The Film vs. Real Life
The Epilogue
Events Before the Film

4 . Comparing the film to real life

How accurate was "Heavenly Creatures" meant to be?

[jp] Fran Walsh and Peter Jackson have both stated that they intended the film to portray known facts as accurately as possible.

How accurate was it?

[jp] Overall, Walsh and Jackson did an exemplary job, especially in the dense way they communicated cultural values and community attitudes. The physical locations and artifacts and objects were all outstanding in their precision, as well.

However, several important plot simplifications were made, and some of these resulted in quite serious distortion of important fact. A few characters and situations were made up.

Of equal importance, the filmmakers made some significant omissions of fact, inevitable when a story this complicated is brought to the screen.

However, their omissions actually have a significant impact on the overall tone of the film, and on the impressions carried away concerning the character of the girls' home lives, the nature of the girls' relationship and of other important relationships, the possible motives for the murder, the chronology of the planning of the murder and even about the murder itself.

Although the film presents a tight, consistent set of facts (which still carry enormous ambiguity) and it is an outstanding effort, it is the omissions from the film which lead me to give it a grade of B for accuracy.

4.1 The Epilogue

What information is given in the printed epilogue?

[jp] This is the text of the printed epilogue from "Heavenly Creatures:"

In the hours following Honora's murder, a police search of the Rieper house unearthed Pauline's diaries. This resulted in her immediate arrest for the murder of her mother. Juliet was arrested and charged with murder the following day.

After Pauline's arrest it was discovered that Honora and Herbert Rieper had never married. Pauline was therefore charged under her mother's maiden name of Parker.

In August 1954, a plea of insanity was rejected by the jury in the Christchurch Supreme Court trial, and Pauline Yvonne Parker and Juliet Marion Hulme were found guilty of murder. Too young for the death penalty, they were sent to separate prisons to be "Detained at Her Majesty's Pleasure."

Juliet was released in November, 1959 and immediately left New Zealand to join her mother overseas. Pauline was released two weeks later but remained in New Zealand on parole until 1965.

It was a condition of their release that they never meet again.

Is the information in the epilogue correct?

[jp] Yes, in every detail presented (except the legal phrase is detained during Her Majesty's pleasure since it may also please Her Majesty to release you). There was some confusion (possibly deliberate) about the 'conditional' nature of the girls' release, according to statements made by New Zealand Prison authorities to the press at the time, but Jackson's version is correct. The information in the epilogue does not tell the whole story, however, and the real-life events are, perhaps, even more poignant and tragic (see section 7.3.1).

4.2 Events before the film

How old was Honora when she ran away from home with Bert?

[jp,sb] In "Heavenly Creatures," Pauline says to Honora: "Nana Parker told me you were only 17 when you ran away with dad." I have yet to find a source for this statement in real life.

Pauline's statement in the film was physically impossible, in real life, because Honora Parker was born in England and did not emigrate to New Zealand until she was 18.

According to Herbert Rieper's trial testimony, Honora was 45 when she was killed, Herbert was 61, and they had lived together for 23 years. (Some previous statements made by Herbert Rieper indicated that the couple may have been together for 25 years-- this would have made Honora under the age of majority at the time she and Herbert Rieper took up together, so numbers may have been changed). That would have made Honora 22 (20) and Herbert 38 (36) when they started living together, in 1931 (1929).

Was Pauline's flashback accurate?

[jp] Essentially, yes. Herbert Rieper testified that Pauline was struck with osteomyelitis when she was 5, and that he had visited her in the hospital.

Was Juliet's flashback accurate?

[jp] No. Juliet was sent to the Bahamas "for the good of her health" but after WW II when she was 8, not during the War when she was 5, and there is no evidence she was hospitalized there.

How accurately were the girls' ailments portrayed?

[jp,jb] The facts presented in the film essentially matched those presented during the trial, though the extent and seriousness of the girls' ailments was probably more extreme in real life than was portrayed in the film.

