The Mortal Engines movie makes some big changes to the source book on which it's based. Phillip Reeve’s Mortal Engines was published in 2001, with three sequels coming between 2003 and 2006. In 2008, Peter Jackson bought up the rights to make a movie, one that’s finally coming to the big screen this December directed by Christian Rivers. The film Jackson’s now producing has evolved a lot in the past decade, although that most startling changes may be to the source in general.
When Screen Rant visited the set of Mortal Engines, we talked to the cast and crew and learned just how different the two stories are. Speaking to Jackson, who serves as writer and producer, he said "there are little subtle things we're doing that will help us flow into the other", although did make clear that they had the author's blessing.
From what we saw on the set, it’s clear that Mortal Engines has been altered quite a bit in adaptation. The full impact of the changes will become clear when the movie is released, but for now here are the most startling departures from the novel.
The Mortal Engines Movie Plot Is Less Episodic
Most of Mortal Engine's changes are done with one clear purpose: to make the story suitable for a film. While Reeve's plot is certainly exciting and the world he’s invented truly unique, it’s rather episodic in nature which means transferring that future to the big screen for a two hour movie (the exact length that the production is aiming for, per producer Phillipa Boyens) and so several elements are cut entirely, while other aspects are linked together in a way they weren’t initially.
The film’s inciting incident is streamlined to keep things moving, Tumbridge Wheels, the pirate town that heroes Tom (Robert Sheehan) and Hester (Hera Hilmar) first find themselves in, is almost entirely absent, and the badass Anna Fang’s (Jihae) introduction is considerably more action-packed. There’s a lot more no doubt, but from what was discussed on set this is what stands out.
Mortal Engines: The Movie Has An Aerial Battle
Although the rolling cities are Mortal Engines big selling point, what’s most exciting is actually its flying machines: small, balloon-powered craft dart through the skies of the future traveling between cities and their own, sky-based hideouts. Their spectacle has definitely been brought over for the movie. In fact, their role has been increased.
There’s a major big action set-piece featuring an aerial-to-ground battle that doesn’t take place at any point in the book. Like the narrative truncation, this is a real product of movie adaptation; while Mortal Engines’ third act is certainly exciting to read, this adds some extra visual flair (and, based on concept art, may be the film’s standout sequence).
The Mortal Engines Leads Are Aged Up To Be More Like Star Wars
One thing that’s immediately noticeable about the assembled cast is that they’re all older than their book counterparts: early-to-mid twenties, compared to the mid-teens of the print versions. Of course, this is hardly surprising for a big budget movie - older actors are more experienced and audiences are conditioned to twenty-somethings playing teenagers - but there’s a greater purpose to it than that on Mortal Engines.
Like Game of Thrones before it, the writers decided to age up the characters explicitly by five years or so. This makes a lot of story aspects easier to sell and helped the film in lining up more with Star Wars, a key influence on the adaptation.
The Characters Look Very Different - Especially Hester
One of the most striking choices in Mortal Engines, the book, is to make the key love interest physically disfigured. Reeve describes Hester as having a giant wound across her face, a horrible, perpetual reminder of her dark past. However, in the film version, things are greatly toned down: Hera Hilmar sports only a very slight facial scar that’s still noticeable but hardly the same disfigurement. The primary purpose, according to Hilmar, was to free up her performance: "it ended up being that we found this kind of middle [between the book and nothing] so I could, I guess, express myself in the same way."
Hester isn’t the only character to look decidedly different from how they’re described. Katherine Valentine (Leila George), the daughter of Hugo Weaving's Head Historian, is blonde in contrast to her striking jet black hair, while pit-worker Bevis Pod (Ronan Rafferty) not only looks a lot more movie star, his hair is black with grey flecks, rather than bald.
Valentine Is A More Out-And-Out Villain
The biggest name in Mortal Engines is Hugo Weaving, who plays London's Head Historian, Thaddeus Valentine. In the book, Valentine is presented as heavily conflicted and under the thumb of the city's maniacal mayor. However, based on what's been seen of the character from the trailer, the film will be much more forward in him as a key antagonist.
From the set, we knew that Lord Mayor Magnus Crome had a significantly smaller role, and while specifics on Valentine's arc were kept quiet, it would appear that the filmmakers have taken him in a very new direction.
The Minions Replace Mickey & Goofy
This one may not be a big plot influence, but it’s definitely going to stand out whether you’ve read the Mortal Engines book or not. In the London museum where Tom spends his days, there’s a plinth dedicated to the “Deities of Lost America”. These icons? The Minions. This Illumination Easter Egg is part of Mortal Engines’ efforts to contextualize its post-dystopia future, with knowledge fractured and undervalued.
That’s all part of the book - in fact, a poor, ill-informed grasp on the past heavily influences many of the characters - but that’s not where the change comes in. In print, the Deities are Mickey Mouse and his Goofy. The adjustment is obviously down to those characters belonging to Disney and the film being a Universal production, but given the different cultural positioning of the two cartoons, it has a pointed influence.
The Steampunk Inflections From The Book Are Being Toned Down
If there is one key way to summarize the production’s approach to adapting Mortal Engines, it’s that it isn’t steampunk. This was reiterated by several people during our visit, and is likely to be the key aesthetic takeaway from the finished film.
Elements - like the cyborg Shrike (played by Stephen Lang) or Scuttlebutt (a cockroach-like micro-city) - are definitely clearly in the Steampunk ballpark, but there’s a more grounded realism to much of the designs and how the present and past have been melded together.
- Mortal Engines (2018) release date: Dec 14, 2018