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Mortal Engines Has Incredibly Gross Excuses for Changing Hester’s Appearance

Hera Hilmar in Mortal Engines (2018)

Mortal Engines, the upcoming Peter Jackson-produced epic based on the book series by Philip Reeve, is slated to arrive on December 14, and one of the biggest controversies around it involves the film version of the character Hester Shaw.

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In the books, Hester is described as having a horrible scar across her face, as well as having only one eye: “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.” According to the author, this was done to subvert the usual unrealistic beauty politics often seen in fantasy:

“Women warriors are a bit of a cliche in Science Fiction and Fantasy, and they tend to be very glamorous or at least good looking. But it struck me that people who live by their wits in wastelands tend not to be that glamorous or good looking, and who cares about beautiful people anyway? So I decided right from the start to make Hester ugly, and I liked the idea that the hero would slowly fall in love with her anyway, which is far more interesting than having two gorgeous people seeing each other across a crowded room and falling in love.”

Because of this, fans have been decrying the movie’s change in hear appearance (pictured above) since it was revealed the in the trailer, and rightfully so. Beyond this being a case of “that’s not how the character was described in the book,” it’s also a commentary about how the film industry is afraid to deviate from traditional beauty standards for their leading women.

Hester is supposed to be ugly by those standards, and that’s fine because that’s not what’s important about her character—the author deliberately made sure of that. Yet, that somehow takes second place to making sure that it appears “realistic” onscreen for Hester and Tom to fall in love with each other, according to Christian Rivers (director) and Peter Jackson (producer/writer).

From an interview that was published on Entertainment Weekly, Rivers said the following about the choices made with Hester’s appearance:

“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.”

Soooo basically it’s unrealistic that Tom would fall in love with a Hester because of hear appearance, even though that’s exactly what happens in the book? Well, I’m here to break the news for everyone: “Ugly” people can be loved, especially good people who have other things going for them besides physical appearance.

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.”

But her scar is part of her character. She got that scar from the series’ Big Bad, Thaddeus Valentine, when she was a child. It’s a huge part of her backstory. Also, audiences wouldn’t spend the entire film in a state of cringe because she had a bad scar. It might be surprising at first, but like Harvey Dent in The Dark Knight, it would just become a special effect highlight more than anything else.

Need I remind the court of public opinion that we have several movies that are classics in which a woman falls in love with a monster, or hell, in the case of Venom, a man falls in love with a monster, and everyone goes with it? It’s such a double standard. The Shape of Water won an Oscar, people thirst after Thanos and Hellboy—monster thirst is mainstream, at least when it comes to men, but women can’t look anything other than slightly different from expectations to be considered lovable.

That’s not to say there are no examples where male characters have been prettied up for the screen. In the books, Game of Thrones’ Tyrion Lannister looks nowhere near Peter Dinklage’s TV version, and eventually loses his nose. There are a lot of layered issues with book Tyrion vs. television Tyrion that we shall unpack another time, but it’s one thing to minimize the scar on a television show where that effect will have to be repeated over several seasons on a budget that has to prioritize a lot of other things over that time (I mean, just look at the wigs) and having a huge budget for an epic movie and not being able to commit to the main female character’s defining physical characteristic—not to mention that one example doesn’t negate Hollywood’s disproportionate fixation on women’s looks.

More importantly, they didn’t say that they let Tyrion keep his nose to make sure he was still fuckable. That’s some James Cameron-level bullshit.

These comments by Jackson and Rivers are gross and show how deeply ingrained their internalized sexism is that they see these changes as imperative to the medium of film. Even Gerard Butler’s Phantom has more of a skin blemish than Hester’s movie scar.

(via EW, image: Universal Pictures)

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Princess Weekes
Princess (she/her-bisexual) is a Brooklyn born Megan Fox truther, who loves Sailor Moon, mythology, and diversity within sci-fi/fantasy. Still lives in Brooklyn with her over 500 Pokémon that she has Eevee trained into a mighty army. Team Zutara forever.

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