Shadowhunters Review: Should You Watch or Just Read the Books?

Shadowhunters, the highly anticipated TV adaptation of the extremely popular young adult book series by Cassandra Clare, premiered on Freeform (the new name for ABC Family) last month. Important questions are: Is this a good adaptation? Is this a good show? Should you watch it? Should you read the books if you haven't already?

Disclaimer: Steles out on the table, I am a huge fan of Clare's shadowhunter world. I was predisposed to liking the series because I love the books so much. Meaning it's hard for me to review the show without thinking about the movie adaptation or the books. 

Okay, first of all, you might be wondering what Shadowhunters or The Mortal Instruments are. The TV show Shadowhunters is an adaptation of a wildly popular young adult book series that is collectively known as The Mortal Instruments. The main series, which the show is based on, is 6 books. There's a 3 book prequel series called The Infernal Devices, two books of collected, canonical, short stories called The Bane Chronicles (about the immortal bisexual warlock Magnus Bane) and Tales From Shadowhunter Academy. There are also two more sequel series planned (3 books each): The Dark Artifices (the first book, Lady Midnight, is dropping this March!) and The Last Hours. Um. There's also a Shadowhunter Codex, which is a companion guide to the show of terminology, history and so on. In short, this is a massive world. This series is for people who love urban fantasy, lots and lots of world building, complicated family trees that cover centuries (knowing who is related to whom and what happened between their ancestors 200 years ago is often crucially important in this series), and large casts of characters. 

In a nutshell, Shadowhunters are people descended from angels who protect the mundane world (aka plain old humans) from Downworlders (fairies, vampires, werewolves, demons, and anything else not human or a shadowhunter). There is a whole world that humans have no idea even exists. It's a dangerous world that balances precariously on the brink of war between largely political factions of supernatural beings, none of whom like or particularly trust each other and where very few things are as they seem (including who the "good" guys and "bad" guys are). 

The TV series is based on the main series and starts at the plot of the first book, The City of Bones. In the first book, an ordinary teenager discovers that she is anything but ordinary when her mother is kidnapped because of something called The Mortal Cup that very bad people want and she is something called a shadowhunter. Clary Fray, the formerly ordinary girl, has a lot to deal with. Her mother has been lying about who they are her whole life, said mother is now gone and in mortal danger (and she has to find a way to save her), she's now on the run from a LOT of people who would kill to get their hands on The Mortal Cup, she has to quickly learn about this whole world she never knew existed and is ill-equipped to handle, there's distrust all around (especially once everyone knows who her father is and why she and her mother were undercover as mundanes), AND of course there's boy drama no one has time for. Whew. Got all that? If not, let me highly recommend the official website:

Okay. The TV show. Three episodes have aired. Should you watch? What's the good, the bad, and the in-between? 

First of all, should you watch? If you are a fan of the books and movie, I would say yes. It's not perfect and I have some issues with it which I'll get to, but it's a nice supplemental. Like I said, I'm a big longtime fan of the books and I am thrilled to see these characters on TV. I enjoyed parts of the movie, honestly, but the big problem I could see is that this is not a series that a movie or a set of movies could do justice to. There's simply too much canon and too much world building that needs to be done. The kind you can't do in 2 hours. This series is best served on TV where there's the time to explore the world and really dig into the characters. Freeform had to do a whole series of little webisodes explaining what important things the audience will need to know are. If you aren't familiar with the books, there's a definite learning curve. The first few episodes feel a bit rushed and stuffed with various characters trying to bring Clary (aka the audience) up to speed on a whole new vocabulary worth of Very Important things she/you need to know (if you watch and are desperately asking yourself what is The Clave, The Accords, runes, the Silent Brothers, The Mortal Cup, a stele, the nephilium and so on, it's okay. You will eventually understand everything). 

The Good

In my opinion, the best thing so far is the cast. In terms of looks? Spot on casting. In the movie, the casting was VERY hit and miss. Some of the actors were literal perfection (Godfrey Gao as Magnus Bane) and some were...strongly debated (Jamie Campbell Bower as Jace Lightwood Herondale). The TV cast is very, very, very good-looking and I am honest enough to admit that I am very much enjoying looking at them. Another great/cool thing about the casting is that at least FOUR of the main and/or main-secondary characters were racebent! The actors playing Isabelle Lightwood, Simon Lewis, Luke Garroway, and Camille Belcourt are played by non-white actors. 

