Welcome back, Potterites, to the second part of my extended write-up on all eight of the Harry Potter movies, where I take a good hard look at all eight of the feature films in the series, and comment on how they operate as film, and how they flow as a unit. The Harry Potter series is unique, in that it managed to have high production values, largely the same cast, and many of the same designers throughout. This makes for a throughline that less resembles any other given eight-film series, and more a legitimate soap opera or comic book, wherein all the details begin to accumulate.
I’ll have to reiterate here that this is an article on the Harry Potter films, and not the books. I have not read the books, and I am only looking at the films as they stand. Due to this (as I have already heard from some of my readers), I will likely instill your ire over my confusion about these films. Like I said in the first part, I actually really enjoy some of the Harry Potter movies, and was moved to see all eight of them in theaters. But, as both my editor and one particularly miffed commenter pointed out, I got a few of the details about the movies incorrect. I did not go back to fix them, as I stand by my faulty memories of the films.
These mistakes certainly don’t say much for my memory (I sometimes find my mind is like a sieve), and it may even cast a negative light on my credibility as a Harry Potter fan, but I think it says even less of the Harry Potter movies in general. The filmmakers’ goal seemed to be to capture, in as much detail as possible, every last event from J.K. Rowling’s famous book series, and not necessarily to adapt the books to film properly. As a result, the films are all notably long (the shortest, part five, runs 2 hours and 18 minutes), and, depending on the book being adapted, all tend to be crammed with incident to the point of near-chaos. The first few films were fine with their extended setup, as they seemed to be standalone films in themselves. As the series pressed on, however, this attention to detail became a hindrance, and the films began to suffer. I’ll cover this in a idea more details as I discuss the first properly bad film in the series.
[EDITOR’S NOTE: We made a lot of comments on the last post, but we’re going to leave Witney alone one this one. Suffice it to say that we have read the books, are big fans of the books, and some of Witney’s conclusions make us sigh a lot. But he’s right about one thing: sometimes the films are unclear about what’s significant to the story, and breeze past important plot points, which understandably leads to some confusion for those who haven’t read the series.]
HARRY POTTER AND THE ORDER OF THE PHOENIX (2007)
Directed by: David Yates
We have switched directors for the last time, as David Yates will direct the remaining four films. Yates had previously only done British miniseries and short films. This is also the only film that’s not written by screenwriter Steve Kloves, and he was replaced by a fellow named Michael Goldenberg who had previously written the most recent Peter Pan adaptation, and who would go on to write the equally chaotic and confusing Green Lantern. I don’t know if Goldenberg is to blame, or if it was Yates’hurried direction, but this film is a mess. I have watched it twice, and I still have trouble conjuring up details. If I get stuff wrong this time, I wholly blame the filmmaking, and not my faulty memory.
I think Lord of the Rings set a dangerous precedent. From what I understand, they were stringently faithful to the books (although Peter Jackson padded out the action scenes), and seemed to sate fans of the source material. By the time the fifth Harry Potter movie was made, this ethos of strict adherence to the source was probably an expected Hollywood byword, and became expected from fans. The problem with this, though, is that is seems to toss out some important rules about adapting literature to the screen, i.e. you can’t include everything. The books are going to be long and detailed, and offer a different storytelling experience than film. Films must necessarily take up a given amount of time. If you want to include everything in a single book in your film, then include everything, make several films to cover the details, and try to capture the breadth and scope of the written word. However, as is more often the case, you likely won’t be able to include every single detail, so you have to – you really do – cut material from the book. Include only what is central to the story, and alter events in order that they play better in a visual medium with a time limit. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix seems to occupy a dangerous middle ground of these two extremes. The screenwriter wanted to include everything, so he just rammed it all in at once. As a result, characters fly by, all plot details are all given equal weight, and the film nearly loses me.
