Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Harry Potter and the Missed Opportunity

In an event that carried all the surprise and spontaneity of a military funeral Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was released this past weekend and made over a million bajillion dollars. It is seriously amazing the piles of money it made. You could convert the grosses to million dollar bills and still not fit them all in your house. It had people lined up around the block, some dressed up as greasy Alan Rickman or as vaguely hippie-ish Michael Gambon, and it managed to break the box office record for a November release of a first part to a sixth sequel featuring an all British cast with a lead under 5'10''. And there was much rejoicing.

The biggest difference for me between the arrival of the seventh movie and the seventh novel is that this time I just don't care. Sorry.

I am unapologetic fan of the books. I jumped aboard between the fourth and fifth and despite having a deep aversion to fads I quickly became an admirer of Ms. Rowling. Her books, to my mind, are an unadulterated good. Of course her epic series is open to any number of valid criticisms from the way the last book drags in the middle to the way the logic of Goblet doesn't hold up to scrutiny. My personal grievance is the use of time travel in book three, a device which unavoidably opens up the whole series to gigantic holes the instant it is introduced.

But greatness and perfection rarely, if ever, go hand in hand. The White Album veers into self-indulgence more than once. Death of a Salesman has it's didactic passages featuring the ghost of the American dream personified. Even Shakespeare had his extraneous scenes there to placate the crowds of his day. What matters is not flawlessness but the heights reached, and Rowling reached greatness with the scope and detail of the world she created. Her books are one of those rare experiences where the reader gives themselves over entirely to the author, trusting them to the end.

The movies reached no such pinnacles. Deathly Hallows looks likely to follow in the footsteps of it's six predecessors, giving a reasonable facsimile of the novel before disappearing into the ether without making a lasting impression. It will be judged by fans and press alike as a 250 million dollar moving book illustration, but not as a movie - not as an object onto itself.

In retrospect, I think the series was doomed the moment they decided to start producing movies before the series had reached its conclusion. By starting in the middle the producers guaranteed Potter would never know where it was headed, and couldn't be envisioned as a whole piece. Rather it would have to settle for being a series of Greatest Hits album for each book, jumping awkwardly from scene to scene while accumulating no forward momentum as a series.

It's hard to blame the author. She made the respectable decision that she didn't know squat about movies and handed her baby over to the pros to do their thing without her meddling. What a series this sprawling needed was a mastermind to take control of the whole thing and figure out a way for it to hang together as a single story told in seven parts. Someone to do what Peter Jackson did with the Lord of the Rings series, take it and mercilessly wrestle it into cinematic shape. Has there ever been a great book to movie transition that didn't involve substantial changes? Godfather, Jaws, The Wizard of Oz, One Flew and Over the Cuckoo's Nest were all chopped up and twisted on the journey to the screen.

Harry Potter was never adapted. Producers attempted to transfer it whole, jamming eight hours of story in each two and half hour movie. They turned up with each release to say, "Well, we had to give the fans what they want, ha ha." Sometimes you have to tell the fans to pipe down because you know better. Fans may say they want this or that, but when it comes down to it what they need is a quality movie. But a behemoth operation like this doesn't welcome experimentation. "Just give 'em what they want," was clearly the order of the day.

Half-Blood Prince, for example, is an aggressively uncinematic book. Save for a thrilling late-in-the-book action sequence its a slow burn mystery that foregrounds lodes of backstory and character beats. If they had a strong hand at the helm from the start they could have seasoned that information throughout the series, and beefed up the movie-friendly parts of the Prince without sacrificing the overarching story. As it stands Prince goes off in all directions. It hits some targets better than others and moves the story forward the required steps, but as a film it's a non-entity.

The Harry Potter series isn't a complete waste. It gave nice paychecks to its illustrious cast who all had a few good stand alone moments. Azkaban provided Cuaron's gift for mood and atmosphere a nice showcase, and Yates and Newell proved themselves to be total pros but the die had been cast long before they showed up. The films have rarely brushed against the magic J K brought to the books, and I've given up hoping the remaining films will break the pattern. When I watch these movies all I can see is the squandered potential for what might have been.


  1. You have a point there (actually many points). Personally, I didn't like Deathly Hallows much as a book (most part) and as expected didn't enjoy the movie. Boring, boring, boring. But I have to admit that it was the best transfer from the whole series.
    Still, I regret watching it at the cinema (waste of money) and not from my couch.

  2. Not yet decided whether or not I'm going to make the trip to the theater for Hallows. May be forced to out of curiousity on how they will film death and destruction of Battle of Hogwarts.

  3. Way to poke holes in my childhood, guy.

    I didn't even read the last book (by the time I got to the bookstore, my neighbors were already crying for Fred), so I can't vouch for any slack, but the movie itself was, I think, fairly good with evidentally slow material. It was pretty, anyway.

    They've rarely ever lived up to the books, though, but for some minor editing tricks and personification of characters.

  4. I think all the movies after Chamber have been roughly the same level of quality. An occasional exceptional scene or weak moment here or there, but pretty steady craftsmanship all the way through. But just think what might have been.

  5. I'm a bit blind when it comes to Harry Potter haha. I loved the books and I don't seem to have any major issues with the films. Nearly everyone else I know hates at least one film. I need to learn to be more discerning I think...agree with CineMayo that Deathly Hallows was the best transfer but I didn't find it boring.
    Interesting thought though about how the producers should have waited until all the books were complete before making a series...

  6. I'm totally blind when it comes to Harry Potter. I love both the books and the films to bits. Still I do think that Deathly Hallows surprised me in a good way. I had found the first half of the book terribly depressing, and they did capture that pretty well. The film was very different in many aspects, just the loneliness, the true outdoors (and not the Forbidden Forest) and actually putting in animation.

    I think it's one of the best one if you compare to the books, which can never really be adapted completely, along with Prisoner of Azkaban and Order of the Phoenix, which was an awful book.
    I did think that Half-Blood Prince was the worst film out of the series also.

    I suppose you must be a fan of the story to love it as much, reason why it will rake in so much money. Personally speaking, I cannot wait for the final film to release!

  7. Oh goodness, goodness. Please let me state here that as an avid Potterphile, I've pretty much detested all of the adaptations - with the exception of a few cool scenes, all the magic was sucked out of them. But please give Deathly Hallows Part 1 a chance. It's entirely, totally different from all the other movies in every aspect possible, and by far the strongest. I think a lot of us have become disillusioned after mediocre after mediocre HP movie inevitably disappointed us, but I'm with Nikhat. I think the movie's bound to surprise everyone who's been bored with the series.

    And I profoundly disagree with CineMayo. Certainly, if you're used to the ADHD pace of the other Harry Potter films, in which they cut out all the soul and only leave the cute moments, you're bound to be surprised by the slow pace. I thought all the other movies were quick, fun, and boring; Deathly Hallows Pt. 1 is slow, but anything but boring.