In most cases, turning a well-established book into a movie is not an easy task. Especially when the book belongs to a fandom whose members usually examine such endeavors with a very critical eye.
Warning: this review includes massive spoilers!
The Steampunk fandom is one of the most elitist out there, so Peter Jackson’s choice was all the more daring. Last Saturday I saw Mortal Engines on the big screen and, although it left me with some mixed feelings, it was for sure a movie worth watching. To completely thrash the movie would be unfair (since it’s not a niche production, made for the steampunk fans), but, on the other hand, it’s hard not to notice (especially if you read the book) that it could have been a masterpiece.
It’s understandable why Peter Jackson and the scriptwriters team turned away from the original book. However, it’s unfortunate that they chose to do so in some of its key points, so much so that the narrative ends up considerably damaged.
Perhaps the most important of the understandable concessions is the mellowed version of Hester Shaw we see in the movie, starting with her physical appearance. With half of her face disfigured and a missing eye, in the book she is called many times downright “ugly”.
But of course, the movie needed a Hester that would appeal to a larger audience, so it brings forth a beautiful heroine, with only a barely visible scar on her face. A niche character such as the book’s Hester would have definitely turned off many viewers outside the fandom, a fact that a box office movie could not afford.
From book to movie, Hester’s transformation is not only physical, but also phycological. As Philip Reeve depicted her in the book, she would have been quite an unattractive character, with a much darker and ruthless personality than her big screen version. Reversely, Tom switches from a book character who is less strong than Hester and most of the times hides in her shadow (up to being outright coward) to a very likeable character who possesses all the traits of a hero. The only character that is as cool in the movie as she is in the book is Anna Fang. Totally badass and great.
For the exactly same reason, the world depicted in Christian Rivers’ Mortal Engines is a bit different from the one imagined by Philip Reeve, which is a much, much grimmer universe – after all, it’s a steampunk dystopia we are talking about in the book. While visually gorgeous, I would have preferred that the movie offered a more accurate rendition of the Traction Cities universe. But I keep reminding myself that it’s not a niche movie made for the steampunk aficionados, but one made for the large masses to enjoy.
Therefore, having two visually appealing and valiant heroes, and a spectacular setting without the ghastly details that make Philip Reeve’s book such a breathtaking dystopian environment was a prerequisite for the movie’s success, given its intended audience. And that, again, it’s understandable. Up to a point.
The problem comes when, instead of making use of as many elements as possible from a brilliant narrative, the movie team chooses to introduce some tropes that are not only non-existent in the book, but also damage the overall quality. Clichés spread all over the place in the characters’ lines; and extra pieces of narrative were added, while some very important ones were left aside.
To mention just one such change, Shrike’s “death” is much more meaningful in the book than in the movie, since Tom was the one to put him to sleep in an attempt to save Hester, who had just traded her life in exchange for his. This was one of Tom’s few truly courageous deeds in the whole quartet.
One of my biggest disappointments is about the roles Katherine Valentine and Bevis Pod had in the movie. From a pivotal role in the book, they end up being useless decorations in the movie. The part Bevis actually played in the narrative (except for being the witness to Valentine’s throwing Tom out of the city) is never mentioned, and, truth be told, with or without Bevis and Valentine, the movie would have been just the same. It was quite an uninspired option to keep them into the movie, since their presence in the overall landscape is rather confusing for the viewer who didn’t read the book.
I would have also loved to see more focus on the general idea of Municipal Darwinism and Traction Cities, apart from a very brief mention. After all, it is the main idea that fuels the entire quartet of books. Again, this could be rather confusing for those who have no idea what happens in the books and they end up not fully understanding why those industrial steam-powered cities are hunting and eating each other. The book offers a much more complex universe, which unfortunately was not used at its full potential.
However, to reiterate what I said in the beginning, at the end of the day, Mortal Engines is a must see, if only for the absolutely amazing visual experience it offers. It was the first steampunk movie I watched in 3D and I was blown away by how detailed the whole set was (among others, I loved how they made the Jenny Haniver and now I simply can’t imagine it with other design). Although the narrative is certainly lacking, it is a pleasant movie; not brilliant (although it could have been like that), but enjoyable nonetheless.
I for one would certainly want to see the other books turned into movies as well, since the stories are rich and complex enough to be rendered for the big screen. I am curious to see a real-life depiction of Grimsby, of the Lost Boys and their limpets, and of Anchorage. I would expect a massive change of narrative here as well, since Katherine Valentine was left alive and being welcomed at the ruined wall of Shan Guo. But who knows, maybe this time we will watch a better movie with a better script.
Until then, for those who would like to find out more about the universe of Mortal Engines and admire some really amazing steampunk drawings, I would recommend purchasing The Illustrated World of Mortal Engines. It offers a great deal of info about the history of traction cities, accompanied by beautiful illustrations. And to those who have not done this yet: read Philip Reeve’s books that inspired the movie. They are totally worth.
Screenshots taken from Mortal Engines official trailer, copyright Universal Pictures.