This may please some fans, but I declare that it’s a bad way to adapt a film. Literary fealty is not necessarily a virtue unto itself. This, and the proceeding three films, feel less like stand-alone adventure films, and more like an extended visual litany of events that happened in a book. A mere checklist of things we need to race through in order to get to the conclusion, with no dramatic ebb, flow, climax or rest. Given the events that happen in these last four films, it seems that a lot could have been cut. At the risk of offending the purists, I think we could have done without much of what’s thrown at us.
This film starts with Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) back with his horrible cousin (Harry Melling), who has grown into a proper thug. When his cousin gets attacked by a rogue dementor in public (the dementors were the faceless wraiths from the third film), Harry is quickly found and spirited away by Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) who takes him to a public hearing of wizards, wherein they discuss whether or not the evil wizard Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) has actually been resurrected, or if that was just a rumor. Harry tries to testify to the events of the last film (where he saw Voldemort face-to-face), but is shot down for some reason. We learn that Voldemort’s disciples may be a part of this ministry, and he’s ordered them to sow discord. I still don’t know why Voldemort is evil, or how he amassed followers, other than a few half-hearted lines about Voldemort’s obsession with wizard blood purity. How fun if he was like General Ripper from Dr. Strangelove, obsessively and sternly and completely seriously talking about the purity of wizard bodily fluids. He’s more like a boilerplate monster; merely obsessed with the task at hand, and killing those who get in the way.
So Harry does return to school, with Professor Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton) following. Umbridge is there to make sure talk of Voldemort doesn’t distract people. She’s clearly evil, and takes great pleasure in torturing students (when they write their disciplinary letters, the words scratch magically into their hands). She eventually manages to somehow oust a lot of the professors at Hogwarts, becoming headmistress herself. Meanwhile Harry occasionally flies around with supporting characters from the previous films, including Alastor “Mad Eye” Moody (Brendan Gleeson) and Professor Lupin (David Thewlis). Oh, here’s something I forgot to mention from the last film: Prof. Moody was actually a bad guy in disguise. In this film, he never introduces himself to Harry. We never get a sense of what the real Moody is like. There’s also a character in this film named Nymphadora Tonks (although I don’t remember a single thing about her), which sounds like the alter ego of a punk singer. I think they’re all gathering to form a secret army to fight Voldemort, as they did something similar a decade back. Harry’s dead parents fought the bad guy back then too. This organization was called The Order of the Phoenix.
Let’s see. Lots more. Harry also has a crush in this movie, and gets his first kiss with a girl named Cho Chang (Katie Leung) whom he flirted with in the last movie. Ron and Hermione (Rupert Grint and Emma Watson) are there, but I think they’re mostly window dressing. Harry forms his own secret army of students, and he teaches them the light spell, called a patronum, from the third film. It’s here explained that the light spell looks like your spirit animal or something, which is why Harry saw an elk in the third film. I wish they had explained that then instead of leaving me confused for nearly two films worth of events. Harry and his friends never get to fight the bad guy as his girlfriend rats them out to Umbridge. There’s a scene where Ron’s twin brothers (James and Oliver Phelps) drop out of Hogwarts.
Then there’s some kind of intrigue with Professor Snape (Alan Rickman) teaching Harry how to endure magical torture. Or was that the sixth film? I know for sure that there was a chase in a records vault, but the records were crystal balls instead of files, and one crystal ball in particular had something in it that was of great use to Harry, and there was a big ol’ portal or something that killed Gary Oldman. I don’t remember how the film ended. And I saw it twice.
The story goes all over the map, and it’s told so quickly that it’s hard to absorb it all. The character names fly fast and furiously. There was a funny supporting character named Luna Lovegood (which sounds like a porn name to me, played by Evanna Lynch) who was the wizard equivalent of that spacey poet girl you went to high school with. Helena Bonham Carter also appears near the end, and shirks a lot. I think she was Voldemort’s girlfriend.
