Our guest writer Daniel Fine can’t wait for the adaptation of acclaimed book series Mortal Engines out on December 8th. But why is he so keen?
Mortal Engines: an explanation of the books, what they mean to me, and why you should watch the movie
In December last year, millions of people all around the world flocked to the cinema to see the latest entry in the Star Wars franchise. While most of the audience were breathlessly awaiting the famous title scrawl that would signify the start of The Last Jedi, I was waiting for something else.
As the trailers ran through, there was one that started with the image of a single tree in the wasteland. The tree starts to shake and it’s clear that something big is approaching. Then the tree is run over by gigantic wheels and we were given our first glimpse at the traction cities of Mortal Engines – an adaptation of the acclaimed book series by Phillip Reeve and a movie that I’ve been dreaming about for fifteen years. If you’ve spoken to me recently, I’ve probably mentioned it to you and explained it badly. So I’ve decided to try and give a better explanation of the books, what they mean to me and why you should watch the movie.
I hope everyone who reads this will go see the movie or pick up the books. And if – for whatever reason – the cast or crew of Mortal Engines is reading this… Can I come to the London Premiere please? #GetDantothePremiere
Mortal Engines: The books
I first read Mortal Engines when I was 12 years old. It was a present from my parents and has to go down as the best gift I’ve ever received. The intriguing, steampunk setting was unlike anything I’d read before and it set my imagination alight. After the first book was released in 2001, three sequels were released and the series concluded with A Darkling Plain in 2006. Since then I have often reread the series, each time finding new details that I overlooked in previous reads.
Mortal Engines: The Setting
You might have seen the trailer and thought; ‘not another Young Adult dystopia’, but I wouldn’t put Mortal Engines in that category. The setting and pacing of the first book has always reminded me more of Star Wars than Hunger Games. It has dystopian elements for sure, but it’s also a vibrant, colourful world with lots of adventure and joy. And despite all the war and strife there, it’s still a world I’d want to visit – provided I can be an aviator on the Bird Roads and not a slave in the turd tanks. Which is something I couldn’t say for Panem or any of the more dystopian YA novels.
The books take place in a post-post-apocalyptic world, tens of thousands of years after the destruction of our own where, due to the unstable nature of world – frequent earthquakes, volcanic eruptions etc. – living in a static settlement could be dangerous. So cities started to become mobile, driving through the world on huge traction wheels and consuming smaller cities for fuel. As with all great science-fiction settings, many of the issues of today’s world are reflected in the Great Hunting Ground, which will hopefully carry into the movie. It is also a very dangerous place, where no character is truly safe.
Mortal Engines: The Characters
As imaginative as the setting is, it’s the characters that makes the series really shine. Mortal Engines follows Tom Natsworthy (Robert Sheehan in the movie), an apprentice historian from London, and Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar), an outcast who arrives in London trying to kill Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving) – head historian and Tom’s hero – as revenge for killing her parents and scarring her as a child. When Tom thwarts her attempt on Valentine’s life they both fall out of the city and must form an unlikely bond to survive and catch up with London.
They are helped on their adventures by Anna Fang (Jihae), an anti-Tractionist agent, and hindered by Shrike (Stephen Lang), an undead soldier who’s obsessed with Hester.
In a genre as cluttered as YA fiction, these characters could be one-note or generic but Reeve manages to make them flawed and interesting. I met Reeve a few years ago and he told me while writing the books, he tried to eschew the traditional YA character archetypes. Tom is not a dashing hero, he’s actually a bit useless and naïve. Hester, meanwhile, is far from the typical, attractive love interest or damsel-in-distress. She’s heavily scarred across her face – less so in the movie, because Hollywood – which has left her with a form of PTSD and self-loathing. At the beginning of the books she is essentially feral and very violent.
The villains of the series are also engaging characters who are not outright evil. For instance, Valentine is given complexity through his relationship with his daughter, Katherine (Leila George, curiously absent from the trailers) and while his actions are never excused, you do start to understand his twisted logic.
It is these characters that have kept me coming back to the series. I’ll often find myself daydreaming about them and the situations they face in the books, and I’ve even based my current D&D character off Hester. It is their relationship that is the foundation of the series, and if the movie is going to be a success, it has to do them justice. Thankfully, they seem to have made the right casting decisions. Sheehan looks scarily like the Tom I had pictured in my head, Hilmar’s Hester looks just as fierce as she was in the books, while Jihae’s performance as Anna is apparently so good that it convinced Reeve to write the long-rumoured prequel following the character, which he dedicated to her.
A movie long in the making, but will it be good?
In the decade after the book’s release, there were various reports that a movie was being made, but they all came to nothing. Then in late 2009, it was announced that Peter Jackson had acquired the rights and was working on an adaptation. The fans started to get excited and then… nothing. Finally, in 2016 Peter Jackson announced – seemingly out of the blue – that production had begun on the movie. I didn’t believe it at first, but as the casting news started to filter through, it became clear that the long wait was nearing its end.
Now, I know I might be setting myself up for disappointment here. Adaptations can be tricky and it can be especially hard to please die hard fans like myself. The film has made some changes that I’m a little hesitant about, Weaving’s Valentine looks more outright villainous, and Hester looks like she might be a more traditional hero. But it looks like the filmmakers have been given lots of time to make the movie they wanted, without the studio interference that can often sink movies such as these. So I’m going to keep hoping that it’s everything I’ve been (literally) dreaming about and start saving up money for the ridiculous amount of merchandise I’m going to buy.
Mortal Engines is released on the 8th December in the UK and worldwide on the 14th
Daniel Fine – he’s been dreaming of Mortal Engines for Christmas. #GetDanToThePremiere