The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones

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This first part of the Moral Instruments series is actually a pretty good representation of the original material, for good and ill, and the production design is beautiful. As an entry and attempt for a new franchise, it wasn’t as successful (but I’ll get to that). Though we could quibble about a couple of the casting choices, most of the actors embody their characters from the pages well.

The story is, of course, driven by the younger actors, and they handled the responsibility well. Collins (Mirror, Mirror) gave us the Clary as Clare wrote her. Sheehan (Misfits) too, though not quite what I imagined physically, created a very off-the-pages Simon. Bower (Sweeny Todd, Twilight) as well picked up his role as Jace. Zegers (Transamerica, It’s a Boy Girl Thing) and West (The Borgias), likewise with their brother/sister roles, gave us what we’d read, though they didn’t get enough screen time.

The adults, which provide the wisdom and driviung force of the screw-ups in this story of metaphorical adolescence are also all well known, solid performers. Heady (The Purge), Harris (Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows), and Pounder (Baghdad Cafe) always deliver. And as side-kicks, and often ignored character actors, Durand (Smokin’ Aces) and Maillet (Pacific Rim) provided the type of off-beat henchmen Valentine employs.

The odder choices of casting were Turner (Being Human), who is a little too young and small for his key role as Luke and Gao (All About Women) who is too short and also too young for Magnus, in my opinion. Both overcame these obstacles, but it took me a moment to adjust. The only big miscast for me was Meyers (Tudors), who just chewed the scenery too much and didn’t quite have the charisma or fighting chops he needed to pull off the part.

You may have picked up on the theme they all gave us exactly what was in the pages of the book. This is where the movie failed. The film took on everything good, and everything bad, in the books. First-time writer, Postigo, didn’t take advantage of the move to the new media to improve on the original and bring out its intent and core in a way that Clare, frankly, didn’t manage to do well. As she is already slated for the sequel, City of Ashes, I can only hope she learned from her error on this point. While director Zwart (The Karate Kid) has to take some of the blame, his efforts with what was there were fairly good. In fact, the opening sequences, through the first day and night, were very well crafted.

To be honest, the book was not really the best written bit of fiction, YA or otherwise. It felt rather rushed and surfacey when it came to characters and their choices. In other words, their actions felt more motivated by plot need than emotionally driven. That doesn’t make it uninteresting, but it also doesn’t make it compelling story-telling.

When you compare the books of Mortal Instruments to the books of The Hunger Games, for instance, the story is just not as immediately compelling and well told. Additionally, Mortal Instruments is much more complex. Hunger Games gets to tell a very straight forward survival and love story that expands over time, much like Potter. Mortal Instruments has to create a world and mythos in minutes, as well as expose huge mysteries. There is no time to sink into the world, you are thrust into it. Like The Golden Compass that came before it and failed to find an audience as well, there was just too much to tell.

When doing an adaptation, writers can either reduce the story, as in the case of Compass, or leave in everything, as was essentially done for City of Bones, inevitably squeezing things in and creating leaps of faith for action that are convenient, but not believable because the explanations are often missing. There was an opportunity to improve upon the book by focusing the story more and giving Clary some real depth and the plot some better grounding and less manipulation, which was lost. There is a reason it didn’t connect with audiences… there wasn’t anything much to connect with. We had a story and action, but no real emotion and characters. Add to this that if you haven’t read the book, the driving goal and understanding of the world would be a significant challenge, and you have already reduced your potential audience massively. 

The movie is beautiful and, if you’ve read the books, I do think it brings them to life. But, like the books, to me it all felt rather hollow. There were no moments of wonder, even when recreating Hogwart’s moments like revealing the Institute, there was no real emotional “wow” moment. It all felt rushed or unprepared and so made no impact. The hope is that they can revive the franchise with City of Ashes, but as they are likely to be given a smaller budget and simply attempt to cash in on what audience they have created, I suspect it will fail, but there is always hope.

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