Facilis descensus Averno
“The descent into Hell is easy.” (Vergil, Aeneid VI.124)
The above Vergil epigraph is, of all things, the creed of Cassandra Clare’s Shadowhunters — Nephilim warriors who fight demons unbeknownst to mundanes like you or me within her wildly popular series, The Mortal Instruments. It stresses that, essentially, it’s really easy to go down the wrong path, even with the best of intentions. And, oh, has the descent been easy…for their adaptations.
The Mortal Instruments series has had it rough when it comes to adaptation. Back in 2013, they got a movie, something that the studio, I’m sure, hoped would spawn a franchise. As you can guess, it didn’t really work out — mainly because The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones was a poor adaptation (with potential) that ultimately failed due to lazy writing that sought only to cash in upon the success of similar “teen film franchises” such as The Twilight Saga and The Hunger Games. But I don’t want to talk about the City of Bones film because, very recently, The Mortal Instruments has gotten a mulligan. They’ve gotten a shot at adaptation redemption.
The newly-rebranded FREEFORM (formerly ABC FAMILY) has just completed airing its first season of Shadowhunters, a television series loosely based upon The Mortal Instruments novels; season 1 drew predominantly from the first novel, City of Bones. Now, as this is a television series as opposed to a feature film, there are far more minutes of material to sift through, and trying to cover all the adaptive aspects of this show would take far too long. So, what I’m going to do is focus in on only a two specific adaptive changes — a positive and a negative — that I noticed within the show’s first season because, while I am, admittedly, unlikely to continue further watching the series, Shadowhunters did manage to pull out some adaptive changes that I found interesting, whether or not I think they always succeeded.
SPOILER WARNING: The following post may contain spoilers for certain elements related to The Mortal Instruments by Cassandra Clare as well as Season 1 of Shadowhunters. You have been warned.
Let’s start with the first and (oftentimes) biggest thing fans care about: casting. While people like myself might give more weight to announcements of a studio, showrunner(s), or director(s), a visually-dominant medium is going to put a lot of promotion towards announcing its casting, and fans almost always have something to say when casts are announced for adaptive projects. On the whole, I’m pleased with the casting for Shadowhunters, especially given that I, in all honesty, recognized almost none of the main cast.
There was, however, one casting choice that not only inflamed no small amount of controversy amidst book fans, but was one that I found to be the most inspired: Isaiah Mustafa as Luke Garroway (nee Lucian Graymark). Luke is described in City of Bones as:
“He was dressed in his usual uniform: old jeans, a flannel shirt, and a bent pair of gold-rimmed spectacles that sat askew on the bridge of his nose…his eyes, very blue behind the glasses, rested on her with a look of firm affection.” (City of Bones, 22-23)
Sure, I’ll grant that Isaiah Mustafa doesn’t look like an physical embodiment of this exact description, but Luke’s physical appearance has never “informed” his character — essentially, what he looked like has never been vital to his storyline. It is, however, important that he’s a werewolf.
Much like how J.K. Rowling’s wizarding world pre-The Battle of Hogwarts suffered from a deep-rooted and insidious systemic prejudice against non-wizards, so too does the Shadowhunter world. Anyone who is not a Shadowhunter is considered lesser, with Downworlders (vampires, werewolves, fae, warlocks), oftentimes equated with demons in terms of the degree of distaste and distrust with which they are held by Shadowhunters. Even Luke, despite having once been a Shadowhunter before being turned, is treated horribly upon being bitten. His sister shuns him, and his own parabatai (and eventual series antagonist), Valentine Morgenstern, does the following:
Valentine dragged me down the steps and into the woods with him. He told me that he ought to kill me himself, but seeing me then, he could not bring himself to do it. He gave me a kindjal dagger that had once belonged to his father. He said I should do the honorable thing and end my own life. He kissed the dagger when he handed it to me, and went back inside the manor house, and barred the door. (City of Bones, 393)
Ouch. No love lost between friends there.
So, why do I think casting Isaiah Mustafa was such an inspired choice? Because it actually doubles down upon and emphasizes the inherent prejudice of the Shadowhunters society. Valentine’s rage at Luke, and the overall view by other Shadowhunters of Luke as inferiour post-bite is compounded upon by what can only be described as everyday racism. And, oh
yeah, that bit of controversy I mentioned? As you’ve probably guessed: it was racism. To think that we live in a world where colour-blind casting happens on the Broadway stage all the time — think Hamilton, Les Miserables, and even The Phantom of the Opera, all of which are adapted from a source material — and yet the moment this is applied to the screen…uproar.
