Peter Jackson and his Lord of the Rings compatriot Christian Rivers introduce an expansive new sci-fi world with Mortal Engines, a post-post-apocalypse of sorts where Europe’s major cities are now mobile Predator Cities that roam the land on wheels. Before the film hits theaters this December, however, the pair have one piece of business to address.
In the original Philip Reeve Mortal Engines books, lead heroine Hester Shaw is described as having a prominent, grotesque scar across her face. In the upcoming film adaptation, which Jackson co-wrote and produced, the character takes a different, more Hollywood-friendly form. This change has already prompted pushback from some readers amid discussions about female representation.
Speaking with EW regarding these criticisms, Rivers, accompanied by Jackson, said, “I think people just need to see the film and hope they enjoy the film and understand the decision that we made and why we made them.”
Hera Hilmar portrays Hester in Mortal Engines, the feature film directorial debut for Rivers, who won an Oscar for visual effects on Jackson’s King Kong. Set hundreds of years after a cataclysmic event reshaped the earth, the story sees this young rebel teaming up with London outcast Tom Natsworthy (Robert Sheehan) and wanted outlaw Anna Fang (Jihae) to stop the big Predator City from destroying all others in its path.
The books describe Hester as “a portrait that had been furiously crossed out.” As the text reads, “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.”
As shown in the film’s trailers, the scar will be less prominent in its translation to the screen, which prompted conversations from certain readers about why the disfigurement was toned down for the lead role. One user on Reddit called it “disappointing,” while an online petition called the books “important representation for people with scars and disfigurements.”
“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.”
The filmmaker emphasized that they don’t shy away from Hester’s scar. “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.”
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.”
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.”
Mortal Engines opens in theaters Dec. 14.