August 23, 2013

All you’ve ever needed is your pencils and your imaginary worlds: How ‘The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones’ compares from book to film

I was on a cruise around the Pacific Islands in December last year, stretched out on a sun bed with Anna Karenina on my lap, when I first heard about The Mortal Instruments by Cassandra Clare.

My younger sister was reading one of the paperbacks in the series. I can’t remember which one, but I do remember feeling intrigued by the rapid page at which she flicked through the pages. She was so engrossed that the cocktails, pools and spas on the decks of the cruise ship seemed to have no allure.

I looked at the front cover of the paperback, and immediately lost interest. It looked like any other young adult fantasy novel with its caricature of a lead character on the cover, shrouded in light against a dark and brooding background.

I still asked what it was about and she begrudgingly spared a few minutes to run through the basics of the story – of Jace and Clary, the demon hunters, and their exciting adventures against werewolves and vampires and an assortment of other dangerous and mythical creatures.

I feigned interest for a moment, and then turned back to Anna to Count Vronsky. And I didn’t give Cassandra Clare a second thought.

When the previews for the film version of City of Bones – the first book in the series – were shown on TV, I felt only a slight flicker in my memory. And it was with the interests of this blog alone that I again asked my sister about the series, and at her insistence decided to give it a go.

The first few chapters were hard going. The way the Clare set up the story seemed strained, and the characters clichéd. Of course there was a beautiful yet unassuming and unconfident female lead, and of course she had a geeky best friend who was secretly in love with her. And here comes the bad boy, the love interest and would steal her heart, and his cool and attractive sidekicks. And together this is the group of teenagers that would save the world without asking the adults for any help. Sigh.

I’m 27 years old. There are too many books in the world, and not enough time to read them all. I didn’t want to waste my time reliving the same old story about teenage angst and love triangles set in a magical sub-human reality.

But I persisted, and soon enough I too was turning page after page in quick succession. Something about the story pulled me in. The world was imaginative; its characters were endearingly flawed; and there was enough intrigue to keep me guessing. I laughed out loud a number of times at Clary and Jace’s witty sarcastic banter, and I found myself caring about what happened to them.

But – spoiler alert – when it was revealed just a few short chapters from the end of the book that Clary and Jace were brother and sister, I involuntarily yelled “No!!”

I texted my sister:

Me: “It’s so shit that Jace is her brother!!”

She: “Yeah. Keep reading though it gets worse!”

Me: “Does she still have a crush on him in the next book? I don’t think I could read that… It’s too ‘Flowers in the Attic.’”

I was so disappointed. This twist completely ruined it for me. I lost all interest in reading what would inevitably be a series of books about a troubled brother-and-sister duo despairingly fighting their romantic feelings for each other. Ick.

I told my sister that I was determined not to read another book, so she might as well tell me the key plot points of what happened next. Spoiler alert number two – thankfully, apparently you learn in book THREE (!!) that Jace and Clary are in fact NOT brother and sister. It was all an evil ruse by Valentine. Woo eee, you got me Cassandra Clare. Well played.

This knowledge took away the ick factor and I felt much better about the series. I finished City of Bones this afternoon, and I have just returned from seeing the movie. And I was pleasantly pleased.

As is often the case, there were LOTS of deviations from the book – but in my opinion they were all well warranted and made the film much more cinematically effective. By showing scenes that were beyond Clary’s first person point of view – like the interactions between her mother and Luke in the kitchen when they discovered that she had been drawing runes – added interesting new elements to the story.

My sister tells me that many of the ‘new’ facts that were revealed in the film were actually revealed in later books. For example, we were not supposed to know YET that Clary’s mother put herself into the coma, or that Valentine experimented with demon blood. We were also not supposed to know at this stage in the story that Clary and Jace are not brother and sister…

Yes, that’s right. I was very pleased that the filmmakers decided that the audience didn’t have to wait for this revelation. In the film, it was at Hodge’s suggestion that Valentine break the hearts of Jace and Clary by lying about their lineage. By doing this, their heartbreak could be keenly felt by the audience, without allowing the ick factor to seep in.

Very clever.

There were some other key changes, that helped to make the film a bit more action packed and dramatic:
  • In the book, Simon is turned into a rat at Magnus Bane’s party and is mistakenly kidnapped from Clary’s bag and taken to a vampire lair. In the film, he is not turned into a rat at all, but is intentionally poisoned and kidnapped and strung up in the lair by vampires who were after the Mortal Cup all along.
  • In the film Simon has a brief dalliance with Isabelle to make Clary jealous. There is no such dalliance in the film – Isabelle is much too aloof, and Simon too dweeby. It wouldn’t have been believable at all.
  • In the film, Clary notices Simon’s vampire bites. In the book, no one is aware that Simon was bitten. My sister said that revealing this fact so early will have significant impacts on the second film. I’ll have to take her word for it for now.
  • There is very little detail in the book about the back-story of the former generation – of Clary, Jace, Alec and Isabelle’s parents, and the actions of ‘The Circle’. Perhaps this will become more important in the second film?
  • Clary is given the opportunity to kick ass and she experiments with runes in the films. This must be something that she builds up to more gradually in the books.
  • Rather than fleeing The Institute at the end when his curse is lifted, Hodge stays on and has a role in the battle. In fact, everyone has a role to play in the final scenes (except for Alec, who is still unconscious) and the battle is in The Institute rather than at Valentine’s hideout. This was much more effective - I didn't like that all of the drama in the book was played out in a fancy room with only Luke and Valentine involved in the fighting.
  • The portal is also at The Institute in the film, whereas in the book there are two portals – one in Dorothea’s flat, and the other at the old asylum where Valentine is hiding.
  • The film doesn’t have any of the “Forsaken” – the tortured and now monstrous humans who inhabited Clary’s apartment and then acted as Valentine’s army.
  • In the book, as far as we are aware by the end, Valentine escaped through the portal with the Mortal Cup. In the film, Clary flummoxes him with a replica and hides the real cup back inside the tarot card.
In all, I have to say that despite my initial reservations and snobbishness, I did come to enjoy this story. This is a series that I will follow with some interest. And the film did succeed on improving upon what was already a solid original.

The verdict:

How does the film rate: 4/5

How does the film rate as an adaptation: 4/5

Total: 8/10

Book or Big Screen: Big Screen


  1. Ooo! This movie won over the "book" choice!? How fun. Glad to know it was a decent movie - I'll definitely rent it once it comes to DVD. Hopefully after having read the novel. :)

  2. This article is mind blowing. When I read this article, I enjoyed.

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    1. Thank you Shannon, that's lovely of you to say. I'm glad you enjoyed it :)