Alex DiFrancesco | Longreads | November 15, 2019 | 9 minutes (2,578 words)
In 1994, years before showing us the wonders and terrors of Middle Earth, Peter Jackson released a film that some still consider his finest work to date. The film was Heavenly Creatures, the real-life story of the 1954 Parker-Hulme murders in Christchurch, New Zealand. It won awards all over the festival circuit before receiving an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay.
To provide a brief background to the history of the case and the film: Pauline Parker and Juliet Hulme met as teeangers and went on to form a loving and obsessive friendship built around a mythical world that they created and escaped to frequently when the real world proved too much for them. When the girls’ parents began to fear they were developing an “unnatural,” queer bond, they decided to separate the young women. The girls, in retaliation and hopes they would be together forever, decided to murder Parker’s mother. They committed the act on June 22, 1954, bludgeoning the mother to death with a brick in a stocking.
Peter Jackson’s fourth film (after low-budget splatter-fests Bad Taste and Dead Alive and a Muppet-Show-gone-perverse venture called Meet the Feebles) was a departure for him. Jackson’s partner Fran Walsh had been passionate about the real-life Parker-Hulme murders for many years, and Jackson joined in the obsession. The film would take Jackson out of the realm of camp and cult, and catapult him into the playing field that made all of his later blockbusters possible. Attempts had been made to tell the salacious murder story before, including Michelanne Forster’s play Daughters of Heaven, but one reason that those attempts may have fallen flat was that no one before Jackson had had quite his empathy and dedication to the girls portrayed in the film. New Zealand filmmaker Costa Botes, a friend and one-time collaborator of Jackson’s, in a lengthy 2002 piece for NZ Edge, told a story that he believed exemplifies Jackson’s dedication:
He had already found black and white photographs of the Hulme family’s Port Levy summer house, but had no idea what colour it was painted in the 1950s. Anyone else would have built a recreation and settled for a best guess.
Jackson flew to Christchurch, drove two hours to the site, and then proceeded to dig in a grown over rubbish pile he found in the back. He emerged with a wooden shingle. Comparing it to his photographs, he realised he was holding a name plate that used to be screwed above the front door at the time of the Hulmes occupancy. Traces of original green paint still clung to the plate.
Thus, the colour the Port Levy house ended up being painted in the film was … exactly the right colour.
This dedication would be admirable for any director to undertake, but why exactly Jackson was so dedicated to this story is another matter.
In a 1994 Los Angeles Times article, Jackson himself said that the story had been around for decades. “But in all this time … the story has never been told sympathetically.”
Though he grew up in another era, though he was a white cisgender heterosexual man, Jackson, along with Walsh, was the first to reach through time with sympathy for Parker and Hulme. Or, perhaps, it could be something closer to empathy. Surely, Jackson’s early feature films, the splatter-fests like Bad Taste, which was made on weekends, (movies that were made around life events like a cast member marrying a devout Christian, being unable to work on the Sundays the films were shot (in the case of Bad Taste), being written out of the script, then written back in after his divorce), were not far off from the fantasy world that Parker and Hulme created to escape to, portrayed with gruesome life-sized plasticine figures in the film. Both were obsessive and thought out to the smallest detail. Both were ongoing projects that Jackson and the girls spent years on, relentlessly refusing to give them up despite any attempts by nature or man to interrupt them. And though the film doesn’t skirt the issue of the girls’ connection verging into homosexuality, Jackson doesn’t flinch away from it or sensationalize it, either. The sex scenes in the film juxtapose a disintersted, disconnected Parker having sex with a male boarder in her parents’ guest room against a scene in which Parker and Hulme experiment sexually with each other, acting out the roles of matinée stars to gently disguise their fascination with and passion for each other.
Kickstart your weekend reading by getting the week’s best Longreads delivered to your inbox every Friday afternoon.
