Adapt This: Neil Gaiman short story ‘Changes’
Short stories often make the best source material for feature films. They offer pitches with a gem of a concept that can be expanded into a more complex story. Fans of the original short story aren’t as prone to get pissed at changes from the book as fans of novels since they can acknowledge that there naturally are alterations when expanding a short story. Glaring omissions due to time constraints aren’t likely to be a problem like they are when adapting 500-page books to two-hour movies.
“Brokeback Mountain,” “The Fly,” “Children of the Corn,” “The Absent-Minded Professor,” “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” “Total Recall” (and a slew of other Philip K. Dick sci-fi imaginings) started out as short stories.
Neil Gaiman’s uniquely enchanting, haunting imagination has inspired a handful of film adaptations, including stop-motion movie “Coraline” and the far-too-much-fun “Stardust,” which starred Robert De Niro and a pre-“Daredevil” Charlie Cox. Finally, the U.K.-born writer’s highly acclaimed graphic novel series “The Sandman” is getting a big screen adaptation starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and his magnum opus novel “American Gods” is being developed into a Starz television series by Bryan Fuller (“Hannibal,” “Pushing Daisies”).
His sizable library of short stories, however, remains largely untapped by filmmakers. (A few have been adapted into short films, including the darkly comic “We Can Get Them For You Wholesale,” which the author has allowed to be adapted into a handful of student-directed short films.) Gaiman’s Hugo Award-nominated “How to Talk to Girls at Parties” will be his first short story adapted to a feature-length film, directed by John Cameron Mitchell (“Hedwig and the Angry Inch”), set to start production this fall.
Here’s another Gaiman-penned short story Hollywood should check out: “Changes,” from his 1998 collection of short stories and poems, “Smoke and Mirrors: Short Fictions and Illusions.”
“Changes” imagines a near-future in which cancer has been cured. A man named Rajit (no last name given) is the genius behind this cure, a set of chemical instructions that essentially “re-installs” your DNA. Reboot your genetic system, and, voila — the body is free of cancer. But there’s one “side effect”: Any man who uses Reboot, as this cancer-curing drug comes to be called, will find himself functionally and chomosomally female — and the reverse will be true for any woman who uses the drug.
Reboot soon becomes a recreational drug, making sex reassignment surgery obsolete.
This world where a man can become a woman and vice versa so quickly and conveniently (though not completely affordably) produces a host of compelling scenarios, and Gaiman explores these in the 10-page story: Jo/e, who remains male during the workweek but takes turns at being a man and a woman on the weekends; the boys in Thailand and Mongolia who are forcibly rebooted into girls to increase their worth as prostitutes; the families in China who pour their life’s savings into a single dose of Reboot to use on their newborn girls; Jackie, who has the rare gift of birth gender recognition skills, which she puts to use as a bouncer on “Natural Nights” at a Los Angeles club.
These glimpses at people’s lives in a Reboot-ruled world are interspersed with little tales of Rajit’s life, including his interesting response to his own diagnosis with prostate cancer. In “Changes,” there’s even mention of a biopic called “Reboot” (directed by Robert Zemeckis, starring Jeff Goldblum, released in 2018) that could make for some amusing meta scenes in a film adaptation of “Changes.”
Taking place in a world where gender is commonly altered, “Changes” raises thought-provoking, real world-relevant questions about gender fluidity: What decisions should a parent make about a child’s gender identity? What place does gender even have in our identity if gender is so fluid? How would you respond to a family member, dying of cancer, who would rather die than experience a change in sex?
The story was published nearly two decades ago but may be more intriguing than ever now, in 2015, when transgender issues are at the forefront of the media and public consciousness, thanks to celebrities like Caitlyn Jenner, TV shows like “Transparent,” legislation such as the controversial “bathroom bills,” and news stories like that of the University of Tennessee’s stance on gendered pronouns.
I would caution, however, against making Reboot the whole story in a feature film adaptation of “Changes.” That was the mistake of Andrew Niccol’s “In Time”: That “time literally = money” concept would have made a solid setting in which to tell a story, but instead that setting was the story — a clumsy and dull one at that. I’d like to see a feature film adaptation of “Changes” that expands Rajit’s character but also creates new characters and stories with this Reboot-obsessed world as a backdrop — characters who have relatable storylines that could be engaging in a Reboot-less world but find their lives made just ever more complicated by the existence of this drug.
It makes sense that “Changes” has feature-length film potential: Gaiman’s original idea, before making it a 10-page story, was a set of linked short stories that would have formed a novel exploring gender reflection.
Even if filmmakers get wind of this story, Gaiman isn’t one to nonchalantly hand over his creations to Hollywood. Gaiman recognizes that Alan Moore (a notable inspiration of his) is “miserable” with the film adaptations of his masterful comic books like “Watchmen” and “League of Extraordinary Gentlemen,” and he wants to avoid something similar happening with any of his stories.
Gaiman has said “no” to Hollywood many times when filmmakers wanted to adapt “American Gods,” “Anansi Boys,” “Stardust,” and “The Sandman.” Now, all of those works have been made into films or are in production for movie or TV adaptations. Gaiman tends to say “yes” to Hollywood when it’s a filmmaker he trusts, as was the case with “Coraline,” directed by Henry Selick (“The Nightmare Before Christmas”).
“Changes” has never been optioned for a film adaptation, Gaiman’s representation tells HitFix. But I hope someday a filmmaker will see the big screen potential in the story, and I hope that ends up being a filmmaker Gaiman can trust.
Image credits: Harper Collins (book cover), Kyle Cassidy (top Gaiman portrait), Kimberly Butler (bottom Gaiman portrait)