Spangler’s From Sentence to Screen: The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones

The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones is a 2013 urban fantasy film directed by Harald Zwart, starring Lily Collins, Jamie Campbell Bower, Robert Sheehan, Kevin Zegers, and Jemima West. The film is based on the first book of The Mortal Instruments series, City of Bones, by Cassandra Clare. The story takes place in contemporary New York City and is centered around a 16 year old girl, Clary Fray (Lily Collins), who has believed for her whole life she and her mother were completely normal. Then one night when she goes to a club for her birthday with her best friend, Simon Lewis (Robert Sheehan), Clary believes she witnesses a boy get murdered by three people covered in tattoos. The next day two men come to her house looking for a special cup which her mother (Lena Headey) is hiding. To protect this secret Ms. Fray drinks a potion that puts her to sleep. Just before poisoning herself Clary’s mom calls her daughter and tells her to stay away, but she doesn’t listen and runs home. Once there, she finds what appears to be a dog which ends up attacking Clary. She is saved by one of the tattoos people from the night before, Jace Wayland (Jamie Campbell Bower). He kills the dog and explains to Clary that what just attacked her and the boy he stabbed in the club were actually demons. Jace explains to Clary that he is a Shadowhunter, and the two start the search for Clary’s mother and the secrets she has been hiding. This leads Clary down a path where she learns about the hidden world full of supernatural beings and a past she can not remember. In this blog post, I will be looking at how the adaption keeps, changes, and enhances certain aspects of the original story. 

For the most part the portrayals of the characters in the film, especially Clary’s, are strikingly similar to how Clare described in her series. Lily Collins portrayed the right amount of innocence and uncertainty for the character of Clary. She is also oddly defiant and curious to the point of putting herself in danger, which are two of the book character’s biggest flaws. Collins’s portrayal of Clary, shows attention to detail. This can be seen in her movements, which help the viewer learn as much about the character as through her dialogue. Such movements occur when the character is scared, which often end with Clary putting herself in additional dangerous situations. Another feature that I thought was really well done and added to not only the character but also the plot, was how the filmmakers reference Clary’s special abilities through her art. This is a key element of her character in the books, and these angelic abilities are slowly revealed in the book and movie. After the night at the club, Clary wakes up to her room covered in papers that each have the angelic rune drawn on them. This alludes to the fact that the magic being used to block her memories and abilities is slowly fading. Then when she is drinking tea while sketching at the Shadowhunter’s New York Institute, Clary manages to put the tea cup into her sketchbook making it look like she drew an exact replica of it from her point of view looking down. This ability to put objects inside flat surfaces and her unconscious drawing of the angelic rune shows the audience that she might not actually be human and more like the Shadowhunters: a supernatural being called Nephilim. This gives the film space to grow with Clary’s powers as a Nephilim, if they chose to continue the series.

Since the book is fantasy and has many supernatural elements, an important aspect for the movie is to showcase the supernatural visually. Throughout the movie, I noticed that filmmakers chose to use many of the magical weapons, potions, and supernatural beings from the book. Things like the Seraph blades that the shadowhunters use and their steles (what they use to make their tattoos or runes) were very close to how they were described in the book. The look and the function of these items were made to be very visually appealing and helped with their portrayal as magical objects. Because it was a movie and things needed to be condensed compared to the book, some of the nuanced details and uses of these magical objects were put to the side for the sake of time. Looking at books, the blade part of a Seraph blade comes out of the hilt, almost like a lightsaber, when a Shadowhunter says the name of the weapon.  While in the movie, the blade is always out, which makes it more convenient but some of the magical elements are lost in that. Another example of this is when Jace or one of the other Shadowhunters are using their steles. It is never explained how steles work, so instead they end up looking and functioning like magic wands at times, which they are not. Places in the film like this, where details are oversimplified, can make things vague and could lose the book readers. Die-hard fans and readers of the book series would have liked those extra details to come through. This vagueness also can make it hard for viewers of just the film, because the reasoning or significance of those key details are left behind, which makes it harder for the rules of the supernatural world to come through.

When looking at the plot, I found that most of the scenes in the first half of the film played out the same or fairly closely to what was described in the book. Though some things may have been condensed, or happened in a slightly different chronological order, many of the scenes were adapted well to film. One place in which the movie begins diverging from the book is at the end. When the film is coming to its climax there is a pivotal scene which involves the two main characters Clary and Jace, and the main antagonist who turns out to be Clary’s father, Valentine Morgenstern (Jonathan Rhys Meyers). In the movie it takes place in the Shadowhunter Institute instead of an old abandoned hospital, like in the book. After going back and evaluating the film, the choice of the Institute could have been for technical reasons and not just lack of funds for a different set. The New York Institute is a major setting in the story and there is a strong emotional connection to it for almost all of the main characters. So choosing to make this encounter take place in the institute gives more gravity to the scene, whereas in the book the abandoned hospital gives the scene just a general creepy atmosphere. This scene also does not end quite the same as in the book. This is of importance because if the movies had continued being made they would’ve had to find a way to rectify this change so the story could still follow closely to the events of the book series. 

When it was announced that in 2013 the first book in The Mortal Instruments series, The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, was coming out many fans of the book series were very excited. Going into the movie, I was a big fan of the series and had read the book, City of Bones, several times. Unfortunately when the movie came out it received some bad reviews, most of which concerned how the two mediums differed. These reviews made it impossible for any more of the books to be adapted to film. The decision to not continue with the series left the film audience with several unanswered questions, which were meant to be resolved in later movies. Nevertheless the film City of Bones was made in a way that effectively showed many of the elements and ideas from the book. As well as the fact that actors were all very effective in their roles, which made for an enjoyable movie that paid homage to the book. A couple of years later in 2016 the book series was again adapted, but this time into a TV series called Shadowhunters: The Mortal Instruments, which ran until 2019. I would definitely recommend watching it if you were a fan of the movie. In my next blog post I will be looking at the 2014 physiological thriller Gone Girl, directed by David Fincher and adapted from Gillian Flynn’s novel of the same name

— Jo Spangler, Film blogger.


Jo Spangler’s Bio:

Jo Spangler

Jo Spangler is a junior at Lewis University, majoring in English Literature and Language with a minor in Creative Writing. She is a writing tutor in the Lewis Writing Center and a Youth Enrichment Aide for the YMCA. In her free time, Jo enjoys reading, writing, listening to music, and watching movies. She has been to 10 countries outside the United States, including England, Italy, Turkey, and Austria. One of Jo’s favorite book series is The All Souls Trilogy, by Deborah Harkness, because of how she mixes the supernatural with history and the focus on character development. In the future, she hopes to go into the publishing industry to help find new and exciting books for people to read.


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