Everything You Need To Know About Cassandra Clare's Controversies

Photo: Kelly Campbell/Courtesy of Simon & Schuster.
This week, we're seeing a rare phenomenon even in these reboot-happy days: A disappointing flop film, The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, is being reborn on TV as Shadowhunters on Freeform (f.k.a. ABC Family). That's not too surprising to fans of the young adult books on which these adaptations are based. Cassandra Clare's Mortal Instruments series is a lush, addictive — and funny — urban fantasy about Clary Fray, a geeky girl from Brooklyn who discovers she's actually part of a half-angel/half-human race of demon hunters. But as in Clary's own family history, there are a few shadows lurking in Clare's background.

Should the early controversies of Clare's career taint viewers' and readers' enjoyment of her work? It hasn't for me, anyway. It is, however, a fascinating prequel to her success story, and a peek into an internet microcosm we don't often hear much about.

Fan-Fiction Origins
Judith Rumelt was a writer for The Hollywood Reporter and other entertainment outlets when she got her start in the fanfic world, under the pen name Cassandra Claire (that's Claire with an "i"). She gained quite a following with her Draco Trilogy (Draco Dormiens, Draco Sinister and Draco Veritas), which focused on a sexy, brooding version of Harry Potter's Draco Malfoy and was published online from 2000-2006. According to The Daily Dot, Claire became a major influence in the world of HP fanfic...until a backlash began.

Image: Courtesy of Oliiya/Deviant Art.
Plagiarism Accusations
As early as 2001, members of the community began pointing out that some of Claire's passages were quotes from shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Babylon 5. This was actually intentional on Claire's part as a sort of "spot the quote" game she had going with readers, according to Fanlore.org. But when a community member going by the name of Avocado called attention to the many unattributed phrases taken from a then-out-of-print book, The Hidden Land by Pamela Dean, Claire was banned from Fanfiction.net.

Wait a sec. Isn't fan fiction, by definition, a sort of plagiarism? If you're already writing a story based on someone else's characters, does it matter if there are other unoriginal words in it as well? It seems that depends on A) what you plan on doing with your work, and B) what agreement you've made with your readers. If they're expecting original work, you'd better not hoodwink them. (By the way, Claire did include credit disclaimers with each installment, but some considered them not detailed enough.) A pretty heated debate ensued among Claire's attackers and defenders. Avocado wrote a really long essay about the whole thing, but though it's been referred to ever since, the original has been taken offline. The strife extended to accusations that Claire was cyberbullying her critics, but none of that has been backed up, and all of those accounts, too, live on only in internet archives.

The Shadow (Mostly) Forgotten
When she got her book deal for The Mortal Instruments (originally a trilogy, now six books plus a trilogy prequel and a short story collection) with Simon & Schuster, Claire changed the spelling of her pen name to Clare and took all of her fanfic offline before the first book hit shelves in 2007. Clearly, she wanted to leave that whole kerfuffle behind her. The name of the series was taken from one of her Harry Potter spinoffs, but the plot had nothing in common with it.

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Photo: Courtesy of Margaret K. McElderry Books.
Many of the author's haters continued to call out the similarities between some of the characters in the Draco Trilogy and her published works, but those are also characters of her creation and have very little to do with those created by J.K. Rowling. (The characters are certainly nowhere near as closely parallel as E.L. James' are to Stephenie Meyers', for instance.) The argument her critics seemed to be making when reminding others of Clare's past was: She plagiarized before, so she must be doing it again.

That seems pretty unlikely. With a high-profile publisher and experienced editors on her team, nothing like that would pass muster. Who would want to risk their careers that way? Rather, it seems like Claire's fanfic was excellent practice for Clare's novels. Her books are rife with references to pop and geek culture, as well as to legends and folklore. That combination is, in fact, what makes them so much fun to read. Despite periodic outcries on Tumblr, the mainstream media have largely ignored the old stories about The Draco Trilogy, with the exception of this well-researched summary on The Daily Dot.

Then The Movie Came Out
Alas, for every Hunger Games and Harry Potter, there are about 10 YA movie adaptations that make the mistake of trying to cram the plot of a 435-page book into a two-hour movie without actually capturing any of the magic that made people want to read those 435 pages. The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, released in August 2013, has a 12% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

Photo: Courtesy of Screen Gems.
It has an excellent cast (Jamie Campbell Bower, Lily Collins, Lena Headey, and Jonathan Rhys Meyers). But, as The New York Times' Jeannette Catsoulis put it, the book's "everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach to the supernatural — an ever-shifting feud of werewolves and warlocks, vampires and assorted demonic entities" meant that "too much of the film feels like shorthand, a trail of teasing crumbs to lead us to the inevitable sequels." Lazier critics resorted to calling it a Twilight rip-off, which it isn't really.

Meanwhile, Clare was back to defending herself. This time, it was the question of whether she had been "bragging" about her involvement with the movie but then changed her tune once it failed at the box office. It does sort of seem like she did flip-flop, but in this Tumblr essay, she also made some very good points about how misogynist the attacks on her seemed this time around. "Because saying you gave an opinion about your work — indicating you were willing to even have an argument about it, especially an argument with men — indicates that you think your work has value, and for a woman to think her work has any value is one of the worst things she can do, especially online."

Then, everyone moved on. All but the most devout fans stopped talking about a City of Ashes sequel and instead looked forward to Clare's new books. She began a middle-grade fantasy series called Magisterium with her close friend Holly Black, and she announced that a sequel series to The Mortal Instruments set in Los Angeles, The Dark Artifices, is set to launch with the release of Lady Midnight this March.

Now, The TV Show
A year after City of Bones' failure, Constantin Film renewed fans' dashed hopes by announcing the series would instead be adapted for television. "There was so much from the book that we had to leave out of the Mortal Instruments film. In the series we'll be able to go deeper and explore this world in greater detail and depth," Martin Moszkowicz, Constantin's head of TV and film told The Hollywood Reporter.

Photo: Courtesy of Freeform.

Despite the early, shaky reviews of the pilot, Shadowhunters has the potential to gain a following along the lines of Teen Wolf and Supernatural. Though there are some key changes, the first episode does follow the plot of City of Bones. It will be interesting to see if this adaptation loosens up a bit and enjoys the witty spirit of Clare's writing as it delves into all those supernatural details over the course of its 13-episode run. If, in this crowded field of TV programming, it eventually achieves cult status, how amazing would it be to see Shadowhunters quotes slyly cribbed for fanfic one day — then, we're pretty sure everyone would live happily ever after.
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