Pauline had suffered from extremely painful osteomyelitis at the age of 5, and was reported to have nearly died. It was also reported that her bout with this disease was her first memory as a child. She was hospitalized for 9 months and underwent very painful treatments very bravely. Even changing the dressings was reported to be very painful. She underwent a series of operations over the span of nearly 3 years to "drain the muck out" ("discharge" according to medical reports). She was left permanently, though not severely, handicapped by this disease and she experienced chronic pain throughout her childhood and adolescence, for which she took pain killers. She was advised not to perform strenuous sports, and was excused from PhysEd. Pauline may also have been affected, emotionally, by her illness and by having to be isolated in a class all by herself for two years after being released from the hospital. Her academic achievement didn't appear to be adversely affected by this isolation, though.

Juliet had been very sickly, on and off, as a child with various respiratory ailments, some very severe, including a very serious case of pneumonia when she was 6. At that time, she almost died. Juliet did contract TB, as shown in the film.

But, Juliet also had additional, significant medical problems not shown in the film. Perhaps most significantly, she had been severely 'bomb shocked' as a young child. This is an almost archaic term for extreme psychological trauma encountered during wartime. If Juliet had been a soldier, it would have been called 'shell shock.' Juliet and her family lived in London during the Blitz of WW II and this and other family conditions had a severe emotional impact on Juliet. 'Bomb shock' is a slightly catch-all psychological phrase, but her mother did tell consulting psychiatrists that the two of them were caught out unprotected in London during an air raid and suffered a near miss. Bombs and bombing, WW II and death (this was during the frenzy of the cold war, after all) actually held a significant place in the girls' testimony and interviews. Oddly enough, her childhood experiences probably would have made Juliet a prime candidate for what would now be called 'post-traumatic stress disorder.'

Juliet was separated from her family more times than depicted in "Heavenly Creatures" and her behaviour upon being reunited with them was one of extreme overdependence, both not shown in the film. Hilda Hulme testified that Juliet was very difficult to discipline and was demanding and prone to temper tantrums. These things were only alluded to in the North American release version of the film.

There was also considerable indirect evidence entered into testimony during the trial of Juliet having continuing, more severe psychological problems. These problems were mostly connected with Juliet's being separated repeatedly from her family. However, it should be borne in mind that the defense strategy was to have Juliet declared criminally insane, so some (perhaps more than some) of the psychological testimony may have been biased toward exaggeration of her problems.

Herbert Rieper's testimony about his daughter's character was pretty straightforward and tended to paint Pauline as a moody but quite ordinary girl with no serious psychological problems before she met Juliet Hulme. However, it was also clear from his testimony that Herbert Rieper was, in many ways, a typical father for his times--he actually knew very little in the way of details about his daughter's health or her personal life.

Where was Juliet sent "for the good of her health?"

[jp] Before she was sent away for the good of her health, Juliet was sent away to the North of England soon after her brother was born. Then, after contracting pneumonia for the second time, Juliet was indeed sent to live with another family in the Bahamas for 13 months, but she was aged 8, not 5. Then she was sent to the North Island of NZ, where she lived with another family. She was apparently institutionalized, eventually, because of another breakdown of her health, before her family moved to Christchurch.

Soon after the Hulme family moved to Christchurch, Juliet was again sent away because of her health, according to Hilda Hulme's testimony, to a boarding school in the North Island of NZ. Juliet returned to Christchurch before the events shown in "Heavenly Creatures." In all, Juliet spent a total of about 4 1/2 of her first 11 years separated from her family 'for the good of her health' and for other reasons.

4.3 Physical Details

How accurate were physical details in the film?

[jp] The film was absolutely outstanding in this respect. There were almost no anachronisms (see 3.1.27), and attention to known detail by the filmmakers concerning the time, the place and the events etc of the case was superb. Locations, sets, costumes, props--all were pretty much spot on. Walsh and Jackson really did their homework in writing the script, and then all the professionals involved in the film turned it into a precise recreation, by attention to detail.
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