A first here for me: I’ve occasionally reviewed the book and the movie adaptation together, but I’ve never had the opportunity to review them separately.
I was on holiday and at a bit of a loose end one evening last week so I popped round to the theatre to see the movie adaptation of the Mortal Instruments series first instalment, City of Bones.
Adapting a book into a movie is a famously dodgy endeavour that seldom satisfies anyone. Considering that, as fun and imaginative as it is, City of Bones is hardly the deepest or most intricate novel ever written, the movie of City of Bones is…bleh.
It is, shall we say, a lesser class of Fun Movie. It does, however, distinguish itself by being a study in the virtues and vices of such adaptations in Hollywood today.
I find there are two broad categories of good-quality adapted films: the ones that try to capture the themes and basic framework of the story, in the fashion of the Lord of the Rings or the Sci-Fi channel‘s miniseries of Dune. The other kind takes the basic story and puts a different spin on it, like the Day the Earth Stood Still (1951 version anyway) or Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
On the other hand, the bad or simply lazy adaptations are the ones that take assorted noteworthy events and lines from a popular title and shove as many of them into a normal feature length as they can. The Harry Potter movies and David Lynch’s adaptation of Dune fall in this category. And so, alas, does City of Bones.
The relative shallowness and simplicity of the Mortal Instruments does help it to a degree in that it’s easier to compact. One of the things that put me off the Harry Potter movies is that the filmmakers clearly presumed that the only people coming to watch the movies were people who’d read the books, and that dictated the amount of work they put in: lazily throwing together some of the plot-important-but-mostly-fan-beloved scenes and not bothering to stitch them together properly. The Prisoner of Azkaban movie’s construction was particularly atrocious.
City of Bones doesn’t have that problem as badly; in fact, I wish they’d packed things in a bit tighter than they did. The plot remains pretty well the same; Clary’s mother is kidnapped and she starts witnessing the strange doings of New York’s supernatural underworld, personified by the brooding, sarcastic but strangely compelling Jace, and its Big Bad, the evil Valentine.
The magic and imagination of Mortal Instruments made it a potential new Harry Potter, with a side order of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Unfortunately, they decided to make the next Twilight instead.
Something that raised eyebrows early on is that the movie doesn’t even pretend that the main characters of Clary, Jace and Simon are 16 in the movie. They’re clearly played by twenty-somethings. The whole thing is clearly tailored, not to tell the story, but to provide fanservice to that demographic.
This probably reflects badly on me, but there’s something about the portrayal of Jace I find particularly obnoxious. My mental image of Jace was of a kid trying to be more grown up than he was – almost a child soldier. Jamie Campbell Bower, who plays Jace, may be a perfectly capable and pleasant fellow. His performance, however, consists mainly of him standing in a hunched, intense-stare posture all. The. Time. And as obnoxious as Jace is supposed to be, he has a facial expression that just screams ‘punch me.’ Add to that his swimmer’s build, pallid complexion, high cheekbones and the fact that he was in the last two Twilight films and you end up with somebody who isn’t a character. He’s eye candy and not much else. He tries his best to emote when given the chance, but the script gives the poor guy little enough to work with.
Pacing is another thing that these kinds of adaptations flunk out on in my experience. Actually, City of Bones does better than most on that point but all the same, a lot of times explanations of just what happened are shoehorned artlessly into high-tension scenes.
The priority of showing off over storytelling is best demonstrated in the scene where Simon is taken by the vampires. In the book, he’s slipped something that makes him into a rat and they take him and they have to talk them into giving him up. In the movie, they drug Simon and take him and then a massive combat scene ensues that has nothing to set it over any other action movie. More sedate and tighter pacing would have made this a pretty good movie if it wasn’t so busy preening.
Another area where this bit them hard was with the villain. I actually found Valentine rather intriguing in the books; his anti-semi-human agenda seemed born of true conviction, however horrid it was, and he appeared at least to be calm, rational and a master manipulator.
And yet, the only thing the villain has in the movie is a big name: Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, known to most these days as the Tudors’ King Henry VIII. And it seems like the writers just wanted the hot-tempered, autocratic Harry to be in a supernatural action movie. This version of Valentine is like an abusive spouse. He tries to manipulate and when it doesn’t take he immediately flies into a violent rage, and he whiplashes between these behaviours throughout the climax scene. How he managed to build a movement in the first place in this way boggles the mind. Add to that the fact that his motives are skimmed over – the one point where the writers do go assume everybody already knows, except that this way the characters never learn his agenda – and so he comes across as a bit of a dumb thug rather than the mastermind we’re supposed to think he is.
I do like the design of the movie, including the costumes, but that’s rather reflective of how one-dimensional this movie is. With a bit more honest effort, it would have been a lot of fun. As it is, it’s looking like it’s not even successful enough to motivate a sequel.
In a way, I suppose it was inevitable. The trend since the Harry Potter films at least seems to be that Hollywood cranks out film adaptations of popular-with-the-twenty-somethings movies just on general principle. It’s reached the point with the Mortal Instruments and now, Divergent, that they seem to be making them on the assumption that they’ll be the next big fandom like Harry Potter or Twilight. At least with those two they waited until they actually were a big phenomenon.
So City of Bones is a spectacle, and an rather instructive one at that, but it doesn’t make the most of the potential, a by-the-numbers money-spinner that didn’t even spin much money in the end.
Fear for the state of Hollywood and the concept of the adapted screenplay, and don’t bother.