Mild about Harry

So that’s that. On to the next franchise.

The second half of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows serves as a reminder that while J.K. Rowling’s novels were acts of inspiration and wild creativity, the film versions have been all about boosting and solidifying corporate brands.When I watched the first half of Deathly Hallows last year, I was struck by the radical differences in pacing and mood from the earlier flicks, and thought something genuinely different and moving might be in store for the conclusion. Nice to know I can still  be an optimist after all this time. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 is just one final wringing-out of the old cash mop.

It’s far from a disaster — nothing like the fiasco that was Return of the Jedi, for example. It doesn’t do anything egregiously wrong, it just doesn’t do anything particularly great. It’s less an adaptation than a dutiful trot through the second half of Rowling’s immense book, with each plot point ticked off. Escape from the Gringotts vault? Check. Forces of good rallying to defend Hogwarts? Murder of Severus Snape? Check. Fiendfyre? Spectral meeting with Dumbledore? Beheading of Nagini? Check, check, and check. Everything is done correctly, but hardly anything is done right.

The Return of the King was widely mocked for its multiple endings, but Peter Jackson and crew were striving (often clumsily) to bring emotional closure to a sprawling epic narrative, and the film ended with a genuine sense of lives going on after the conclusion of a great task. The ending of Deathly Hallows conveys mostly relief at finally being shut of the paraphernalia of broomsticks and dragons and magic wands. When Harry breaks the elder wand and flings it into a chasm, you don’t think of Harry bringing a lifetime of hard-earned wisdom to bear on a tainted weapon — you hear Daniel Radcliffe thinking, “That’s the last time I’m going to have to dick around with one of these things again.”

The siege of Hogwarts adds up to little more than a pretty light show, with the Death Eaters shooting sparklers at a gleaming membrane above the school. Never once does the battle convey any real sense of danger or madness, even as XBox-ready giants and Buick-sized spiders storm the walls and students watch people they’ve literally grown up with get blasted to atoms. When Crabbe unleashes a torrent of sentient flames in the Room of Requirement, Rowling’s point about evil consuming itself with its own weapons (Crabbe not only dies from his own curse, but he further wounds Voldemort by destroying another horcrux) turns into just another excuse to show people running away from special effects. And the revelation of Snape’s secret heroism, the emotional climax of the novel, is more confusing than dramatic — I can’t imagine anyone who hasn’t read the book would understand any of it.

David Yates also directed the Half-Blood Prince adaptation, and that film’s creative fumbles play directly into the final movie’s failings. The biggest strength of Half-Blood Prince was the detective work into Voldemort’s past, and the decision to jettison those crucial scenes to make room for more teen romance cuts the legs out from under Deathly Hallows. This is the first time we get to see Voldemort as something more than a closing-scene boogeyman, but while Ralph Fiennes imbues the villain with touches of vulnerability and doubt, the script doesn’t give him enough to work with. Rowling showed us how, but for a few accidents of fate and character, Harry could have ended up as twisted and malignant as Voldemort. But the Half-Blood Prince film ditched her exposition to focus on teens making out, so when one of the Hogwarts ghosts in Deathly Hallows tells Harry he reminds her of the young Voldemort, the line that packed a punch in the novel barely warrants a shrug in the film.

I guess the sad thing about the Harry Potter films is that by the time genuinely talented directors were brought in to amp up the films, the novels had grown beyond anyone’s control. After giving the first two films to career hack Christopher Columbus, who brought exactly the kind of anonymous competence needed to establish a corporate brand, the producers were daring enough to hire Mexican visionary Alfonso Cuaron for the third film, Prisoner of Azkaban, to handle the story’s more ambitious themes. Azkaban had plenty of heart and brains to match, but each of the next four novels was of such Brobdingnagian proportions that the next directors, Mike Newell and David Yates, were reduced to traffic cops keeping the special effects on track while dumptruck-loads of exposition rumbled past.

There’s an old theatrical maxim about scriptwriting: “If it ain’t on the page, it ain’t on the stage.” For all the knocks that can be aimed at J.K. Rowling’s books — their bagginess, their stretches of overwriting, their need for editing — there’s no doubt that she put the real stuff into every one of her novels. The best the films can manage is to remind us of that. Where Harry Potter is concerned, the magic is all on the page.

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