One of the reasons the Mortal Engines books stand out from the rest of their YA cohorts is because of its heroine’s grotesque facial disfigurement. For every Twilight or Hunger Games whose beautiful brunette saved the world while being at the center of an agonizing love triangle, there was Hester Shaw, who was described as “portrait that had been furiously crossed out,” with her stump of a nose and missing eye.
So how did all that turn into a dainty facial scar? Because it’s gross, director Christian Rivers essentially says in a defense against fan pushback over Hester’s Mortal Engines scar. Well, he doesn’t say exactly that, but his excuse is just as weak.
When the trailer for Mortal Engines was released, fans praised its rich, textured imagining of the world created by author Philip Reeve — but were immediately angered by Hester’s so-called “scar.” In the books, Reeve writes, “Her mouth was wrenched sideways in a permanent sneer, her nose was a smashed stump, and her single eye stared at him out of the wreckage, as grey and chill as a winter sea.”
Fans criticized Rivers and producer Peter Jackson‘s decision to reduce this formative facial disfigurement into a faint scar, and an online petition called the books “important representation for people with scars and disfigurements.” But Rivers explained (via EW) that when he read the book, he pictured Hester as “ugly, but she’s not really ugly.” Okay, sure.
“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.’ 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.”
It sounds like Rivers is throwing around the term “visual medium” to defend casting a beautiful actress as someone we’re supposed to believe has crippling self-esteem. Which is totally not regressive and a dangerous perpetuation of Hollywood’s already-high standard of female beauty. (It is.) She’s hot, but she has this one facial flaw that makes her relatable! And she doesn’t know she’s hot, so her inner beauty is even more appealing!
But then again, Rivers is not the only director to fall back on this bad habit. Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One cast Olivia Cooke as Artemis, who in the book is described as having a huge port-wine stain on her face that has made her self-conscious of her appearance her whole life. In the movie, she gets a tiny birthmark that doesn’t distract from the fact that Artemis looks like Olivia Cooke. It’s a common, and annoying, staple in movie adaptations — especially in geek properties. Just look at Emma Watson’s “hot” Hermione without a bucktooth in sight, or Gwendoline Christie’s casting in Game of Thrones as a masculine knight described in George R.R. Martin’s book as ugly. It even extends to male Game of Thrones characters like Tyrion, played by the pretty attractive Peter Dinklage, who later also gets a sexy scar instead of a missing nose as he’s meant to in the books.
We just had an Oscar-winning movie where a woman falls in love with a fish man, and it’s too unbelievable for a guy to fall in love with a girl with a hideous facial scar? Hell, Peter Jackson made a whole movie about how a beautiful blonde lady can fall in love with a giant gorilla (albeit, a gorilla with abs). But Jackson defends this Mortal Engines scar too, adding:
“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.”
Forget it, HT, it’s Hollywood, you’re probably saying. But this kind of stuff really grinds my gears, especially when Rivers goes on to patronize audiences and critics who he claims “would be put off by the film” if Mortal Engines depicted Hester with a book-accurate scar. “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.”
Maybe let us decide that for ourselves, Rivers.
Mortal Engines opens in theaters on December 14, 2018.
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