MOVIE URBAN LEGEND: Jane Foster became a scientist in Marvel Studios’ 2011 hit “Thor” based on a suggestion by a scientist advising on the film.
It is always interesting to see how characters evolve between the start of a screenplay and the release of the film. We’ve seen how a rewritten song took Elsa from the villain of “Frozen” to one of its heroes, and how Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” was almost completely rewritten to make Belle more of a feminist. That was also the case with Jane Foster in Marvel Studios’ hit 2011 film “Thor.”
Natalie Portman starred as Foster, who in the film is an astrophysicist forced to reconcile her belief in science with seeming proof of the existence of magic, as embodied by Thor. Of course, astrophysicist is a good deal different from Jane Foster’s career in the “Thor” comic books, where she was a nurse for decades before eventually becoming a physician. As the story goes (as suggested to me by my pal, Travis Pelkie), Marvel got the idea for Jane’s big-screen career change from a scientist from the Science and Entertainment Exchange, a project of the National Academy of Sciences that advises filmmakers. Is that true?
It doesn’t appear so.
The frequently repeated story was even relayed by Sean Loverd, the national director of the Science and Entertainment Exchange, who spoke about the impact group volunteer Sean Carroll on “Thor.” As he told The Hollywood Reporter:
Perhaps more importantly, Carroll also inadvertently helped flesh out Portman’s character at that consulting session. He suggested to the filmmakers that the film’s story might make more sense if Portman were a physicist studying Einstein-Rosen bridges, rather than what she was in the comics: a nurse.
Portman boarded “Thor” before there was even a script, primarily because of the involvement of director Kenneth Branagh (she once said she saw his adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing” hundreds of times). She told the Los Angeles Times, “I signed on to do it before there was a script. And Ken, who’s amazing, who is so incredible, was like, ‘You can really help create this character.‘”
Carroll and the Exchange did, in fact, work with the filmmakers before the script was finished. Carroll, a research professor in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology, wrote about the experience on the Exchange’s website:
Unlike “TRON: Legacy,” where we came in after the screenplay had been drafted, on “Thor” we came in near the beginning. Marvel had done a lot of work on the idea, but there wasn’t yet a script. The Exchange set up a consult meeting with director Kenneth Branagh, the screenwriter, and a few people on the design and production side of things, along with three scientists — Jim Hartle from UCSB [University of California, Santa Barbara], Kevin Hand from JPL [Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which is managed by Caltech], and myself. We bandied around lots of issues relating to the Thor universe and how it fit in with Marvel’s bigger plans. Once there was a script, I came in to read it and offer some more comments.
However, Carroll pointed out that when they came back with the script, the filmmakers had already arrived at the idea of making Foster. Still, the Exchange was able to influence the character beyond merely hero occupation. He noted:
Kevin Feige, president of production at Marvel Studios, is a huge proponent of having the world of these films ultimately “make sense.” It’s not our world, obviously, but there needs to be a set of “natural laws” that keeps things in order — not just for Iron Man and Thor, but all the way up to Doctor Strange, the Sorcerer Supreme who will get his own movie before too long. The thinking here is very much based on Arthur C. Clarke’s “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
That’s the other area where we science consultants were able to help out: in shaping Natalie Portman’s character of Jane Foster. In the original comic books Foster was a nurse, but they wanted to update her considerably for the movie. So they hit on the idea that she could be a scientist, but what kind of scientist? (I argued that she be an experimental physicist.) What kind of position would she hold? Could there be tension with her academic supervisor? What kind of posters does a young physicist have on her apartment wall?
As soon as Portman was cast in July 2009, Marvel made it clear that Foster was going to be different in the film, stating in the press release, “In the early “Thor” comics, Jane Foster was a nurse who became Thor’s first love. The character will be updated for the feature adaptation.” Similarly, when Kat Dennings was cast later that year, her character was described as working for a scientist (clearly Foster, although Marvel used the name “Kate Spelling” in casting notices to avoid giving away too much about Foster’s role). So it appears as though Marvel came up with the scientist idea its (it plays pretty well into the “woman of science/man of magic” angle). I asked Carroll himself, and he recalled studio was already playing with the idea before talking to the Exchange.
That isn’t to diminish the impact of the Exchange, of course, as the group clearly had a notable impact on the film, including how Foster was portrayed (and heck, Carroll’s influence very well could be why she was specifically a physicist). One area where Carroll played a major role was with regard to the Rainbow Bridge — the way Asgardians travel from Asgard to Midgard, aka Earth. Carroll relayed the following amusing exchange:
There is one phrase used in the movie that I think is directly attributable to my input: “Einstein-Rosen bridge.” This came about from a conversation between producer Kevin Feige and me that went something like this:
KF: We need the Bifrost Bridge to provide a way for the characters to travel great distances in space in a very short period of time.
SC: Sure, you probably want to say that it makes use of wormholes.
KF: Well, we can’t call it a “wormhole.”
SC: Why not?
KF: Sounds too Nineties.
SC: I suppose … you could call it an “Einstein-Rosen bridge.” Means the same thing.
So naturally, in the finished film, Jane Foster calls it an Einstein-Rosen bridge, and someone says “what’s that?” and she replies “it’s a wormhole.”
But anyhow, I am going with the legend as..
Thanks so much to Sean Carroll for the information and for all his great work. Plus, thanks to The Hollywood Reporter, the Los Angeles Times and the Science and Entertainment Exchange for the awesome quotes. And thanks to Travis Pelkie for suggesting this one!
Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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