Another panel from the MAD parody…
I hate hearing people bash J.K. Rowling and her Harry Potter books. Yes, it’s always fashionable for those people who think they have better taste than everybody else to dismiss popular fiction (or anything else that’s popular) as drivel for the Great Unwashed, but these books don’t deserve it. I’d agree that the magical fantasy adventures that Rowling has written about the boy wizard might not win any literary awards, and she probably won’t be confused with Hemmingway, Fitzgerald or Capote, but they are playful, imaginative and just plain page turning fun. It’s a rare thing that a book (or a series of books) comes along that the entire family enjoys and are enthusiastic about. We often sit and discuss our theories about what’s coming next, what we think this or that means and other observations about the plots in the books. When I consider this remarkable bridging of the generations, I am often reminded of the scene from “City Slickers” when the characters discuss their childhoods. Baseball is brought up, and one of them (Daniel Stern, I think) reminisces that no matter how far apart he and his father have drifted, they could always “talk about baseball”. Harry Potter is like that. We can always talk about Harry Potter, and that’s a wonderful thing when your kids get older and they begin testing their independence to have a common interest that holds such enthusiasm.
Most of the family went to see Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix on Thursday night. My middlest daughter, The Dramatic Victoria went to the midnight show with friends the night before, and watched our oldest and autistic daughter, The Animated Elizabeth for us. This has always been the favorite of the books for me. The intrigue of the secret society that has reorganized to oppose Voldemort, the political maneuvering of the Ministry and it’s total denial of the truth of Voldemort’s return, Harry’s growing frustration with his being kept in the dark despite the dangers and feats he’s managed, the tremendously hateful character of Umbridge… there is a lot of meaty plot elements in this story. My fear was that this book was just too involved to be boiled down into a single film of a reasonable length. To a certain extent I think my fears were justified.
Spoiler Alert! Some plot points are revealed and discussed below.
I’m one of those types who have no problem in recognizing the difference between books, movies and TV in their treatment of subjects. I think too many people who are enamored of a book get disappointed when the movie or TV version doesn’t cover every nuance and nicety of the source material. Film is film, and it necessarily must take source material and change it to best work within it’s medium. The “Lord of the Rings” films are a great example. Director Peter Jackson made quite a few changes to Tolkien’s story, but each one was made with obviously careful consideration and with a strong knowledge of the trilogy. The result were movies that worked on their own merits as well as pleasing (most) Tolkien buffs. The Harry Potter novels offer an even bigger challenge because unlike the Tolkein books, one of the principal features of Rowling’s stories are a great many sub plots that serve multiple purposes. Some are principal to the main story, but others exist simply to flesh out Rowling’s world, lending humor and introducing magical concepts like the wizard hospital, the weirdly accepted slave-like existence of house-elves (who mostly like it), secondary characters like Peeves the poltergeist and many other examples. Some of these little plot elements become favorite moments for readers, and it’s tough to leave them out. Others seem to suggest great importance to the story but end up as red herrings.
In choosing what gets cut from the novel for film, much is revealed of the core of the Potter tale. It’s well known that Rowling works closely with the filmmakers as to what needs to be portrayed on screen in anticipation of the eventual climax of the books. Therefore, what gets left out and what does not can tell you much of what it really important to the story. Then again, shortcuts have been taken to establish important plot elements by using other methods to describe them. For example, in this film the entire sequence that occurs in the book at St. Mungoe’s wizard hospital, where Mr. Weasley convalesces from his snake attack, is left out. In the book, it introduces the hospital and it’s oddities but also serves to tell the readers about Neville’s parents and their fate. In the film, that is accomplished by a quiet talk between Neville and Harry. There are many examples of this, especially in the last two films.
I said earlier I thought my fears about this book being too complex to be translated into a single film were somewhat justified. What I meant was that this is the first of the film’s where I felt you NEEDED to have read the book to understand everything that was going on. Certainly there were several scenes that went by so fast that without knowing what everything meant I could see Potter novices missing key information. There were also many moments where director David Yates and screenwriter Micheal Goldenberg were winking at book aficionados with subtle indications of plot elements that were either part of the book or part of upcoming book’s plots. One example of this are the fleeting glances that Ginny Weasley sends at Harry and Cho when they are together. They are way too subtle for anyone who does not know that in the next book Ginny and Harry begin dating. Personally these touches are something I really like… almost like easter eggs for the Potter faithful. It’s the stuff that is rushed through in order to jam as much as possible into the film that I felt didn’t get proper screen time to establish the impact of the events. The ending especially suffered in this regard. I thought the ending, especially the brief talk between Dumbledore and Harry, did not convey the meaning of the events between Harry and Voldemort, nor it’s implications for future stories. I found it especially telling that there was absolutely no mention whatever of Neville Longbottom possibly being the chosen one, based on the prophecy. I may have to rethink my theories on the book seven ending!
Much has been said of the dark tone of this film. Yes, it’s darker and grittier than the others. The dangers are getting more and more real and more and more serious in the story. Harry and his friends are 15 or 16, at the height of their natural angst which is exacerbated by the serious events that unfold. The threat of Voldemort isn’t just an empty promise anymore… it’s real and the deaths and horror of the last time he battled for power are not glossed over. Even small characters like the Dursley’s, little more than comic relief in past films, are now unfunny and more grotesque. Everything is played more seriously, but there are still moments of humor and magical wonder (just not as many). Harry’s part in particular was not played as over the top angry as I expected it to be. Yes, he’s volatile, confused and frustrated, but his essential goodness and consideration for his fellow wizards is still just under the surface. It’s not completely dark, but the essential tone is definitely darker than previous movies.
