Monday, July 27, 2009

The Trouble With Harry (Potter)


If you’ve liked the five previous Harry Potter installments, or even most of them, I’d be stunned to learn that you don’t like Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. Stunned, I say. Shocked! Flummoxed! Confounded! Like all the Harry Potter flicks, this one is packed with J.K. Rowling’s signature sweets: spells, potions, Quidditch and other funnily named things. It has a warm and weighty performance from Michael Gambon as Professor Dumbledore, and it has delightfully evil turns from the always enjoyable Alan Rickman as Professor Snape and Helena Bonham Carter as Bellatrix Lestrange. On top of all that it has David Yates, who in two stints in the director’s chair has spent less time on CGI magic tricks in order to keep the spotlight where it belongs, on Hogwarts’ trio of do-gooders, Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Hermione (Emma Watson) and Ron (Rupert Grint). For my money, Half-Blood Prince doesn’t live up to Order of the Phoenix (also helmed by Yates), but it’s as fine as the rest of the bunch. That’s the good news. The bad news is I’m bored.

I want to like the Harry Potter series, I really do. That I’ve seen all six films – two to go now – should be evidence of that. Alas, there are several obstacles prohibiting my enjoyment that I’ve never been able to overcome. Rather than provide an all too familiar review of the latest all too familiar Harry Potter flick, here are five recurrent problems with the Potter franchise (spoilers ahead):

1) The films are too loyal to the books. I know what you’re thinking: Fans of the books often argue the opposite, insisting that these movies only hint at subplots that are crucial to the narrative. I’m sure they’re right. (Full disclosure: I haven’t read so much as a page of the series.) But what the book loyalists overlook is that by hinting at such subplots, the Harry Potter flicks do too little and too much at the same time. If a character or a subplot can only get drive-by recognition, what’s the point of including it at all? The answer is that these characters and subplots exist on screen because Rowling created them on paper and people read them and the filmmakers feel they have expectations to meet. I’m sure they’re right. Alas, in staying true to Rowling’s vision, the Harry Potter films come off more like books-on-film than actual self-sufficient movies.

Consider what David Lean had to say about adapting a novel: “Choose what you want to do in the novel and do it proud. If necessary, cut characters. Don’t keep every character just to take a sniff of each one.” He’s right. Case in point: In the last two films there’s been a character named Nymphadora Tonks. At least, I think that’s what she’s named. Nymphadora (careful with that first vowel) seems to be some kind of purple-haired witch for the good guys. In the books, I’m sure she has a rich personality. Here, however, she’s just another anonymous wand wielder who we need to keep track of. She’s set decoration, and she’s making things messy. The same could be said of good old loveable Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane). I know that Hagrid is good and loveable because Potter book club members race to giggle at his mere appearance in each film, even though, so far as I can tell, he isn’t actually funny. If memory serves, there was a time that Hagrid was a useful character in these films, but of late he’s been nothing more than literary product placement.

2) Magic has no understood rules. Here’s what I mean: Most if not all of the Harry Potter movies involve some kind of fight sequence between individuals with magical powers, but the rules never seem to be the same. For example, my impression is that the magic tricks used, and the result of those tricks, varies from fight to fight. My impression is also that for every potentially fatal act of magic, there is another act of magic that will undo it. This latter situation occurs in Half-Blood Prince when Harry Potter strikes down Hitler’s favorite Hogwarts student, Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton), with a blow that appears deadly. Deadly, that is, until Professor Snape stands over Malfoy and cures his wounds in less time than it would have taken someone to clean up the blood with a ShamWow. So I ask you, what’s the point?

Until now, about the only permanent damage done has been that lightning bolt scar on Harry’s forehead. Indeed, at the conclusion of Half-Blood Prince, Dumbledore suffers a death blow. But wasn’t that all too easy for his assassin? And don’t you have a sneaking suspicion that Dumbledore will be back before it’s all over? (If I’m wrong, please don’t tell me. Because that would indeed be a big surprise.) Don’t get me wrong, I do appreciate that the Harry Potter films tend to be swift with their fight scenes, rather than going the way of George Lucas’ Star Wars prequels, which sought to make every skirmish into an epic battle. But I’d care a lot more about these skirmishes if I had any clue whatsoever about the chances for bodily harm. Give Voldemort a sword, and I know that if he strikes Harry in the neck it will lead to a beheading. Give Voldemort a wand and I can’t tell which spells can lop off limbs and which ones only cause flesh wounds.

3) Magic is anticlimactic. One of the potential high points in Half-Blood Prince is a scene in which Harry and Dumbledore are attacked in an underground lair by some water-dwelling relatives of Gollum from The Lord of the Rings series. These creatures from the deep overwhelm Harry, who apparently doesn’t know the correct spell to ward them off, pulling the little wizard underwater. Harry is doomed. His death is imminent. And then … and then … Dumbledore waves his wand around above his head and the crisis is solved. Just like that. (Yawn.) Give credit to Yates, because the image itself is striking. But the act, as usual, is forgettable.

