Cassandra Clare Shares the Troubles and Triumphs of Seeing the Shadowhunters World Onscreen

Young adult novels have been attracting Hollywood’s attention since before the category existed (The Outsiders, anyone?), and in recent years, many of the most successful box office hits and buzziest television series have come directly from the YA shelves. Page to Screen is a series in which authors whose novels have been adapted for the screen share their unique perspectives on the process. Some have little to no involvement, others are writing scripts and sitting in monogrammed chairs on set, but all have experienced seeing their work in a new way.

Today, bestselling author Cassandra Clare shares the story of how her wildly popular Mortal Instruments series became a movie, and then a TV show, and then a different kind of TV show—one that may just bring book fans and show fans together. Check out previous Page to Screen posts here.

The film option for the series happened first. When was that?
The Mortal Instruments was optioned in 2009—a very basic option and a boilerplate contract. I never thought it would come to anything, but they continued to renew the option and as the books became more successful in their own right, there was a definite push forward to make the film. They started seriously moving forward in about 2011, with casting in 2012, and the movie was released in 2013.

And how did Shadowhunters, the TV version, come about?
Well, Constantin Films made the movie, but it didn’t make the money they wanted, so they didn’t plan a second one. But they still owned the option on film and TV for the Shadowhunters world, and they felt they had really missed an opportunity. They looked at the book sales worldwide and they thought, there’s an audience there we really didn’t reach. So they decided to try to reach that audience with a television show, and they had a lot of interest from different channels looking to develop with them. In the end they went with ABC Family, now Freeform.

How do you feel about your stories being translated this way?
Unless you’re able to get a really rare and stellar contract, it’s not up to you whether you have any input into a show or movie made from your work. So it’s been, I guess, an exercise in letting go—but no matter how much you let go, you can’t turn off all your feelings. You still care, more than anyone else in the world, about this story and characters. And you still answer to your fans. It’s always hard when people ask me, “How could you let such and such happen or be changed” in the movies or show, and the answer “it’s just not up to me in any way” is a hard one to give.

So, mixed feelings?
My experience has definitely ricocheted around. Changes are always going to be necessary in order to translate books to film. I think if you’re lucky you get a team who makes changes that honor the spirit of the books, that continue to communicate the story, and that preserve the characters. Outlander and Game of Thrones come to mind as adaptations that do that successfully. I remember being on the phone with a director who wanted to reimagine the whole idea of demon fighters as counterterrorist operatives and they would all be in their late forties. Eventually you wonder why not just make all the characters ice-cream cones? They could be fighting the evil effects of lack of refrigeration.

Let’s talk money—how do the financial aspects of the movies and the show work for you as the author?
Usually there’s option money up front. It can vary hugely from a few thousand dollars to millions. (Mine was not millions!) When the film is greenlit, then you’re paid the fee that means the company has bought the rights—they have to, in order to roll cameras on the film. And that’s usually a percentage of the film’s budget. Most film budgets are in the millions, so that’s the most money you’ll see in a lump sum. For TV, I’m paid per episode that airs.

And how involved were/are you in the projects?
My involvement was again really complicated. The problem with this kind of thing is people often want a simple answer and my experience has been that with both projects I’ve ricocheted back and forth from being involved to not involved at all and back again. You’re at the whim of the producers and showrunner/s. With Shadowhunters, they said they wanted me involved up front, and they involved me in casting, which was the first thing they did. So I got to be very involved in the casting of the main characters. Then they said they wanted my notes on the pilot script and sent it to me. Things got more complicated then.

