Tag Archives: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

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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She’s just riled about Harry

The Annapurna stack of nonsense written against the Harry Potter series just grew a inch or so higher with this  lamebrained piece in The Awl by Maria Bustillos, whose attempts to turn author J.K. Rowling into a limousine liberal and secret spokeswoman for class privilege are the literary equivalent of a barroom drunk swinging at the air, imaging he’s decking everyone in the house. This, in Bustillos’ mind, is the haymaker:

. . . it is a horrible thing to be teaching children, that you have to be “chosen”; that the highest places in this world are gained by celestial fiat, rather than by working out how to get there yourself and then busting tail until you succeed. If the “special” and “chosen” and “gifted” automatically receive all the honors there are, then what would be the point of working hard to achieve anything? So it is really terrible to hear these twelve-year-old kids so smitten with the idea that fulfillment would literally fly to them out of the sky, via owl.

Rowling is a self-avowed liberal who gave a million pounds to the Labour Party in 2008, but her values are Tory through and through. In her books it is the hoary old white guys who run everything; women are popped in here and there for liberal flavor. The tokenism is unbelievable.

Bustillos is referring to the fact that Harry’s knack for surviving encounters with Voldemort and the Death Eaters have fellow witches and wizards calling him The Chosen One, to the hero’s great embarrassment. Even the laziest reader is aware that the title has an ironic twist: Harry was literally chosen by Voldemort, who in attempting to murder the infant Harry created his own nemesis. But Bustillos, like that drunk, doesn’t let a little thing like running into a wall keep her from throwing more punches.

It takes a real effort of will to ignore the fact that the worst characters in Rowling’s universe deem themselves elevated solely by virtue of their pure wizarding pedigrees, or that Harry and his friends are expected to work on and hone their innate gifts, that Hermione Granger achieves her skills through relentless work and study, and that the wizards who advocate co-existence and even admiration for the Muggle world are the heroes of the series. Midway through Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, both book and film, the statue at the entrance of the Ministry of Magic is changed to show the great mass of lower-borns crushed to support the weight of the privileged few — a dandy visualization of the self-image of our would-be Galtian overlords. If Rowling is to knocked for anything, it’s missing the trick of showing a Ministry of Finance where investment bank wizards conjure non-existent assets that evaporate once the fee has been paid, with Gringotts demanding bailout gold because in the wizarding world, it’s definitely too big to fail.

It’s pretty hard to take someone seriously who quotes Ann Althouse as anything but the butt of a joke, but Bustillos may soon be angling for a perch in the online winger aviary. She even takes a page from Dinesh D’Souza by revealing a little-known biographical datum that serves (jab! swing!) as the key to Rowling’s character:

Rowling named her first child after Jessica Mitford, the lefty Mitford sister (as opposed to the Nazi-sympathizing ones). Rowling often says she read Mitford’s Hons and Rebels at age fourteen, and that it affected her profoundly; this book in fact provides a perfect illustration of Rowling’s political disconnect, because Jessica Mitford was the daughter of the second Baron Redesdale, a “terrific Hon,” as the Mitfords would have said. She was a super-blue-blood with rebelliously liberal views. It’s exactly this privileged, elitist compassion-from-on-high that Rowling admires and has consistently depicted in the Potter books. But the liberal values, the openmindedness, the diversity, are all fake.

Wow! So Rowling’s another one of those Kenyan anticolonialists we’ve been hearing so much about!

There are other aspects of the article that would benefit from quality time with a mop and bucket, but I’ve already given the thing more time than it deserves. Read it if you like, but bear in mind that you’ll end up learning very very little about J.K. Rowling, and more than anyone with a life needs to know about Maria Bustillos.

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Growing up in public

Standing in line for the midnight screening of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, I realized it had been over a decade since I’d been able to catch a movie with the hardcore faithful. The last time I was able to do that was opening night for The Phantom Menace, and do I really need to tell you the antics of the diehard fan crowd ended up being more entertaining than the limp noodles on the screen? Though the Loews cineplex was mobbed — I think five screens were playing simultaneously — and the excitement in the crowd was palpable, it was a very restrained enthusiasm. Maybe everybody was keeping something in abeyance for July, when the second installment of Deathly Hallows will hit theaters and the movie curtain will come down on the decade of watching Harry, Ron, and Hermione grow up in public.

