Mortal Engines

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I saw award-winning fantasy author Tim Powers speak at the first Steamcon steampunk convention in 2009, where he was asked about the then-forthcoming Pirates of the Caribbean 4, a film adaptation of his pirate fantasy novel, On Stranger Tides: Was he worried about what Disney would do to his book?

"No," Powers answered, grinning. "Because if they do a good job, we'll have two good stories."

I love telling that story to my students as a response to the idea that the book is always better than the movie. Books and films are different media. As fellow Canadian scholar and literary theorist Linda Hutcheon outlined in her Theory of Adaptation, they are different modes of engagement: telling and showing. That isn't to say there isn't such a thing as a good or bad film adaptation of a book: it's simply that deviations from the book aren't necessarily the criteria for the quality of the film.

In the case of Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, I do not think Disney was successful in producing a second good story. Powers' novel remains the only version of that tale I will return to. This is not the case with Christian Rivers' cinematic adaptation of Philip Reeve's steampunk YA novel, Mortal Engines. And not only did I enjoy what is, to some degree, a "second good story," I would watch it again, and will certainly do so upon purchasing the movie (likely on Blu Ray for all the special features on the film's production).

If initial critical responses are an accurate indication, I'm in the minority here: I've seen all sorts of clever put-downs for Mortal Engines: it runs out of steam, can't keep the engine going, it's a "clunker." I'll give the critics points for connecting their invective to the narrative of city-eating-cities on traction wheels pursuing each other. But I can't agree with their final assessments of the film as 2 out of 4 stars or a "C" grade. And maybe that's because I read the book, and could fill in some of the narrative gaps; but my whole family enjoyed the film and were shocked to know it had received a "rotten" rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
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I concede that Mortal Engines has some narrative gaps, likely evidence of what got left behind on the cutting room floor (I'm hopeful for a director's cut), but they never completely derailed the film. Reeve's book is, despite a comfortably readable length, madly ambitious in its narrative scope. Reeve deftly weaves a huge cast of characters and multiple plot threads which proved too much for two hours of run time. I'm increasingly convinced that novels are the worst subject matter for films: adequate adaptation requires a miniseries at least. Mortal Engines could easily be adapted as six episodes of television.

But the big money seems to still be in theatres, despite all our binge watching. And so we have a Mortal Engines film with the streamlined run time of 111 minutes. And maybe this is why I'm as impressed as I am by the film, despite those narrative gaps: it packs a lot of content into those 111 minutes.

The first 20 minutes will likely be a case study for how to adapt books into film the next time I teach on adaptation studies. Even if a review gave the film a poor score, most praise the opening chase sequence. It's breathtaking. Because most of these critics haven't read the book (they admit as much) they can't tell you how well the film sets up all the moving parts of the story during this sequence. It is not simply an adaptation of the first chapters of the novel, it is adapting later portions of the book, conveying massive amounts of world-building information through visual storytelling, not cumbersome expository dialogue, as well as setting up character motivations with a concision that deeply impressed me.

A striking instance of this blending of content is early in the film, where two characters chase each other through one of these traction cities being dismantled inside a larger traction city. We've just seen the smaller city captured, and now we're wondering what the larger one will do with it. But instead of slowing down the story to have characters explain the process or watch as it happens, Rivers stages the reveal of a traction city's deconstruction in the middle of a chase. It conveys plot and world building simultaneously, a technique used throughout the film. And rightly so: films are the showing medium, not really the telling one.

I think this is related to why critics are being so hard on Mortal Engines, and it's something I see in literary studies frequently. There are a few points to be made here, so bear with me. First, most North Americans are taught how to interpret narrative in high school through the lens of the novel, and most often, a realist literary novel. It's unlikely many high school curricula have adopted post-apocalyptic steampunk books for their high school LA courses. Second, most film studies classes focus on "great films," which, in my experience, are obscure and artsy in ways most popular film is not. I've seen very few courses at the post-secondary level devoted to popular novels, let alone popular film (it's still hard enough getting the green light to teach film at all). I assume many film critics went to post-secondary for Communications or English, and got an education along these lines.

Consequently, their criteria for what makes a great work of speculative cinema might be flawed. When I teach speculative fiction (science fiction, fantasy, and horror), we talk about the importance of world building. It's a job speculative fiction has that realist fiction does not. I don't have to explain what a toaster is, for example, not even in a movie where cities eat other cities. But in a movie where cities eat cities, I might use a toaster, as Mortal Engines does, to tell you about this world that is so removed from our own: that this movie takes place in a far future where toasters are relics, things of the distant past. Accordingly, a movie like Mortal Engines has to build a convincing world quickly and mostly through visuals, and Rivers' film does so, rather successfully. Beyond worldbuilding, speculative fiction has the massive task of generating verisimilitude, another thing a realist film or novel doesn't have to work as hard at. The task is compounded in Mortal Engines by the sheer scale of its ludicrous premise.
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Like Reeve's book, however, Rivers' film achieves this: while I know the idea of a massive traction version of London is wildly improbable, if not impossible, I believed in it for 111 minutes. And that is an achievement worthy of something better than a C grade. As I've been implying, moviegoers and movie critics seem to use the same criteria they do for realist novels and realist films when they read speculative novels or see speculative film: character, plot, theme, etc. And while Mortal Engines attempts to check those boxes, it has to leap the hurdle of worldbuilding and verisimilitude before it can get to those other ones. Given how big the first two hurdles are, you have to give Rivers props for getting to character and theme at all, but he does. Not as well as he might have, but well enough to deserve a better assessment than he's getting. But I digress, and may be lapsing into apologetic.

But maybe an apologetic is precisely what I'm aiming at. After all, I know the professional critics have written this one off. And I haven't. I really liked it. Time might reveal I even love it. I agree with William Bibbiani of The Wrap who argues Mortal Engines will likely end up in the company of films like Starship Troopers, Dark City, and Speed Racer: a cult classic, or a film that will one day be praised where it was critically panned (I'd cite Lynch's Dune here as well).
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One of my personal tests for a film is whether it haunts me the next day. For example, I wasn't haunted by the imagery of the financially and critically successful Avengers: Infinity War. I'd seen it all before, superheroes punching other superheroes, and none of it stayed with me the next day, or the day after that. Mortal Engines, on the other hand, haunts me as I write this. I'm haunted by the image of a panoramic shot of the great traction city of London, of the main characters stumbling through a traction tread so huge, it looks like a dry riverbed. I'm haunted by Hera Hilmar's performance as Hester Shaw (whose role has graduated to protagonist in the film, not one of the several leads in the book), by the effects used to realize the Frankenstein-like Shrike, of the beauty of the bright red airship Jenny Haniver, a steampunk cross between vintage float plane and Chinese junk, and of her pilot, Anna Fang, who struck me like an homage to the hero of Trigun. Mortal Engines is a wild mix of image and idea, and I love it for its audaciousness.

Is it perfect? No. There are several missteps, but as I said at the outset, none of those utterly ruin the film. They're hiccups along the way, probable studio interference to trim the film to a run time that gets more butts in seats. I'll admit I prefer the villain of the book to the villain of the film, and wished the screenplay had stuck to Reeve's dialogue for Hester's last line, but those preferences didn't ruin my experience of seeing London pursue and capture Salthook, of our heroes escaping from the Shrike, the steampunk Terminator, or of the rebel pilot Anna Fang, single-handedly managing her own rescue from would-be bounty hunters. A few days ago, I had one good story in the novel of Mortal Engines. Today, I have two, and I'll be revisiting them both in the years to come.       
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