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.