Sunday, September 15, 2013

The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones – Just Read the Books

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on September 15, 2013. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page.

Lily Collins and Jamie Campbell Bower in The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones

The following contains spoilers for The Mortal Instruments, both the film and the book series.

If I were writing this to let you all know how notably underwhelming the recently released The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones is, I know that I’m a little late to the party. Even if you weren’t aware of the film, or author Cassandra Clare’s multi-volume teen fantasy book series that inspired it, you probably heard that resounding flopping sound the movie generated when it premiered in theatres a couple of weeks ago. Just this past Thursday in fact the studio put the planned sequel (based on the second novel City of Ashes) on indefinite hold. It is probably for the best.

Directed by Harald Zwart (The Karate Kid, 2010), and starring Lily Collins and Jamie Campbell Bower (who played the centuries-old vampire Caius in the Twilight films), City of Bones is a bit of a hot mess: pretty to look at but remarkably frustrating to follow. In fact, that is the most apt word to describe the experience of watching City of Bones: frustrating. The movie – clocking in at over 2 hours – feels both unbearably long and exasperatingly hurried. I’ve read all five published books of the Mortal Instruments series, including Clare’s more readable Infernal Devices prequel trilogy, and even I found the film difficult to follow – and even more difficult to like. I enjoyed the books, mind you, but I confess they don’t live long in your consciousness after putting them down. Clare has produced a believable world on the page, and offers a number of interesting twists on the vampire/werewolf/demon narrative, but little of that makes it onto the big screen. The result is a film that no doubt would anger a fan of the books and confuse the average moviegoer. 

Jemina West, Kevin Zegers, & Bower out huntin' demons
Adapting a popular book series for the screen is certainly a risk for studios and filmmakers, and for the every commercially successful venture – see Harry Potter or Twilight – there are many more that die on the table – see The Golden Compass (2007) or A Series of Unfortunate Events (2004). (Admittedly the very worst one could say about the latter two films is that they are decidedly unremarkable adaptations of fairly remarkable – but arguably unadaptable – books: Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy is among the most extraordinary young adult book series to have been published in a generation, and the charm and moral insight of Daniel Handler’s Lemony Snicket books rest largely on the untranslatable voice of the books’ narrator.) Tasked with not only telling a story but also with a building an entire universe for that story to inhabit, the first entry of any film adaptation is especially challenging, but even on those terms, The City of Bones seemed to barely be trying. 

Here’s what you need to know: on the eve of her sixteenth birthday, Clary Fray’s world is turned inside out when she discovers that instead of being a normal, alienated Brooklyn teenager, she in fact comes from a long line of demon hunters. Returning home one day to find her apartment ransacked and her mother (Lena Headey, Games of Thrones) missing, Clary (Collins) clumsily but effectively dispatches a demon, and, along with her best friend, Simon, fall in with the local crew of Shadowhunters. There she meets Jace (Bower), for whom she feels an immediate attraction, who introduces her to the world of demons, vampires, and werewolves that apparently exists just out of view. (This conceit – like just beneath the surface of our modern cities is another world, parallel but invisible to all but those able to see it – is rather compelling. When I picked up the first novel, I was reminded of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, which did much the same thing to contemporary London. In Clare’s version however we are firmly in hipster Brooklyn, and through the eyes of our young heroes, the story unfold in uniquely American ways.)

All of this is roughly how it plays out in the book City of Bones, and indeed the film’s first 30 minutes or so work fairly well (there is, for example, a rather effective “emotional breakdown in the rain” moment as the reality of what she has been experiencing hits Clary all at once). But as soon as the action flares up, the intelligence of our main characters takes a sharp decline--in direct proportion to the increase in special effects. Where the book succeeds and where the film falls dramatically short is in its capacity to successfully create the world the story inhabits. World-building takes times, but the film’s focus on the growing desire between Clary and Jace leaves little room for that. The result is a kind of hodgepodge of CGI setpieces, simmering stares, and swelling music.

Robert Sheehan as Simon Lewis
Film, needless to say, is a different medium than the novel and deserves to be taken as such. For every mediocre film adaptation of a great novel, there are more than enough examples of great films drawn from mediocre novels. I try to walk into the theatre expecting – and indeed hoping – to see something new, even when I am already familiar with the source material. In the case of City of Bones, this was far easier, since I came with few investments in the narrative. Okay, I confess I did have at least one hopeful expectation: my favourite part of the books, Simon Lewis (played Misfits’ charismatic Robert Sheehan), Clary’s best friend and soon-to-be Jewish vampire, is given short shrift in the screenplay.  Though, to be fair, Simon’s transformation from nerdy, Dungeons-and-Dragons playing, wannabe rocker, Jewish sidekick to nerdy, Dungeons-and-Dragons playing, wannabe rocker, Jewish vampire doesn’t fully manifest until the second novel, Simon is almost an afterthought in the film. Irish Sheehan, adopting a believable American accent for the role, does rather well with the material he is given, but he isn’t given a lot. Along with his Jewishness, which plays more than an incidental role in the fascinating trajectory of his character over the course of the novels (and rewards us with some of the books’ best lines:What freaks out Jewish vampires? Silver stars of David? Chopped liver? Checks for 18 dollars?”), what little we get to see of Simon’s ironic and grounded sensibility is at odds with the melodramatic tenor of the rest of the film. Moreover as Simon, and therefore by necessity Simon and Clary's sweetly and realistically rendered friendship, moves into the background, the story loses a crucial counterbalance to the burning lust-at-first-sight intensity of Clary and Jace's relationship.

