I bought this book back in 2009 when it was announced that Peter Jackson was planning to helm a film adaptation of this award-winning YA steampunk novel… and then promptly forgot about it. This is weird, because I am an avowed adherent of Jackson’s adaptations (a marathon of The Lord of the Rings extended editions is, at the very least, an annual event at my house), and also YA steampunk is very much in my, if you will forgive the pun, wheelhouse.
Pun because this book (and the three that follow it, making up the Mortal Engines Quartet) are about cities on wheels. Specifically, we spend a lot of time in London, many thousands of years in the future, as it rumbles through the wastelands, gobbling up smaller cities on wheels and plotting world domination using old tech from the Ancients. (That’s us, obvs.)
I will confess that I saw the movie a couple of weeks ago, which I wouldn’t normally do, before having read the source material. Oh, there are plenty of adapted films I have seen without reading their basis, of course, but this is mainly because I had no plans to read said books. Or I was unaware the film was an adaptation until it was too late. (Don’t you hate it when you’re already in the cinema when the dreaded “based on the novel by” credit flashes up on the screen? This happens alot, nowadays.)
I… didn’t love the movie. And I am hardly the only one. It is being called the biggest flop of 2018, or even the worst movie of 2018 in some quarters, which seems pretty harsh in a year that gave us Overboard and Future World. Yes, in my review for Romantic Intentions Quarterly, I called it “Mad Max meets Howl’s Moving Castle meets Stardust, and far less than the sum of those parts.” I said it was “a visually splendid but largely forgettable experience.” All of this is true. But there was enough that was good about it that I wanted to read the book that inspired it. I was certainly intrigued enough by the world we are shown, by the characters we — barely — meet and the hints of greatness sprinkled throughout that I dug out my long-owned copy of the book that began it all, and dove right in.
It really is very, very good. And I can see why Peter Jackson, a man with a grand vision and a penchant for taking risks, would want to try to bring it to life. But I can also see why he, by and large, failed to do so. Because boy oh boy, Mortal Engines is so many things at once — action adventure and allegory and revenge tale and dystopia and gigantic improbable cities on wheels, for goodness sake — that capturing all of that oddity and having it make any kind of sense was always going to be a massive undertaking.
Having seen the film and read the book in such close succession, I can see where cuts were made, characters were eliminated and/or conflated and events were twisted, and mistakes were definitely made there, no doubt about it. The standout characters of the novel — bookish Tom, firebrand Hester, noble Katherine, earnest Bevis, assorted fussy and venerable Historians — are given too short a shrift. In the book, you care about them. You’re invested in Tom and Hester’s burgeoning relationship. More than that, you believe it. I don’t think the same can be said for the film. Meanwhile, zombie cyborg soldier Shrike is great in the film, but so much better in the book. (And in the book, you properly understand that he is a zombie cyborg soldier.)
For all the movie’s flaws, I have to say that I am glad I saw it, if only because it led me to read Mortal Engines. It is a whirlwind of a book, a treasure of a book, with a fascinating (if outlandish) premise, a cast of likable and/or relatable characters, quite thrilling action sequences, and it is not afraid to pull any punches or kill any darlings. YA dystopia is a vast and varied playground in which I have spent many a long year and many a happy/sad/frustrating/glorious hour, but Mortal Engines has now taken its place among my very favourite examples of the genre.
TBR DAY 2: Mortal Engines (Mortal Engines #1) by Philip Reeve.
GENRE: YA Dystopia/Steampunk
TIME ON THE TBR: 9 years.
PURCHASED FROM: Borders! Somewhere on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. That is how long ago it was that I bought this book.
KEEP: Yes. And I will definitely be reading the sequels.