Reflections on Harry Potter
by Ari Armstrong
A rewritten version of this essay appears in the Expanded Edition of Value of Harry Potter.
Note: The following review reveals various aspects of the plot of the latest Harry Potter film, Deathly Hallows Part I. I recommend that those intending to see the film do so before reading this essay.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I is a good movie, but not a great one. My favorite remains the highly stylized Prisoner of Azkaban, the only Potter film directed by Alfonso Cuarón. While I enjoyed Hallows I, it seemed to me both disjointed and emotionally muted.
Part of the difficulty is that Hallows I loses several of the series' finest actors. Alan Rickman remains spectacular as Snape, but he has a bit part in the movie. Michael Gambon, who had finally won me over in his role as Dumbledore after the unfortunate demise of Richard Harris, is gone (except for brief images) due to his character's death in the previous film. (I've decided that, if Gambon at times plays Dumbledore too aggressively, Harris perhaps gave the role too soft a touch.) Gone are the delightfully funny Emma Thompson as the batty Trelawney and Maggie Smith as the stern Professor McGonagall. Also assigned to bit parts are David Thewlis (Remus Lupin), Brendan Gleeson (Mad-Eye Moody), and Jason Isaacs, who does a spectacular job as an off-the-rails Lucius Malfoy.
To me, though, the best actor of the series has been Gary Oldman as Sirius Black, who portrays the warm, charming, protective, and reckless godfather to Harry. Come to think of it, he is a major reason (besides the outstanding direction) that I love the third film so much, and he adds both sparkle and tragedy to Order of the Phoenix (come to think of it, my second-favorite film of the series). There is simply no mature actor in the latest film with enough screen time to provide such a cornerstone.
Bill Nighy held promise as Minister of Magic Rufus Scrimgeour, but unfortunately the filmmakers completely ruin that role by minimizing the tensions between Scrimgeour and Potter. They might as well have left out the role completely, as much as I like Nighy, and saved the time for something more important (which I'll get to).
Much more of the weight of this latest film, then, rests on the shoulders of Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, and Emma Watson as Harry, Ron, and Hermione. And generally they do a fine job. Grint impressed me with his meanness, and Watson with her forlorn longing. Unfortunately, Watson just didn't persuade me that she was being viciously tortured by Bellatrix Lestrange. Nor did Radcliffe seem sufficiently torn up about losing his friend in what should have been the finale.
And what happened to the terrifying Helena Bonham Carter as Lestrange? In this latest film she seems more pathetic than scary, perhaps because she overplays her sycophantic overtures to Voldemort and, again, most of the torture scene seems scary but less than horrifying. Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) too fell short of his terrifying potential.
The filmmakers seem reluctant to let go of the children's series and fully embrace the adult themes of the last Potter novel. To take yet another example, they minimize the physical trauma of the Weasley brothers Bill and George. Bill, who was supposed to have played a role in Half-Blood Prince but was foolishly omitted from the film, shows up here with a couple of dashing scratches on his face. That's wrong. Bill was grotesquely deformed in the sixth novel, and turning that into a couple of scratches both minimizes the danger of Voldemort's forces and undercuts Fluer's loving devotion for him. Again, I wish the filmmakers had simply left the character out rather than muck it up so completely.
Likewise, I had a hard time believing George was in serious danger given the minor flesh-wound to his ear. In the novel, his jokes break up the tension of his family thinking he's close to death and at least permanently disfigured. In the film, his injuries seem minor and his jokes therefore pointlessly stupid.
Or consider Umbridge's inquisition of the "Mud Blood" in the Ministry's lower chambers. In the book this scene imposes psychological terror. In the film the situation seems merely unpleasant. Nor does this sequence show the others brutally treated by the ministry, or their heroic rescue by the three leads.
There is a counterexample, however. When Ron ends up "splinched"—partly torn apart due to a bad magical transport—his pain seems both believable and terrifying. Again, I chalk this up largely to the skill of Grint, who finally gets the chance to prove he can do more than goofy "who me" and "oh no spiders" faces.
Even though I dislike some of the filmmakers' choices, some of them are inspired. The way the film introduces Dobby the elf works well. The animated retelling of "The Tale of the Three Brothers," the story about the Deathly Hallows, is both mesmerizing and important to the film. And the film does a fine job dealing with the bigotry of Voldemort's forces. (I even liked the related change to the torture scene, even though it could have been carried off much more effectively.) Another very nice touch is the dance between Harry and Hermione, which offsets (and therefore emphasizes) very well their general state of misery.
Unfortunately, other of the filmmakers' decisions hurt the film. I regard it as close to a cinematic sin that Lupin does not visit Harry at the Black residence. Not only would that scene have given one of the series' mature actors a larger presence in the film, it would have established Harry's growing maturity and his deep commitment to parental bonds (for, as readers of the novel will recall, Harry demands that Lupin return to his pregnant wife). Moreover, the scene would have added another dimension to the problem of bigotry that Harry confronts (for Lupin, as a werewolf, suffers severe bigotry).
I do recognize the difficulty of making a two-part film from a single, complicated novel. On the whole, I think the filmmakers do a reasonably good job of it. However, I think they advance the Horcrux line too quickly by ending with Voldemort capturing the Elder Wand from Dumbledore's grave. This has the effect of trumping the significance of Dobby's funeral, which is badly underdeveloped, so the film just abruptly ends without a real ending.
The filmmakers could have instead planted the seeds for Voldemort's quest for the wand (one of the three Hallows), then drawn more from the novel to spin out the tension between Harry and Hermione over whether to go after Horcruxes or Hallows. In the novel, Dobby's death has a way of clarifying the issues for Harry, and that is entirely absent from the film. Dobby remains a great character in the movie, but his death is not the epic finale, the catharsis, and turning point, and the moment of clarification that it could have been and should have been.
Perhaps it is partly because I reread the final novel within days of seeing the film that I was so sensitive to what the film had changed—and what it had gotten wrong. So I do not wish to underemphasize the quality of the film or all of the things that it got right. It did not, however, offer either the emotional devastation or the hopeful excitement of the novel. Perhaps the final film will come closer to capturing the magic of the book.
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