I can’t wait to watch Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. I started reading the Harry Potter books back when I was nine or ten years old, shortly after the fourth book was released and before I knew that there were movies in the works. (I’m seventeen at the moment, in case you’re wondering.)
Harry Potter, in case you’ve been living under a rock for the past eighteen years, is J. K. Rowling’s heptalogy of novels about a young boy who finds out he’s a wizard and has to save the world. The novels have a consistent theme of “accepting death” and “finding the power of love”, but that’s about the only consistent thing about them. The books get longer and longer as the series progresses and the author throws more and more pointless subplots into the mix. The tone of the books varies widely from happy to unnecessary angst (the latter being especially prevalent in Order of the Phoenix, which has entire pages of caps lock). Variance can be a boon to a series — especially one that covers the 11-17 age range of Harry — and it makes sense that the books would grow progressively longer and darker as the series wears on, but it gets rather tiring after a while. The story isn’t complicated enough to warrant four books of build-up before the antagonist arrives. There’s a lot of material here, but most of it seems superfluous.
It’s certainly not a bad series of books, but it is greatly overrated. As a series of children’s books it does an incredible job. The books’ increasing lengths only help to ease children into reading them, and the characters are genuinely likeable. I loved every page of these books when I was ten. But as an adult series, it’s a lot less incredible. Still good, but not as good as it’s made out to be.
I’ve seen every Potter film in theatres, and own them all on DVD, but I haven’t reviewed them in this blog yet. So, before I review the newest Harry Potter movie, I’m going to indulge myself and do a quick review of the movies that preceded it. Harry Potter was actually written to be a series, so the foundation set by the early films is more important than it would be in a typical Hollywood cash-in. I’ll review the new film, Half-Blood Prince, as soon as I see it.
First up in the series is a lighthearted fantasy directed by Chris Columbus:
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone
Released in 2001, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (or Sorcerer’s Stone in the United States) is the first film in the series. I saw it when I was ten, and I was psyched as I entered the theatre. Two and a half hours later, I left feeling vastly disappointed. I was sad that they left so much material from the book out of the movie! That was when I was ten, though; looking back, this is actually a great film. The biggest thing to hold it back is that it didn’t leave enough material from the book out of the movie.
Columbus has been criticised for making Harry’s introduction too “kid-friendly”, something that can’t really be denied. The film has an underlying optimism as we see it through the eyes of an eleven-year-old boy, and this stops it from becoming truly frightening even when the tone does grow more serious during the third act. You never feel like Harry is in genuine danger because the film reinforces an attitude that says, “The good guys win.” When Harry faces Quirrel in front of the Mirror, you can’t expect him to die. The director made a very faithful adaptation of the novel, and that’s a bad thing. The film is faithful to the word, but not the meaning. The book contains the same problem I outlined above, but it’s more forgivable because it was marketed as a children’s book. (That isn’t an excuse, but it’s an explanation.) The film was a fresh start, and it could have changed things to make the beginning more in tune with the later installments — and try to aim it at a more intelligent audience. It could have been much more powerful if it could have preserved Harry’s naivety while giving a more adult perspective on it.
The best example of this that I can think of is the character of Ed Wood is Tim Burton’s biopic about him. It’s not exactly the same thing, but Wood’s character is similar to what I think could be applied here. He’s blind to how bad his movies are, while the other characters talk behind his back about how terrible a filmmaker he is. We see him crack a few times during the movie, just enough to see that those people are right and get us to believe that his films are awful, but also know that he wants very much to be a filmmaker. After he meets with Orson Welles, Wood is encouraged to try his best to make a great movie despite accepting that his previous attempts have been terrible. This characterisation could have been applied to Harry, though it would take more effort. Most people who watch Ed Wood are already familiar with the real Wood’s work, so they’re ready to believe that he’s really a bad filmmaker. You’re working from scratch with Harry, so it would probably be harder to get this message across. Still, I think it would have worked. Harry doesn’t think he’s in any danger, but other characters do, and the audience needs to know that they’re right. This is a hard idea to explain, but I hope you get what I mean. There was a huge missed opportunity in this movie that would have made it much, much better.
That doesn’t make it a bad movie by any means. Columbus made a great film that, in my opinion, is every bit as strong as the novel it’s based on. My only qualm is that it could have been stronger.
