I’m going to preface this post with saying that I have not read this book by Cassandra Clare. Seeing a movie adaptation before reading the book is an unorthodox way for me to try to connect with a story. Especially in the sci-fi/fantasy genre, there tend to be discrepancies between book and film. More often than not the film will do its damndest to capture the essence of the book, and these can turn out to be incredible movies in an of themselves (like the Harry Potter series). But it must be admitted that even in these cases, some essential feeling of the book is missing from the film, a layer that can never be captured on tape.
That being said, City of Bones does not fall into this category unless the book is popular for being charmingly terrible. This film was an utter miss in so many departments it was hard to not throw popcorn and kick the chair in front of me… (Totally socially acceptable at the age of 22, right guys?)
Let’s start with the most straightforward flaw in this movie. I walked in to the theater five minutes late (all because someone wanted to get a free drink for her birthday at PF Chang’s!) which, as it turns out, was exactly five too many minutes. I had already missed a lot. That being said, in any other movie, no matter how complex, it’s still pretty easy to catch up at the five-minute marker. Take The Fellowship of the Ring, for example. Talk about complicated! However, five minutes into the movie, Frodo is still at home – in fact, even Bilbo is still at home. Good old J.R.R. and later Peter Jackson, know it’s best to kindly and smilingly ease the audience into this completely foreign world. True, it’s true, naysayers, that City of Bones does not in fact take place in a “completely foreign world.” But it may as well. The rules and norms you and I have come to understand as “the world” no longer apply in Clary’s version of Earth.
Walking in five minutes too late, I was instantly overwhelmed by the plot. Why are they running? Does she know the cute guy? No, she doesn’t. How did they find each other? Does she know the other guy, the nerdy one? Are they boyfriend-girlfriend? And who the hell is she anyway? And WHY ARE THEY RUNNING?! Very overwhelmed. I settled into my seat and opened my mind to the various idiosyncrasies of the setting, waiting for the understanding to happen.
Elements of the plot only grow more convoluted as the story progresses. First of all, it’s never quite explained what the heck Clary is or why she is that way. Sure, they give her kind a name – “Shadow-hunter” – which serves only to inform that she is the good guy. Possibly in reference to magic, because normal people don’t often cause these grand “shadows” that must be hunted. But her purpose and powers aren’t explained. Sure, she hunts because they’re bad and she’s good. But WHY? Vampires are kind of bad guys, and we don’t really like them, but WHY? WHY are vampires less desirable than werewolves? There are too many categories of characters to keep straight – demons, vampires, shadow-hunters, werewolves, even mundanes. (Heads up, if you don’t know what I’m talking about, you’re a mundane.) I can’t even list for you the things that confused me because the truth is, I didn’t retain anything long because it made so little sense.
It only makes it worse that Clary’s powers are never thoroughly explained to her or us, so in many perilous scenes they’re literally saved by a deus ex machina. What did your tenth grade English teacher tell you to never include in any of your stories? Deuses ex frickin machinas. They’re all about to die down in the basement where Clary’s mother was all floaty, and Clary whips out some magical pen thing (which is also never explained) with an overwhelming urge to draw on herself. Thank the heavens! Her doodle turns the bad guys into sculptures. Unexpected spurts of previously unknown magical powers is not a compelling plot point. Mayyybe I missed a few explanations? Mayyybe the point was to just let go and accept all that comes my way? Well… I’m not buying it.
I have to fit it in somewhere how abysmally depressing it is to witness girls trying to fight in leather pants and knee-high stiletto boots. Do they think they have to look sexy to overcome the bad guy? Do they think the movie won’t be about them anymore if they wear, oh I don’t know, maybe RUNNING SHOES? Try running for your life in stilettos. Then try in some New Balances. There’s a world of difference, I guarantee you. Completely asinine to put otherwise capable girls in impractical – more like counterproductive – clothing. In real life, those outfits would mean the difference between life and death.
The only thing worse than an over-complicated and unexplained plot is over-complicated and unexplained relationships. None of the characters in the film are represented as having any tangible relationship to one another, with the exception of Clary and her mother, and Clary and Jace as long as they’re under the impression that they’re siblings. (I’ll get to them more later, and that’s a promise.) Maybe let’s talk about Jace’s other complicated romantic relationship…? I’m talking about Alec, of course. When Clary arrives at the Institute, Alec is immediately awful to her. Okay, he’s defensive of his peeps and his crib, understandable. Then he lets out a malicious “Stay away from Jace” or something to that respect. This gives an indication of some kind of protectiveness, maybe best friends or brothers. (Maybe gay lovers. Maybe.) Then we learn that Alec and Jace are best friends when… Nothing. Nothing happens. We learn about it because someone tells us. There is absolutely nothing otherwise to indicate that they have a normal bro relationship.
