When British born author Joanne “J.K.” Rowling set out to write Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone in 1990, she probably didn’t anticipate her work reaching worldwide critical and commercial success that not only uncovered the strata of piercingly insightful political and social commentary but also an unyieldingly human story for which the series is known. Rowling upholds her unique vision throughout the eventual film adaptations of her novels, beginning with the two Chris Columbus directed features in which the author worked with screenwriter Steve Kloves to lend her narrative voice. Staying irrevocably British in terms of casting, location, and the approach to filmmaking, the Harry Potter movie series epitomizes the power to preserve determined constancy even as characters and struggles change under the variable directorial visions of contemporary action-fantasy.
Placing special emphasis on the dichotomy between kinetic fantasy visuals and cinematic restraint, the Harry Potter series contains a visual virtuosity of large-scale action sequences and powerful character drama. At times, the pictures are haunting and atmospheric, capable of alluring audiences with beautiful, hypnotizing cinematography like Eduardo Serra’s work in the Deathly Hallows: Part 1. From the warm, highly digitalized visuals of Sorcerer’s Stone and Chamber of Secrets to the sparse but stylized color palate of haunting blues and grays in later films, the collective movies neatly shift in tone from piece to piece to impart a progressively growing feeling of dread. As a decades long experiment in establishing mood and mise-en-scène, Harry Potter tracks Rowling’s original story thoroughly while also saving room for directorial freedom in crafting a latent assemblage of political and social themes, coming of age comedy quirks, and dramatic character performances with each and every turn of the story.
Oftentimes, the films pull surprises that keep each title fresh and electrifying despite the series’ tendency to stray away from the source material towards unexplored, untapped cinematic storytelling ground. Movies are granted unexpected stylistic cues and unconventional plot structures that lean towards the ambitious and experimental rather than stick to by-the-numbers adaptation. In place of overstated emotional melodrama or action-packed set pieces, Half-Blood Prince prefers quiet existential rumination; Goblet of Fire visualizes macabre horror over whimsical fantasy; the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 chooses epic, cathartic battle over protracted action scenes. That the series can redefine itself under each and every director, and retrospectively, with each and every title, entitles the complete franchise as one of the greatest cinematic achievements this past decade. Individually, each movie contains its own special quirks and moments masterfully executed by its respective directors, allowing each film to have its own identity separate from the broader context of the series. Yet each piece of the franchise ultimately submits to a grander pattern that makes it even more special, more intelligible, and more brilliant. Watching theHarry Potter series gradually darken from Columbus’s lighthearted affairs to the mature, more foreboding installments later on speaks to the haphazard precision of the series as each piece seamlessly falls into play to make for holistically climactic, emotional visual affair.
The ever-darkening tone established in Alfonso Cuarón’s Prisoner of Azkaban would slowly develop into the emotional catharsis witnessed at the end of Half-Blood Prince, a tonal transformation that carries impact because of the holistic framework of the entire franchise. A wide, comprehensive control of the series invests characters, locations, and music with deeper contexts and emotional pulls, explaining why John Williams’ “Hedwig’s Theme” can still send shivers down spines when interpolated in Alexandre Desplat’s score in the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 and why witnessing a decimated Hogwarts at the end of Half-Blood Prince and its eventual, glorious return in the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 carries so much profound significance to fans. Looking back on the series as a whole, it’s easy to recognize the climax of the eight films precisely embedded within the final hour of the Order of the Phoenix with Dumbledore and Voldemort’s visually and emotionally arresting duel, signifying the unstoppable rise of the villain. Even one of the most contentious film entries – the Half-Blood Prince – makes even more sense when looked at in a broader context as a buoyant respite before the unrelenting finale to follow. So even as loyal Rowling fans groan at the directorial freedoms exercised in the film and the aimless portrayal of mundane teenage life and teenage drama unfold, it all develops for a reason – to infuse Hogwarts with warm, welcoming pathos and familiarity with the last normal year of classes before the final epilogue and its sole focus on Voldemort’s end and final battle.
