Mortal Engines and Survival of the Fittest Cities

How Mortal Engines brings the story of Traction Cities to the big screen.

Adapting the enormous world of the beloved 2001 novel Mortal Engines is a big task… even for the director of The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

“After The Hobbit, I was exhausted and didn’t want to face the huge pressure of directing another tentpole film like this,” Peter Jackson says when we catch up with him at NYCC. And it’s understandable. Mortal Engines imagines a future where, following a catastrophic war, London and other large cities are moving behemoths—people, architecture, and cultures situated on top of gargantuan gears and tracks that race these metropolises across a desolate landscape. As these “traction cities” continue on their path, they engage in “Municipal Darwinism,” gobbling up any smaller communities before them.

Mortal Engines is such an ambitious concept that, like the traction cities it depicts, threatens to gobble up any filmmaker who dares to adapt it. Still, Jackson had the rights and wanted this film made. So, as he’s done before, Jackson found someone else. This time around it was Christian Rivers’ turn.

“Because Christian had directed great stuff on our Hobbit ‘splinter unit,’ he seemed like on obvious choice to offer it to. It’s worked out very well,” Jackson says.

further reading: Adapting Mortal Engines to the Screen

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What was it like being entrusted with a massive story by one of cinema’s strongest tellers of epic tales for first-time director Rivers?

“Terrifying,” the filmmaker says in a word. The New Zealand-based Rivers has been in Jackson’s orbit since storyboarding his 1992 zombie comedy Dead Alive. Rivers would go on to work on special and visual effects for Jackson, his partner Fran Walsh, and Weta Digital for projects including The Hobbit and King Kong.

While Mortal Engines is indeed a big project set in a big world, Rivers see the universal appeal in its story. Like the novel, the film follows the intersecting paths of Tom (Robert Sheehan), a low-class historian apprentice from London, and Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar), a disfigured would-be assassin set on killing the head of London’s Guild of Historians, Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving). Hester’s mission takes her and Tom to a place few traction city citizens have ever been: the ground. From there, the characters embark on an emotional, revelatory journey that wouldn’t seem out of place in Jackson’s mythopoetic Lord of the Rings.

“What I hope that audiences will enjoy about this film is that it’s something utterly new and unique… but also familiar,” Rivers says. “It’s not some completely left field fantasy. It’s set in our future and there are real characters. Tom is pushed out of his comfort zone and pushed to become someone he’s always wanted to be. That’s something universal and has nothing to do with traction cities.”

further reading: Mortal Engines Cast on Bringing the Book’s Characters to Life

Jackson finds similar themes to love in Mortal Engines.

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“I love these characters, and their non-conformity to the usual Hollywood stereotypes,” he says. “What appealed to me about the premise is instead of depicting a future world where all norms of society have broken down, these books take place in a new form of society that’s very different to ours, but is far from the lawless Mad Max type vision of the future.”

Mortal Engines opens on Dec. 14.

Alec Bojalad is TV Editor at Den of Geek. Read more of his stuff here. Follow him at his creatively-named Twitter handle @alecbojalad