into swans or ravens, young men who thrived on sunshine and dwindled with darkness, mutilated maidens who wept over their own silver arms, and then simpler people, three bears, the girl in the red hood, the lost children who found their way home, the lost children who didn’t and were covered with leaves by the robins. Once the road divided, but the true path was always marked by her own drop of blood and she followed it faithfully. On her right the unicorn knelt to dip his horn in a pool of water, watched by the pale, radiant eyes of primroses on the left, three hanged men dripped and fell to pieces among shining flowers, while beautiful butterflies fed from their corruption as readily as from the honeysuckle and wild roses.”

You can’t keep that in a film; this passage alone is 10 films, back to back, begging to be made – but it can’t be slotted into a production with a timeframe and a deadline and a budget. The depiction of fantasy in film does work – Peter Jackson can attest to that – but it can never contain everything the reader will find in the pages of the source. Magic, after all, relies on imagination on infinite quantities – which, luckily, is something that both Margaret Mahy and the children she wrote for, subsisted on. But the minute you think you’ve depicted it, you’ve lost it. Even in trying, you’re denying a thousand other possible renderings. Magic defies capture.

Some of the backbone of the book has been removed, too. Instead of a father who had merely become bored, and wandered, the movie makes him a victim of suicide, shifting the complexities of Laura’s loyalties to her family. Her mother’s love interest is removed from proceedings entirely, which leaves Melanie Lynskey’s character with not much else to do than grieve for her son and rail at her daughter. And the Carlisle women, played to perfection by Lucy Lawless and Kate Harcourt, are reduced to much smaller parts in the film, where they reigned over the latter half of the novel.

What the film does do, though, is anchor the book. The Changeover might have been the most clearly New Zealand-based of all Mahy’s novels, but it still merely skated over the details, opting for an outline of a city, hills against the sky, schools and second-hand-stores and suburbs. The film brings Christchurch to life, in shades of grey – the shipping container stores and the grassy sidewalks and the low-roofed houses. School girls screaming inside playgrounds fenced by wire, puddles on the road. And a grit and determination to survive, and protect love ones, and rebuild what might have remained broken.

The Changeover might be a fantasy, a film of witchcraft laid over a fabricated life, but the New Zealand it depicts is honest. And I think Margaret Mahy, who once said “Pursuing truth in literature is like pursuing a chimera, a dissolving ghost”, would have liked that. In adapting The Changeover for film, they captured a surviving city forever. They pursued the chimera. They made solid the ghost.


A new edition of The Changeover by Margaret Mahy (Hachette, $19.99) is available at Unity Books.

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