Sadly—or thankfully, depending on whichever you prefer—this book-to-movie adaptation hasn’t been doing very well. And unfortunately its author, Cassandra Clare, has been at the center of some controversy, most notably accusations of plagiarism. City of Bones follows the fifteen-year-old Clary—played here by twenty-four-year-old Lily Collins, because how big is a nine-year gap, really?—who, after witnessing a murder, is drawn into a world of magic and demons.
It turns out that the murder victim was a demon, and his killer, Jace, is a Shadowhunter, a person who fights demons using magical runes and awesome swords, because swords look cool. When Clary’s mother goes missing and Clary finds herself about to be killed by one of the demons who took her, Jace comes to her rescue. Clary discovers that her mother used to be a Shadowhunter as well, and that her mother had stolen and hid a very powerful relic called the Mortal Cup, capable of turning normal people into the half-angel, half-human Shadowhunters. Thus starts our plot to find Clary’s mother and the Mortal Cup, and this also marks the beginnings of an epic romance between Jace and Clary.
All in all, it doesn’t surprise me that this movie seems to have bombed, however disappointed I am that that’s the case. I’d say that this movie is a fairly decent adaptation of the first book in The Mortal Instruments series. The problem here is that the books are terrible, and they made a really terrible movie. So why am I sad that it’s not doing well?
Well, there are a number of reasons. For starters, it features a female protagonist, and we don’t get a lot of those. It has queer characters, who I thought were some of the most well written characters in the books. And it has a twist in the romance that I thought could have been very well done and unique.
Spoilers for The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones after the jump.
While I wouldn’t call this movie good, I think it deserves better than the 12% it has garnered on Rotten Tomatoes. However, one of the big problems with the movie is that it would probably be difficult for someone who hasn’t read the books to follow it. A lot of this comes from the pacing. Two hours might be long in movie terms, but it’s really not enough time to get across a story as big as the first book in the series. City of Bones is about Twilight length, and being similar to Twilight in many other regards, such as characterization, doesn’t really help.
But in order to fit the first book into such a small timeframe, a lot of things had to be cut. Unfortunately, without those things tying the bigger scenes together, the movie runs like a series of clips that don’t quite fit with each other. Additionally, the movie also decided to entirely rewrite the ending to the first book, for reasons I cannot fathom. It’s not as though this movie was doomed to fail. I thought the acting was relatively decent, and that really brought the characters to life for me. Even if every main actor looked at least five or six years older than the teenagers they were portraying, they kept true to the characters. However, I have never been a fan of Clary and Jace.
Jace was too obviously the hot guy with an angsty past and a witty comeback to everything, and Clary, clearly being a self-insert for the author—she’s a redhead, is into the arts, is literally named Clary, etc.—has never been my favorite person because I don’t think too highly of Cassandra Clare due to the aforementioned plagiarism issue. There were a few things that I did like about Clary. Her being a self-insert and sharing the author’s hobbies and interests isn’t a problem, because those are real believable traits a person can have. I really enjoyed how Clary described her surroundings in the books by always using artistic terms and referencing styles and paintings, because as a fellow artist, I can relate to that. So for me, Clary’s worse in the movie, because while she’s still an artist, the prose that made me relate to her is gone—and thus, so is everything I liked about her.
I also find her romance with Jace painfully dull, since I don’t really care about either of them. However, something happens that changes all that. They find out that they are brother and sister. I think it throws a wonderful twist into this romance. Like, wow, they have these feelings for each other that they have to deal with, and they’re going to have to break up and move onto different people. We don’t often see characters break up because of this reason. We don’t often see them break up at all! This is neat!
Incestuous relationships tend to be accepted more for fictional characters in books than they do in movies, probably because the actual visualization of it makes it more real, so people become more uncomfortable. Lady Geek Girl and I debated about whether or not the incest plot point would be kept for the movie. She really thought that it would be cut entirely, since we later find out in the third book that they’re not actually related anyway—but at the same time, that’s a huge part of the drama in the following books, so cutting it out of the movie would have been a terrible move. I completely hate incest, but even I was excited to see how the first film would handle this.
The movie tries to have it both ways. Clary and Jace are tricked into thinking that they’re siblings, but the audience is told that it’s a lie. I’m not sure how I feel about this. On the one hand, I can understand why they chose to do that, but on the other hand, telling us that it’s a lie takes away from Clary’s and Jace’s drama.
Unfortunately, despite the alleged incest, the demons, angels, magic, etc., the most interesting thing about the whole movie and the series it’s based on is the controversy surrounding its author, who came into fame after writing a fanfic and dealing with accusations of plagiarism. When reading her works, it’s hard to tell what’s hers and what’s not. As a fanfiction author, Cassandra Clare found herself banned from sites like fanfiction.net for plagiarism, when it was discovered that passages from her Draco Trilogy had been lifted straight out of works like Pamela Dean’s The Hidden Land. Though I have never read the Draco Trilogy, allegedly there are whole passages from that in The Mortal Instruments as well. Whether or not she wrote those passages herself, I cannot say. I hope they’re her words. Additionally, her books seem to take place in the Tithe series by Holly Black, or at the very least, play off them. However, I hear that that was at least done with Holly Black’s permission. The Mortal Instruments reads like a confused mess of fanfiction, Star Wars with faeries, Twilight, Harry Potter, and plenty of other things. All of that is rather apparent in this movie.
While I’m not the biggest fan of the books, I think they are a great deal better than this movie. City of Bones, both the books and especially this movie, would have offered more than expected to audiences. We have a queer relationship between the characters Alec and Magnus. Magnus is also played by an Asian actor, which is a rarity in itself, though unfortunately, he has possibly the worst actor of the bunch. And once again, we also have a female protagonist—who isn’t a complete damsel—and those are not that easy to come by. So it’s not as if the story wouldn’t have offered anything; it just goes about it horribly, so it’s not a very good film for representation. If you want to see this movie, there’s really not that much harm in it. I just wouldn’t walk into the theater expecting much else besides pretty characters and cool action sequences.