In anticipation of the release of City of Heavenly Fire, I’ve been re-reading The Mortal Instruments, and (re-)watched the film on Saturday evening. It’s not an unenjoyable film, but to put it bluntly I can see why they’ve not made a sequel yet; the producers can’t seem to have made their minds up as to whether they were making a film for book fans or for those unfamiliar with the stories, and ended up making a movie for neither.
The film has much faster pacing than the book (what film adaptation doesn’t?), and it’s missing a lot of the suspense of the book. Within the first twenty minutes we see Jocelyn down a potion to put her in a coma – a coma the reader doesn’t find out was self-induced until the end of Book 2. Likewise the revelations that Jocelyn is a Shadowhunter and Clary’s father is, not a Gulf War veteran, but Valentine, occur much earlier than in the book. To an extent, this is a good thing, because for viewers who have already read the books these are not going to come as surprises, and attempting to build suspense for a revelation the audience knows is coming is an exercise in futility. However, for non-book fans it can feel very fast-paced, and my fiancé, who hasn’t read the books, practically needed a running commentary from me to explain details that are elided in the film.
Yet the film isn’t loyal enough to the books for me to assume it was designed to appeal to fans, either. Major plot details are changed (it’s implied that Jace wasn’t really brought up by Valentine, but it’s something Hodge invented to manipulate Jace and Clary; and Clary retains the Mortal Cup at the end of the film), as are characters. Book!Valentine is charming, using his ability to make people feel loved to manipulate them. He abused Jace as a boy, but in such a way that Jace is convinced it was the right thing to do to teach him to be a tough Shadowhunter; a testament to his cruelty, single-mindedness, and charisma. Valentine has very fair hair (but almost-black eyes), and is almost always impeccably dressed, often in suits. Film!Valentine, pictured above, is handsome like book!Valentine, but that’s where the similarities end. It’s not that he looks different from the description that bothers me so much as his overall outfit and hairstyle suggest a very different personality and, indeed, his behaviour in the film makes him seem like little more your average creepy movie villain.
Isabelle, one of my favourite book characters, received similar treatment. Book!Isabelle loves being a Shadowhunter, but equally, she loves being a girl. When not in her hunting gear, she’s likely to be seen in a flowing skirt or with ribbons in her hair. In the movie, she seems to have been reduced to a generic Action Girl. I admit to being partial to characters who are both tough and feminine (I love Celaena Sardothien, from Sarah J. Maas‘s Throne of Glass series), but I am not particularly against women who are tough and not feminine (I also love Kara ‘Starbuck’ Thrace, from the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica). It’s the fact that the film removes Isabelle’s girliness, taking away part of what makes book!Isabelle, well, Isabelle. More than that, she seems to lose all her character’s depth. This is what characterizes the Action Girl: a woman who has little character development other than her ability to kick ass. It always strikes me as lazy writing in anything other than a bit part, and comes across as though the writers felt they ought to include a woman in their butt-kicking cast but didn’t really know what to do with her because she’s not one of the (inevitably better-characterized) men. What’s worse is that there already existed a template in book!Isabelle for making a woman who was tough and still three-dimensional.
In spite of my criticisms, I did find the movie enjoyable, as evidenced by the fact that I’ve watched it more than once. On the whole, I thought the casting was excellent, particularly of Aidan Turner (Luke Garroway), Lena Headey (Jocelyn Fray) and Godfrey Gao (Marcus Bane). Robert Sheehan as Simon Lewis was a stroke of brilliance. I also quite liked that they didn’t try to pretend Clary’s backstory was a surprise to anyone besides, well, Clary (and her peers), because the build-up to it that worked so well in the books would have felt stilted, especially considering much of the audience would already know the answer.
Overall I think the film is worth watching for most fans of the books, if only to satisfy their curiosity. In spite of its deviations from the book, the film is still enjoyable in and of itself, and for many fans those differences aren’t a big deal. That being said, it can be difficult for people unfamiliar with the story to keep up with the plot, so if you’re interested in watching it and haven’t read the book, find a willing fan to give you the commentary (or better yet, read the book! It’s worth it).