Despite the sometimes overblown teen romance emphasis of the novels (a feature which likely makes the books attractive to many of the young readers of Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight saga), Cassandra Clare’s Brooklyn is populated by realistic characters who rarely forget they live in the 21st century. Both Simon and Clary are pop culture geeks whose experience of this newly-revealed fantastic realm is filtered through the movies, television, and video games they know all too well. The characters in the novels do often have a kind of contemporary intelligence – especially in the character of Simon – and meet that world’s vampires, werewolves, and fairies with some pop culture literacy in that regard. But little of that is in the film (note to the screenwriter: one Ghostbusters reference does not make a film self-aware), and more to the point, the characters actually seem – to put it bluntly – rather stupid. (As an egregious case in point, just after a lengthy barroom battle with a posse of rapid vampires, Clary sees but then ignores what is obviously a bite mark on Simon’s neck. Her incomprehensible disregard for her supposed best friend’s well being implies she is either almost pathologically self-centred or just plain dense. Two minutes later, Simon notes that his lifelong poor eyesight seems to have mysteriously corrected itself, and then dismisses this fact with an amused half-shrug.)

Collins and Bower in mid-smolder (also Sheehan, centre)
There is a lot of great stuff in the books, mainly in the ever-expanding universe that the Shadowhunters inhabit, rich parallel histories and cultures of warlocks, vampires, werewolves, and faeries. But, in the film, the vampires are reduced to animalistic monsters (without culture or even it seems the ability to speak?) and our teen heroes seem to be the only remaining Shadowhunters on the planet. The failed Shadowhunter rebellion of 15 years earlier, which is supposed to have set the drama in motion, is barely described, and I can’t imagine how an untutored viewer could have made sense of it or the motivations of Valentine (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) the film’s villain. Though, to be honest, considering the number of liberties the script took in relation to its source material, I’m not sure fans of the books were any better off.

If you have read the books, you know that there is an incestuous elephant in the room that needs to be immediately addressed (and what follows are MAJOR SPOILERS for both the books and the movie): near the end of the first novel, it is revealed that (apparently) Clary and Jace are full blood siblings. This state of affairs remains a ‘fact’ until the climax of the third book. I confess, I was never completely sure that this actually worked on the page – it was certainly at odds with the author’s effort to keep the still-burning (now impossible to consummate) desire between the two centre stage. It certainly made for a sometimes uncomfortable read, and no doubt almost everyone who read the books was waiting to see precisely how the film would negotiate it. (It is one thing, after all, to read descriptions of the turmoil these revelations prompted in the two characters; it is yet another to watch it unfold before your eyes.)  Moreover, their purported siblinghood is more than just a source of taboo titillation for the readers or inner sexual turmoil for the characters; it’s also the source of one of the few substantial thematic through lines of the books series. Their parallel identity crises when confronted with the villainy of their “father” Valentine – for Clary, who owes nothing to the man besides DNA, and for Jace who (whatever his parentage) was actually raised by the man – are the meat of the story for much of the series.

The first of many awkward commutes for the young couple
Which is why the film’s cowardly and unthinking ‘solution’ to this is so especially galling: they dismiss the entire plot element, without ambiguity or open-endedness, as a deliberate (and somehow off-the-cuff) lying tactic by Valentine. The script throws away vast aspects of Jace’s personal story, but it would at first appear to resolve the issue: the audience is never to entertain the real possibility that Clary and Jace are siblings. Fine… But that’s not how it plays out: because Clary and Jace still believe it. (There’s a 20-second closing shot of the two of them snuggling on the motorcycle is almost unwatchable on these terms. I have no idea how an entire film could have been endured.) The end result is the pointless sacrifice of an essential feature of the story, with no discernible benefit. Again, whatever ambivalence I may have for that aspect of the story, I am not sure there is much left to tell once it is left behind.

Perhaps novelists should leave the dream of selling film rights behind, and look to television instead. If I were an author, I’d be shopping my books around Netflix or the cable networks, and keep a wide berth from major movie studios. The Game of Thrones and True Blood model of a-novel-a-season is far more conducive to the scope and tone of adapting from the page – especially considering the scope and depth required to build a rich, populated world. A TV series could perhaps have done justice to the world Clare has created.

Or better yet, just read the books and pretend the film never happened. I suspect that's the studio’s plan.