(By the way, I used the American poster on the right because it was made by Drew Struzan, and he’s awesome. He did the Star Wars and Indiana Jones posters, too. I’m really disappointed that Warner Bros didn’t hire him to make posters for all the Harry Potter films. Now back to the review.)
Next came a slightly more sombre film, still by Chris Columbus:
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
Chamber of Secrets was my favourite book when I was younger, so I was even more excited to see this movie than I had been about the first one. I was a bit smarter by the time this came out and understood more that films are a different medium from books. This time I didn’t expect an exact 1:1 translation to the screen, and I enjoyed the movie much more. I feel pretty much the same about the movie now.
It’s funny how Philosopher’s Stone suffered for being too heavy on the book, while Chamber of Secrets is even more faithful to the material and doesn’t fall into the same problems nearly as much. As people close to Harry are being petrified by the basilisk, Harry takes the situation much more seriously than he seemed to in the first movie. Since Columbus’s movies are all 100% from Harry’s view, this works out to almost the same thing as I suggested for the first movie. Harry is still pretty cool about the whole ordeal, but he’s not completely brainless like he was the first time around. This is good character development. Harry is less naive now.
The real show-stopper here is the climax, which is way better than the first movie. Christian Coulson does a great job as Tom Riddle, really capturing the spirit of Voldemort’s younger self. He makes for a much more threatening villain than Quirrel did, especially due to the gigantic basilisk he has at his command. I’ve read that Coulson won’t be returning to portray Riddle in Half-Blood Prince (presumably due to his character being cut), which is a real shame. I would have liked to see him do a less insane take on Voldemort.
I don’t have many things to complain about for Chamber of Secrets. This is a solid film. It still could have used a bit of my suggestion from the first movie, but it’s much less glaring this time. The only real problem is that it looks very different from the other movies (in terms of cinematography), but you can’t blame Columbus for that.
After a two-year wait, a more lax take on the Potter series was directed by Alfonso Cuarón:
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
The third installment in the Harry Potter series saw a huge shift in the direction of the series, which I found pretty unsettling. Cuarón clearly takes a different approach to the series than Columbus did, emphasising the fantastic visuals and art direction over the more bland environments of the first two films. This is to the film’s credit, of course: the art direction in Prisoner of Azkaban is incredible. The dementors are amazing, the hypogriffs are amazing, the willow is amazing, and everything is amazing. This is a beautiful movie. Unfortunately, visuals alone can’t carry a film.
Cuarón does a great job with immersion, but he leaves out far too many integral plot details. Harry Potter fans like to whine about every tiny little cut that the film adaptations make, which has always gotten on my nerves: this is one huge exception. There’s too much story cut out of this movie, and I really can’t think of a reason why. The book of this one was a bit longer than Chamber, but the movie is a bit shorter. Adding these details back in could have made the film the same length at most, and probably still a bit shorter. Why the cuts?
The detail I’m talking about primarily is Lupin’s talk with Harry to explain what the Marauder’s Map is and why it exists. This is completely omitted from the movie, which makes the Marauder’s Map come across as an inexplicable plot device — powers as the plot demands, as TV Tropes would say. The relationship between Harry and Lupin in general is downplayed too much as far as I’m concerned, but this scene is the most jarring. It didn’t need to be cut! WHY?!
Another sore spot in the film is Radcliffe’s crying scene in Hogsmeade. I like Radcliffe, but he did a really bad job on this scene. It’s… pretty embarrassing. I won’t linger on it though, since he was a child actor and these were his first films. To his credit, he does a way better job at crying in subsequent movies, so don’t worry about it. Cut Daniel a break.
Other than the story cuts, this movie is pretty good. I like how it kind of glosses over the Shrieking Shack scene to focus its “climax music” on Harry’s encounter with the dementors by the lake. It makes the whole Shack scene into a fake climax, which is pretty clever actually. Cuarón did a good job, but I was glad to see him go. The story is a little bit more important to me than the visuals, and I really hoped that a director would come along who could mix the brilliant art and story into one perfect Potter movie. I hoped, but then…
Mike Newell was chosen to direct Goblet of Fire:
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
I don’t like this movie. The only good thing I can say about it as a whole is that it doesn’t screw up the story. The story points are hit with precision, if not grace. Very few characters get any real development, and the entire movie jumps around at lightning speed. It gives me motion sickness.
