The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones Movie (2013)

Director: Harold Zwart

“You have an incredible gift and we need you…I need you”
Jace Wayland in City of Bones

The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones movie is based on the first book in The Mortal Instruments series called City of Bones written by Cassandra Clare. City of Bones is set in contemporary, New York and tells the story of Clary Fray, a seemingly normal girl, whose life is turned completely upside down. The story begins with Clary visiting a club with her best friend Simon. While at the club, a boy with blue hair catches Clary’s eye. She watches as he dances with a beautiful woman only to be killed by her and two male accomplices. Clary screams and is confused that the other people in the club can’t see what she can. She flees to her home and falls asleep. In the morning her room is covered in chalk drawings of a mysterious rune (shown in the sky of the movie poster). When one of the accomplices, Jace, shows up at a coffee shop, Clary confronts him, demanding to know what is happening. Before Jace can explain, Clary receives a phone call from her mother telling her not to come home, while there are noises in the background indicating something is wrong. Ignoring her mother’s request, Clary races back to the apartment. Clary finds her mother is missing, the apartment is trashed and a demon is lying in wait. She fights off the demon as long as she can before Jace arrives to rescue her. Clary finds out that there is another world that she never knew existed. How is Clary connected to this world? Will Clary be able to rescue her mother?

We both enjoyed reading The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones book, so when we heard that the book was being adapted into a movie we felt excited but apprehensive. It turns out that we were right to be apprehensive. Part of what made City of Bones brilliant was the world that Cassandra Clare created. This world was very shallowly portrayed in the movie adaptation. As Robbie Collin’s from The Telegraph says, “This gothic teen fantasy is one of the most disastrous page-to-screen adaptations in memory“. We would completely agree with this view. The movie kind of jumped from one action sequence to the next without taking the time to explain the world properly. For example, in the movie, while it is clear that Shadowhunters hunt and kill demons, it isn’t clear that they do this by drawing temporary runes onto their skin using a stele which gives them special abilities. Instead, the runes on the Shadowhunters’ look like tattoos because they don’t fade like they should (or even change depending on the mission) and the stele is strange colourful metal rod that lights up at the end when the stele is in use. This lack of explanation means that it is confusing when you first see Jace or Clary drawing on their skin using the stele. Additionally, although there are vampires and werewolves in the movie and Isabelle does show Simon around their museum of Downworlders, many of the Downworlders’ aren’t mentioned (e.g., fairies) and there is no explanation that Downworlders have a truce with the Shadowhunters meaning that they are not hunted and killed, unless they kill mundanes (humans). This information is fundamental to the movie, and yet it is missing. People who haven’t read the books would not have followed the movie all too well.

Many of the supernatural elements that were included in the movie were completely unexplained. For example, the witch light that Jace gives to Clary is confusing because he doesn’t explain why it’s important and it doesn’t come into play later in the movie. Or, Hodge’s raven that shows up halfway through the movie for no apparent reason and there is no mention that the raven is Hodge’s eyes in the institute. Jace and the other Shadowhunters also use all kinds of weapons but no comment was ever made on this. For example, Isabelle uses what looks like an electric whip but how this works is unexplained.

Other supernatural elements were missing from the movie entirely. For example, one of our favourite parts in the book was the ride in the hearse, which looks like a taxi to mundanes, which takes Clary and Jace to see the Silent Brothers. This was entirely missing from the movie, which was disappointing. Instead, the Silent Brothers just suddenly appear and try to help unblock Clary’s mind. The explanation of who they are is too brief and easy to miss if you aren’t paying attention. Again, as Robbie Collin’s from The Telegraph says, “the plot is an incomprehensible tangle of dead ends and recaps, and afterwards you realise only two things have stuck: the story’s countless unsubtle borrowings from very recent pop culture… and a brief aside in which we learn one of the earliest demon-hunters was Johann Sebastian Bach.”