While I wouldn’t suggest that Jackson or Walsh could intimately know any of what these girls went through in their repressed time, when they were further repressed by their gender and their obsessive love for each other, the pair seem to have been able to take their own experiences and morphed them into care and even understanding for these murderous young women. Particularly, Jackson seems to view the girls’ make-believe world as a creative outlet not dissimilar from his own acts of creativity — a world both the filmmaker and the girls went to great pains to portray in full and vibrant reality. While the girls made painstaking figurines of the characters who inhabited “the fourth world,” as they called it, Jackson’s work in recreating it went above and beyond much of the CGI work of the time, including claymation battle scenes and orgies, in what would later become the studios that made orcs and elves for Lord of the Rings. This empathy with these girls so unlike himself, created through the bridges he was able to build to them in the understanding of their lives and fantasies, becomes particularly relevant in our time, which no longer allows many examples of sloppy representation by those outside a demographic being represented to slide by unnoticed. Jackson’s approach and careful attention to detail in his portrayal becomes important because it’s a prototypical example of how we can use our own inner worlds and emotions to create, lovingly and with care, the world of someone who is nothing like us.
Though he grew up in another era, though he was a white cisgender heterosexual man, Jackson, along with Walsh, was the first to reach through time with sympathy for Parker and Hulme.
I am not playing devil’s advocate here. I firmly agree that some representation of marginalized people in art is better left undone. For example, Ariel Schrag’s Adam, a book in which a young cisgender man is mistaken for a trans man and becomes part of the queer community so he can make friends and find dates, was written by a cisgender lesbian and used transgender people as a foil for the lives of cis people. The television show Transparent notoriously chose a cisgender actor, Jeffrey Tambor, to play a transgender lead.
Though the topic is thornier in the example above, poor or sloppy representation typically happens when we view those outside our purview as “other.” There have been countless classes and panel discussions in the arts about “writing the other.” But the fact is, each of us is “other” to everyone else, and it is the job of art to lessen the distance of that othering. Essayist and editor Janice Lee, in a presentation at the Thinking Its Presence conference in 2017, likened the distance between any two humans as the same between a human and a badger.
What I’m going to propose though is that the impossible distance between a human and a badger, that daunting and difficult and impossible divide, all of the differences between a human and a badger, is the same impossible distance between any two humans. But that the similarities between two humans, that which makes us alive and living, that closeness that can be intimated, is the same possible closeness between a human and a badger.
I’m also going to propose that attempting to occupy the point of view of a badger is just as important as the attempt and willingness to occupy the point of view of a different human being other than yourself. If we can consider the similarities between humans and badgers in a way that unites us, both as creatures of this planet, both as creatures that want to live and find intimacy differently but similarly, then we might be able to understand the differences and similarities between humans too.
It would be presumptuous to assume Jackson felt the same way when portraying these girls so outside his own purview. But Jackson took several steps toward making sure the girls themselves were represented in ways that humanized them. For one, he poured obsessively over the diaries left behind by Pauline Parker, making the voiceover of the film the girls’ own words. He dug through court records and diaries to find and interview living friends and family, including former classmates of the girls, to round out his understanding of the girls, their love for each other, and their final, horrific act. The film, through camerawork and the voiceover of words directly from Parker’s diary, stays remarkably close to the girls, their sensitiblities, and their actions, until the very end, when the murder is committed, and the camera and the viewer are made to pull away. Up until this point, Jackson sticks to the facts of the girls’ lives and friendship as the girls would have told them themselves. The murder itself, while factual, reels away and lacks the steady gaze that Jackson has cast on these facts throughout. (“I can understand everything but their motivation for the murder, everything until the leap they made from the fantasy of killing to its reality,” Jackson said in the Los Angeles Times interview.) And perhaps, in a world where we are so removed from one another that it is suggested most of us could never understand one another, this documentary-ish approach is a necessary one. Perhaps it is not just good filmmaking to dig through the rubble of a demolished house to find the color scheme, to obsess over the history left behind by people themselves in their first-person accounts, but perhaps it is a living example of the empathy necessary to cross the divide between any one human and another.
But the fact is, each of us is “other” to everyone else, and it is the job of art to lessen the distance of that othering.
Whether or not the girls were actually homosexual is still a piece of conjecture. While Jackson’s film portrays the girls engaging in sexual acts with each other and shows a scene in which a psychologist labels the girls “depraved homosexuals” (it was the ’50s when homosexuality was still firmly in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, an unquestionable mental illness), it’s never been “proven,” if such a thing can be “proven.” What seems important is that Jackson never used the piece of potential information to sensationalize the way others had in the past, nor the way that someone who is decidedly not homosexual might be tempted to. Accounts from newspapers and tabloids of the time the murder was committed were relentless in their othering of the lesbian schoolgirl murderers. In the digital newspaper collection of the Christchurch city libraries, one article recounts a psychiatrist’s view of the girls as homosexual and insane. “Their association, I consider, proved tragic for them. There is evidence that their friendship became a homosexual one. There is no proof there was a physical relationship, although there is a lot of suggestive evidence from the diary that this occurred. There is evidence that they had baths together and had frequent talks on sexual matters. That is not a healthy relationship in itself, but more important, it prevents the development of adult sexual relationships. I don’t mean by that physical relationships, but attachment to people of the opposite sex. Homosexuality is frequently related to paranoia.” Jackson, according to the interview in the Los Angeles Times, found little use in these accounts.
