A changeling is what a fairy or demon or troll leaves behind when it kidnaps a human baby. Take your eye off your newborn for just a second and you might find yourself raising a ravenous little monster that is not the one you gave birth to.
“The Changeling” on Apple TV+ is about what happens when a mother comes to believe, perhaps correctly, that the tiny thing she is caring for is no longer her baby. Fittingly, the series is a kind of changeling itself: a pale echo of the 2017 novel by Victor LaValle on which it is based.
The spotty track record for adaptations of books in the peak-TV era is a dead horse that I’ve beaten before. But it’s an inescapable subject. The advent of short, bingeable seasons and, until the money really runs out, the increased demand for shows has brought whole libraries to the screen.
“The Changeling,” which is halfway through its eight-episode season, is a stark example of how out of sync the rhythms of good fiction can be with the demands of television. At the same time, it demonstrates the ways in which appealing performers and some visual style can keep you at least partly interested even when the story wanders.
LaValle’s novel is a contemporary fairy tale, and it can feel deceptively light and simple on the page, but the history it relates is dark and soaked in despair. Like the Brothers Grimm, he uses his storytelling gifts to acclimate us to the horror, moving the narrative along so smoothly and propulsively that our nerves hover in a state of suspended agitation.
The parents whose baby may or may not be human are Emma Valentine, a librarian, and Apollo Kagwa, a freelance book dealer who at first gives no credence to Emma’s suspicions. LaValle uses this framework to dig deeply into the insecurities of parents in the social-media age; at the same time he constructs a casual, street-level epic of New York City struggle and adventure that ranges from Apollo and Emma’s Washington Heights neighborhood to magically enhanced locations in the East River and the forests of Queens.
Kelly Marcel, best known as the screenwriter of “Fifty Shades of Grey,” created and wrote the adaptation of “The Changeling,” and she seems to have been tugged in various directions: by a desire to pull viewers in quickly, by a need to stretch out the story (the season covers about two-thirds of the novel) and perhaps by a simple impulse to do something different.
So LaValle’s eminently coherent, resolutely chronological story is artily fractured, and the current TV penchant for unexplained, repetitive flashbacks is indulged to a numbing degree. Unwilling to let the story build, Marcel pulls out elements of mystery and revelations about Apollo’s and Emma’s pasts that LaValle saved for key moments and moves them forward in ways that take away the story’s shape. (To help us navigate, she uses passages from the book as narration, which are read by LaValle.)
More defensible, but not always successful, are the ways in which she expands the roles of Emma and of Lillian, Apollo’s mother. (LaValle’s novel is centered on Apollo and on the quest he has to undertake after horrific events beset his family.) More screen time for Clark Backo, as Emma, and for Alexis Louder and Adina Porter, as Lillian at different ages, is a good thing; and some new scenes that expand on Emma’s warrior mentality are well done.
It all goes wrong for Marcel, though, in a wholly invented late-season episode designed as a showcase for Porter. A prime example of the inadvisability of the trend toward stand-alone “bottle episodes,” it is a magical-realist dream sequence set inside a fleabag hotel that, for the viewer, meticulously recreates the feeling of being trapped in your seat at an excruciating downtown play.
LaKeith Stanfield, who is an executive producer of the series, soldiers bravely as Apollo. But Marcel has changed the valence of the character, making him more of a victimized Freudian basket case and less of the barbed egoist he was in the book; this flattens out Apollo’s emotional arc and makes him less interesting, and Stanfield’s performance is uncharacteristically bland. Marcel does a better job with one of LaValle’s best inventions, Apollo’s acerbic fellow book dealer Patrice, and Malcolm Barrett plays him with a sly energy that draws you to him whenever he’s onscreen.
You can also perk up during the moments when “The Changeling” remembers that it’s a fairy tale, and the directors — including Dana Gonzales, Melina Matsoukas, Solvan Naim and Jonathan van Tulleken — give a little sparkle to a nighttime boat ride on the East River or a journey through abandoned subway tunnels.
And for some of us, there’s a pleasure threaded through the series that isn’t often found on TV, even in literary adaptations: frequent depictions of the handling, reading, hoarding, buying and selling of books, serving as both a reinforcement of the story’s fairy tale underpinnings and as guiltless gratification for the bibliophile. That’s one aspect of the novel that didn’t get thrown out with the bath water.