We really didn’t like the changes to Clary’s character in the movie either. In the book, Clary isn’t the strongest female lead, but she does have her moments. For example, at the beginning of the book, when Clary finds her mother is missing, and she is attacked by a ravener demon. Clary manages to kill the Ravener demon on her own using Jace’s sensor. In the movie, however, Jace swoops in to rescue Clary from the demon. We didn’t necessarily expect Clary to be a very strong female lead in the movie because in the book Clary is outspoken but she fails to act in most of the fight scenes. In the movie, Clary was outspoken, and she does manage to outsmart Valentine at one point, but other than that she watches during the fight scenes. It was also rather disappointing that Jace or Simon had to swoop in so many times to save Clary. This was done in such an over-the-top way that we cringed every time. Once the movie is released, we will post some movie clips here for you to see for yourselves.

As far as the actors are concerned most were well cast, and overall a very attractive cast that will appeal to most people. One point we do have to give to Cassandra Clare is that she made sure an Asian actor was cast in the part of Magnus Bane, which matched the book, instead of making the character White (although we have other concerns with Clare). Also, all the people that are supposed to be related (Clary and her mother, Clary and Valentine, etc…) do look surprisingly similar to each other. Having seen several of these actors in other movies we know that they can act, however, that was not apparent in this movie. Our best guess is that the directing is to blame. The script for the most part was very similar to the book, but the timing of the lines, and the overall feel of the scenes was off. In the book, Jace and Clary trade barbs and take jabs at each other verbally. In the movie, Jace has some of these lines but they fall flat. Lynne’s favourite quote (“It means ‘Shadowhunters: Looking Better in Black Than the Widows of our Enemies Since 1234’”) from the book could easily have been included, but instead they let that moment pass in awkward silence. There were many moments that made us cringe, and it was difficult to like some of the characters in the movie. The nonverbal acting especially was cringe-inducing in the cliches. There is a moment where Clary falls on top of Jace and they almost kiss, despite the fact that two of their friends are still fighting vampires. This moment seems to last forever, and is especially awkward because Simon (the other member of the love triangle) is standing right next to them. Like has been seen in the Twilight movies, there were lots of extended staring scenes to “build” (or shove down our throats) the love interests.

The love triangle between Clary, Jace and Simon was over-done. In the book, the love triangle is rather painful because of how obvious it is, but in the movie, it was even worse. From the outset, it is clear that Simon has feelings for Clary, who only sees Simon as a brother. Her mother and Luke, and later Jace, repeatedly point out that Simon has feelings for Clary, but Clary denies it. Jace and Clary quickly develop feelings for each other, which was awkward because it happened too quickly and because Simon was there in every scene (bar one) where they stare at each other, nearly kiss or kiss. In the book, Jace and Clary are more like brother and sister in terms of banter throughout the first half of the book and this develops more slowly. Plus, many of the moments between them are separate, away from Simon and the other shadowhunters. This all just felt like the director was trying too hard to highlight the love triangle to attract the Twilight audience.

So far, we have talked about a love triangle, but things were actually a lot more complicated. It wasn’t really a love triangle at all, but rather a hot mess. I’ve drawn a little diagram that shows who is in love with/in lust with whom below:

Okay, so, you have Clary and Jace, who are mutually attracted to each other (double pointed, yellow arrow). Then, you have Simon, who is in love with Clary (the one sided, white arrow). Then, you have Alec, who is in love with Jace (the one sided, blue arrow). Then, you have Isabelle, who is attracted to Simon (the one sided, red arrow). Finally, you have Magnus Bane, a warlock, who is attracted to Alec (the one sided, green arrow).

We’re a little over love triangles anyway, but this? Seriously?! Anyway, this all really made the movie more awkward because there was always someone who was in love with someone else on screen, so the number of stares that went on in this movie was ridiculous. In one scene, Clary was staring at Jace who was staring at Clary, Simon who was staring at Clary, and Alec who was staring at Jace.

All of the romances in the movie were incredibly cheesy as well. The long stares between Clary and Jace were really irritating, especially because they were almost nose to nose in most of these. Plus, the sheer number of cliché’s meant we would groan, “no, they didn’t” so many times. For example, Clary and Jace climb a stairway to nowhere in the movie and on their way down, Clary trips straight into Jace’s open arms and they kiss. One of the most frustrating movies in terms of relationships and cliché’s that we have ever seen, including Twilight.