How so?
I wrote notes, the kind of notes I’d write on another author’s book. Some good and some critical like: “This isn’t working,” “maybe this isn’t a good idea,” etc. After they received my notes they made clear to me something I hadn’t realized before, which was that their target audience was older and male—specifically the 18–35 male demographic. Which is very different from the book audience, and the audience I’d been thinking of, many of whom are young women and girls, of say, 14 to any age. The idea was that the show should be Batman and not The Hunger Games. So a lot of elements meant to attract men were introduced—technology and computers—and there were a lot of scenes with “sexy” women, a good portion of whom were bloodily murdered. For a long time the “steles,” the magical tools used to make runes, were turned into Mont Blanc pens because they wanted a merchandise deal with Mont Blanc, but that didn’t work out.

So there was definitely a disconnect from the books at first, which must have been hard.
That introduced a lot of confusion for me—what do you do with a show based on your books that isn’t being written for the people who like your books? And of course, it’s Hollywood, where people say pretty shockingly racist, misogynist, and homophobic things to you constantly. People involved in the first season, who are now gone from the show (people know the showrunner left, but not that many of the writers, crew, and even execs also left—basically a whole team left) described a female character of mine to me as “just tits and ass” and told me no one wanted to see a gay character onscreen with a man so a woman would be introduced for him to spend most of his time with. She was described to me as his “soulmate.” And yet, whenever I was tempted to step away, I remembered that I had been able to make some positive changes to the pilot and the direction of the show. Some of the scenes of murdered women were removed or changed. A scene where the hero touches the heroine intimately while she’s passed out was removed.

But that was at the beginning, too. Eventually I realized that having had that impact, I wouldn’t be able to have any more impact. But all that changed when the showrunner left and that whole team left, too, so this second season is a different thing altogether.

That’s incredible. Are you ever on set?
I did a set visit first season and I met the first showrunner, Ed Decter, many times. I remember looking at a whole bunch of headshots on his computer for Jace and putting a finger on Dominic Sherwood and saying “Him, that guy.” That was early on so I was involved at that point. I got to watch the actors read through the lines before they were cast. So it’s always nice to see them now because they know I was behind their casting from the start.

Have you visited for season 2?
This year  I did a “walkthrough” with Todd and Darren, the new showrunners. Matt Hastings, the production director who was hired this year as well and is great, walked us through all the sets, and I was delighted to see a lot of locations from the books. And the cast got together and gave me a gift, a copy of Clary’s art portfolio that they had all written personal messages on. It was nice to feel reconnected. The set had a good feel to it, like everyone was buzzing and happy in a new way.

What kind of feedback have you gotten from readers?
The show has created a very divided fandom. In its first season especially, it diverged a great deal from the source material, which always creates conflict. The book fans and show fans are pretty separate. But the new showrunners and I would like that to change, we’d like to bring them together, so we have to see how season 2 goes. When I do run into show fans, though, the questions are mostly about whether scenes and plotlines from the books will show up in later seasons—asking about Sebastian is the most popular question. They look very closely for “easter eggs” in the show—mentions of plot points and characters from the books or bits of dialogue.

Have TV and movie editions of the books helped bring in new readers?
Any show or movie helps sales; movies move a lot of books, but TV shows sell them over a longer period of time by bringing the books into the media. There is one TV edition with a new cover, but it didn’t really sell so I think they’re phasing it out. I think people like the covers as they are which is a tribute to the artist who designed them. But they all have a sticker on them now that points people to the show.

It sounds like season 2 will be really different from season 1. Are you excited about the changes?
I was uncertain about the first season. For me, it didn’t really work, which had absolutely nothing to do with the actors, who are great, and very protective of their characters. Unknown to me, the network at the same time decided the matchup of showrunner and material wasn’t a good one. Decter wanted to be doing a different show with a different audience than the material had ever attracted. The reviews were not what they wanted. And overall there just wasn’t a match between what the showrunner and Constantin wanted and what Freeform wanted, so new showrunners were brought in. The network called it a “reboot.”

I’ve only seen the first three episodes of the second season but it feels more like my books. It’s funny, and I’ve always valued humor as part of the Shadowhunter world. The show feels darker and has clearer stakes. I am really interested to see what happens going forward.

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