Book Report: What to Expect From the ‘Mortal Engines’ Movie

Chris Tilly
Movies Sci-Fi
Movies Sci-Fi

Mortal Engines hits screens this December. Written by Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens — the powerhouse trio behind the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movies — the film is based on a 2001 novel by Philip Reeve. And directed by first-timer Christian Rivers, who has been working with Jackson since 1992. So in advance of the movie’s release, we’ve got the full lowdown on the book, the celluloid adaptation, and the potential future of the franchise.

What is Mortal Engines?

The book was first published in 2001.

The first Mortal Engines book is set in the future, sometime after the ‘Sixty Minute War’ has ravaged the planet, and caused a massive geological event. The result is a steampunk world in which mobile cities consume other cities, rinsing them for people and parts. If that sounds a bit abstract, here’s author Reeve giving an overview of the novel, and its sequels…

“The books cover nearly 20 years in the history of the Traction Era, a far-future age when cities move about hunting smaller mobile towns and dismantling those the catch for their raw materials. Airships ply the skies, amphibious limpet-submarines lurk in the oceans, and dangerous bits of technology left over from a long-ago war lie waiting to be discovered and put to use in the looming conflicts between the cities and their anti-tractionist enemies.”

The story focusses on Tom Natsworthy, an apprentice historian who sees something he shouldn’t early in proceedings, and finds himself forced on the run by the villain of the piece, Guild of Historians boss Thaddeus Valentine. Tom soon uncovers a conspiracy that threatens millions, and teams up with a disparate group of rebels to put a stop to Valentine’s plans.

Who is in the Movie?

Hera Hilmar as Hester Shaw.

Robert Sheehan — best known as Nathan in Misfits — is playing Tom, while The Matrix star Hugo Weaving is his nemesis Valentine. Which is spot-on casting. Relative newcomer Leila George plays Thaddeus’s daughter Katherine, who Tom falls for hard.

Hera Hilmar — who played Vanessa in Da Vinci’s Demons — is Hester Shaw, a fugitive whose violent actions at the start of the story set the wheels in motion, both metaphorically and literally. While Steven Lang — the big guy in Avatar and the bag guy in Don’t Breathe — is Shrike, a cyborg warrior who is part man, part machine, and all terrifying.

Finally Jihae plays Anna Fang, a skilled pilot and resistance leader who teams up with Tom and Hester to save the world. If the film is going to work, they really need to get Shrike and Fang right, as alongside Hester, they are the most interesting characters.

How Will the Movie Differ From the Book?

Early word suggests that the film might focus on a different protagonist.  As while Tom is the hero of the book, it’s Hester who takes centre stage in the movie’s trailer (above). And she may well play a more leading role in the movie. Something that the author approves of.

“Hester was always my favourite” Reeve told The Bookseller. “The first book was seen through Tom’s eyes, but she is the reason there were sequels. She is the heart and soul. More important than the moving cities, in fact.”

Also, while Tom is a teenager in the book, he’s played by Sheehan in the movie, who was pushing 30 when the movie shot. So the characters have clearly been aged up for the purposes of the film.

Will This be the Start of a Mortal Engines Franchise?

Concept art for the movie.

Mortal Engines is the first in a series of four books, collectively called the Mortal Engines Quartet. The sequels are Predator’s Gold, Infernal Devices and A Darkling Plain. And with Peter Jackson and co having form when it comes to turning books into multiple movies, this might be the start of an ongoing franchise.

It doesn’t stop at four either, as Reeve explained to The Bookseller. “I thought I’d finished with that world when A Darkling Plain was published, but new ideas kept bubbling up, and in 2009 I returned to the dawn of the Traction Era in a prequel, Fever Crumb, about a girl living in London shortly before it starts to be rebuilt as a mobile city. Fever went on to have more adventures of her own in my next book, A Web of Air, and Scrivener’s Moon. Further books expanding the Mortal Engines world.”

A collection of short stories about Anna Fang — called Night Flights — is also being released in July, while The Illustrated World of Mortal Engines hits in November. Meaning that if the first flick connects with film fans when it arrives in mid-December, this could just be the beginning of the Mortal Engines story onscreen.

Chris Tilly
FANDOM Managing Editor in the UK. At this point my life is a combination of 1980s horror movies, Crystal Palace football matches, and episodes of I'm Alan Partridge. The first series. When he was in the travel tavern. Not the one after.
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