‘The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones’ and presentism in cinema
By T.T. Stern-Enzi
I need to apologize up front for what will likely seem like a crazy rant from the geezer who refuses to keep up with the current trend in literature – the celebration of young adult fiction, in particular young adult fantasy. We need to find ways to engage young people, to make sure they read, and by read we tend to mean “absorb anything longer than a text or a tweet.” And it is impossible to reach a generation so hopelessly self-consumed by only the contemporary, the new. They simply just can’t be bothered with stories set in any period outside their own modern experiences. Resultantly, we are inundated with modern mythological reconfigurations like Rick Riordan’s “Percy Jackson & The Olympians,” which aims to replace Greek and Roman archetypes, or the bastardization of supernatural creations like “Twilight,” with its glittering vampires wandering around during the daytime, sire babies with humans and join forces with werewolves to avert the rise of the vampire illuminati. Oddly, it seems now that the least offensive of these fantasy updatings might be JK Rowling’s “Harry Potter” series, which merely usurped the epic narrative terrain explored by J.R.R. Tolkien.
So here, on the eve of the release of director Harald Zwart’s adaptation of author Cassandra Clare’s “The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones,” I can’t help but muse on my early immersion in the realm of science fiction and fantasy back in the 1980s, before the dawn of this age of young adult marketing. Fantasy was a specialty niche, supported by the fantasy game players – I was an avid Dungeons and Dragons guy at the time, in addition to coming into my own as a budding film geek – and fiction from writers like Michael Moorcock (the “Elric” saga, “The Eternal Champion”), Stephen Donaldson (“The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant”) and Frank Herbert (“Dune”). These writers forged brave new worlds from the unearthed foundations of myths and classic literature and, more importantly, they did so for mature readers. Their characters were adults, not teenage thrill seekers eager for graphic reflections of themselves and their times. I was jazzed to step into these dense and gritty worlds because they were so unfamiliar – so unlike my life and filled with characters beyond my experiences.
Yet, during a recent phone conference promoting the release of “The Mortal Instruments,” it was insightful to hear the stars of the movie – Lily Collins, Jamie Campbell Bower and Kevin Zegers – discuss the realities of signing on to such a project.
Collins proudly proclaimed her status as a fan of the series prior to casting, but Zegers (as Shadowhunter Alec Lightwood) came in with the agnostic skepticism of a non-reader who had only the script to guide him.
“I think (the general) instinct,” he started off, “is to group this book in with other books that have been made into films, especially the young adult thing, and that was my idea. I found myself really surprised by how character driven it is. The emphasis on the supernatural stuff is definitely in there, but it is not relying on vampires and werewolves and stuff like that. (“Mortal Instruments”) is about a girl in search of her mother and finding out who she really is.”
Chiming in, Collins added, “What I loved so much about it was that for the first time a reality and fantasy world were married together in such a great way. There’s drama, there’s action. I think there’s something for everyone in this story.”
Book sales would seem to support the notion that there is, indeed, something for everyone. Like “Harry Potter” and “The Hunger Games,” there’s plenty of evidence proving that adults have bought into these young adult tomes as well, but the fact remains that it is a backwards trend, a move that will ultimately pull literature – and the franchise-driven movie industry – away from mature speculation towards a “be-here-now” fantasy that will have little to say to future generations.
Reach DCP film critic T.T. Stern-Enzi at Film@DaytonCityPaper.com