Mortal Engines – Peter Jackson and Christian Rivers on Hester Shaw’s Scar and a Rebuttal
The fans have spoken and Mortal Engines‘ director Christian Rivers and Mortal Engines‘ producer Peter Jackson have responded. Star Wars: The Last Jedi‘s divisive critical reception and the resultant low fiscal performance of Solo: A Star Wars Story proved that fans and movie-goers have a discerning palette when it comes to the films they ‘consume’. These same people can be extremely powerful with their reactions and most important to movie studios, with their dollars. Wanting to stay ahead of that curve with fans of Philip Reeve‘s Mortal Engines book series, uninitiated cinephiles, and for marketing reasons, Mortal Engines‘ director Christian Rivers and producer Peter Jackson decided to make the heroine of their science fiction movie pretty (the source material incarnation is hideous), foregoing the chance to place someone with an unconventional appearance (an understatement) as the flag-bearer for a high-end, sci-fi film.
Because of this decision, Mortal Engines is an un-seized opportunity to break the Hollywood mold and is a prime example of prettywashing a character (did I just coin that – prettywashing?).
I previously spoke about this phenomenon (without naming it), Mortal Engines, and how this decision hurt the film here: Mortal Engines (2018): Changing the Heroine’s Appearance Homogenized A Key Aspect of the Film.
Before I published the previous editorial, Christian Rivers and Peter Jackson had not spoken about their decision on Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar)’s facial scar and why they made it. Now they have.
From what they have said, one thing is clear. If someone with only the film in mind had directed Mortal Engines, someone with clout, Hester Shaw’s chief characteristic would probably be closer to the source material, and a new type of heroine would be on-screen – a wholly unattractive central character.
If Denis Villeneuve had directed Mortal Engines, I am reasonably sure that Villeneuve would have kept Hester Shaw’s scar from the book intact to a major visual and arresting degree. If Takashi Miike had directed Mortal Engines, I am absolutely sure that he would have presented Hester Shaw’s traumatizing scar as written in his film adaptation without compunction. Miike pulls no punches with his visual story-telling and he definitely would not have when it came to an essential part of his main character’s motivation.
Mortal Engines‘ director Christian Rivers has a differing opinion when it comes Hester Shaw’s physical appearance in Philip Reeves’ books and its presentation on-screen:
“It’s fine in the book for Hester to be described to be ugly, hideous, and have lost a nose ‘cause, even that, you reimagine it in your own mind as, ‘Okay, yeah, she’s ugly, but she’s not really ugly,’” Rivers explained. “Tom falls in love with her… and film is a visual medium. With a book you can take what you want and reimagine it in your head and put together your own picture. But when you put it on film, you are literalizing it. You are making it a literal thing, so it was just finding a balance where we need to believe that Tom and Hester fall in love. And her scar does need to be disfiguring enough that she thinks she’s ugly — it can’t just be a little scratch — and I think we’ve struck a good balance of it.”
Rivers seems to be saying that people re-imagine Hester’s scar in their minds when they read about it in Reeve’s books. That fans don’t take Reeves’ description or the nature of the scar at face value. That some book readers can and do re-imagine it, making it more mentally palatable (thus Rivers re-imagining of it in the literal translation is of little consequence). That might all be true about the book readers and none of it is the point.
A literal translation is not always necessary or feasible but the essence must be maintained, what the author is trying to convey to the reader. The drastic change made to Hester Shaw’s facial scar in the film adaptation of Mortal Engines loses the inaudible message Reeves is trying to convey. This is intentional by Rivers (or a side-effect that he did not care about), whether he admits that or not.
Christian Rivers wants the viewer of his film to believe that Hester Shaw sees herself as ugly without giving the viewer the necessary visual evidence to confirm that belief.
“It’s there and it’s in every shot in the film and it’s a deep wound that you just know, ‘F—, that would’ve hurt,’” he said. “It’s not a nice, clean knife streak. She was hit with such force that it cut and tore. There’s always gonna be critics from the literal translation from the books, but it’s an adaptation.”
The fact that Hester Shaw’s scar is in every scene of the film is to be expected and is not the point. The depth of the wound is not the point. The fact that it hurt is not the point.
The physical and mental wounds that the weapon leaves Hester Shaw with are the points.
Rivers doesn’t know what it’s like to be unattractive, evidenced by his words. That is what Hester is – physically unattractive. That is how she is seen by everyone except Tom Natsworthy. Hester comes to recognize that Tom has the special type of personality that allows him, without effort, to look below the surface to the girl that would have been and the virtues that are present.