Sorry fans, but this is a bad film. It’s just too packed. It’s a confusing traffic jam. The CGI visuals are so quick, it’s hard to see proper scenarios, and the tone is as dark and muddy as ever. I’m sure if you read the books, you could follow it, but as a film, it’s weak. Here’s my central complaint: Voldemort is clearly a wicked person (snake?) who would do ill to the wizard universe at large. Why the complicated denial? Surely the majority of wizards would gladly move to have him arrested and taken to Azkaban. Actually, over the course of three films, several people have escaped, so maybe they should send him to a better prison.
Things slow down a bit for…
HARRY POTTER AND THE HALF-BLOOD PRINCE (2009)
Directed by: David Yates
I wish Yates had taken the look and tone of the first, second and fourth films before his own. This one is dank, smoky, and coated with cold blues and greys. Many scenes look like they’re in black-and-white. It’s certainly striking, but it makes this enchanted world seem forbidding, unreal, and unpleasant. Screenwriter Steve Kloves is back, though, and it’s actually kind of refreshing. I didn’t think that the Harry Potter movies had a patois, but going without the usual screenwriter for a film really emphasized how his language and pacing works. It’s largely just utilitarian at this point, but I prefer utilitarian over whatever the last film was.
The central plot point in this film is that Harry learns that Voldemort has stored bits of his own soul in magical objects called Horcruxes. Harry is given a simple video game-like task of trekking to dangerous areas, finding the Horcruxes, and destroying them. Only after he’s beaten all the levels can he go after Voldermort in earnest. In the meantime, Voldemort has been wreaking havoc in the non-wizard world.
Wait. Go after Voldemort? I understand Harry has the scent of love on his skin, and is one of the only people who can kill Voldemort, but why does he have to kill him? Dumbledore and Snape train Harry for a confrontation. A confrontation? Why? Is it really necessary to kill Voldemort? Can’t they use magic to make him less evil, or talk to him or something? This is a conceit that really pisses me off about a lot of fantasy literature, and these films in particular. An author, a director or a screenwriter will spend hundreds of hours, using endless imagination to create a complicated new world and then will think of nothing better to put in this world than a rote, ancient fight scene between a Good Guy and a Bad Guy. Looking ahead, I can tell you that Voldemort will not change. He’s a bad guy to be killed.
By this point in the series, there are no more introductions. No filling in as to what the characters were doing in between movies. There’s no magical movement from the world we know to the world of wizards. It all feels so perfunctory. I suppose by the time you’re on the sixth film in a series, you don’t need an intro, but they’re still nice. Even Indiana Jones got notable opening scenes in his sequels. In this film we do meet one new character, a wizard ex-professor named Horace Slughorn (Jim Broadbent) who seems a little off-balance and who can disguise himself as a chair. Dumbledore implores that Harry get to know Professor Slughorn, as Slughorn was once a personal mentor to the young Voldemort. Finally. Maybe now we’ll get some insight into Voldemort. Well, not really. We do get some flashbacks to Voldemort as a boy, but it turns out he was just a bad apple from the start. The teachers thought they could make him into a healthy young man, but they only proceeded to teach him dangerous spells. Voldemort talks a bit about killing his old professors, even though it was they who made him into the superpowered undying snake man he is today. You’d think he’d be more grateful.
Let’s see, Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton) is still around, and now he’s standing guard over an armoire that’s hidden in an attic at Hogwarts. His dad is one of the Voldemortian Death Eaters, so he becomes one too by default, I guess. He always was a jerk. The armoire is a teleportation box where bad guys eventually zaz into existence. Getting around in the Harry Potter universe seems far too easy. At first, it was flying cars and broomsticks, then flying creatures. Eventually we saw powders and boots that could teleport you. In the fifth film, some of the kids learn to bamf about like Nightcrawler in the X-Men. If even teenage schoolchildren can easily teleport, one would think buses, lifts and armoires wouldn’t be necessary anymore. And that the bad guy could bamf in himself and stab Harry with a knife.