4) Quidditch is stupid. It just is.

5) Voldemort has gone fishing (Harry, too). At least, that’s my theory. Because otherwise, what the fuck are we waiting for? (Other than Rowling’s checks to cash, I mean.) Seriously, let’s get it on. Last I checked, Voldemort knows Harry is a threat and Harry knows that Voldemort needs to be dealt with and that he’s the guy to do it, so what’s left to do? Does Don King need to promote this thing? Do their need to be weigh-ins? Regardless, I’m as ready as I am confused. In Half-Blood Prince especially, the homeland security threat level is never made clear. One moment Dumbledore is enlisting Harry’s help to try and attack Voldemort. The next moment he seems more concerned that Harry finds a good piece of ass on campus. Seriously, which is it? It’s as if Dumbledore is doing his best George W. Bush impression, telling Harry to fear Hogwarts’ most-wanted terrorist while also instructing him to take time to go shopping. Huh? Early in the series, there was the sense that Voldemort could show up at any moment. Now it’s clear that everyone is just playing the waiting game, which is what makes Half-Blood Prince feel like it’s going through the motions. Thankfully, with only two films to go, there aren’t that many Quidditch matches left.

9 comments:

Fox said...

Jason-

Ahhh... you've been waiting to use that title for awhile now, haven't you??? :)

I've never seen a Harry Potter movie, and it's because I see it as a kind of mini-series vs. a series of films or even a film franchise like LOTR (though I'm not hot on those films either).

But I think your bringing up of David Lean is brilliant. I'd never seen that quote before, but I think I'll reference it now for the rest of my life, especially today when too many book lovers demand that the movie be so loyal to the film (hey, you already have that movie in your head, so why do you need a director to do it again??).

Tony Dayoub said...

Jason,

My sentiments exactly.

Tommy Salami said...

Very well put. I touched on some of these same points in my review; the movies feel unfinished. They feel like Cliff's Notes instead of a proper movie. About the only one that didn't was Cuaron's entry, Azbakadabrazan or whatever.

It's a shame really, because Rupert Grint and Emma Watson have matured well and have good chemistry; even Harry was a bit interesting this time around. It seems difficult to care about the Dark Lord's Evil Plan when he won't even bother to show up in the penultimate movie. And Rickman's Snape is by far the most interesting, and seems to get the least screen time.

Hokahey said...

Your best line - "Quidditch is stupid." I cringed when I learned that we were going to be TREATED to another match - with Ron (the most boring character and actor in the series) as the hero.

I DID fall asleep during this installment. (Shockingly, I missed when Harry zaps Malfoy.) Granted, I had just returned from a whole day of flying from Billings, Montana, and a 1300-mile road trip with minimal sleep.

I'm with you on the magic thing. To me, it just has the feel of someone making it up as she goes along. Somebody gets zapped or poisoned, but there's always a remedy - and, as you say, there are all these little THINGS with funny names that do JUST THE RIGHT THING for Harry's needs at that point in the story. All the devices - like the horcruxes - seem so contrived.

And I'm with you on this one too - Voldemort was sorely missing from this episode. WTF! At least you could always count on a lightsaber duel with Vader. This movie was perfect for the fans who just love BEING with the characters - because that's what this installment was all about.

Craig said...

So full of hate, Jason. Love, not hate. Can't you learn to love?

I kid, I kid. But I do find myself in the odd position of playing defense. I'd rather see Half-Blood Prince again than Hurt Locker, Public Enemies, or any number of more admired "autured" films out there at present. To each his own. But on to your points:

Case in point: In the last two films there’s been a character named Nymphadora Tonks. At least, I think that’s what she’s named. Nymphadora (careful with that first vowel) seems to be some kind of purple-haired witch for the good guys. In the books, I’m sure she has a rich personality. Here, however, she’s just another anonymous wand wielder who we need to keep track of. She’s set decoration, and she’s making things messy.

Truth be told, Tonks isn't much better defined in the books. I think the point of having her there, in both books and movies, is to reinforce the idea that Harry is connected to other people. That he's part of a larger community. This is the source of his strength, the advantage he has over Voldemort. I agree that it'd be nice if there were more character there to drawn on, but at least the actress is easy on the eyes. (I'm a soft touch.)

Magic has no understood rules....My impression is also that for every potentially fatal act of magic, there is another act of magic that will undo it. This latter situation occurs in Half-Blood Prince when Harry Potter strikes down Hitler’s favorite Hogwarts student, Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton), with a blow that appears deadly. Deadly, that is, until Professor Snape stands over Malfoy and cures his wounds in less time than it would have taken someone to clean up the blood with a ShamWow. So I ask you, what’s the point?

