Page to Screen: The Mortal Instruments — City of Bones (2013)

The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones
based on the novel by Cassandra Clare


Oh, Cassandra Clare. I’ve been feeling more kindly to her as of late, due to some of her comments at the Mortal Instruments panel at Comic-Con last month. (Last month? Man, that’s like twelve mnths in nerd years.) Specifically, her commitment to passing the Bechdel Test in her novels and the film (which doesn’t necessarily make a text feminist, but trying is always better than not trying!) and being very aware of how the usual supernatural fiction fare for teen readers feature male Chosen Ones, not female Chosen Ones. (I don’t know how adult supernatural fiction shakes out on this point.)

And yet, this is still the same woman who plagiarized a great deal for her famous Harry Potter fanfic, The Draco Trilogy. (The linked report was published a year before The Mortal Instruments: The City of Bones was released. It’s pretty long—this is a shorter summary of everything.) To that, I can only say, “What a piece of work is man!

Anyway, despite my total disinterest in the series, the first book of which I read four years ago, I somehow found myself really looking forward to the film adaptation. First, I’m awfully fond of Lily Collins, ever since Jodie and I realized that her absolutely precious Snow White forces someone to commit suicide at the end of Mirror Mirror as soon as she has any real power. (I didn’t even know I liked adorable princesses drunk with power that much!) Second, I will turn up to any fantasy movie, especially if it threatens to be hilariously bad.

The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones was everything I expected. The plot remains the same: young Clary Fray discovers that she is half-angel and half-human. When her mother is kidnapped, she teams up with demon hunters known as Shadowhunters to get her back. Action, romance, and intrigue follow. The story is actually tightened up a little bit for its big film adaptation to fit a more traditional quest storyline. I will turn inquiring minds to the Shadowhunters wiki.

While reading the book reminded me so strongly of Harry Potter that it put me off, the film version reminds me of nothing so much as Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Of course, in the intervening years, I’ve actually seen the first two seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which probably helps. But seeing it onscreen made me realize what the very obvious influences have done to the franchise—they date it to the early aughts, back when I joined fandom at the tender age of nine. I wonder if this might be one of the reasons for the series’ popularity among young teens who were babies during those heady days of the early Harry Potter fandom and the last seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. For them, this is all a breath of fresh air. For me, I’m instantly transported to middle school, when my friend group’s most earnest desire was to own Tripp pants. (Those were dark days.)

But that’s all personal context. What about the film itself? While the story has been whipped into shape to give a satisfying ending if the franchise goes ahead or not, it’s still a pretty undercooked movie. When it comes to books with huge fandoms getting movies, some filmmakers simply assume that the audience has read the book and presents, instead of a coherent narrative, highlights from the book. (I’m looking at the later Harry Potter films.) You can follow City of Bones pretty easily on a macro level, but the details leave almost everything to be desired. For instance, why is Alec Lightwood so touchy about his sexuality? That’s answered in the book, but never explained in the film, which leaves him being so rude to Clary that I didn’t care about him when he got hurt towards the end. Characters go undeveloped, especially Alec and his sister, Isobelle. Plus, there’s rarely any establishment for characters’ actions; for instance, Jace is supposedly tall, pale, and snarky, but still tells an older woman “nice to meet you” without a trace of sarcasm when they part ways. As a film, City of Bones barely stands up by itself.

It also features a particularly shoehorned love triangle between Clary, mysterious Shadowhunter Jace, and Clary’s best friend Simon. While Lily Collins and Robert Sheenan have a friendly rapport, the chemistry between Collins and Jamie Campbell Bower is so scorchingly palpable that it’s almost hilarious to see Simon realizing that if he doesn’t say something, Clary might date other people with better communication skills. (I realize teenage boys probably don’t read Captain Awkward, but they should. Use your words, boys!) Of course, all of that goes pear-shaped when Jace gets jealous because… Clary considers Simon family? As I get older, I have less and less patience for unnecessary romantic barriers, which YA series appear to be plagued with. (But rest assured that the greatest unnecessary romantic barrier is included, making the final scene of this film hysterically funny.)

Still, the cast is pretty game, especially Jonathan Rhys Meyers, who plays Valentine as a cross between a shaved Jack Sparrow and Tom Cruise’s Stacey Jaxx from Rock of Ages. Fan favorite Magnus Bane appears very briefly in two scenes, but manages to make an impression with his lack of pants in his first scene and his frankly impressive Kingdom Hearts cosplay in his second scene. (Talk about the early aughts!) The cinematography, while generic, is quite lush, satisfying my desire for moving fantasy visuals. And my favorite action sequence from the book, in which the Shadowhunters plow through a horde of vampires, is the high point of the film. It’s not a good film by any stretch, but I can see myself riffing it on a lazy Sunday while doing chores. (Pssh, as if I wasn’t riffing it in the theater.)

A sequel, City of Ashes, has been announced, but I’ll be interested to see how The Mortal Instruments fare on the big screen. There’s been so many young adult franchise nonstarters as of late (Beautiful Creatures, I Am Number Four) that I wouldn’t be surprised to see City of Bones tossed onto that pile.

Bottom line: The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones features a game cast and one very good action sequence, but it is otherwise an undercooked movie that assumes you’ve read the book and doesn’t bother to be an actual film. If you need a little subpar fantasy in your cinematic life.

I saw this film in theaters.

You can read my review of the novel here.

8 thoughts on “Page to Screen: The Mortal Instruments — City of Bones (2013)

  1. I am not going to lie, this looks terrible, and also I will almost certainly go see it. I didn’t like the Mortal Instruments trilogy nearly as much as I’m enjoying the Infernal Devices trilogy – in large part because I really, really didn’t care for Jace. But this still looks like a prime candidate for cutting out of work early on a weekday to go watch a terrible movie for a matinee price, which I love doing. Even more if I can convince friends to come with me and share the mocking. 🙂

    • Ah, I’m glad! I had a lot of fun, as you can see. It’s really a shame, but it’s also kind of hilarious—I imagine that there’s probably a lot of stuff on the cutting room floor giving us Alec as a proper character and that they didn’t realize until the end that they’d cut him almost completely out of the movie.

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