Hm… Is Harry’s full name Harold or Henry?
Harry also gets a new romance in the form of Ginny Weasley (Bonnie Wright), Ron’s little sister, whom he gets to smooch. I wonder: if you’re in a boarding school for wizards, and it’s full of teenagers who are raging with hormones, do you suppose there are spells for, I dunno, removing a bra from across the room? Or making people aroused against their will? I know these violent and bleak films are intended for kids, but it would have been nice if some actual sexuality was involved.
Ron’s twin brothers opened up a really awesome-looking magical joke shop (which I’d love to visit), and Ron and Hermione… I can’t recall either of them doing anything of consequence, except I think they’re proper boyfriend/girlfriend now. I do know that Harry and Dumbledore eventually team up to find and break a Horcrux, which they do, but are interrupted by Snape, who kills Dumbledore rather quickly. Snape explains that he is the “Half-Blood Prince”of the title. We learned the phrase earlier from a mysterious book. The film doesn’t explain what that means. Dumbledore’s death is clearly a big event for these characters, so I wish it was handled with a bit more reverence. Like a grand funeral or something. As it was, we only saw Dumbledore falling in slow motion, very much akin to the way Alan Rickman himself did in Die Hard. I was still surprised that the series actually killed off a main character, and it did feel like the stakes were raised.
There was only one book remaining in the series, but the filmmakers decided to make two movies out of it. This was either to include every last detail, or to milk the series for one remaining fortune. Either way, we have two chapters left.
NEXT: Were all of Harry's adventures just preparing him to commit a murder…?
HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS, PART 1 (2010)
Directed by: David Yates
There is a wedding in this film between two characters we don’t know. Oh wait. One of them was that French chick from the fourth movie (Clémence Poésy). We’ve never seen the groom before, but I think he was related to Ron. I’ll just say everyone’s related to Ron. There are so many characters now, it’s hard to keep track, and it’s hard to recognize their importance. During an early scene, Professor Moody is killed off-camera, and it’s so rushed, I felt nothing for him. Same with Harry’s pet owl, who gets killed off by a Death Eater. Poor li’l owl. Never hurt nobody. Okay, I was sad when the owl died.
The bulk of this film will feature Ron, Harry and Hermione on the run, trying to hide under a magical cloaking device, as they seek out the Horcruxes (the soul storage devices) to destroy them before Voldemort or one of his many cronies gets them. In this film we finally see how many cronies Voldemort has, and it seems to number in the hundreds. I wish that the size of his army had been established earlier, as it would have made him seem more powerful. We see the familiar “evil” characters talking to Voldemort, and even they seem to be frightened by him. Can wizards read minds? I’m sure some of them can. In order to fool Voldemort, there’s a scene where several characters all turn into Harry, and then they all take their shirts off. This scene was clearly included for the benefit of the cooing girls in the audience; I recall the group sitting in front of me in the theater giggling up a storm when seven Harry Potters all began to strip. Harry also gets to make out, briefly, with Ginny.
There’s another fetishistic scene later, too, when Voldemort, trying to tempt Ron into betraying Harry, shows illusory images of his ladylove Hermione smooching Harry passionately while they both stand naked in a cloud of evil. This also elicited plenty of titters. We see a cameo from a sword which we haven’t seen since the second movie (it just sort of appears in the bottom of a lake), and Dobby (voice of Toby Jones), the CGI elf also appears in the film. He is killed, though, by Helena Bonham Carter when she throws a knife through a teleport portal. It was nice to see that, in this world of spells and teleporting, that someone can still be done in by something as simple as a knife.
