Looking back on Harry Potter

Looking back on Harry Potter

“It’s just like withdrawing a billion dollars and putting it into your personal bank accounts. There’s no challenge.” This was Steven Spielberg’s explanation for why he turned down directing the Harry Potter movies, and it points to what’s remarkable about this fantasy movie franchise — the fact that any of the movies are any good at all. It’s unlikely that the six—billion—dollar box office take of the series would have changed much if you removed the British acting royalty and the talented directors that are responsible for most of the films’ quality. What rakes in the cash is the value of the movies as moving illustrations for J.K. Rowling’s beloved wizardry book series — the actual value of the movies as real capital— M Movies is basically irrelevant. Unless, of course, you’re one of those poor saps who haven’t read all of the books. More thorough Potter fans than myself, upon hearing that I stopped after the fourth of seven books, have informed
me that my ignorance invalidates my opinions on the Potter movies (as well as on, you know, life itself). But for theateronly followers, enjoyment of the series (coming to a close with the release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Pt. 2) has depended on the balance the movies have been able to strike between utter fidelity to the books and taking their own artistic license.

With the first two films, for example, the balance was totally tilted to the side of the true believers. With Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone/Chamber of Secrets, director Chris Columbus took two of the shortest books in the series and made them into two of the longest films. Avid fans were no doubt delighted by the painstaking explanation of the mythology behind the wizard school of Hogwarts and the lurking threats opposing it, but these movies buried their actual drama in slavish adherence to every small detail of the novels themselves. The films weren’t a total loss by any means — imaginative special — effects and a game
cast made up for a lot of the film’s issues — but Columbus, whose previous directing experience was with family fluff like Mrs. Doubtfire, drowned in the expectations of zealous fans, and failed to add anything significant beyond fan service. (To her immense credit, J.K. Rowling had actually pushed for madcap genius Terry Gilliam, Monty Python veteran and director of Brazil, to helm the films, but she was shot down by the studios.)

The great director Alfonso Cuaron (Children of Men) solved many of these issues in his excellent adaptation of third novel Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban — instead of strict adherence to every single plot strand, Cuaron made a sweeping film as interested in the emotional torment of puberty as it was in magic spells and flying broomstick travel. Of course, to do so, Cuaron inevitably had to jettison large sections of the plot. The fans didn’t exactly revolt, as Azkaban still earned hundreds of millions, but it was the lowest grossing Potter film internationally by almost $100 million.

The remaining films, the fourth directed by Mike Newell and the rest by David Yates, abandoned a lot of the boldness of Cuaron’s adaptation, although the expanding length of the final novels means that they’ve been forced to pare down the plot fidelity as well (at least until the last novel and the money—grubbing decision to split it into two films). But if the overall vision of the latest films isn’t as adventurous as Cuaron’s series—peak, Yates has at least made room for interesting little experiments every now and then.

In fact, two of the most interesting scenes in Half—Blood Prince and Deathly Hallows Pt. 1 are little asides not found in the novels (according to reader friends, natch) — a scene where a cute cafe waitress hits on Harry in the former and an impromptu dance between Harry and Hermione to a Nick Cave song in the latter. These are such a breath of fresh air because they take a break from the mechanical progress through plot points and make room for something recognizably human — the kind of warm details that Rowling’s novels are full of and that the series has sometimes neglected to bring to the screen. The final film has one clear advantage over the rest of the films already — the fact that it will have a real, definitive ending — but hopefully it will also make room for the kind of human magic that no wand can supply.