I found myself waiting at the ticket kiosk behind a red-headed woman in a Slytherin robe. “Home field advantage?” I asked her, and she laughed. “I’m just bummed that I’m not going to be able to use this robe much longer,” she said. Turned out she did appearances at Potter-related events.

“At least with Harry Potter you got your money’s worth,” I pointed out. “Eight movies, all together. If you’d bought a hobbit costume, you’d have been done after only three movies.”

“I did get a costume for that,” she said. “Only it was a Legolas costume. I was very convincing with the bow.”

I’m sure she was. When The Hobbit makes its long overdue appearance in the plexes, I hope she’ll be at Loew’s on opening night.

One of the things I liked best about Deathly Hallows the novel was the big-hearted generosity of J.K. Rowling’s storytelling. She made sure every important character got a proper send-off — even the appalling Dudley Dursley was allowed to show a few glints of humanity as he said farewell to Harry. Draco Malfoy, the most odious little creep outside a Roald Dahl novel, was shown wrestling with stirrings of a wan, barely functioning conscience that led him to save Harry’s bacon at one crucial moment, then attempt to fry it in another. The second biggest mistake committed by the Half-Blood Prince film was to shorten the lead-up to Dumbledore’s death. Not only did Rowling’s scene show the headmaster’s coolness and courage in a desperate situation, it also certified that he thought Draco had a soul worth saving.

That soul is glimpsed fleetingly in Deathly Hallows the film, and while Dudley’s big moment is absent, the film makes up for it with a quietly devastating scene in which Hermione protects her parents by surreptitiously removing all memories of her existence. The sight of Hermione disappearing from years of family snapshots, and the blend of grief and resolve on Emma Watson’s face, demonstrates how high the stakes have become far better than the umpteenth Death Eater attack.

Part one of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows looks great and manages to handle the immense challenges posed by Rowling’s novel capably, if not always very gracefully. But what really impressed me was the silence.  Given enough elbow room to tell the story, rather than scramble to hit all the relevant plot points within a two-hour window, Deathly Hallows allows significant stretches of time to pass without an explosion, an action beat, or even background noise. The novel’s long, pensive passages in which Team Potter can only hide out and try to regroup in the face of Voldemort’s near-total victory, get their equivalent on screen, which is downright revolutionary for a big-ticket blockbuster like this.

I can only wish Half-Blood Prince had been given a two-film adaptation like this; alone among the latter Potter novels, it earned its bulk with storytelling muscle and a wealth of necessary detail. But the good news about Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is that it honors its source material and sets the stage for — dare we hope — a great resolution. The young actors who devoted their childhoods to embodying these characters and maturing along with them will, I think, be able to look back over these films and feel their time was well spent. I remember walking out of The Return of the King feeling a little pang of regret that a fourth film wasn’t on the horizon. I don’t know if part two of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows will give me the same feeling, but I’m prepared to be surprised.

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All ‘Hallows’ eve

I’ll be taking Dances With Mermaids to the midnight showing of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. My money is on the first flick ending with the escape from the Malfoy basement and the belated discovery that Dobby has been fatally wounded. That’s my prediction. Remember, I forecast Snape as the tragic hero of the series. On the other hand, I also predicted Ron Weasley would buy the farm. Right or wrong, I’m expecting to have a good time.

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Potter’s field

DumbledoreWhile watching Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince in a packed theater, I was repeatedly reminded of a line from Ira Levin’s play Deathtrap: “This script is so good, not even a gifted director can ruin it!” Only in this case, replace the word “script” with “J.K. Rowling’s novel.”

That’s not to say Half-Blood Prince is a bad movie — far from it. This is a very watchable, cleverly made picture, second only to Prisoner of Azkaban among the films to date. Two and a half hours never passed so quickly in a theater.

