Adapting a beloved fantasy series, especially one that lives bright and beautiful in the imaginations of readers the world over, is always a risky proposition. The final film(s) could be great (Lord Of The Rings), good (Harry Potter), or terrible (Percy Jackson). For the first half of the film, at least, The Mortal Instruments: City Of Bones does a good enough – albeit hugely rushed – job of translating Cassandra Clare’s densely-populated fantasy universe from page to screen. Unfortunately, it takes a violent detour into almost incomprehensible mediocrity in its final act, one that will frustrate fans and confuse neophytes no end.
Clary Fray (Lily Collins) is a perfectly normal girl… or so she thinks. One day, however, her world implodes upon itself. She starts sketching odd symbols everywhere and seeing frankly impossible things, like a trio of darkly-clad youths killing someone in a club. In short order, her mother Jocelyn (Lena Headey) is abducted in a whirl of mystery, her surrogate uncle Luke (Aidan Turner) seems to not care, and she and her nerdy best friend Simon (Robert Sheehan) are rudely inducted into the dark, dangerous world of Shadowhunters – a race of humans with angel blood coursing through their veins, entrusted with saving the world from the encroaching threat of demons. With the help of brooding Shadowhunter Jace Wayland (Jamie Campbell Bower), Clary must puzzle out the mystery of her mother’s disappearance.
To be fair to director Harald Zwart and screenwriter Jessica Postigo, the mythology of City Of Bones is almost proudly dense. Clare’s novels often unfold (especially in this first novel) in entire chapters of lengthy exposition, packed to the brim with details and history that – in cinematic terms – amount to monologues that would greatly slow the pace of the film. It’s no wonder, then, that the story is sliced up, reshuffled and stitched back together for the purposes of the film.
What’s frustrating is that Zwart and Postigo actually do a fairly good job of it at the start. Largely in line with the progression of the novel, Clary’s relationships, predicament and odd powers are all efficiently sketched out, with cuts and edits made where necessary to improve the film. In fact, City Of Bones benefits from a couple of nice touches that were missing from the source material: an enormous hint, for instance, of the true extent of Clary’s powers, and the chance to see Jocelyn in action. As in the book, the awkward love triangle between Clary, Jace and Simon occasionally descends into cheesy mawkishness, but – barring one spectacularly poorly-chosen choice of accompanying music – doesn’t even begin to approach Twilight levels of annoying. There’s also a dry, sarcastic wit to the first two-thirds of City Of Bones that’s nicely reminiscent of Clare’s snappy, cheeky writing.
That’s what makes the completely muddled final third of the film such a disappointment. Somewhere along the way, Zwart and Postigo apparently decided that they no longer needed to bother themselves with anything so trivial as staying true to the novel. As a result, shadowy uber-villain Valentine (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) is pretty much completely destroyed as a character. Unlike the calm, collected and utterly logical zealot in the book, the cinematic Valentine comes across as more psychopath than sociopath, a boiling cauldron of rage whose motives are barely explained in the tumult of confrontations and battles that take place once he appears on the scene. The film plays fast and loose with everything thereafter, switching out crucial plot points for no fathomable reason.
Riling the diehard fans of Clare’s novels is one thing, but making all these odd changes only to confuse and befuddle newcomers to the franchise is another. In its attempt to cover the huge sweeping narrative of Clare’s book, the film as a whole already barrels along at a rather breathless pace. In the beginning, at least, it’s possible for neophytes to keep up with the proceedings. But, by the time it tumbles headlong into its third act, City Of Bones has become an almost hopeless jumble of demons, werewolves, and plotholes, careening haphazardly from moment to moment as if on the hunt for its lost narrative. Zwart, as it turns out, doesn’t quite know how to modulate or moderate either tone or pace, and so loses coherency and emotional engagement the longer the film drags on.
There isn’t all that much his cast can do to salvage the situation. Neither Collins nor Campbell Bower has really had the occasion to demonstrate genuine acting chops in their careers to date; City Of Bones is no exception. They’re not overly annoying and are perfectly adequate in their parts, but hardly sensational. Sheehan, who has proven himself an exceptional actor in television fare like Misfits, is hamstrung by a role that lacks any of the depth of its literary counterpart, while all the other supporting characters turn up so briefly as to be almost negligible. The one exception is cat-eyed warlock Magnus Bane, a hugely charismatic force in the novels whose ten or so lines of dialogue in the film are delivered in so painfully wooden a fashion by the beautiful but hopeless Godfrey Gao that one wishes he could be forgettable.
Frankly, Clare’s novels aren’t great literature. They’re fun, rip-roaring adventure stories with a huge helping of supernatural weirdness and romance – something you’d imagine wouldn’t be too hard to translate onscreen (especially after its dangerous hints of incest are watered down and made much more understandable for a wider cinematic audience). But City Of Bones is, sadly, a misfire – it may start out surprisingly strongly, but it loses the plot so quickly and so thoroughly thereafter that it’s enough to give anyone whiplash.
Summary: Mortally incomprehensible to newbies, especially by the end, and deeply frustrating for anyone who’s actually read – much less adored – the book.
Rating: 2 out of 5 stars