The Importance of Context

I have a song stuck in my brain. It’s a song by Ruelle, in itself pretty emotional, but the real reason why it won’t leave me alone is the scene I attach it to now.

Recently they have adapted Cassandra Clare’s Mortal Instruments’ series to TV. After the monstrous disaster the movie adaptation turned out to be, I was more than a little leery about this version. I wanted to be excited, but I was afraid of expecting too much and getting too little. Once again, the gods-of-adaptations totally missed the point of the book series. I could point out a million things that they messed up, starting with the fact that the gothic atmosphere of the “Institute” is totally lost in this modern, shiny vision of what the rather dark and brooding world of the Shadowhunters is. In the show, the Institute has an army of tech people (technology and Shadowhunters?) hanging around all the time. Give me a break. Where’s the silent hallways and the sense of haunting loneliness?

The acting is over the top melodramatic (got a little better toward the end of the season, I admit), they’ve jumped around separate books and timelines, created new characters that did not exist in the series, and Hodge is a buff, muscled fighting machine (what’s up with that?). The fairies are irksome instead of fair and magical, and the Shadowhunters’ weapons are made of light-up plastic…you know the kind you can buy at a Party City during Halloween.

That said they have done one thing right (okay maybe two; the music is awesome). They have picked the right actor to play Alec. I am giving him all the credit for the fact that Alec is the reason I’m still watching the show. He played the sullen, pissed-off Alec to a tee and even though the TV gods jumped three books so they could get to the part they thought  would attract a certain segment of the audience (and made up a whole non-existent scene), in the end they gave us an unforgettable scene which was full of heart (again kudos Mathew Daddario).

Would I have felt the way I felt about that scene had I not read the whole series and witnessed Alec’s growth and struggles throughout three whole books? Doubtful. It would still be a very sweet, romantic scene but without the depth and the meaning it now holds in my memory. The song in my head will be forever connected to that amazing, gooey, romantic kiss marking the moment Alec decides to challenge convention, face all his fears of hurting his family, and embrace who he is and how he feels.

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Which leads me to the point of this post; context. I think that’s where a lot of screen adaptations of amazing books fall flat. In their urgency to make it “exciting” and—in most cases—compact, the screenwriters skip important contextual pieces. The difference between good adaptations such as the Hunger Games, Harry Potter, the Princess Bride and terrible ones like City of Bones and the Divergent series is lack of context and/or the addition (in the case of the failures) of things and events that have no place there and that change the context of the story. The story which originally focused on the characters, their feelings, and their relationships now focus on objects or actions. Instead of looking inside, it looks outside.

That kiss meant so much more than just two characters who, having flirted a little with each other, finally get it on. For those of us who knew how Alec had been struggling with himself and his feelings for a long while—his fears, his fierce loyalties—that kiss meant a giant leap in this character’s development.

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So, screen gods, don’t forget the all-important context; the feels, the heart…without it, it’s just an empty shell. And even though that empty shell will probably sell well, you would have lost a large segment of the audience. Those who were there when the true story was happening. Those who felt, cried, and laughed along with the characters. Those who felt the overwhelming sense of victory and freedom alongside Alec the moment he decided to be himself.

 

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