The Mortal Engines Quartet
It would take seven years for author and illustrator Philip Reeve to pen his
first young-adult novel, Mortal Engines, which was first published by Scholastic
in 2001. "The biggest idea I could think of was a city on wheels but then I had
to ask, 'Why would you want a city on wheels?'" Reeve says. "It seemed arcane,
but then I realized, you would want a city on wheels to chase a smaller city on
wheels...and when I worked that out everything fell into place."
The acclaimed novel, which earned the Guardian Children's Fiction Prize, the
Los Angeles Times Book Award, the Smarties Gold Award and Blue Peter Book of the
Year distinctions and was shortlisted for the prestigious Whitbread Award, would
evolve into a series of four books known as The Mortal Engines Quartet: Mortal
Engines, Predator's Gold, Infernal Devices and A Darkling Plain.
Reeve's story takes place centuries after civilization was destroyed by a
cataclysmic event known as the Sixty Minute War. Humankind has adapted and a new
way of living has evolved. Gigantic moving cities now roam the Earth, ruthlessly
preying upon smaller traction towns. Tom Natsworthy-who hails from a Lower Tier
of the great traction city of London-finds himself fighting for his own survival
after he encounters the dangerous fugitive Hester Shaw. Two opposites, whose
paths should never have crossed, forge an unlikely alliance that is destined to
change the course of the future.
During his time at art college, Reeve had experimented with a Super 8 camera
but decided it would be easier to illustrate and write novels than make movies.
("You don't have to give people lunch or dress them in costume," Reeve says,
dryly.) Still, he had a clear vision of his story's cinematic future. "Mortal
Engines always wanted to be a big action movie when it grew up," Reeve says. "It
has a three-act structure and big set pieces. It was just itching to be filmed."
Scholastic Media president and Mortal Engines' producer Deborah Forte agreed.
"There is a little bit of an actor in Philip, and a little bit of a director, so
when he writes it's in a very cinematic way," Forte says. "You know what the
world is, how it looks and sounds and what it feels like to be there." And
Forte, who had helped bring The Golden Compass to the big screen, immediately
thought of the one filmmaker with the extraordinary vision and peerless
sensibility to adapt Mortal Engines into a blockbuster movie experience: Peter
From Page to Screen
Jackson and his fellow filmmakers Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens weren't
exactly looking to make another world-building fantasy film when Forte first
sent them the property around 2005. "There were a lot of projects coming at us
after the Lord of the Rings films, and a lot of them were fantasy projects,"
Boyens says. "I got an email from Pete, asking me to take a read of this book.
He didn't tell me too much about it, because he wanted my honest opinion. And
from the very first sentence of the book I was hooked. I kept reading, hoping it
was going to make me fall in love with the characters, hoping it would have an
amazing ending, and it did, all along the way. So I wrote Pete back and said,
'Hell, yeah. This is an extraordinary story."
From the start, Jackson was excited by the ideas and the imagery of Mortal
Engines. "Society has rebuilt a semblance of what it used to be, except the
cities are now actually moving," Jackson says. "They are huge traction cities.
London is over a mile long, and they chase and hunt smaller cities across this
landscape called the Great Hunting Ground, which is essentially Europe."
Embedded in Reeve's depiction of the future is the concept of Municipal
Darwinism. "In its simplest form, the bigger cities eat the smaller ones,"
Jackson says. "The smaller cities eat the smaller towns, and the smaller towns
eat the tiny little towns. They see that as a very natural evolution. When we
join this story this has been going on for over 1,000 years so it is very
established." He pauses. "The trouble with Municipal Darwinism is that there is
a limit to it. Eventually the big cities eat so many of the smaller cities that
there are none left, so they have to either turn on each other or find something
else to hunt."
He loved the concept of cities on wheels devouring each other, and the tale's
narrative and emotional elements of love, compassion, vengeance, and liberation.
"You are always looking for stories with humanity," Jackson says. "Mortal
Engines has that."
Jackson's Wingnut Films optioned the property and then began pre-production
on Mortal Engines in New Zealand in 2008, but the project needed to be placed on
the back burner for several years while Jackson and his fellow filmmakers
created The Hobbit trilogy.
After the release of the final Hobbit film, Battle of the Five Armies, in
2014, Jackson decided to write and produce Mortal Engines, and he and Fran Walsh
asked their longtime collaborator Christian Rivers to direct it. "I always
wanted to produce something for Christian, and this was the perfect moment in
time," Jackson says. Besides, he adds, laughing, "If Christian can direct Mortal
Engines, at least I get to see the film!"
Twenty five years earlier, Rivers had sent Jackson a fan letter and had
enclosed drawings of dragons and a request for a job. Jackson was impressed and
hired him. Rivers' first assignment was storyboarding Jackson's first feature,
Bad Taste. They continued to work together, as both of their careers expanded.
Rivers eventually won an Academy Award for Best Achievement in Visual Effects
for his work on 2005's King Kong, and Jackson knew Rivers had a gift for
storytelling and was passionate about conveying complex emotion on screen.
Rivers, though, was not expecting an opportunity to direct Mortal Engines.
The offer from Jackson, Rivers says, "came along like a freight train."
Fortunately, he was well prepared. Rivers had designed the pre-visual planning
for the film years earlier and knew the project well. Still, the enormity of the
project was not lost on him. "How the hell do you turn this into a movie?"
Rivers thought at first. "How do you sell these giant cities moving? How do you
make that process believable? In a book there is a lot of metaphor, but film has
to be fully literal."
Luckily, he and his fellow filmmakers had experience of translating
fantastical literary worlds to film. "It's something we have had a lot of
experience in," says producer Amanda Walker, who served as associate producer on
The Hobbit trilogy. "We've taken material in the past that is very cinematic,
something we have never seen before. Our artists thrive on responding to that
material and rising to the challenge of delivering a world that no one has ever
Even better, the Academy Award-winning team of Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens
and Jackson had signed on to write the adaptation. "We know each other, trust
each other," Boyens says. "And our collaboration is built on respect."
From the beginning, Walsh, Boyens and Jackson understood that the script
needed to explain the world of Mortal Engines to the audience without
sacrificing the speed and agility of the narrative. "The secret is telling
people how this world works without bogging down the whole story," Boyens says.
They also knew that this massive new world needed to be anchored by a real,
emotionally authentic, human story. "This world of Mortal Engines felt like a
very fresh idea," Boyens says. "At the same time, the story itself pulled
together all the surviving threads of humanity."
That humanity is at the core of all the stories they tell on film. "There's
no point in making a movie unless you've got characters that you can relate to,"
Jackson says. "I mean, why bother? We may be projecting ahead about 1,700 years
in Mortal Engines, but human beings are still human beings. If we went back two
or three thousand years, we could sit down and have dinner with a person in
Ancient Egypt or Rome, and we would probably still find a lot to laugh about and
connect with, even though that person comes from a totally different world. The
environment may change, the society may change, but humanity is always there. No
matter how crazy or fantastical the world we create around them may be, we make
sure that world is inhabited with characters that you can connect with."
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