‘Mortal Instruments: City of Bones’ shows how a good book becomes a good movie

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Oh thanks, Hodge. It only took us three whole books to find that out!

Adapting books into movies is a tricky business. Often the results seem to fall into one of two categories. The movie is either considered “faithful to the books” and runs the risk of nonreaders struggling through complicated plots. Or it’s considered to be “a good movie” just “not much like the book.” A very few movies manage to squeeze into the narrow gap between those camps and satisfy both new viewers and fans of the source material. Mortal Instruments City of Bones nailed that middle ground.

xmortal-instruments-city-of-bones-movie-poster.jpg.pagespeed.ic.wES6j_lMqvI sensed some skepticism coming from the internet when the first footage of City of Bones started making the rounds. Many people seemed tired of the theme of an invisible magical world being revealed to a hitherto very normal individual who turns out to be part of uber awesome group of supernaturally powered magical beings. And I get that. I can even see where the folks who thought it looked like an attempt at an edgy Harry Potter were coming from. But City of Bones – the entire Mortal Instruments saga in fact – is a beautifully constructed mythos that stands firmly on its own.

Before I get a little nitpicky and possibly tread into spoiler territory, I want to just look at the movie itself. Of course, for many people, how it compares to the book is going to be what matters. But just for a minute, I want to pretend that there is no book behind this film and talk about whether it works enough as a movie to have been an original script.

ShadowhuntersIn fantasy of any form, there are new rules that the viewer or reader has to learn. If you want us to believe in an invisible world all around us filled with vampires, werewolves, warlocks, demons, and half angel/half human Nephilim, you have to give us enough information to sell this fundamental plot point. Otherwise, it’s simply going to be cheesy. However, if you try to over explain it or even fit in half the back story from the book, we’re going to fall asleep. And this was the most perfect balance City of Bones struck. I went to see it with someone who had never read the book. When I’ve watched other adaptations with new viewers, there’s often a need to pause the movie a couple times to explain. Most recently, the flashbacks in Hunger Games to Peeta tossing Katniss bread caused confusion. That didn’t happen with City of Bones. Certainly, there were open ended plots and burning questions…but only because it was the first movie of a series.

mortal-instruments-city-of-bones-trailerAlso, for a movie full of imaginary stuff, the special effects were gorgeously used. They fit seamlessly into the story. You were more concerned about the fact that Rottweilers shouldn’t be turning into demons than you were about how fake or realistic the demon turned out. And they also managed to avoid going overboard with the CGI. Probably the only point I really noticed it was in a greenhouse filled with exotic (as in not ever occurring in our world) plants. There was almost an Avatarish vibe going on that point that seemed a little out of step with the movie. But you know you’re scraping the bottom of the complaints barrel at that point.

Okay. At this point, if you haven’t read the book, and you’re planning on going to the movie, I am going to hit some major plot points. Read no further if you care about spoilers.

So, coming at the movie from the perspective of a reader, the first thing we care about is the cast. Do these real life people step into the characters of the book or are we left with our head to the side going “really?” To a person, the cast of City of Bones was spot on. I have never seen this before. Even side characters whose plots they couldn’t really pick up at this point were there on the fringes and cast to perfection. I think we’ve all felt pretty confident that Jamie Campbell Bower was born to play Jace, and even that Lily Collins was a good choice. The two Jocelyn and Clarythat really surprised me were Lena Headey as Jocelyn and Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Valentine. Both of these characters were almost secondary in the book. Obviously, Valentine is a major catalyst, but he doesn’t really start to develop until later in the series. During flashbacks, both he and Jocelyn are fascinating characters, but during the present day, they are really just adults on the sidelines of the teenagers’ story. Honestly, through a good portion of the series, I kind of sided with Clary and felt her mom hadn’t handled the whole, “by the way, you’re a Shadowhunter” thing very well. But in the movie, I felt a certain amount of sympathy for Jocelyn…still mostly sided with Clary, but I felt I understood her mother’s dilemma a bit more.

jonathan-rhys-meyers-and-valentine-morgenstern-galleryAnd Valentine actually just went up about ten slots on my villain ranking list. Because Meyers proved we don’t need much back story to hate an antagonist. One of the huge book elements that didn’t get much time in the movie was the Mortal Cup. Beyond the fact that it’s something everyone wants, and everyone else is trying to hide, they didn’t go into a lot of detail. We know legend says the first Shadowhunters were created by drinking from it. We know Valentine stole it and used it for experiments we presume were bad. And we know he desperately wants it back. That’s about it. The bit about the entire world being at stake pretty much got left out. Yet as soon as Meyer’s shows up, you don’t really care why he wants it or what’s at stake. You want the kids to keep it from him to keep it from him. Anything that important to a ridiculously powerful, crazed sociopath shouldn’t just be handed over. Honestly, if it weren’t the over the top intensity Meyer’s brought to the role, the movie probably wouldn’t have crumbled at that point without more information on the Cup.

City of Bones in the GardenProbably the only moment the entire movie that I got jolted out of the story came from Hodge. If you’ve read the books, Valentine throws a real zinger at Jace and Clary at the end of this installment that doesn’t really get resolved until the end of the third book. However, for baffling reasons, Hodge spells out it’s a lie straightaway in the movie. Granted, only he, Valentine, and audience know the truth, so there’s still room of the all emotions and angst in the next movies. And I think most readers instantly suspected it was a lie…but it’s more satisfying not to know and to have to wonder alongside the characters. So I have no idea what happened there, but it doesn’t really ruin the movie. Admittedly, between that, the fact that Simon doesn’t get turned into a rat, and the complete lack of flying motorcycles, there was a very small twinge of “it’s not the book.” But Isabelle’s whip more than makes up for it.

There’s no doubt that book adaptations are improving. City of Bones built carefully on the foundations of Harry Potter, Hunger Games, and Hobbit, and probably surpassed all of them. I’m not going to state that too categorically since three out of those four are still on their first movie. However, I went to the theater expecting something much more like Golden Compass and Percy Jackson. Fun to see, but not good enough to make me care about any follow ups. I walked out of the theater prepared to buy a pre-ticket for the next one.

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