Movie studios are always looking for the next sure thing, and ever since Twilight took over teenage girls’ hearts and wallets they’ve been hoping that YA Lit lightning will strike twice. The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, based on the books by Cassandra Clare, is the latest contender in this category, and while it certainly is better than Twilight, it leaves something to be desired as a book adaptation.
City of Bones does many things right—namely the acting, characterization, and overall production design. The casting in particular is exceptional. One problem that many film adaptations of popular YA books run into is the fan reaction to casting. Readers have imagined their perfect Gale, Percy Jackson, and Jace for so long that no real actor can possibly please everyone. However, City of Bones actually gets it right.
Lily Collins is a perfect Clary, the 16-year-old protagonist who discovers that she’s actually a Shadowhunter, part of a secret world of warriors given the power to kill demons by an angel. Collins manages to capture the vulnerability of the character while also portraying the determined, fierce characteristics from the novel. Despite the Twilight comparisons, the movie’s Clary is no Bella Swan. Even while she’s intrigued by and attracted to Jace, Collins’ performance makes it clear that Clary has other relationships and worries on her mind to deal with.
One of these relationships is with Simon, who is played with quick wit by Irish actor Robert Sheehan. Simon, who could easily be a Jacob-esque annoying friend who can’t deal with the female lead finding another man attractive, becomes the comic center of the film. He cracks jokes, drops pop culture references, and acts concerned for Clary without ever dipping into annoying stereotype. Collins and Sheehan’s onscreen relationship comes off as genuine—often a problem when translating a great friendship from the page to the screen.
The real triumph of the adaptation, however, is Jamie Campbell Bower, playing Jace, Clary’s mysterious love interest. Although he was originally met with intense reluctance from the fans, Bower brings the Jace from the book alive. He hits all the subtleties of the character from the novel—his sarcasm, his brief moments of vulnerability, his growing feelings for Clary, and his rather intense daddy issues. He does brood a bit, but this is no Edward Cullen. This is the witty, violent, and loyal Jace that all the book’s fans have come to love. The rest of the cast, particularly the Lightwoods, Jocelyn (Clary’s mother), and Luke, are all perfectly suited to their roles. It is clear that this cast is not only very familiar with their characters, but they are also passionate about the source material.
The other important way that the film gets the books right is in the production design. As a book reader myself, most of the sets didn’t disappoint. Java Jones, the Institute, Luke’s bookshop—all of these sets were translated from the book with loving attention to detail. Most of the props and creatures came across well on the screen. The steles, angel blades, and runes all manage to be believable onscreen, never screaming “prop” or “bad makeup” in the way that many world details tend to appear. The one creature design that does go bad is that of the Silent Brothers themselves—they unfortunately appear like cheap Halloween outfits, the prosthetics obvious and almost painful in a film that does everything else visually well.
Unfortunately, the script is wildly uneven. The story vacillates from being direct-from-the-novel to deviating in crucial moments. The last act of the film, which contains Hodge’s betrayal and the Shadowhunter’s initial confrontation with Valentine (the main villain), almost completely abandons the original text. Everything happens at the Institute, which is under assault as Valentine summons a horde of demons that fly around in the shape of crows. The main players are all present but seem to be doing completely different things than they should be.
Perhaps most importantly, the big reveal of the novel falls completely flat. In Clare’s book, Clary and Jace are told by Valentine that they are actually both his children. This of course takes place after they’ve begun a romantic relationship. The tension between them, their struggle with the information, drives much of the plot and suspense throughout the trilogy. Though that fact that this reveal is a lie is hinted at, it’s only finally proved wrong in the last act of the third book.
The movie, however, takes a different approach. Perhaps driven by a studio afraid of what possible incest would do to their teenage audience, the script immediately reveals that this information is a complete lie. The suspense is taken away from any audience members who haven’t read the books. Even more disappointingly, the characters themselves don’t believe that they are siblings. While I am in no way advocating incest, one of the most interesting themes in the trilogy is watching these two characters struggle with the idea of it. Two people, having never known each other, are thrown together and begin developing feelings, only to be told that these feelings are disgusting. To watch them actually engage in this struggle is fascinating—and the movie completely guts the books.
Overall, the film is a decent adaptation of the book. If you’re looking to see your favorite characters on screen, it delivers. If you’re looking to see your favorite plot on screen however, you’ll be disappointed in many places. The themes and ideas that made the novels work are weakened, even though the relationships are not.
The news that the sequel adaptation has been postponed to improve the script is actually quite welcome. The screenwriters have a challenge ahead of them—keep the dramatic tension and momentum of the books moving forward while stepping around the conflicts and themes that they’ve already hobbled. That they’re taking more time to rework the script gives me hope that City of Ashes will improve on the weakness that kept City of Bones from being great.