Signpost of Offensive Cluelessness

It appears that The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones isn’t doing so well at the box office. Monica Bartyzel at Yahoo! explores why that could be:

The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones is based on the YA series of the same name by Cassandra Clare — but its origins go back further than that, to a series of Harry Potter fan fiction stories collected under the title The Draco Trilogy. Though The Mortal Instruments has long been scrubbed of any direct references to the Harry Potter franchise, its suspiciously derivative narrative makes a lot more sense in its original context.


But The Mortal Instruments is even more derivative than E.L. James’ Fifty Shades trilogy. This isn’t a specific universe, re-imagined and sold under new names; it’s a hybrid of elements cribbed from Clare’s favorite stories. Her work first became popular (and controversial) not because she took J.K. Rowling’s world and imagined all-new stories, but because she used it as a template in which she could fit in all of her other pop culture fandom — inserting quippy exchanges from Buffy the Vampire Slayer and passages from authors like Pamela Dean (as this expose detailed) with only minimal changes.

It’s no surprise that critics are down on the mishmash of elements in the new film. Clare may have stopped copying her favorite pop culture quotes into her work verbatim, but it’s still a variation of the same patchwork pop quilt.


The title “Mortal Instruments” was first used for a Ron and Ginny-focused Harry Potter fanfic in 2004, and The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones borrows from that story and Clare’s “The Draco Trilogy” to craft its heroes Clary — a carbon copy of Ginny Weasley whose name immediately echoes “Harry” — and Jace (a blatant carbon copy of Harry Potter villain Draco Malfoy). They enter a domain that’s hidden in plain sight in the muggle “mundane” world. Magic obscures their metropolitan residences, which lie far from their homelands, where The Clave — the governing body completely out of touch with the rising danger — reside. The Shadowhunters’ wands are called “steles”; many of their names echo names Harry Potter came across (Ravenclaw/Ravenscar); and they even suffer similar plagues (dragon pox/demon pox). They’re fighting against Voldemort Valentine, a powerful Shadowhunter with a circle of like-minded followers who were eager to purify the bloodline until a brief war seemed to kill the villain — right after he and his followers had the children who must now save the world. They hunt not for three “Deathly Hallows,” but three “Mortal Instruments,” which would bring great, catastrophic power to Valentine, who happens to have followers in some of the adults the now-grown children trust. Is any of this sounding familiar?

Before we start splitting hairs over where “inspiration” ends and derivation begins, Bartyzel acknowledges that the best creative works stand on the shoulders of giants, and that there is such a thing as stealing like an artist:

This kind of nakedly derivative fan fiction lacks the depth that makes reading and cinema worthwhile, and misses the heart of storytelling: Discovery. We don’t crack open books and go to movie theaters for the expected; we explore for the unexpected. J.K. Rowling didn’t become a billionaire by echoing someone else’s work. Harry Potter became a global phenomenon because she reimagined old tropes into a world readers and viewers had never seen before. Rowling crafted a world that piqued curiosity, rather than just relaying a world in which every scene is familiar, and every twist is obvious.

I will not take a position on whether The Mortal Instruments should be characterized as “plagiarism,” but it is transparently derivative. That Simon & Schuster signed it shows that they are not especially interested in creative honesty. However, they would not have bothered to give Cassandra Cla(i)re a book deal if they hadn’t expected to make a ton of money off her books, and Constantin Film Produktions wouldn’t have bothered to make a movie if Simon & Schuster hadn’t already succeeded. CC has made a career out of selling nakedly derivative fan fiction as original urban fantasy, but there’s a reason why she’s been so successful. There is a very healthy market for incredibly unoriginal fiction, just as long as it’s entertaining.

I don’t mean to say there’s anything wrong with playing in another writer’s sandbox. Fan fiction is totally fine as a hobby; I’ve done it myself and I don’t apologize. It’s a great way to have fun, make friends and exercise your creative muscles. That’s just the thing, though; fan fiction is a hobby, which is transparent about its source material, and you can read it online for free. When we pay money for books, we should demand that the authors do more creating and less copy-paste.

Also, this is tangential, but it’s still amusing. It could be argued that the movie is tanking because the filmmakers removed everything that made the book fun and engaging. Just a few days ago, the author assured The Hollywood Reporter that she was very pleased with the adaptation and that the filmmakers were “very good about asking for [her] input.” Only now that the shitty reviews are coming in does CC insist that authors have very little say in film adaptations of their books.