Adapting any beloved book series for the screen has historically caused mixed opinion among fans, and the heat that has faced Freeform’s demon-killing show Shadowhunters since it’s production was first announced back in 2014 is no exception. There’s an immense pressure to keep things faithful to the source material (in this case, Cassandra Clare’s The Mortal Instruments series), and with a previous screen adaption of the franchise failing to impress movie goers, the pressure this time around has been deafening in its intensity. There’s a lot riding on it, and the decision to adapt the books for screen a second time was surely a risky decision. Fans were excited at the chance to see their favorite characters once again, but more than a little wary of the shadow of past mistakes.
So when the show’s executives and primary cast members began to openly talk about how the show would stray from the original structure of the books, fans were thrown headfirst back into the disappointment of the film’s shortcomings (of which lack of faithfulness to the source material was one of its many criticisms). The road was once again paved with good intentions, but the decision to move into left field with the story didn’t bode well for the diehard.
We’re now seven weeks into the show’s first season, and while there are some still complaining about the changes, there are many, many others who have embraced the newest adaption of the Shadowhunters world. For anyone who has objectively read the books, thirteen episodes is a lot of time to tell the story. The first novel was slow-moving at best, sprinkled with just enough intrigue and a splash or two of an action scene to get you hooked, but to faithfully adapt that into thirteen episodes would leave us with a lot of dead space and free time for Clary Fray, the protagonist, to reflect on how she feels about things – riveting television, it does not make.
To remedy this, the show writers have taken elements from the entire print series and brought them forward to keep the show’s pace running smoothly. They’ve also plucked the often overshadowed secondary characters from the series, dropped them front and centre and plumped them up with brand new storylines. Not only does it work, but those secondary characters are now perhaps the most intriguing characters of the entire show.
Alec Lightwood of the Mortal Instruments series was an 18-year-old harbouring a secret love for his Parabatai, Jace. He was rude when given the chance, and cold, and so far back in the closet that he actually threatened to kill Clary when she so much as breathed a word of his sexuality. He spent the first three books denying who he really was, and for two of those he was in a secret relationship that happened largely off-page. His sexuality and his hiding of that was his story – and most of his story happened in the background, away from the focus of Clary and her journey. Where no one could read it.
In Shadowhunters, Alec Lightwood is a young man in his early 20s struggling to keep inside the lines he has carefully drawn for himself. He’s snarky, exasperated and an absolute buzz kill, locked in firmly by his allegiance and responsibility to the Clave. His letter-of-the-law mentality gets overruled more times than not, and as the one in a position of authority he’s the first to bear the consequences. His loyalty to his family and his superiors is what drives him, but each episode brings a new responsibility to carry, and for a guy who is already struggling to keep everything in order, the burden is beginning to get a little too much. Plus, he’s growing closer to Magnus Bane, who is perhaps the only person around who doesn’t expect anything from him, while he harbours a secret love for his Parabatai, Jace. And he’s just been informed that he’ll have to enter a political marriage to redeem his family’s ties to the Clave. All of this and a bag of crisps, right on your television screen. Juicy, right?
As for the previous incarnation of Isabelle Lightwood, she was a spiked-heels-and-fishnet-wearing promiscuous teen girl who used her hook ups as band-aids for her daddy issues. She wasn’t nearly as interested in Clary as she was in her own social life, but she seemed supportive of her brother Alec, though with Clary’s lens of the world being centre-stage, Isabelle and her story also suffered the off-page treatment. By book three, what little story she had was further downsized when she was relegated to the role of love interest for a male character who had a rather impressive character arc in comparison. But being armed with a whip, a slew of innuendos and being ready to throw down when needed made her a role model to some. To others, she was simply a sad, damaged girl who hadn’t been given enough page presence to make them care.
In Shadowhunters, Isabelle Lightwood is a young woman in her early 20s, confident, comfortable in her skin and carefree, which is a point of resentment between her and her commanding mother. Her daddy issues are non-existent, as she shares a close, solid bond with her father that seems to have shaped her faith in herself. She welcomes Clary into their world with open arms and supports her with sisterly charm – in fact, when it comes down to it, she supports everyone. She’s just broken things off with a guy she has legitimate feelings for, and in learning the consequences her brother will face, she’s finally conforming to the Clave’s ways in order to better protect him. She’s actually nice, and her fierceness in protecting those she loves is not the off-handed mention it once was, but a proud, powerful, unyielding force that is impossible for us to ignore.
Luke Garroway’s character was thoroughly given the television treatment. Being a bookstore owner in his previous rendition didn’t lend itself to anything, while being a New York detective gives Luke bigger scope by utilising his character to tie in the grisly evidence of Valentine’s plans into the greater Shadowhunter mythology. Now that his story as a Werewolf Alpha has been brought into the show earlier, that combined with his detective day job allows him to answer questions raised on the side while the other, younger characters try to figure out who they are and where they sit in the world.
Fan favorite Magnus Bane, who physically appeared once in the events of the first book, gets to regularly showcase the responsibility and importance that comes with being the High Warlock of Brooklyn. His fate is also tied to his much-anticipated romantic interest in Alec Lightwood and his compassion for him. What once was an allusive handful of moments mentioned through third parties, Magnus and Alec’s budding relationship is now a weekly source of fan excitement. For the first time ever, we get to watch them fall in love.
The biggest upside of the series being in a television format is the luxury of time. Thirteen episodes is a lot of time to fill, and Shadowhunters is filling it by exploring things the books simply didn’t. In place of randomly turning up dead in the arms of a Vampire, Simon’s traumatic transition from Mundane to the Undead has been a main plot point of the series so far. He’s struggled, he’s hallucinated, he’s alienated himself from his family and friends, and the seeds of his future bond with Raphael Santiago have been planted. Raphael’s involvement with Simon’s transition is no longer the random event it was originally – it’s now based on something. Exploring the off-page, background narratives of the story helps to better shape these characters and make them matter to us right now, without having to wait a few books for them to develop.
Instead of long-winded info dumps through the mouths of other characters, we get to personally engage with Meliorn of the Seelie Court, Camille of the New York Vampire clan and the villain himself, Valentine Morgenstern and his Circle of followers. We even get to see the extended Lightwood family, Robert and Maryse and little Max (who is already breaking hearts). And since this is all happening beyond Clary’s book narrative, the Shadow World and it’s characters have more depth. We no longer have to see them through the eyes of someone else; we get to engage with each character on our own terms, directly and intimately. We get to know what makes them tick, how they make us tick, and we’re all the better for it.
In refusing to remain faithful, Shadowhunters has effectively changed the protagonists and their ragtag group of sidekicks into a solid, enjoyable ensemble cast of characters finally on equal ground. Everyone gets their moment to shine, and in letting them do so, the characters better compliment each other. The energy is new and different and riveting, and the fans – old and new – could not be more pleased.
Shadowhunters airs Tuesdays at 9pm/8c on Freeform, and Wednesdays internationally on Netflix.