Let’s be real, there’s like a 50/50 chance that Mortal Engines is going to be any good, let alone do right by its source material. Fans of the book will agree that Peter Jackson, director of Lord of the Rings, is the perfect choice to take this up – but Peter Jackson, director of The Hobbit? Hmm. What’s even more complicated is that Jackson’s not actually directing it. He’s roped in a protégé.
Wingnut Films alum Christian Rivers is making his directorial debut with this production, after ten years of stop-start development. Although he has Jackson’s backing, Rivers is a bit of a mixed bag. Sure, he has an Oscar for his work on the best scene in King Kong but he’s also credited for the infamously stomach-churning ‘Barrels’ sequence in The Hobbit: the Desolation of Smaug. Talented or not, Rivers’ comments during the press cycle don’t exactly make him sound like the best choice to handle this series.
So before everyone is disillusioned by another less-than-rosy book adaptation, let’s take a tour through the source material. Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines Quartet is the unsung hero of the 2000s YA scene, and if the Hunger Games film can send Suzanne Collins’ book sales into the stratosphere, Reeve deserves the same success.
No Kids Allowed
Reeve originally started writing Mortal Engines for adults, before shifting to a younger audience. Sometimes you get the sense that YA authors set out with the basic pitch “a story for kids, but really dark”. Maybe the series is a little guilty of this – the later books in the quartet certainly don’t pull their punches – but there’s no sense that Reeve is simplifying his ideas or overegging the savagery of it all to shock or scare. Earth is a hunting ground now, back to how it was before we built the cities in the first place. The rest? That’s just nature.
While Mortal Engines has all the tenets of YA stories – the dystopian hullabaloo, the boy and girl from different worlds, the epic and cyclical nature of fate – Reeve takes a step back from the melodrama, focusing on the ordinary in the extraordinary. This is Hester Shaw’s story, but we don’t see it from her point of view.
We start with Tom Natsworthy, a fairly ordinary guy who finds himself running after the epic heroes. It’s like if Harry Potter started with Neville Longbottom before he got all Chosen One-y and handsome. It’s a slightly removed point of view which cuts through some of that operatic guff that tends to follow young adult content, and it doesn’t hurt to have a reader surrogate to walk us through the series’ more convoluted elements.
All the (Alle)gory details
Allegory is the gift and curse of young adult storytelling – some people love the quiet bureaucratic evil of Dolores Umbridge, while others think Lion Jesus is a little bit on the nose. It gets even more unwieldy when writers look to set up metaphor at a grand, societal level. Best case scenario, you end up with the districts of Panem, aka “dress for the job you have, not the personality you don’t”. Let’s not even discuss Zion, or the Factions of Chicago (Veronica Roth deserves a little credit for not hiding behind a fake name).
Municipal Darwinism? That’s a big swing, but Philip Reeve sells society eating itself by building an unfamiliar world from a familiar idea. You can almost hear Ian Malcolm and Elle Sattler breaking it down: “God creates Man. Man creates cities. Man destroys world. Cities eat cities.” It’s recognisable, and the ideas that unfurl from this evolutionary principle are recognisable. The strong eat the weak. The rich benefit, and rise above the violence, leaving the poor down below to do the hard work. Hey, it’s a town-eat-town world.
Relics of the Future
“An alcove between the snaking air ducts held an eight-armed image of the Thatcher, all-devouring goddess of unfettered Municipal Darwinism”. — A Darkling Plain
The books hit heavy topics, but they’re not all doom and gloom. Reeve has an absolute blast taking a post-apocalyptic world and then whizzing another thousand years into the future. Take the names of characters great and small: Nabisco Shkin, Nutella Eisberg, Chrysler Peavy, Dr. Twix, Napster Varley.
It’s a shame we don’t get to spend more time peeking through the exhibits of London’s last museum, as the “artefacts” kept here have certainly found value with age – or meaning, in the case of the “great North American gods Pluto and Mickey.”
The Sound of Silence
What’s great is that Mortal Engines could stop on the great hunting ground. Set up Municipal Darwinism, show how it’s bad, and have our heroes make the case for a new way of life. Sure, the series covers some of this stuff in 1,500+ pages, but Philip Reeve lets his story unfurl in much broader strokes, and with a much greater timespan. The books cover about 20 years, and in taking such a long view Reeve is able to go beyond the aftermath of this revolution or that step-change, and really explore life in this changing world.
This is possibly his masterstroke, the YA equivalent of that closing shot in The Graduate – what happens next? The camera keeps rolling, and life moves on. We follow Tom and Hester from young lovers through marriage, parenthood and beyond, blending the micro with the macro as their lives shift and sputter in tandem with their great, unwieldy world.
This long view stops the dystopian grandeur of it all from losing that human touch – each reflects the other, and the series’ final chapters draw the epic and the insignificant together in a beautiful, meaningless tapestry. Two people, eking out a life for themselves in a savage world of death and despair. That’s nothing. That’s everything.