Other convoluted relationships include Luke. We don’t know if he’s good or bad, fucking my mom or not, a father figure or more of a creepy mother’s-boyfriend figure. Then there’s Hodge. Hodge who? Oh right, that old guy who is arbitrarily respected before he betrays everyone who loved him. Is he the boss or not? They speak about him like he’s the boss, but he doesn’t do very many boss-y things. How did he come to have all these paranormal teenagers and their hormones in his huge house? We never know. So we don’t care when he betrays everyone. Or when he dies. Does he die? I can’t remember. I didn’t care. And then there’s Simon. He’s a nerd, that’s for sure. And he totally digs Clary, that much is also certain. He doesn’t know how to fight. What else do we need to know? Well, unless we want Simon to be a stock character, we need a lot more than this. A lot more than knowing that he’s the “best friend”… which we don’t get. Making Simon a stock character. (Remember in tenth grade when your teacher was preaching about the dangers of the deus ex machina? The next day’s topic was the shortcomings of stock characters.)
Wait… Perhaps I was mistaken. The only thing worse than complicated relationships is utterly flat characters. We can start with Clary. Well, she’s pretty! And seems to be “the one” what with her incredible hand-doodling powers. I love that. Don’t you? Neo, Harry Potter, Frodo, and now Clary – having a “the one” just makes it so easy to identify a protagonist. Can she fight? Not really. Only with divinely-inspired doodles on her hands. Is she smart? Eh… We don’t really get the chance to see because she was almost as confused as me the whole time. Does she have any other redeeming qualities? …Not that I could see. She wasn’t modest or confident, a weenie or brave, nice or mean. She was pretty much right down the middle at all times. Nothing special.
It’s similar with Jace. Actually, Jace was the character I felt had the most personality in the whole array of them. His character? The guy who’s fed up and sarcastic because he knows so much more about everything than you. Smart? Yes, and resourceful as well. He’s an encyclopedia of shadow-y facts and endlessly good at getting out of sticky situations. Can he fight? Yes, impressively. Would love to know where he got that from. He’s also proud, quick and caring in his own way. I totally had a crush on him. The problem? This is a type. This character is a trope of this modern YA fantasy genre. He’s not original – look at Four from Divergent, or Amos in the novel I’m working on… Shit.
Alec has no personality except that he’s an asshole to Clary. We learn that he’s gay very abruptly, and wait for it to have some consequence… It doesn’t. So when Alec is almost killed and still on the cusp of death when the film ends, we don’t care. Hodge, I’ve already talked about a little bit. The biggest problem is that he has an authority role in the Institute without having any authority. Tell me why he’s the boss! Give me some semblance of a back story. Please.
(Sucks in breath on sides of teeth.) And then… there’s Valentine. First of all, I knew he was the bad guy right away because he was introduced in a flashback. I have no problems with flashbacks, but it’s a little exciting to not know who the bad guy is at first. Then, I knew he was the bad guy because he’s a tremendous asshole, which makes it too easy to hate him. He’s like Voldemort. There’s not one opportunity to root for him. He is the evilness and without him the story is over… It’s all just too easy. We learn essentially nothing about him except some loose stories about who he’s related to. Same questions as before. Is he smart? Who knows. Not me. We never get to see. Can he fight? Well yes, he can fight. How did he learn? Is that just what happens when you’re the bad guy? The worst thing for me was not being able to tell if he was one of those nobly-driven antagonists, or an insane one who really just needs to be stopped. What kind of bad guy is he? From this angle, it looks like he’s the standard kind: bad because he’s just bad, okay?
No – no. I was wrong. The ONLY THING worse than characters you can’t care about is having a weak romance forced down your throat. Bekindrewrite.com, which has infinite advice for how to construct a compelling story, offers this equation for modern literary romances: “Two attractive people meet. Adventure ensues. They get shot at together. One or both of them shares a moving past experience with the other. Suddenly, it’s love.” Tell me this is not what happens to Jace and Clary. Tell me, please. I’d love to see it some other way. But literally, these people do nothing together except flee, fight, get confused and then unconfused together. Oh, and there’s that one scene where they fall on top of each other and are hesitant to get up. Very original, very discreet. They flirt, but only in that it’s clear immediately that they want to fuck each other, not in a very smart or personal way. (When I’m flirted with, it damn well better be both smart and personal!) There’s no personality revealed, and so no reason for the viewer to be convinced of their relationship. (Was it the “Remember when I said I’d never seen an angel before…” line? Was that what was supposed to make us believe?)
All in all, I’m unconvinced. The best part of this movie was Isabelle, who said next to nothing, didn’t have some half-explained back story or love interest, and pretty much just kicked ass and saved the day the entire time. I could invent my own back story for how she got to be so awesome.
Although, she probably could have done better were she not wearing six inch stiletto heels.