True Collaboration Could Make ‘The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones’ a Genre-Buster

By  · Published on April 24th, 2013

One of the most anticipated (and packed) panels during this year’s Los Angeles Times Festival of Books was the “Mortal Instruments on Page & Screen” which featured the author of The Mortal Instruments series, Cassandra Clare, and the director of the upcoming The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones film, Harald Zwart, to expand on the process of bringing this beloved novel to life. Moderated by Los Angeles Times movie writer Nicole Sperling, Clare and Zwart explained the challenges and differences between writing a novel and creating a film, how they collaborated with one another, and what fans (and non-fans) can expect from the movie.

Sperling began the panel by asking Clare about the process of turning her book into a film and Clare explained that the big question was, “Who do you sell your rights to?” And then, once those rights are sold, it becomes a process of letting go. Clare was shopping her book before the Twilight and The Hunger Games films had been released, so studios were mainly concerned with taking on a property that had a girl for the main character because it had not yet been proven that films with female heroines could become successful franchises.

Clare’s main goal was to keep Clary, who is the protagonist in the series and will be played by Lily Collins, at the center and not give in to studio pressure to change her gender. Zwart chimed in that the fact that the main character was a girl was the main reason the project caught his interest. He explained that stories with a female at the center can be dismissed as just being love stories, and while there are elements of that here; it does so while still being a, “cool, hardcore story.” Zwart read one of the (many) versions of the script, but it was when he read Clare’s book that he truly fell in love with the series and wanted to bring more of the book, and Clary’s agenda, into the film.

Clare said one of the coolest parts (and biggest differences of writing versus making a film) was seeing how you could convey pages of words with a single image. Instead of spending three pages describing an important object, the film had the ability to express that detail through things such as the creation of the Mortal Instruments statue which worked to convey the longer story of the three mortal instruments, the cup, the sword, and the mirror, through a single object. Clare said getting to be on set and see her created world become a living, tangible one was amazing and she was constantly messing with the props due to her awe of seeing them come to life.

When it came to casting the film, Clare was pretty involved because she understood the dynamics needed to make the different relationships work throughout the series. She noted that she was incredibly fortunate to get to work with Zwart because he allowed her to have an opinion and a voice in the process when he could have just as easily shut her out and taken over to pursue his own vision of the story. Zwart explained that it was a learning process for them both as he knew how to figure out who would look best together as an ensemble based on head shots alone while Clare understood how the actors would need to relate to one another within the story.

As other Young Adult adaptations started getting released on the big screen (and did so to record breaking ticket sales), Clare did reach out to her fellow YA authors for advice on the process of watching your book come to life, and then dealing with the potential success that can follow. Clare noted she spoke with Suzanne Collins (author of “The Hunger Games”), Holly Black (author of “The Spiderwick Chronicles”), and Rachel Cohn (co-writer of “Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist”) because she knew they each had different levels of involvement with their book’s film adaptations. Collins was very involved with The Hunger Games movie while Black was not involved with bringing The Spiderwick Chronicles to the big screen and Cohn’s involvement fell somewhere in the middle of those two extremes. Clare revealed she was most concerned at becoming a public figure since she was used to being behind a keyboard and the best advice she received was from Collins, who said, “Oh honey, no one wants to see you, they want to see your adorable cast.”

While Zwart was able to condense pages of Clare’s novel into single images with the film, he also had the challenge of making Clare’s complex world translate to viewers who had not read the book. With other books dealing with vampires and werewolves coming to theaters, Zwart really wanted to make The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones unique, but still feel real because the last thing he wanted was the film to turn into “CG land.” He said he actually drew his inspiration from The Exorcist because that film primarily used actors and he found that sense of reality much more frightening than anything that could be created through visual effects.

When it came to characters, one of the biggest questions when bringing The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones to the screen was the character of Alec (who will be played by Kevin Zegers). Alec is openly gay in the book and both Clare and Zwart wanted to retain that aspect of his character in the movie to not only explain his character’s behavior, but also set him up for relationships which continue into the other books (and, hopefully, future films.) Clare explained that if they glossed over this aspect of Alec, his character would come across as simply angry or jealous when his behavior is due to reasons so much more complex and layered than that. Clare did note that the one nice thing about a film is, unlike a book, it can show other character’s points of view rather than having to stay tethered to your main protagonist which allows you to actually show things that can normally only be told. (A new trailer for the film showed one of these scenes much to the glee and excitement of the fans present.)

The excitement for the The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones film was definitely clear during the panel (and the detailed questions audiences members asked Clare during the Q&A session), but even clearer still was how important it is for the book’s author and film’s director to establish a good rapport and working relationship with one another. There will naturally be differences between a book and the film based off it, but this relationship ensures that fans of the books and new fans to the film will find themselves introduced into a world that seamlessly combines the two. It is a tricky tightrope act to make sure a film based on a popular book appeals to both established, and hopefully new, fans, but the fact that Zwart revealed how he looked to fan-made trailers and art as some of his initial inspiration proves he is a director who clearly understands how to walk this line.

The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones hits theaters Friday, August 23rd and you can find all the books in The Mortal Instruments series on Amazon.