Swaps, leaps, avatars, mutations, and other body transformations

Stories help audiences to deal with issues, to see things from fresh perspectives — and to learn new things. The body swap and transformation story involves a radical change to a character’s body, usually a change of age, gender, sometimes even species. In a body transformation story the change occurs to one character: in the body swap two people exchange bodies. These transformations take the two characters from their mundane reality into a new world, usually with increased or reduced powers. The transformation creates a challenge for both characters: now they must re-experience the ordinary world that we take for granted.

Although the focus is on a physical — external — change, the body swap plot is about social roles and expectations: age, power, authority, experience, and gender, etc. Once in this new world the characters must reconcile their situation with each other and their place in the new environment, coping with their newfound limitations or learning to use their new powers wisely. In age-related body swaps a child typically brings playful solutions or naïve honesty to tired, cynical grown-ups; while the adult in an age-related body swap might bring rationality and responsibility to his or her new role as a child. Once these issues have been resolved the two characters return to their original bodies. The scenario is somewhat akin to the ‘voyage into an unknown world’ plot. At the end, the balance is restored and the characters have had their knowledge and experience expanded. In the comic novel, Vice Versa: A Lesson to Fathers (1882) by Thomas Anstey Guthrie (writing as F. Anstey) a father and son swap bodies. In Freaky Friday (1976, 2013) a mother and daughter swap bodies.

In Big (1988) a child is magically turned into an adult and brings delightful fresh thinking to the world of grown-ups. The magic is carried out by a mystical amusement park machine called ‘Zoltar’. A spell or magic is often the cause of the transformation, possibly dished out by a mysterious stranger. In Quantum Leap (1989 – 1983) the cause of the body transformation was a pseudo-scientific disturbance in space and time. The episode What Price Gloria? (1989) featured a gender transformation with the male protagonist ‘leaping’ into a female body, and a kiss between two ‘male’ characters. The same series also includes age-related ‘leaps’ and the white hero ‘leaping’ into the body of a black medical student in Black on White on Fire - August 11, 1965(1990).

Body swap and transformation stories can involve people turning into animals. In Dogmatic (1999) a dog and man swap bodies. And in Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977) Prince Kassim is turned into a baboon by the evil sorcerous Zenobia. In Avatar (2009) the ‘transformation’ occurs through futuristic technology, when a disabled man is trained to use a sophisticated mind-body link to connect his thoughts and conscious experience to the body of a giant blue alien. The fear of turning into the ‘other’ or becoming something repulsive or monstrous includes stories like the classic Kafka’s tale Metamorphosis (1915), when the protagonist turns into a giant insect-like creature. In The Fly (1958, 1986) a failed scientific experiment causes the central character to turn into a human-fly hybrid. Several 1960s The Outer Limits episodes featured characters who became monsters. In The Architects of Fear (1963) scientists mutate one of their group into a mixed-species human-alien being, so that he can shock humanity into peaceful co-existence. And, in The Sixth Finger (1963) a scientist accelerates evolution and transforms a volunteer into a human from the ‘future’. These monster transformations show the tragic consequences of ordinary people turning into the ‘other’. While Avatar explores transcendence: the escape from human limitation.

Body transformation and swap stories provide storytellers with a way of turning a character’s ordinary world into something strange and challenging. This allows the storyteller to explore prejudice, social expectation, injustice, wish fulfilment, and many other ‘what if…’ scenarios. And, along the way, the protagonist will overcome their fears, discover their identity — learn who they really are. They will use their new understanding to rectify old mistakes, to value the ordinary world in a fresh way. Or, by turning into a ‘monster’, appreciate what they lost when they became the ‘other’, something less ‘human’ on the outside, but just as human on the inside.