The art direction is still pretty good, though it’s hurt by the pacing. Many of the sets are creative and beautiful, but most of it isn’t on screen long enough for you to appreciate it like you could with Cuarón’s work. There are a few exceptions: the ball in particular stands out as memorable, and the entire graveyard scene with Voldemort is chilling. If the whole movie could have been as well-paced as these scenes, it would have been much better off — however, the movie is two hours and forty minutes long. That’s pretty damn long, but it should have been longer.
In my opinion, Goblet of Fire is the last novel in the series to truly feel edited. Very little of the material in the first four books is unnecessary, which is surprising given the length of Goblet of Fire. After this book, the series started to include more and more subplots that I found unimportant to the core story and background. Trimming the last three books liberally would be required — and welcome — but the first four needed to be left alone. Undoubtedly they needed to be changed in some ways, but not to the extent of the later films. Goblet of Fire should have been obscenely long — it really needed to be. As it is, the lightning pace renders the film boring. Pretty-looking, but boring.
I would have forgiven Newell for his direction (since I doubt Warner Bros would have been pleased with a 3.5 hour film), but he doesn’t even deserve it. He’s stated in interviews and commentary that the pace was entirely his decision based on some ridiculous “pacing rule” he invented about how scenes should only be so many seconds long. Seconds long. Mike Newell is a pretentious idiot.
The real icing on the cake is his horrendous fumbling of Dumbledore’s character. When this movie came out, I heard a lot of insults towards Michael Gambon, with people assuming that it was his fault that Dumbledore was a total moron in this film. Gambon’s excellent performance in every other Potter move proves it, though: Newell can’t direct Dumbledore to save his life. None of the other characters were that bad, but then again, it’s hard to tell most of the time because the scene keeps changing every so many seconds.
I know I’m going a little heavy on the criticism here, but I really dislike this movie. It’s a stain on the series. The movies could have recovered from their inconsistent direction if there had been a director in charge who could have mixed Azkaban’s art with Chamber’s story — the first three films could have just been Harry growing up. It would have been a bit silly still, but no more bad than the books were at the beginning. This movie ruined that.
Much to my relief, David Yates signed on to do the next film:
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
…And David Yates is officially my hero. This film is awesome! It mixes Cuarón’s art direction with Columbus’s general story direction, with some of Newell’s “chill factor” (the only thing he really contributed). Yates also knows when to cut and when to add — Order of the Phoenix is a long book that drags frequently, but the movie is far from it. The movie moves at a healthy pace similar to Azkaban’s, but doesn’t make all the huge cuts that Cuarón did. It tells the story and the background details that make a story make sense. The only problem I have with the story is how downplayed Kreacher is — he was actually going to be cut entirely before Rowling stepped in and stated that he had to be included. Kreacher does appear, but only very briefly; given his large role in the last two books, I think he should have had more screentime. That’s a minor gripe, though.
The best thing about Yates’s direction is that he doesn’t try to distance himself from the directors that preceded him. He includes many of the little quirks that each director brought to the series, which helps to tie them together. It’s still obvious that the directors keep changing, but Yates’s efforts help to alleviate some of that. He makes an admirable attempt to fix the mistakes made so far, without making many of his own. (If you don’t know what I’m talking about, just think of the different scene transitions that each director did. Columbus’s soft cuts, Newell’s hard cuts, and Cuarón’s fancy transitions are all present in this movie. Filmmaking is a visual medium, and details like these are more important than they seem.)
David Yates deserves a trophy for what he did with the Harry Potter series. Goblet of Fire stops it from being a masterpiece, but Yates is doing an incredible job of saving it. As long as he keeps this up for Half-Blood Prince and Deathly Hallows, I think the Harry Potter films will be fine. The series won’t be a masterpiece, but it will be damned good, and we all have David Yates to thank for that.
I wrote at the beginning of this review that the story doesn’t need four books of build-up before the antagonist arrives, and I wrote later that the material in the first four books seemed more necessary that the last three. This may seem like a contradiction, but it isn’t really. Very little of the material prior to Voldemort’s return is relevant to the fact that he hasn’t returned, meaning that it could just as easily be covered in the last three books. I feel like the series would be much better if the exposition to nonsense ratio was more balanced (i.e., put more nonsense at the beginning and more exposition at the end).
In conclusion, the films aren’t any much better than the books. The increasing lengths and complexity of story structures make the Harry Potter books a great introduction to novels; the varying directors and moods of the Harry Potter movies make them a great introduction to films.
I can’t wait to see Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. I finally feel like the series is on the right track.