The story moves along briskly, with very little of the long transitions and sweeping shots of the grounds that often pervaded the previous movies. I guess they figure we’ve all seen Hogwarts enough that they can cut quickly from the exterior establishing shot to a classroom and right to the story. We get a quick but decent sense of the growing relationship between Harry and his godfather Sirius, which of course in crucial to later events. There is a pervading sense of fear and danger throughout the movie that adds to the afore mentioned dark tone. In fact Yates does a very good job of creating tension not only concerning the threat of the Dark Lord’s followers, but within Hogwarts with the taking over of the school by an interfering Ministry and it’s representative Umbridge. The secret meetings of the D.A., a Harry-led group of students determined to prepare themselves for defense against the threats that the officials in charge refuse to acknowledge is there, are also well paced and describe the growing independent thoughts of the kids. The tension finally breaks when Fred and George trash the school during exams in protest in a colorful display of magical action. Speaking of action, there is some serious action in this movie, but not until the end. Of course that’s been the case in most of the books and films, but in this one the battle at the end is like nothing we’ve seen before. Even Harry and Voldemort squaring off at the climax of “The Goblet of Fire” was only a prelude to the young D.A. fighting the Death Eaters, eventually aided by the Order of the Phoenix and leading to the showdown between Dumbledore and Voldemort. Great, exciting action both well paced and well filmed.
The performances are largely effective, with a few exceptions. Daniel Radcliffe isn’t the same wooden kid he was in the first film. He does a fine job of imparting his growing frustration in Dumbledore’s unexplained ignoring and avoiding of him, as well as the complexity of his confusion and fear that he is becoming more like Voldemort as time goes on. Emma Watson continues to blurt out her lines so fast I can barely follow her… one of these days the director needs to tell her to slow it down a bit. Rupert Grint doesn’t get to play up to his comedic skills as much in this movie as he has in the past, which is a shame because that has been the charm of his portrayal of Ron. In fact, this is one problem that I had with the movie in general… not enough time for many of the major characters to advance their development or let us feel they are a part of the story. Gary Oldman does terrific with his limited screen time. A lesser actor might not have been able to establish that connection with Harry needed for his death to be convincingly agonizing to him. Likewise Alan Rickman‘s Snape had but a few scenes, which he used to the utmost. The all too short “Occulmency” lesson scenes gave us a deeper glimpse into his resentful and angry psyche. Since Voldemort didn’t appear until the very end, Ralph Fiennes also didn’t get much screen time, but again he made what he had sing. He was a great choice for Voldemort… creepy, nasty and just plain evil without seeming campy. Sadly, Maggie Smith (McGonnagal) and Robbie Coltrane (Hagrid) were wasted with little more than cameos. Even the Slytherin kids like Draco, Crabbe and Goyle are barely shown and are basically afterthoughts in the plot. In retrospect, I think it may have been the shortchanging of many of the familiar characters that created the incomplete and rushed feeling I had with the overall film. Harry’s romance with Cho was also truncated, although I thought it was handled well enough for it’s purpose.
On the other hand, what was lost from other characters was gained in the delightfully malicious performance of Imelda Staunton as Dolores Umbridge. Every time I read that book I really hate her character, and Staunton brought that to the screen in spades. The screenwriters even credited her with more sadistic contempt for the students by showing her using the torturous ‘hand carving’ pens on an entire class as she sweetly sipped tea at the head of the room. Perfect casting, that. Another welcome performance was Helena Bonham Carter as Belletrix Lastrange, an escaped follower of Voldemort’s. Again she got little screen time, but managed to convey her character very completely in that time. Cast newcomer Evanna Lynch played Luna Lovegood with “Looney” abandon, instilling just the right feeling of spaciness yet a kind of weird wisdom nonetheless.
The one miscasting I can’t get over is Micheal Gambon as Dumbledore. I just don’t see him as anything but a slightly absent minded and hippyish old wizard. There is no sense of the wisdom, menace and power that is described of Dumbledore in the books. He perpetually has a surprised, watery look on his face, even when he’s supposed to be angry. Richard Harris never got the chance to show that side of Dumbledore, but somehow I think he’d have been able to pull it off. I keep thinking about Ian McKellan‘s Gandalf… he was menacing and strong when needed. Maybe Gambon will get tougher for the next film. Some sit-ups would do the trick.
A thumbs up on most counts for me. I still miss some of the smaller parts of the story, and wish that it would have been a little longer. At 2 hours eighteen minutes it’s the shortest of the films, and another half hour would have allowed some better character interaction and deeper story. My bladder can still handle 2 hours 45 minutes. Besides, The Lovely Anna swears when I run out of a movie to go to the restroom I must pee in a garbage can, as there is no way I can make it back into the theater in under 60 seconds. Ha! I’ll have you know I even wash my hands. Despite the little complaints, this one might be my favorite of the series.
755 My cover art for the next issue of MAD, exclusive sneak peek from @entertainmentweekly website
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