Book-to-movie adaptations have always been a natural indicator of a literary work’s popularity.
When cinema was only beginning, black-and-white adaptations of Shakespeare’s work served as an indication of what society perceived as “good” literature from an academic standpoint. Today, that hardly seems to be the case.
Movies and TV shows show us that today’s focus is a bit less on the quality of scripts and a bit more on the quantity of bills. The adaptation of literary works is no longer a novelty, translated to add dimension to the original series. Instead, it’s all about taking a series as far as it can financially go.
Cassandra Clare’s New York Times’ bestselling series, The Mortal Instruments, shamelessly mixes many common (and more importantly, popular) speculative elements. From werewolves and vampires to the legend of the Nephilim, the spectrum is quite wide.
First, we have a standard love triangle between the female protagonist, Clary Fairchild, her best-friend-turned-vampire, Simon Lewis, and the Shadowhunter (read: demon slayer) Jace Wayland. There is also a romance between Alec Lightwood and Magnus Bane, which explores not only the issue of racism in the division between the higher Shadowhunter society from the lower shadow world, but also addresses duties to one’s family in the case of Alec’s homosexuality.
The series came out at a time when the hype was still in full swing for the more familiar aspects of the speculative realm, and the call for more vampires and werewolves, along with the growing demand for magicians and fairies, caused publishers to narrow their vision.
It’s safe to say that the original 2013 film adaptation of the first book, then, did not come as a surprise. Not only did it guarantee that many fans would see it, but it would also act as an extra push for the book series, whose position on the bestsellers’ list began to grow shaky in 2012. The film’s poor reception, however, demonstrated differently.
The movie received mixed reviews and failed to recoup the budget, causing directors to speculate whether or not a second movie would be released. Petitions were posted online for sometime by fans who trilled their undying love for the series, wanting to see more. Their request was partially satisfied when an announcement was made stating there would, in fact, be a TV adaptation of the series starting from scratch, with a new cast and a different interpretation of the plot.
I will readily admit that I have been guilty of falling into the trap of popular series. I jumped onto the bandwagon with The Hunger Games as soon as the first book came out. Others, such as the more recent Divergent, I hoped to stay away from, but after watching the first two movies my curiosity got the better of me and I did end up reading the books.
With The Mortal Instruments, however, my patience ran out after the first two books, and after hearing that the series’ immense popularity caused Clare to add three more books to her initial trilogy, I was adamant in my refusal to touch it. Yet I must also admit that I saw the movie when it came out a few years ago and (perhaps against my better judgement) just finished the first season (yes, there’s a second season coming next year) of the TV show.
Why? Because of the curiosity to see what came of these attempts.
I thought to myself, was it worse than the books? Was it better?
Turns out it wasn’t great. For me, The Mortal Instruments proved itself to be a case study of sorts in a discussion of profit and the coexistence between the film and publishing industries. It’s partially understandable that a TV adaptation, rather than a movie franchise, allowed for a new start and possible changes in the way the original plot was presented.
The irony lies, however, in the similar reception the show, though some credit should be given to the overall higher reviews. The insistence on running a second season, given the way in which the first sloppily crammed subplots and events from various books into one, is the more puzzling aspect.
Perhaps we should be worried more about addressing a different kind of “dark force” that books skid around or fall prey to: the allure of franchising and riding the wave of popularity. While there are certainly some interesting plot points and witty dialogues within the books, there is not much that The Mortal Instruments, along with its tangle of prequels, sequels, and spin-offs, adds to the literary world.
The very fact that the franchise has expanded so much makes one wonder whether the author really is so enamoured with her own construction, or whether the influence of popularity has a bigger role. Making a remake of something not entirely successful the first time is a similar case of trying to keep the popularity alive for a series that is difficult to evaluate as a literary work.
The series focuses too much on appealing to its audience with its modern references and speech, and the way it falls prey to character archetypes that earlier New York Times bestsellers have already exploited.
Series such as The Hunger Games have arguably warranted their film adaptations. Moreover, even with the shortcomings and plot errors that occurred, a handful of these film adaptations did it right the first time they took on the job.
The fact that there is a remake of an adaptation should already act as a warning sign that begs the question of how much say the writer has in their own creation, as well as how much dignity they carry forward with it. It’s common nowadays to meet those who say they write in order to produce the next “big thing” and become a bestseller, and to a degree the allure of profit is understandable.
Yet it is hard not to go back and wonder about some great novels that may not have received movie adaptations, such as Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude and Milton’s Paradise Lost. It also begs the question of why other great works—Shakespeare being the most common—have received so many if the possibility of them being forgotten is practically impossible. Perhaps it is because few have come to recognize the modern incarnation of the classical demon, and the way in which it has precipitated into current society in a quiet comfort.
-Contributed by Margaryta Golovchenko