The film is mercifully slow-paced, but still looks gray and blunt and graceless. Apart from the early plot machinations, most of the movie is spent in a tent. Eventually our heroic trio makes their way to yet another new character (Rhys Ifans) who, in a rather amazing animated sequence, explains what the title means. Deathly Hallows are extremely magical artifacts that can kick your ass real good. The last scene in the movie is Voldemort finding a Deathly Hallow – in this case a super magic wand – in Dumbledore’s grave. Sorry if I’m being brief, but by now little details have been totally swallowed in the gaping black miasma of events. I can only recount important plot details. And even then, maybe not so well; I was taken to task in the first part of The Series Project.
I like this film well enough, and appreciated its slowed pace, but it hardly stands on its own. For one, it’s called “Part 1,” and for another, it’s clearly just stalling until the now-inevitable showdown between Harry and Voldemort. It could be argued that by now, only hardcore fans and avid book-readers are watching, so hitting all the bases is all that needs to be done. It also made millions and millions of dollars from fans who were perfectly satisfied with it. Me? I still have such residual goodwill for the first two movies, I keep hoping it’ll become awestruck and magical again. That the filmmakers will bother to make a great film, rather than a rote piece of fan-pandering.
No more dilly-dallying. Let’s get to the battle. Sigh.
HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS, PART 2 (2011)
Directed by: David Yates
So I haven’t watched parts 7 and 8 back-to-back, but I am assured by those who have that the two stand together as a giant single film. One final megasequel to wrap things up. It looks and feels nearly identical to the last film to me, so I believe it. This final film is largely an extended action sequence wherein Voldemort’s army invades Hogwarts, and Harry leads the charge against him, breaking a few Horcruxes along the way, and learning a few new facts. The big twist in this movie is that we learn why Snape killed Dumbledore and turned to the dark side. It turns out he had a crush on Harry’s mom back in the day, and he wanted revenge on Voldemort, so he sneaked into his ranks as a spy to do it. Dumbledore was just an innocent who got in the way. [EDITOR’S NOTE: All right, one comment, if only to sigh…]
There are some early scenes where our trio sneaks into the Ministry of Magic again, but I don’t rightly recall why. There’s a scene where they fly on a dragon to escape, and the dragon is one mean sumbitch. Once all the characters are in place, it’s a fight to the finish. There's even a visit to the afterlife, where Harry gets to talk to Dumbledore.
Why does Voldemort want to kill his old schoolteachers and tear down his school? Why not the Ministry, or some other more important wizard establishment? Is he so embittered about his old classes that he wants to destroy the building and murder his teachers? Didn’t any of his cronies point out to him that this seemed more personal than practical? Again, no insight. Indeed, in this film we finally see Voldemort killed, and there’s no twist or change even then. I was kind of hoping that Harry would magick the evil out of him, or some such thing. Maybe we’d learn that Hogwarts was home to some evil Satanic monster that he wanted to destroy. Nothing of the sort. It’s disappointingly straightforward. Harry confronts him, and then Harry kills him. Yes, Harry actually murders Voldemort. That makes me like him less.
Indeed, when you look at Harry’s character arc, it was essentially a seven-year process of him working up the nerve and the skill to commit murder. This is hardly a positive message. Sure, he gained friends and skills and a new life. He learned to be brave and resourceful in harsh circumstances, but he was ultimately primed to commit an act of violence. Is that really what all the magic and wonderment was supposed to mean? Simple violent confrontation? As I said, it's a pity that such a vast an imaginative world has to boil down to a Big Fight.
But that's a quibble amongst a world that has, for long stretches, kept my interest and awe. Even though Harry's story ends on a rote adventure note, there are still details along the way that made my eye sparkle. The incidental stuff was what rally made the world stand out as complete and interesting. The shops on Diagon Alley (which looks like the word “diagonally,” get it?), for instance. There was a scene in one of the movies where Harry found a mounted severed hand, and it grabbed his hand when he touched it. What would such a thing be used for? The mystery of it, in that case, made it more interesting. Harry Potter's universe seems real and palpable, and that's where the strength of the series really lies.
