This past Sunday, I endeavored to watch every single Harry Potter film in a single day. There are definitely worse movie series to try and marathon through, like James Bond or Zatoichi, but still, at roughly 150 minutes apiece, multiplied by six films, Potterocalypse stretched the limits of my endurance. As it was, I began around 11 AM and finished up just after 3:30 the next morning. It’s surprising how exhausting merely sitting around and watching films can be.
As a bit of background, I love the Harry Potter novels. I came to them a bit late, only picking the first one up out of mild let’s-see-what-all-the-fuss-is-about curiosity shortly after The Goblet of Fire (the book) was released. Of course, I went through the four books in a space of about ten days. If you haven’t read the books, it’s perhaps trivial to dismiss them as a bit of written-for-children fluff, but Rowling’s prose is impressive if only because of how easy those books are to read. Anyone who’s tried to write fiction before would probably trade a hand for the ability to write books as mellifluous as these are: the words seem to flow amazingly easily for Rowling, and the books are, as a result, pure page-turners.
So I felt a bit of trepidation wandering into the film series. I’ve always been a bit afraid of films based on books that I enjoy, simply because film, while an amazing medium, has a tendency to overwrite my internal imagery for a novel. You know what I mean (I hope): whenever I read a novel, I wind up imagining faces for the characters in my head and seeing the world that’s being created as I follow the text. The concrete-ness of live action cinema tends to make explicit what was previously implied, which is a shame, as afterwards I tend to imagine the faces of the actors when I re-read the books, which always feels like a bit of an infidelity on my part.
Chris Columbus And The Untalentius Curse The Phantom Menace Bad, they’re also not The Sixth Sense Good. The films weren’t aided at all by the directorial efforts of Chris Columbus, right up there with Tom Shadyac in the “makes generally horrible movies that are huge hits” club. Everything about The Sorcerer’s Stone feels like a made-for-TV Christmas special, perhaps especially due to John Williams’ score, which is undoubtedly the worst I’ve ever heard him produce. (How much of that is due to Columbus’ influence is something I’d be interesting in learning.) It’s an obnoxiously overbearing score that almost never seems to recede into the background and hits such sentimental themes that I almost muted the film and watched it with subtitles on.
The second film, at least, seems to have learned from the mistakes of the first with a more mellow score and more impressive special effects overall, even if the Sword of Gryffindor is revealed as an embarrassingly obvious stage sword when Harry's waving it around near the end. This is one of the earliest examples of the shortcuts that the films seem content to take: of course, if you read the books, you'd know what the sword is and why it popped out of the Sorting Hat, but if you've only seen the films, the sudden appearance of a sword in a hat must've been confusing.
Alfonso Cuaron And The Qualitio Increasius Incantation Alfonso Cuaron for The Prisoner of Azkaban. I’m not sure what Warner Bros. executive pulled the trigger on hiring the guy who did Y Tu Mama Tambien for a family-friendly franchise, but it paid off in spades as Cuaron brought a uniquely dark perspective to the series, which was appropriate, given the deepening shades of black as the series goes on. It’s also remarkable how much the trio of actors mature between the second and third films, as if they had taken a couple of years off from filming. Before they were gangly, puff-cheeked Children, and all of a sudden they were Young Adults.
I don't think I'll take the time to critique every film individually, but it's worth noting that it's somehow the case that the Cuaron movie is probably the best of the lot, but that the films also seem to get better as they go along. It's one of those weird cases where an amazing installment in a film series doesn't make the sequels seem any worse by comparison, but somehow manages to make everything that follows seem more enjoyable in turn. It's not a case of raising expectations, so much as The Prisoner Of Azkaban seems as though it raised the average quality of the series enough to make me more forgiving of some of the weaker aspects of the film that follows. Perhaps that's just a side effect of seeing them all in such a short period of time, though.
J.K. Rowling And The Convenientus Charm Even at sixteen hours of watching the films, though, it’s still worth noting that that’s a rapidly abbreviated experience when compared to reading even one of the books in the series, and seeing the timeline compressed like this does highlight some of the storytelling cheats that Rowling built into her novels. I talked about this a bit when I discussed marathoning Battlestar Galactica and the effects that compressing your experience of a piece of media has on its storytelling effectiveness. If anything, watching all of these Harry Potter films feels like compression squared: not only is each movie a 2.5 hour slice of a book that would take ten times that long to actually sit down and read, but watching them all back to back exposed certain shortcuts that, although they fit within the context of the fantasy world that Rowling created, are also awfully convenient.
Cloak of Invisibility. This is, perhaps, the cheatiest plot device I’ve yet read in a book, but that fact didn’t become clear to me until I saw it used so many times in the movies as a way for Harry and friends to eavesdrop on information or get to somewhere they shouldn’t be, undetected and consequence-free. It feels a little nitpicky to point this out, but I’m reminded of the criticisms one of my favorite authors, Raymond Chandler, would level at detective novels that relied too much on coincidences and information that wasn’t available to the audience to wrap up their stories. Of course, Harry Potter is a magical world, and magical items will take their role in such a universe, but it’s also worth pointing out that what feels relatively natural and inevitable in a book, when surrounded by hundreds of pages of characterization and backstory, can feel awfully like a shortcut in a filmed adaptation.
Of course, all that backstory is another complaint to lodge against the films, as great swaths of the books are cut away to make room for their core storylines. That’s a completely unavoidable problem, of course, but including things like the Marauder’s Map without explaining that it was made by Harry’s father and his friends seems like a bit of missing the point. The backstory of Harry’s father and his gang’s bullying of Snape is a nice foil to the Draco/Harry plots of the “modern day” Hogwarts, but it’s mostly missing from the Half-Blood Prince film (aside from a brief flashback), as is any resonance to the revelation that Snape himself is the titular character. All of this lack of characterization, especially of Snape, seems likely to dampen the revelations about him that come along in the last pair of films, and in that sense isn't really optional material to be cast aside without harming the framework of the rest of the films. (Other stuff, such as most of the Dobby and house-elf plotline, are more easily justified as cuts.)
Matthew Rorie And The Conclusion-ous Augury Ralph Fiennes’ performance as Voldemort and the makeup solution they created for him are really remarkable, and bring that character to a kind of life that I didn’t experience when I was reading the novels. As a showcase for a bevy of notable British actors, the films are also kind of wonderful. They get darker as they go along, of course, but that doesn’t mean that actors like Helena Bonham Carter, Alan Rickman, and Fiennes don’t seem to be having fun.
I confess to still being a little exhausted from the experience of watching these films in a single day, and a bit let-down by their infidelities (although apparently there’s going to be a scene in Deathly Hallows that should make fans of the novel boo a bit, so it doesn't look like they're done yet), but not as let-down as I thought I’d be after watching the first two films. Apart from those aberrations, the series as a whole is relatively faithful, although it doesn’t quite capture the charm of Rowling’s prose. Perhaps that’s simply the nature of film adaptations and their ability to make "real" what previously existed only in the imagination. That’s not always an admirable goal.
Anyway, those are some haphazardly-collected thoughts about Harry Potter. We’ll have a review of The Deathly Hallows, Part I early tomorrow morning, so stay tuned for that!