The City of Ember was a book I really enjoyed when I first read it. Finding out that it was adapted into a movie was something that made me happy. Finding out that Bill Murray was playing the mayor of the underground city was incredibly exciting to hear. Watching the movie ended up being a slight letdown for me.
It’s a shame to say that because, for the most part at least, the film adaptation is actually a fairly accurate translation of the novel. Unfortunately, it failed to capture the one key component, the urge to continue on, that made the book a good read. While reading the novel, I always wanted to press onward, to see what was going to happen next. Here, all I wanted to do was have the film end, because I wasn’t being entertained all that often.
The story goes something like this: There is a city underground. The people there have no idea whether or not they can leave the city. The generator that provides all the power for the city is starting to break down, and nobody knows how to fix it. The city is in danger, and apparently the only two people who can save it are our two leads, a couple of teenagers.
This is who the film centers upon, for the most part; we get to follow two teenagers around the city, seeing their antics up close. The older teenager is named Doon Harrow (Harry Treadaway), a “Pipeworks Laborer.” He gets to work with pipes all day long, which is at least close to his goal of fixing the generator. It’s much closer than the job Lina Mayfleet (Saoirse Ronan) ends up doing. She is a “Messenger,” running around the city delivering messages to people. There’s no email or phones in the city, and messengers are the only way people can send messages to one another.
The jobs that the two character receive are initially reversed, with Doon getting “Messenger” and Lina getting “Pipeworks Laborer.” The only point in having the jobs switched is to introduce us to each character, and have them establish some sort of relationship, but it seems that they already knew each other, making the entire exercise pointless.
One of the strong aspects of the film is its cast, the majority of which turn in strong performances. The two leads portray the characters from the book almost perfectly, (although in the book, Doon is the same age as Lina), and Bill Murray’s performance as the mayor is likely the best part of the film. He plays the role for laughs, even when events within the film are completely serious–as they are the majority of the time.
Something I still cannot understand is the reason why City of Ember is not as captivating as its novel counterpart. It might be due to the fact that we don’t get much development or characterization with our lead characters, meaning we don’t care when things happen to them, nor do we care when they do things. There’s a scene fairly early on when Lina’s grandmother passes away. If anyone sheds a tear at that moment, I would be surprised, as we haven’t been given any prior reason to care. The scene also fails to be dramatic, with seemingly no attempt to make it so.
Another reason why the film is less intriguing than the novel is how rushed things feel in the film. The novel got to take its time in developing its characters and setting. In the film, things head south right off the bat. Without all of this time building up characters before the downfall of the city, and without any time during the film to develop the characters, we have trouble caring for them. Whatever happens won’t matter, because we haven’t been given reason to hope for them.
I also felt that the film failed to capture the run-down feel of Ember as well as it should have. Yes, there are random blackouts and the food stocks are running low, but not many people seem to be worse for wear because of it. Even the characters who are supposed to be having difficulties with living their day to day lives seem to be just fine, despite being malnourished. Things just didn’t seem bad enough within the city, despite the fact that they should have seemed awful. The city was supposed to feel dystopic, in a sense, and that never came through in the film.
In terms of translating The City of Ember from print to film, director Gil Kenan didn’t do a terrible job. The portrayal of the city certainly could have been improved upon, but the important characters were all there, and stayed consistent with the novel. Unfortunately, the film failed to grasp the concept of intrigue that the book had; I didn’t really care if I saw what happened next, unlike the book where I always wanted to see what would happen to Lina and Doon. It’s not a total failure of a film, but it certainly could have been better.