There's an epilogue wherein Harry, like Prospero before him, breaks the superwand and throws it away. No one should have that much power. That's very responsible of him. He'll gain his power by learning about it in school. I wonder, though…since he had to flee school to kill this bad guy, will he still graduate? Maybe he'll have to go back to school for a few years and complete his courses. Or maybe there are several wizard trade schools or community colleges he can attend to make up his credits before he moves onto a proper university. Surely he doesn't expect to make it in the world with a mere high school diploma.
Then there's a second epilogue where we fast-forward 19 years, and see what became of our heroes. We have the same actors (now in their early 20s) wearing awkward age makeup. I think it would have been better to hire older actors, but I'm not the one doing the casting. Harry and Ginny have a kid and it's their turn to go to Hogwarts for the first time. Ron and Hermione have a kid too. The final shot of the film did give me the brief feeling that Harry's adventure added to his kid’s upbringing. It only took 19-2/3 hours to get here.
This film only recently hit home video, and I have seen billboards around Los Angeles that are making a major push for Oscar consideration. My guess it they're hoping to pull what Lord of the Rings did, in that the first films received few awards, and the final film received many as sort of a consolation for the entire series. My prediction is that it will not get award notices. Sure there were eight films that managed to have high production values, and it has perhaps just as many fans as the Lord of the Rings movies, but the triumph of the Harry Potter films was just that they could run so long. Their aesthetic and cinematic impact was not as great as Jackson's films.
As I have said, thanks to the continued high budgets. The constant inclusion of the same actors, and similar production design throughout, these movies have a more solid continuity than any long-running film series. In Hollywood, it's often considered bad luck to talk about sequels before the first film is released. These days, people are planning whole series of movies, confident that they'll work. It will only take one high profile failure to break this mode of thinking. But the mode managed to make eight Harry Potter films that all relied on one another.
The downside of this ultra-story thinking is that you have films like the late Harry Potter films that make little sense, and feel rushed and jumbled without the previous imprint of the books to guide you. Films shouldn't need Cliff's Notes.
As I said, Harry's story arc becomes somewhat disappointing when you realize that his entire story was designed to get him to kill. I picture the sweet 11-year-old boy we saw in the first film, and recoil when I think of the horrors he'll go through. It seems he may have been better off staying in the human world, being abused by his mean uncle, eventually getting a job as a mechanic or something, and living obliviously without supernatural snake men and evil wraiths trying to eat his soul. There is a fallacy in fantasy stories like this, in that making the story “dark” will somehow make it better. I don't care how “dark” Harry Potter is. What I care about is an enchanting story I can understand. It could be argued that the darkness represents the pain of growing up, and seeing Harry pass from age 11 to age 17 is what the main story is really about. I can see that, I suppose, but I don't quite buy that male adolescence is a miasma of death and pain and monsters.
Well, actually, thinking back on my own Junior High years, maybe it was.
Voldemort was given the short end of the stick in this story. That guy was too boilerplate monster, and not enough sympathetic villain. He never had a moment of vulnerability. How do you think we would have felt about him if, at the very end, he fell on his knees in front of Harry, pleading for his life, and Harry still killed him? Would that make Harry a cool badass, or would it just make him a murdering bully?
I know, I know, I know. All of this was made more explicit in the books, and by not having read them yet, it makes me backward socially, and remiss culturally, etc. I still love the first two movies quite a bit, and my fellow critic here on CraveOnline, William “Bibbs” Bibbiani has indeed given me the entire book set as a gift, so my hunkering down to read every last one of them will eventually happen. But the film series as a whole was strong, looked good, was intensely imaginative, has some truly exciting set pieces, and was confusing and dark and weird through extended passages. Only one fan of the books I've talked to has been upset with the movies (she was intensely miffed that the fourth movie so differed from the book, as it excluded a few subplots she was fond of). So in terms of their fan service, the Harry Potter films did their job. Some of the movies, though, are a bit shabby.
But then, I stuck through all eight. I guess they were strong enough to keep me coming back.