I'm not going to argue this point, since trying to explain the rules is a sure descent into nerdville and I don't care that much about it either. My problem with the scene you highlighted is the fact that Harry nearly kills another character is brushed off a little too cavalierly. I think Rowling is more interested in levels than rules, i.e., that the more you know, the more responsibility comes with it. That scene botched the issue, in my opinion.

Quidditch is stupid.

I'm laughing now. And I agree that Ron and the actor playing him are less interesting than the others. I think it's an essential sequence, though, because it toughens the character for what comes in Deathly Hallows. Ron's always felt in Harry's shadow, so it gives him some self-confidence. You may not buy this, but you'll be happy to know there is no more Quiddich in the series....

One moment Dumbledore is enlisting Harry’s help to try and attack Voldemort. The next moment he seems more concerned that Harry finds a good piece of ass on campus.

I know you're being facetious, but those two things are more connected than you realize. As I wrote above, what separates Harry from Voldemort are the relationships he has cultivated with other people. That he's learned love, compassion, empathy and humility as a result. That he's part of the magical world, yet very much part of our world as well. That's nothing exactly new, as any iconic hero from Luke Skywalker to Buffy Summers will attest; but I think the last two films have conveyed this quite touchingly. One example I cited in the comments section of my review is an unbroken tracking shot that contrasts Ron and his girlfriend to that of Malfoy standing alone on the tower's edge. Dumbledore wants Harry to have a normal life (the kind Ron is ahead of him on) because, ultimately, it's what separates him from his adversaries. It's what gives him strength.

I can see the flaws in this movie, and how it helps to have read the books to sort of fill in the blanks. When the last two Potters are released, I think this one will look stronger within that context. Whether or not it stands well enough on its own is up to the individual viewer.

Jason Bellamy said...

Thanks for the comments, everyone.

Fox: The lean quote came out of an interview anthologized in a book of conversations with "great moviemakers of Hollywood's golden age." Lots of great stuff in that book.

Tommy: I didn't take to the Cuaron installment as much as others. Not sure why. Anyway, yeah, the threat of Voldemort seemed like a lot of talk in this film.

Hokahey: Well, I'd blame travel for your nap, not the film. But I'm with you on the contrivances in the sense that each movie seems to form a mini obsession over some magical situation or device that is forgotten by the next film. (Forgotten by me, at least.)

Craig: Thanks for stepping up and playing! You make your case nicely, but I do think that it's because you have the benefit of having read the books. That's the primary sin of these films. They hint at themes, but they don't develop them. You suggest that Harry's network is what gives him power, and I'm sure you're right, but this hasn't been articulated in the films -- not in a way that makes it seem like an important theme for outsiders, anyway.

This movie does have some nice moments. It really does. And I want to care. I really do. For example, there's that great shot at the end when Harry walks up and brushes the hair off the face of the fallen Dumbledore. That scene made me sad. Alas, it made me sad because I didn't care about Dumbledore. The way the scene is handled, it could inspire tears if I felt emotionally involved (just ask the chick sitting next to me).

I trust that in the end all of these chapters will have greater meaning. I do. But to spread the story out like a mini-series (with months between episodes), each chapter needs to have its own momentum. I felt Phoenix had that. This one, not so much.

Craig said...

That's the primary sin of these films. They hint at themes, but they don't develop them. You suggest that Harry's network is what gives him power, and I'm sure you're right, but this hasn't been articulated in the films -- not in a way that makes it seem like an important theme for outsiders, anyway.

Yeah, it's undoubtedly tricky deciding what to leave out and leave in these adaptations. Personally, I could do with less of the boyfriend/girlfriend angst, but then I'm not the target demographic for the series. Still, I think Yates is terrific at communicating information visually. In Order of the Phoenix, Harry is repeatedly isolated in the frame; while here his connections with others are emphasized. (Such as that wonderful low-angle shot early on, when Harry looks up to see his friends peering down at him from various sides of a staircase.) I can't say the same for the previous entries, but they seem to have found a director attuned to this theme from the novels and is trying to show it rather than spell it out.

Jason Bellamy said...

they seem to have found a director attuned to this theme from the novels and is trying to show it rather than spell it out

I agree with you. And normally I prefer the "show, don't tell" model. However, at this point I feel like the series does a lot of "telling" about things like potions and love interests, but what little "showing" it does related to the deeper themes that you're able to spot from having read the books is so vague in these that I'd go for some "telling" at this point. Anything to get the conversation beyond Rowling's funny names.

MovieMan0283 said...

I have not seen any of the movies, save for the beginning of #1 years ago when I had HBO and the middle/end of, oh I don't know, #9?, on an airplane. Haven't read a page of the books - though my friends are obsessed with the wizard boy (one even read the final installment in one day - all 5,160 pages of it. He felt nauseous afterwards).

But I really enjoyed this piece so kudos on you're writing. You've have the tremendous ability to tackle contemporary films while keeping your personal voice intact and your prose highly readable - which I greatly respect.