Film of the book: ‘Mortal Engines’ (2018)

This adaptation of Philip Reeve’s 2001 award-winning debut YA novel was one of the biggest ‘box office bombs’ ever. Directed by Christian Rivers, with Peter Jackson as one of the producers and screenwriters, the film lost the studio an estimated $174 million. So is it really a bad film and how does it compare to the book? There may be a few spoilers below, so if you’re yet to read the book or see the film, you might want to stop here.

The concept of Reeve’s dystopian novel is that a thousand years in the future, as a result of the Sixty Minute War, resources on Earth are scarce. Monstrous cities on wheels roam the land. It’s a town-eat-town world. And then there are the Anti-Tractionists, people who are against the wheeled cities and live in static settlements. A lot of the old technology from the Ancients (i.e. today) is lost, but then London gets hold of a weapon which would make it the most powerful city and also threaten the end of everything.

The film uses the same concept and includes some of the same characters. The plot, however, is simplified and has some major changes. I think the most significant of these is that the Head Historian, Thaddeus Valentine, is turned into a traditional mad villain, thoroughly evil, with no conscience at all. He even murders the Lord Mayor (who in the book is the more nefarious one) and takes control of the city. This was such a cliché. I wish he had retained some ambiguity. Another very significant change is the ending. Whereas the book ends with some of the main characters murdered and then the whole city obliterated when the old-tech weapon goes wrong, leaving only Tom and Hester alive as they escape in the airship, the film avoids so much doom-mongering. London doesn’t explode and its survivors are welcomed by the people of a static settlement, Shan Guo. I could detail the other plot changes but there are too many to write about. We should also note that the teenage characters are aged by a few years at least, which I suppose is to make them more plausible.

Plot aside, there are some good things about this film. The acting, for example. Hugo Weaving as Valentine, Hera Hilmar as Hester (who is not nearly so disfigured as her book counterpart), Robert Sheehan as Tom and Jihae as Anna Fang. The special effects are, of course, stunning. The look of the dystopia is striking – those wheeled cities are very impressive – although not quite as I imagined. It was a nice touch to have our smartphones in display cases in the museum and, oddly, two giant statues of the Minions characters. Appearances are understated in this film, with the exception of Anna Fang’s red coat. I was a little disappointed, as in the book you can identify people by the Guild symbols on their foreheads, the privileged Katherine wears fabulous outfits and the Engineers are all completely hairless and dressed in white rubber. I liked how Shrike, the Resurrected Man with a heart (sort of) was presented, although I expected there to be wires sprouting from his head.

Something lost in translation from the book to the film was the theme of inequality. In the book, what tier you work on corresponds to your class. Society is very stratified (often the case with dystopias!) and those who don’t support the regime are thrown out of the city. We even descend to the lowest levels, in which prisoners are sifting through tanks of sewage. Tom himself is only a third class apprentice and would not have the level of knowledge which his film counterpart displays. The film does have a great pace, though, which to be fair is also true of the book. It’s not a dreadful film, although it seems that too many dollars were spent on it. I’m not sure it needed to be made. I expect that the changes will annoy fans of the book, and for viewers who haven’t read the book, the concept might seem a bit ridiculous. Considering its poor critical reception and box office performance, I doubt there will be a sequel made.

2 thoughts on “Film of the book: ‘Mortal Engines’ (2018)”

    1. I agree there, quite often the details which made the book work so well are skimmed over, leaving the film adaptation with plot holes. Thanks for reading!

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