A Film Quarterly review of Heavenly Creatures suggests that Jackson veered away from the connection between homosexuality and insanity that even the girls hid behind in their trial by considering it a “red herring” in light of the rest of their powerful, intimate feminine relationship. Simply put, Jackson didn’t seem to care whether the girls were in love with each other because he knew they were in love with each other, and that bond of love and obsession carried enough weight to transcend categories of easy and dismissive identification. While their potential homosexuality wasn’t irrelevant (it was portrayed in a scene as inventive and intimate as the rest of their relationship, mentioned earlier, in which the girls’ sexual ecounters were informed partly by their fantasy world and partly by their love for each other), it also wasn’t an easy out, a way of othering that allowed Jackson the explanation for the unthinkable that so many sought in the story.
Jackson’s approach and careful attention to detail in his portrayal becomes important because it’s a prototypical example of how we can use our own inner worlds and emotions to create, lovingly and with care, the world of someone who is nothing like us.
I grew up in the ’80s and ’90s. There was little self-representation in those times. Visibility in the realm of popular culture was almost nonexistent for queer and trans people, not as anything other than a punchline or a sideshow dweller, a flippant one-liner on The Simpsons about Homer’s mistreated uncle Frank who transitioned because of childhood trauma, or a “bearded lady” in the circus. When I first came across Heavenly Creatures in the early 2000s, years after its release, I would find something like understanding there. I was a nascent queer, just beginning to identify as bisexual, living briefly back in my small hometown, working at a video store, and understanding the repression that Parker and Hulme may have felt in ways that I wouldn’t have expected someone like Jackson to. In those days, we took what we could get, and when what we got was something as shining as this film, it didn’t really matter as much where it had come from, just that someone had appropriately seen. Years later, after I had cut off ties with my own family (its own sort of murder, I suppose) in order to live my life as an out trans person, I rewatched the film and marveled again at how little judgement Jackson lorded over these girls, and how much care and sympathy he afforded them. How dedicated he was to telling their story in their words, how his sympathies, throughout the film, are firmly with the girls — not with the parents terrorized by a diagnosis of homosexuality, or a world outside Parker and Hulme’s deeply imagined one. I wonder about the generation of ’90s queers who felt the same, in some little way. Being seen is a powerful thing — sometimes being seen by someone nothing like you is powerful in ways that can’t be replicated by someone who hasn’t had to make the leap between potential consciousnesses.
We live in a time when “own voices” is becoming the norm — rightfully and happily so in most cases. It seems that many, to paraphrase Janice Lee, are not ready to do the work of leaping over the divide that is between one living being and another in a sensitive and caring way, not, in many cases, in a way that we might consider artful. Yet those of us who see ourselves portrayed poorly or with little sensitivity in the media are also, often, aware that this trend will never stop. And, in some ways, it should not. We should never stop trying to bridge the space between us, doing the work that art insists we do to understand one another. However, there are prototypes for understanding and sensitivity all around us. I believe Heavenly Creatures is one of the finest examples of an artist finding one of the multitudes of self and using it to show the lives of people who, for all reasonable purposes, are utterly unlike him.
Alex DiFrancesco is a writer of fiction, creative nonfiction, and journalism who has published work in Tin House, The Washington Post, Pacific Standard, and more. Their first novel, an acid western, was published in 2015, and their essay collection Psychopomps (Civil Coping Mechanisms Press) and their second novel All City (Seven Stories Press), in 2019. Their storytelling has been featured at The Fringe Festival, Life of the Law, The Queens Book Festival, and The Heart podcast. DiFrancesco is currently an MFA candidate at Cleveland State University. They can be found @DiFantastico on Twitter.
Editor: Krista Stevens
Fact checker: Jason Stavers
Copy editor: Jacob Gross