Need some proof/convincing? 

Katharine McNamama as Clary Fray

Dominic Sherwood as Jace Lightwood

Matthew Daddario as Alec Lightwood

Maxim Roy as Jocelyn Fairchild/Fray

Isaiah Mustafa as Luke Garroway (I swear this was the best pic I could find...*cough*)

Kaitlyn Leeb as Camille Belcourt

Emeraude Toubia as Isabelle Lightwood

David Castro as Raphael Santiago

Harry Shum Jr. as Magus Bane 

Jade Hassoune as Meliorn

Side by side comparison of the TV actor vs. the movie actor!! I admit that I definitely read Hodge Starkweather as the dude on the right, but I am NOT complaining about younger and much hotter John Cor playing him! 

Alberto Rosende as Simon Lewis


The Bad: 

First, do you need me to actually go on? Do you even care at this point? Or did I have you at "Hello, nurse!" by the time I put up Emeraude's picture and whether there's anything bad or not is totally irrelevant at this point? That is a totally understandable sentiment and I'm here for it to be honest. But if you DO care about it, I will say that the major flaw right now is some of the acting. And unfortunately, it's weakest in lead actress McNamara. Katharine looks great, but her acting is kinda rough. Often stilted and not very natural. I do believe she will get better over time. I say this as someone who has watched a lot of shows where the acting blessedly got better over the course of the series (I'm looking at you, Caitlyn and Cisco on The Flash), but if that's something you can't fair warned. None of the other actors are as...shaky as McNamara, but there is definitely a mix with the rest of the cast. Two of the strongest actors right now are Sherwood and Toubia. The insanely gorgeous Toubia is clearly having a ball playing super sexy (and very skilled and dangerous) shadowhunter party girl Isabelle Lightwood. I liked the movie actress okay, but Toubia makes it look effortless. 

The special effects are also a little rough, but I'm not counting that as a hard negative unless you really care about expensive production values. The truth is, it would take a LOT of money to really bring the world to life the way it's described in the books. I think the show is doing the best it can on a TV show budget that isn't on a major network. As long as they do okay with the fight choreography, I'm happy. 

The In-Between: 

I know this will really bother some people, so I'm putting it here: The characters are aged up. In the first book, Clary is 15 years old. In the pilot she turns 18. Making her a young adult instead of a mid-teen has advantages for where I think they want to take the show. Mainly, it frees up some constraints for the characters from the books in terms of them being minors (in the books, only Alec is an adult for the first couple of books. As such, he can do things the other characters cannot in regards to Clave law and regular teenage constraints like being under the authority of adults). They have more agency and freedom in the show (I haven't yet heard Simon talk about needing to check in with his mother after being gone for days at a time) AND it's clear that they will primarily put this to use with sex scenes. Again, I'm not complaining. 

One thing I AM concerned with is how quickly the show seems to be going through the plot. I would like to see them slow down and really explain and show the rich world the characters inhabit. There are SIX books worth of canon (in the main series alone) they have to play with. Plenty to work with. It seems like they are going for an info dump approach to quickly get viewers into the world, but I think they should slow it down, lest they lose people with too much information too soon. 

Final Word:

I think this is a show worth trying out if you are new to the Shadowhunter world. If anything, it will probably bring some new interest and fans to the books. If you are already fan, I think you'll enjoy it even more. Yes, it could be better in parts but ABC Family/Freeform has a decent track record with very fandom friendly shows. I think the show will only improve as the season goes on.

And finally, I'm very excited for this show to be on TV because of the multi-ethnic cast and because the most popular ship in the fandom, which is totally canon, is Malec (Magus/Alec) and I am DYING to see that on my TV each week. More interracial gay (literally magical) couples on TV, please! ;)

What do YOU think of the show so far? Ready to grab your weapon and do battle or are you looking for the nearest magical portal to escape through? 


Niala Terrell-Mason's picture
on February 1, 2016

Hey, I'm Niala! I'm black, bisexual, super liberal, a Unitarian Universalist (I'll wait while you Google that), and a long time fangirl. I love fan conventions, Marvel, Star Trek, fan fiction, Tumblr, Harry Potter, most of the shows that Fox cancels and books. I work in a public library and I am a grad student pursuing a masters of divinity in interfaith chaplaincy (aka someone who does religion for a living). I hope you think I'm funny.