Book + Movie Review: Mortal Engines

“It was a dark, blustery afternoon in spring, and the city of London was chasing a small mining town across the dried-out bed of the old North Sea.” ~ Philip Reeve, Mortal Engines

Mortal Engines by Philip Reeve
293 pages
Published by Scholastic, 2001
Genre: Science fiction
Re-readability: This is my fifth reread… enough said. And I’m going to see the movie again soon
Rating: (Book) 4.5 out of 5 (Movie) 3.5 out of 5

Reviewed by Pete
Spoiler-free review

Book Review

I was in seventh grade when I first picked up Philip Reeve’s distant future dystopian novel. The concept was ridiculous—giant mobile traction cities that literally eat each other for resources—but it was more awesome than it was ridiculous.

Mortal Engines is a breakneck adventure of the would-be assassin Hester Shaw and an unambitious London teenager, Thomas Natsworthy, as they navigate a dangerous world on the brink of massive change. Hester has spent much of her life plotting the murder of Thaddeus Valentine, a London historian who murdered her parents. Tom has spent his life idolizing Valentine, who is adored by most of London for his achievements.

After Tom prevents Hester from murdering Valentine, she falls off of London. Valentine, realizing that Tom knows some of his dark past, casts Tom off of the city with her.

From there, it’s a nonstop race to get back to London as the unlikely pair travels by city, by airship, and by foot to get back to London. The city has plans to launch an attack on the (non-mobile) capital of the anti-traction league, and Tom and Hester become a part of the plan to stop it.

One thing I love about this book (and the rest of the series) is that Tom and Hester aren’t on anyone’s side. They’re just trying to survive, for the most part. Both traction cities and the anti-traction league have nefarious aspects to them—it’s a complicated conflict.

Hester Shaw is a brilliantly written character who only becomes more complicated and well-developed as the books go on, and this first book sets the stage of the later events in the series well.

If you haven’t read this one and enjoy a good sci-fi adventure, I can’t recommend it enough. These books are even more fun to read today than they were when I was 13.

Movie Review

I remember learning that Peter Jackson was adapting this book for the screen in 2007 or so, and I was ecstatic.

It’s more than a decade later, and it finally happened. I have been consuming trailers, sneak-peeks, and cast interviews avidly, and I went to see the movie on release night with Indiana.

The opening 20 minutes are incredibly close to the book, and the visuals did not disappoint. I don’t just mean that they were dazzling—I mean that they perfectly realized Reeve’s vision. I was worried that Jackson and co. would opt for the “generic steampunk” route, but they did not. The little details of the world tell you that there is more going on than what’s visible at a glance. They nailed the world and its atmosphere.

I was most nervous about the characters. Hester looked to have been made into more of a heroine character in some trailers, which is a far cry from the truth in the book. But Hera Hilmar was Hester Shaw. She owned this character and captured her anger and confusion well, all while remaining a likeable protagonist. Of course I was disappointed that they altered her scar in the name of Hollywood, but this was expected.

Another character I was nervous about was Shrike, who is a “stalker”—a resurrected man who is more machine than flesh and has been alive for hundreds of years. Played by Stephen Lang, Shrike was terrifying to watch (and listen to) on the screen. All of his movements and expressions revealed his mechanical terror, but his eyes occasionally showed the strange empathy that makes him the unusual character that he is. Shrike could have translated terribly to the screen, but he was perfect.

Between the world, the characters, and the plot, it was the plot that suffered most. There were several major leaps of logic and unexplained decisions on the part of the characters, and the last 20 minutes of the movie were as inaccurate as the first 20 were on point.

If I had not read the books, I think I still would have liked the movie, with some major reservations. Having read the books, I found a lot more good in the movie than bad, and had a lot of fun with it, despite its glaring flaws.

As with any adaptation, read the book first—but this was a movie worth seeing that was worth the decade-long wait.

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