There were a couple of things we did like, such as the really nice music score behind the action. It was able to sound epic and really enhance several scenes, such as when Clary visits the Silent Brothers. It would be a soundtrack worth owning. There were also some really exciting fight scenes that worked very well. Frances liked when all the main characters face off against the vampires, there is a lot going on, but it is fun to watch. Lynne’s favorite fight was between Jace and some of Valentine’s henchmen at Luke’s shop. There were some really great moments that took advantage of the physical nature of Jamie Campbell Bower (Jace). When Jace killed two demon-possessed police officers, one by kicking the door of the police cruiser and then stabbing him, it made both of us laugh. Some of the weapons were really interesting as well. Isabel’s whip that was camouflaged as her bracelet was cool, and many of the stabbing weapons (swords, knives, etc…) were made out of a clear glass like substance that seemed to shine in certain scenes.

Overall, the special effects felt a bit underwhelming. The one that sticks out most are the werewolves’ teeth. There are several scenes where they start shifting, and they have “werewolf” teeth, but the teeth look like the cheap plastic vampire teeth we all had as kids! A lot of the really cool transformations of people into things are missing, and many of the really cool otherworldly elements are missing. There is no cool ride to the Silent Brotherhood, no flying motorcycle, no Simon turning into a rat, and no one really unearthly at Magnus Bane’s party. It felt like the director was trying to save money by just not even attempting some of the cool parts of the book. The vampires looked like they were from a low budget horror movie, and the werewolves spend only a brief scene as wolves.

One of the most annoying parts about the movie was that it spoiled the rest of the series for some people that have not read past the first book (like Lynne and Frances). The movie reveals that Valentine lies to Jace and pretends to be his father, and thereby making Jace and Clary really siblings. At the end of the first book Clary and Jace still do not know the truth about this deception, so neither do the readers (and from glancing ahead, it looks like they don’t find out until the third book). Lynne is currently reading the second book, City of Ashes, and several of the plot points (4-5 major ones) we thought were randomly added can be seen in just the first 60 pages, but it still kind of ruined the reading in a way that other book based movies have not done. As people who wanted to read the rest of the series when we had more time, this was extremely irritating.

As you can probably tell, we thought there were a lot of problems with this movie. So much of the movie was actually painful to watch, and it really spoils the book series. We will probably not see the next two movies unless there is a director change. The only good thing was that the movie helped us enjoy the book more! 

The ending of the movie really bothered us. We’ve written a separate, hidden post about the ending specifically. Of course, this will include spoilers, so only click on the link if you are okay with spoilers or have already seen the movie. Click this link to read my thoughts on the ending The Ending of Mortal Instruments: City of Bones Movie.

Final Verdict: Unless you want to turn watching the movie into a drinking game, or just like making fun of bad movies, avoid this movie, especially if you want to read the book series without spoilers!

In refreshing our memory of the book and points from the movie we ran across some wonderful quotes by critics that really summed up how we felt about the movie. So here are some of our favourites!

Director Harald Zwart unsuccessfully tries to compress teen angst, love, passion, unfulfilled dreams and action into an overzealous, over-the-top, never-ending finale which seems about as well planned as throwing rocks and sand into a blender in the hope that if you blend it long enough at high-enough speed, you might wind up with a delicious milkshake…The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones is not a very good film by any stretch of the imagination. However, it does possess a slick, beautiful, young-adult aesthetic and a supernatural, emotional yet nonsensical love triangle that the film’s target demographic goes crazy for.
David Blaustein from ABC News

To be fair, there are elements worth celebrating. The film is thankfully less self-serious than the mopey Twilight films. The Mortal Instruments revels in its own camp…But there is plenty of room for improvement. The action flick is overly long, complicated and, even by teen romance standards, cringe-worthy in its cheesiness.
Stephanie Merry from The Washington Post

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