Yes, I’m shaking my head because, yes, I think it’s ridiculous. Luke got adapted for the screen in more than just appearance: in Shadowhunters, he’s now a police detective, not a bookseller. Not only does this make him more proactive in spotting crimes potentially committed by demons (or other Downworlders), but he gets to put his werewolf senses to good use. In a way, he’s still using preternatural powers to help mundanes without their knowledge; he’s still behaving like a Shadowhunter. Through his actions, he’s fighting back against the systemic prejudice of his old life and proving that it doesn’t matter what he is or what he looks like, because he’s still going to save your ass.
Shadowhunters has a wonderfully diverse cast, and I especially applaud that, where certain physical attributes were important — i.e. Clary’s red hair and Jace’s own golden locks — they remained in place. And as for the rest? Capture the spirit of the character. That’s more important than their skin colour.
Okay, so that’s an adaptive change that I think worked really well in Shadowhunters’ favour. But this doesn’t mean that all the changes worked — because they didn’t. There’s one in particular I want to harp upon, because it not only fails on an adaptive level, but also within the show’s own in-world logic. With that in mind, let’s talk about the Institute.
The New York Institute, the primary setting for The Mortal Instruments, is described in City of Bones as a lonely place:
The Institute was huge, a vast cavernous space that looked less like it had been designed according to a floor plan and more like it had been naturally hollowed out of rock by the passage of water and years. Through half-open doors Clary glimpsed countless identical small rooms, each with a stripped bed, a nightstand, and a large wooden wardrobe standing open…
“…we can house up to two hundred people here.”
“But most of these rooms are empty.”
“People come and go. Nobody stays for long. Usually it’s just us — Alec, Isabelle, Max, their parents — and me [Jace] and Hodge.” (City of Bones, 63)
Furthermore, there are only four people who dwell within its walls: the Lightwood siblings, Alec and Izzy, Jace Wayland, and Hodge Starkweather. There is also a cat, Church, but let’s just focus on the humans for this discussion. The lack of people within the Institute is important for two main reasons: first it emphasizes just how few Shadowhunters there are.
Part of the driving force behind Valentine’s formation of The Circle and eventual attempt at open rebellion was based around a need to increase the number of Shadowhunters to fight demons. The bloodlines were dying out, and the number of Nephilim were dwindling. Sure, at the end of the day, Valentine ended up being nothing more than a racist megalomaniac, but that part of his plan was (and still is) a genuine concern for Shadowhunters.
Secondly, the relative emptiness of the Institute lent itself credibility to the idea that Alec, Izzy, and Jace (along with, later, Clary) could frequently leave on rogue missions. Hodge cannot physically leave the Institute — his punishment for his participation in The Circle — so who, then, is left to enforce any sort of rules? Who is there to hold these teenagers truly accountable for their actions? Yes, stories like these require a certain suspension of disbelief, but the emptiness of the Institute helps to ground some of the urban-fantasy in realism.
The New York Institute of Shadowhunters is a bustling, technologically-advanced space, filled practically to the brim with people. On a surface level, I see the visual appeal of filling the Institute: it gives scope to the Shadowhunter world, and lends credence to the idea that “there is a world hidden within our own.” I can believe that there is a secret war happening in the shadows between Nephilim and demons when I see a set up like that — it’s the classic “awe” factor.
Except, when you look a little harder, the idea of the busy Institute actually undermines a lot of the show’s own logic.
Seeing the show’s version of the New York Institute, it doesn’t look like the Shadowhunters are suffering a numbers shortage; if that many people are in the New York Institute alone, then this is a big crowd. The NY Institute forms a visual standard not only for all the other Institutes around the globe, but the entire hidden Shadowhunter home-country of Idris, that is said to be nestled somewhere in Europe. As a result, Valentine’s formation of The Circle makes little sense, coming across as less covert and manipulative as it did in the novels. In the show, he’s nothing more than a racist megalomaniac whom the The Clave (political entity of the Shadowhunters) should have stopped a long time ago — a mad dog that should have been put down at the first sign of a foaming mouth.
Additionally, with that many people — adults, even — in the Institute at all times, how could Alec, Izzy, and Jace (and, later, Clary and Simon) possibly routinely sneak out and go rogue not only without anyone saying something to them? Without anyone seeming even to notice? The main five’s plotline and investigations are dependent upon a degree of autonomy that can only be achieved in a space where adult supervision is either absent or, as with Hodge, somehow impaired. That’s not present in Shadowhunters. In expanding the world and giving it a sense of population density, the showrunners/writing team actually ended up undermining their own logic.
In the end, adaptation is difficult, and I expect things to shift and change in order to adapt one medium to another. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. The descent, after all, is easy.