By changing how other people see Hester Shaw (from ugly to pretty girl with a scar down her face), you also change her personality. Hester is self-centered because of how other people have treated her because she is ugly. By making her appearance more palatable, you lower the reason for her pugnacity and for her bleak outlook on life, effectively shooting your own character’s motivation in the foot. In the film adaptation, you can still have that character (i.e. Hester Shaw) act the same way they do in the book but it will be a hollow imitation without the full visual contextualization of that character present.
Hester Shaw Scar Mortal Engines
By marginalizing the facial scar, Rivers not only diluted the personality of Hester Shaw, he did a worse disservice to Tom Natsworthy. By changing Hester’s appearance so drastically, Rivers changed the chore of Tom as well. Tom is no longer that rare, 1% of the population where a person’s looks are not part of the equation when it comes to their attraction to them. By making Hester Shaw attractive, Rivers and Jackson made Tom Natsworthy into an ordinary guy that likes pretty girls, whether it be one possessing a storied-scar or one not possessing one.
My question – Why would you want to simplify your characters’ thought-processes, emotions, and physically reactions to stimuli? That is the difference between bland and memorable, trite and complex.
This particular part of Christian Rivers’ assertion is striking:
And her scar does need to be disfiguring enough that she thinks she’s ugly — it can’t just be a little scratch — and I think we’ve struck a good balance of it.”
A person “thinking” that they are ugly is completely different from 1.) a person “thinking” they are ugly who, 2.) “is” in fact ugly and 3.) whom other people perceive to be ugly. The latter two points are what Rivers and Jackson stripped away from the film incarnation of Hester Shaw.
Peter Jackson added:
“I think if you literally made the scar how it is in the book, you wouldn’t be able to watch the film with anything other than being totally distracted all the time by the scar. In a way, we had to make the scar, as Christian said, bold enough that it fits her personality — she’s affected by it — but we didn’t want it to just totally overwhelm her character.”
So instead of being distracted by Hester Shaw’s ruined face, the viewer is instead distracted by Hester Shaw’s pretty face with a neat scar on it? So the real conundrum, it seems, is visual distraction in any form and to what degree visual distraction is acceptable in storytelling. In the book, for more than half the time, Hester Shaw’s face is covered with a red scarf because she knows how distracting and hideous her face is. If Peter Jackson and Christian Rivers didn’t want people distracted by Hester Shaw’s hideous face, why not do what Reeves did in the book and have her face covered with a red scarf for the majority of her screen time? That would solve their distraction problem, would it not?
What Christian Rivers and Peter Jackson did to Hester Shaw isn’t the lessening of the sword damage to Tyrion Lannister’s face when that seminal moment was translated from book-to-television on Game of Thrones. Tyrion Lannister was already ugly (in the book) before the sword stroke, was already looked upon by many with contempt, disgust, or disregard. That isn’t the case with Hester Shaw. Before her face is mutilated, her appearance is normal and she is affable. After Hester Shaw’s face is nearly cleaved in two and then sewn back together, she awakes to an entirely new, disquieting reality. Hester is no longer the pretty little Shaw girl. She is the horribly disfigured orphan girl with one eye. That reality is what is missing from Rivers’ film – the pivotal transformation from normal to horrid.
Do Rivers and Jackson honestly believe that anyone that looks at Hera Hilmar’s scarred face thinks that she is ugly or unattractive, by any stretch of the imagination? The only peoples’ imaginations that can stretch that far are the insane or the genius.
This is the part of the Christian Rivers / Peter Jackson interview that contained something no true artist should ever consider, let alone admit:
Rivers believed some of these critics “would be put off by the film” if Mortal Engines went with the exact scar description from the books. “They probably wouldn’t want to admit that, but they would [be put off] to the point where Tom and Hester stop bonding. You actually just wouldn’t react [in the same way],” he said. “It’s kind of a PC thing to say, but it is the reality of film being a cinematic medium.”
If you are making your film with critics’ reactions in mind or anything else that does not pertain to the quality of the film and telling the most compelling and engaging story possible, the true potential of your film is lost, and your film is not art, it’s an assembly line product with teams of engineers (no pun intended) and marketing people prodding and nitpicking it into a by-the-book, conventional package.
The point of fact is this – Rivers and Jackson wanted a pretty protagonist for their expensive sci-fi film (with quadrilogy potential). Like The Hunger Games. Like The Divergent Series. Like The Maze Runner. Like The Twilight Saga. That is the unspoken, real reason for their decision on Hester Shaw’s facial scar. They wanted a sell-able face to mitigate financial risk. A mainstream, movie poster face. That face is not Hester Shaw’s. That face belongs to someone that would look upon the real Hester Shaw with pity and shame in their eyes, the very look Hester despises.
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