But unlike the blowsy, overwritten Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, which cried out for filmic streamlining, the Half-Blood Prince novel earned its page count with storytelling muscle. Of the four behemoths looming at the end of the Potter series, Half-Blood Prince was the most tightly written and carefully plotted. It was also the book in which the mountain of seemingly random details Rowling scattered through the first five novels started to snap into place to reveal a coherent design. Any cuts were bound to do serious damage. The interesting thing is that while director Daniel Yates and Steve Kloves so often chose the wrong things to cut, the strength of Rowling’s conception — and the quality of what remained after the cutting — still puts the film over the top.

I come to praise Half-Blood Prince, not to bury it, so let me say that the film showcases some excellent choices along with the mistakes. The masterstroke was casting Jim Broadbent as Horace Slughorn, the errant magician who may have unintentionally given nasty young Tom Riddle the means to become monstrous Lord Voldemort. Broadbent doesn’t match Rowling’s description, but he perfectly captures the character’s blend of appealing and exasperating qualities: the heedless snobbery that underlies the outward cheer, the generosity that redeems the instinct for social climbing, the guilt that spurs the evasiveness. Slughorn is the emotional center of Half-Blood Prince, just as Severus Snape is the tragic hero of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, and Broadbent — who has contributed expert supporting work in everything from Time Bandits to The Crying Game — brings him off superbly.

Yates also gives the film an artful, highly distinctive look, full of desaturated colors and unexpected camera angles that had me wishing, not for the first time, that the first two movies had been directed by an artist instead of a hack. Instead of making every scene groan under the weight of special effects, Yates has an instinct for backing off and giving us palette-cleansing moments, such as a seemingly blank screen that turns out to be an immense snow-covered field with Harry and his friends reduced to black specks. Yates is currently filming the two-part adaptation of Deathly Hallows, and I’m eager to see what he does with a story that spends long stretches outside the visual confines of Hogwarts.

So what are the mistakes? Chiefly the decision to cut back the long investigation into Voldemort’s background, conducted by Harry and Albus Dumbledore with the aid of captured memories, and amp up the various teen romances, which provide some good laughs but also distract from the whole point of the series: how a troubled young man turned himself into the embodiment of evil, and how his actions in turn shaped another troubled young man into his own nemesis. The few flashbacks remaining are handled with enough creepy flair to make us wish there had been more, a lot more.

Watching Half-Blood Prince, not only did I miss the climactic battle when the death-eaters invade Hogwarts, I really missed Rowling’s grace notes and character detailing: the satiric wit of the opening chapter and Rufus Scrimgeour’s hilarious exit line; Fleur Delacor and the wonderful moment when the woman everyone has dismissed as a beautiful twit reveals her inner steel; the disturbing secrets hinted at in the cavern scene, while Dumbledore is under the influence of Voldemort’s potion. I would have gladly traded any one of them for the long, pointless action sequence in which a band of Voldemort’s Death-Eaters attack the Weasley family abode.

But the two biggest mistakes, aside from the shift of emphasis to young love instead of old evil, are the fumbled climax between Dumbledore and Snape, and the disastrous ending, which is so disorganized and scattershot that I hesitate to say the film even has a proper conclusion. Rowling’s book shows Harry coming to grips with the utter grimness of his situation and, while not completely shaking it off, at least finding the determination to go on. Yates and Kloves give us some decorative images, an appallingly out-of-place joke from Hermione, and a sense that filmmakers who can march so confidently through passages of humor and action are unqualified to handle the deeper emotional currents Rowling created for her maturing characters.

What Half-Blood Prince needs is a Sam Gamgee moment, the equivalent of the moving speech Peter Jackson and his collaborators used to knit together the plot strands of The Two Towers and point the way to the conclusion in The Return of the King. That Yates and his collaborators felt no such need goes to the heart of why the Potter movies, for all their charm and imagination, are works of high-level craftsmanship instead of genuine artistry, like The Lord of the Rings.

There’s plenty of wizardry shown on the screen in Half-Blood Prince, but the real magic of Harry Potter remains on the printed page.

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