Shadowhunters: If At First You Don't Succeed...

For a reader, there’s simply nothing like the psychological and emotional stress of a book-to-screen adaptation. It’s even worse when that adaptation is slated for a piece of literature you grew up with, something that has been with you so long that you have unconsciously taken ownership of it. And it’s even worse when that adaptation sucks.

Now, I’m not going to walk through the graveyard of great books whose film/TV adaptations broke the hearts of legions of fans; that path is painful, and the fatalities have been far too numerous. However, I have to note that it’s not every day that someone takes a shovel into that cemetery and decides to dig up a failed project and give it a second chance. If you’re given a second shot at bringing a book to life, you’d try not to mess it up, right? Right?!

The first four novels, replete with original concept art.

Enter: Cassandra Clare’s young adult fantasy series, The Mortal Instruments. The series follows a familiar, maybe even cliché, hero’s journey trajectory—18 year old Clary Fray, following her mother’s mysterious disappearance, discovers that she is part of a long line of demon killers known as “Shadowhunters,” and that beneath the façade of modern New York lies an alternate realm teeming with mythical creatures, demons, (and people who want to kill her.) She teams up with a few new Shadowhunter friends to find her mother…and to discover herself along the way, of course.

For all of its predictable tropes, TMI is endearing and exciting because Clare’s imagination is just that good. She’s great at inventing characters that walk off the page, and the Shadowhunter world she builds is relatable and effective, with its own history, mythology, and politics. It’s modern, fast-paced, and sexy, but its coming-of-age narrative is still pretty profound. Moreover, the books have been around a long time; the first installment, City of Bones, was published in 2007, and Clare has written five more novels and a spin-off series since then. Needless to say, readers have had a long time to get attached to the series and its characters.

Lily Collins takes the lead as Clary in the 2013 film.

All of the necessary ingredients for an amazing screen adaptation are there, and so, City of Bones became a bona fide Hollywood movie in 2013. Aaaaaaaand…..it flopped, despite great casting and perfect production design. Personally, I blame the horrible interpretation of the villain, and the heinously mangled ending. It was like watching a beautiful train drive off of a cliff.

Luckily, enough people love the story that the network formerly known as ABC Family decided to resurrect the poor Mortal Instruments franchise, set its broken bones, and remold it as a TV show, renamed ‘Shadowhunters’. Everyone was so excited; bringing a book to TV instead of film means more time to develop story arcs and to nuance characters and to set up soul-crushing plot twists—basically everything that these books do well. So many shows have succeeded in the teen fantasy TV niche (think Vampire Diaries and Teen Wolf); the time seemed ripe for this particular second chance.

Freeform, formerly known as ABC Family, takes over Cassandra Clare's novels.

I’ll cut to the chase: we were let down again. The problem, at least, doesn’t seem to be on the casting side. The cast of virtual unknowns is intelligent, hot, charismatic, and hot. They cast the Old Spice guy in this show. Mike Chang from Glee is even in it. What could have gone wrong?!

A lot, apparently. I’m livid that the producers thought they could get away with a show that looks like it was shot by a high school film club with a bunch of money. I could forgive the awkward cinematography and cheesy special effects if I felt invested in the other parts of the show, but there’s no such saving grace. The absolute worst thing in this show is the dialogue. Half the time, I can’t even gauge the talent of the actors because it sounds like they’re reading a litany of teen action movie clichés.

If only the show could be as good as this poster.

Things that are actually said in Shadowhunters, lightly paraphrased by me:

·      “I was trying to protect you!”

·      “I’ll do anything to get [loved one] back!”

·      “You have an interesting effect on people, [main character’s name].”

·      “I can’t explain it, but I feel like I finally belong!”

I won’t even get started on the weird sets.

Clary, played by Kate Macnamara, with her soon-to-be-missing mother.

Exposition is everything in fantasy; there has to be a way for an author to explain the rules of the road in a made up world without hampering the plot. Usually, this is achieved by assigning the “explanations” to one know-it-all character, like a mentor figure, or Hermione in Harry Potter. Shadowhunters joyfully splits up the awkward exposition dialogue equally between all the characters, so that 50% of the show is the characters telling us stuff instead of showing us stuff. I have never seen a show that puts so little faith in its audience to understand what’s going on. Characters literally explain (and re-explain) who and what everything is over and over again just in case you fell asleep or blinked or yawned or something. Frankly, the show could have stretched out the pilot over two or three episodes so that viewers would actually care about what happens next without the dialogue having to remind them to care.

The ridiculously gorgeous cast goofs around off camera.

Luckily, there’s a glimmer of hope at the end of the tunnel. The show is six episodes in, and there’s finally some evidence of a plot that isn’t propped up with awkward dialogue. There’s real chemistry between the actors, and the relationships between them are actually believable and moving. The camerawork is getting marginally better.

Maybe it just took the show a little while to get its kinks out, and now it can forge ahead full steam. There’s enough promise shining through the cracks that it just might save the show. If not…I fear this might be the last chance this franchise gets.

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About The Author

Ariana Zlioba is a sophomore Political Science major and a proud resident of Pasquerilla West Hall. She spends her free time exploring every minor Notre Dame has to offer and imagining the editor's notes she will write after she succeeds Anna Wintour as editor-in-chief of Vogue. Here is what she likes: Stephen Colbert, high heels, and that coconut coffee Waddick's has sometimes. Here is what she doesn't like: Permacloud. At any given moment you'll most likely catch her dashing across campus in between meetings, Dance Co. rehearsals, and other meetings.