Even contemplating the directors of films past make sense from a retrospective vantage point, as Chris Columbus’s innocuous, unaspiring first two films fulfill the meticulous task of world building necessary to fuel the conflict of later, more economic films. To defend Columbus when taken in a larger context, one only needs to look towards his fairly successful foundation of the basic presentational aesthetic and his augmentation of Rowling’s original material in visual form. Filmmakers with a darker aesthetic like Cuarón and Yates lack the innocent sentimentality necessary to ground Sorcerer’s Stone andChamber of Secrets to the past, and concurrently, Columbus lacks the maturity and sharp, concise storytelling vision of later directors. Cuarón remains my favorite director of the franchise because of his spectacular accomplishment in turning the series around towards a more serious, ominous affair through his exploratory tracking shots, organic sets and cinematography, and the general direction that Prisoner of Azkaban moves away from Columbus’s aimless whimsy. And while Mike Newell’s direction of Goblet of Fire is competent enough, it’s David Yates that easily takes the second place spot, with his looser yet more concentrated direction and his ability to tell stories and radiate burgeoning emotions through cinematography, camera movements, tone, and overall pacing.
Yates skillfully completes the far more appealing darkened visuals of the Harry Potter franchise, immersing viewers with his matchless aesthetic and his engaging portrayal of the characters that have continuously grown along with its audiences. As the childish wonder fades away from Columbus’s early romps towards the frightening gravitas of events unfolding, the films themselves mature and become markedly contemporary rather than remain a medium to display fantasy tricks and silliness. The successful maturation of the three perfectly cast heroes – the brave (Daniel Radcliffe), the wise (Emma Watson), and the enduring (Rupert Grint) – unravels the humanism underlying each and every film. The trio has always seemed larger than life, larger even than the story itself as they deliberately detach themselves from the main action as in the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 and their hunt for horcruxes as war rages outside. The films have magnified the characters from mere text to visual reality, walking a fine line between faithfulness and innovation in terms of character portrayal, acting, and characterization. This achievement seems rudimentary upon first viewing of the series, though the significance slowly seeps through when taking into account the social consciousness and contemporary resonance interspersed with the empathic portrayal of each character (even faceless ones within the masses of figures in battle), a marker that signifies the series’ ability to handle a dissimilar array of talent into a structured, unified whole.
That Rowling’s novels and the film adaptations can remain separate, respectable entities is a feat in and of itself, though the films look to be more enduring, more prominent in the public consciousness, an exploit very similar to Peter Jackson’s work translating J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings to the screen. It’s not terribly often that the public film-going body receives a film franchise that can fittingly be identified as epochal, masterful filmmaking, though the Harry Potter series yields outstanding results so vastly and so poetically. The decision to give audiences the privilege to witness Rowling’s vision of happiness and innocence, but also broody and ominous moments speaks to the franchise’s ability to keep a levelheaded vision even as this cinematic decade has witnessed a steady march towards obsolescence and shallowness. Nevertheless, screenwriter Steve Kloves, David Yates, et al. have an enduring faith in the medium, as do we all after years of steady releases and gradual development of the story. Yates, along with his predecessors of the Potterverse, craft a breathtakingly uncompromised vision of Rowling’s material while refusing to provide audiences with brainless thrills and action. Measuring the greatness of the Harry Potter film adaptations is a difficult trial, and the tens of thousands of words written about each and every installment (each article can be found via their respective title card below) barely even scratch the surface of why these films deserve such attention and appraisal. But I’ll still take these words to heart if it means getting closer and closer to unearthing its brilliance and why the film is such a profound experience. As film enters into another year, Harry Potter comes to its final close, but not before letting audiences know how brilliant and how enduring of a run it’s had these past few years. Because at the end of the day, it’s people like Rowling, Yates, Kloves, Radcliffe, Watson, Grint, Gambon, Rickman, and many others who are the real wizards. Watching them perform for the screen, that’s the real magic.
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