Tag Archives: Hogwarts

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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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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