Mortal Engines Film Review – How Does it Compare to the Book?

Film Poster Mortal Engines Philip Reeve Hester Shaw

Mortal Engines has played a fairly big part in my bookish life.  I produced the very first copy of the book when I worked as a Production Controller for Scholastic and can still picture the moment when I turned the first page of the proof copy.  I’d been expecting something fairly lacklustre. What I found instead was a story that carried me into a world of traction cities, aviation and long-buried mysteries. From that moment, I was hooked on YA (although I’d class Mortal Engines as upper middle grade now).  I wanted to read it, write it, live in it.  These were the early heady days of the Young Adult fiction explosion.  J.K. Rowling and Philip Pullman were going viral, and I fully expected Philip Reeve to join that crowd.  But for some reason he didn’t.

Even though I left publishing a few years after, my Reeve fandom continued.  We own the Mortal Engines Quartet and some of the prequels. His Railhead Series has been one of my favourite children’s series of recent years.  His imagination sparkles, his plots are intelligent, but still he’s flown under the radar. So when I heard that Peter Jackson was going to produce a film adaptation of Mortal Engines, I was pretty excited and also slightly concerned.  You see although I love the Lord of the Rings trilogy, I’ve not been too impressed with Jackson’s more recent films.  Too much whimsy, too much CGI. Also, I knew that the characters had been aged up for the movie.  But this wasn’t enough to put us off booking to see the Mortal Engines film as soon as it came out.

So how did it compare?

Well it wasn’t bad.  Parts of it were amazing, parts were boring. Did it live up to the book? No.

Here’s the film synopsis:

A mysterious young woman, Hester Shaw, emerges as the only one who can stop a giant, predator city on wheels devouring everything in its path. Feral, and fiercely driven by the memory of her mother, Hester joins forces with Tom Natsworthy, an outcast from London, along with Anna Fang, a dangerous outlaw with a bounty on her head.

I don’t know how many of you have read the story so I don’t want to share too many spoilers in this review, but some of the main elements that elevated the original were left out of the movie. Because of this, they’ve turned what could have been an edgy, emotional ride into standard Hollywood fare.  All good and well if you like saccharine escapism, but if you’re a fan, it’s not a viewing experience that you’ll probably want to repeat. However it was worth seeing if only for the recreation of Reeve’s world.  For the purposes of this review, rather than blather on for hours, I’ve decided to summarise the pros and cons from my perspective:

What I Liked

  • The ‘hunt’ in the opening scene – it was thrilling to see London hunting down the small town Salthook. The director, Christian Rivers, brought the chase to life on a scale I couldn’t envisage in the books. Overwhelming.
  • Hester Shaw – OK so she wasn’t nearly as disfigured as she should have been, but I thought Hera Hilmarsdottir was well cast.  Belligerent and defensive with a fragile core.
  • Anna Fang – Jihae was ideal for this role – enigmatic, kick-ass, wise. I would’ve liked to seen more of her (and I want her coat).
  • Shrike – another highlight. The Stalker, although inhuman, provides some of the most emotional scenes in the film.
  • World-building – an absolute hit. I loved Airhaven and Batmunkh Gompa. The CGI was convincing and beautifully realised.
  • Thaddeus Valentine – Hugo Weaving steered a solid line as the antagonist, but didn’t quite capture the complexity of the character.

What I Didn’t Enjoy

  • The ending – like I’ve written. BIG mistake to sugarcoat this.  It diminished the entire film.
  • Tom Natsworthy – I can see why they picked Robert Sheehan for the part. He has a geeky vulnerability, but his wide-eyed, boy-band looks often made him appear clueless rather than nerdy.
  • Katherine Valentine – Katherine is a favourite character of mine in the book.  She’s empathic and resourceful, yet her role is downgraded in the film adaptation.  Saying that I think Leila George D’Onofrio lived up to the lines she was given.
  • The Guilds – A small niggle but these were under-utilised which took away from the world-building.  It seemed as if they’d downplayed the steampunk theme in general.
  • Pacing – occasionally this felt off.  I thought the start was rushed but then when I reread the book, it was very similar.  I’d forgotten how quickly the original moves.

Totting it all up, the positives of the Mortal Engines film just won out over the negatives.  As a cinematic experience is was fine.  It had all the required ingredients – action, fantasy, romance – but in comparison with the original, it was a soft, marshmallow replica.  In many ways, it reminded me of The Golden Compass remake – a story that sacrificed it’s true heart at the altar of Hollywood.  I wouldn’t say don’t go and see the film because that would mean missing out on Reeve’s grand vision, but be aware that it has a far more interesting and darker twin.

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Mortal Engines Philip Reeve Proof Copy Cover





  1. December 10, 2018 / 9:20 pm

    Do you think that Philip Reeve was influenced by Cities in Flight by James Blish? I know that one takes place terrestrially while the other is interstellar, but I always thought he might have been influenced by it.

    • thebookfamilyrogerson
      December 10, 2018 / 9:35 pm

      I don’t think he’s ever mentioned it but you never know. I can see so many influences in his work (and he often references them). I guess a lot of it could be subliminal. Unrelated but I’m convinced that J.K. Rowling took the key horcrux plot from Charmed Life by Diana Wynne Jones!

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