Editorial

MORTAL ENGINES (2018): Changing the Heroine’s Appearance Homogenized A Key Aspect of the Film

Mortal Engines Movie Poster

Heroine’s Altered Appearance Homogenizes Mortal Engines Film Adaptation

When the first trailer for Mortal Engines film adaptation was released, I hadn’t yet read Mortal Engines. The first trailer was very entertaining, the ideas were good, and the few people in it uninteresting (there was a girl with a red scarf). In the subsequent trailer for Mortal Engines, the viewer was shown why Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar) wore a scarf up to her nose. The reason was nothing special and the scarf was seen more as decorative and a means of disguising her identity.

When I recently finished reading the book of the same name by Philip Reeve, the scarf took on an entirely different meaning, as did Hester’s reason for wearing it.

What set the Mortal Engines book apart for me from other science fiction books, discounting the groovy moving cities plot-point, was that the heroine’s face had been horrifically mutilated pre-book narrative. An edged weapon had carved in an arc down and across Hester Shaw’s face when she was young, leaving Hester with only one eye, a partial nose, and a  severely disfigured mouth. Hester Shaw was “ugly” and “hideous”, referred to as such by numerous characters in the book, throughout Mortal Engines‘ narrative.

Hester Shaw Scar Mortal Engines

Hester Shaw Scar Mortal Engines

Hester Shaw personality and outlook on life had been warped around her appearance and the tragic event that led to her disfigurement. When her scarf was not present, she instinctive tried to hide her face with her hands, so that people could see as little of her face as possible. Hester Shaw was self-conscience of her appearance yet contradictory, bold in her actions against the person that had wronged her and her family.

When it was revealed in the full movie trailer for Mortal Engines and the featurette what Hester Shaw looked like in the film, after I read the book, I immediately thought “Why did they do that? Why did they change her appearance so drastically? They made Hester Shaw into a pretty girl with a scar that ran down the length of her face. That scar doesn’t diminish the beauty of the film incarnation of Hester Shaw. It adds to it. It makes it distinct, cooler some would say. Now Hester Shaw has physical pulchritude and therein is the inherent problem with what Mortal Engine‘s producers did. They made Hester Shaw comely, through her casting and severely watered-down disfigurement.

If the change that you are making doesn’t ameliorate the narrative in any way, but on the contrary, down-grades it, why make such a change?

This occurrence is common in Hollywood, like age-upping a fifteen-year-old character from a book into their mid-twenties in the TV (e.g. Game of Thrones) or film (e.g. Dune) adaptation. Why TV and film producers think this strategy creates a better product is short-sighted (watching a fifteen-year-old do something and mature on-screen is fundamentally more interesting than watching a twenty-five year old do the same thing) but what was done to Hester Shaw in the film incarnation of Mortal Engines was even more egregious.

By making Hester Shaw’s face more sell-able, more marketable, Mortal Engines‘ producers also made the film’s heroine generic, ordinary, and quite possibly forgettable (unless her personality takes the cake).

Having a pretty girl as the lead character in your film is nice à la Transformers but it doesn’t make the film better. It just renders the marketing materials and the film more of a standard visual feast.

Making the heroine attractive does not make the plot of the film she is in stronger. In this case, it homogenizes it. It makes the plot common, familiar, and easily palatable. It gives the viewer what they are expecting. Why do that? Why not give them (the people that have not read the book) what they are not expecting?

I personally don’t care what the heroine or the hero looks like in a film as long as the plot of the film is good. That being said, the condition of Hester Shaw’s face was directly linked to her character in the book, its storyline, and Hester’s outlook on life. What Hester Shaw and Tom Natsworthy (Robert Sheehan) go through in Mortal Engines bonds them. Towards the end of the narrative in the book, Tom begins to see what lies behind Hester Shaw’s horrible visage (the girl underneath the twisted flesh and angry personality).

That closeness is powerful, made even more so by the condition of Hester’s face, when one considers what that emerging feeling overrides. That progression will not be present in the film version of Mortral Engines because Hester Shaw’s appearance has been normalized. If it is attempted, with Hester saying “I’m ugly” or some such line (which will fall flat on the ground), the viewer will think sarcastically “Yeah. Right. You sure are. I wouldn’t ask you out.”

It’s little, thought-out things like this (i.e. Hester’s mangled face) that a book author puts into their narrative, that a screenwriter flippantly takes out (or is pressured to take out), that hurt the film incarnation. With Mortal Engines, though I have not seen the film yet (it opens December 14, 2018 in the United States), this modus operandi is no different.

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About the author

Rollo Tomasi

A Political Science and MBA grad who started FilmBook during an eCommerce B-School course in 2008. Cinema and TV addict. Former writer at Empire Movies, Blogcritics, and Alternative Film Guide. In addition to writing for FilmBook, he also edits the copy published on the website, manages its writing staff, manages the back-end operations, site finances, its social network accounts, and works with publicists, actors, and companies on press coverage and promotions. He has also created ProMovieBlogger.com and Trending Awards.com.

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