Harry Potter and the Endless Repetition of . . . Harry Potter

15 07 2007

by mr. travis

Please note, that what follows would be constituted as spoilers, so for the few people who have neither seen the film or read the book and do not wish to know how this one ends, then please don’t read. or if you do, don’t bitch about it

Of the major “blockbusters” so far released this summer, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is far and away the best of the bunch. But, when you’re up against the two-thirds great Spider-Man 3, the virtually unwatchable Pirates of the Caribbean 3 and the neutered eunuch known as Live Free or Die Hard, even a mediocre film such as The Order of the Phoenix suddenly looks like The Godfather, as if the masses, thirsty for some sort of oasis of decent entertainment, jump at the opportunity to drink from the well, even though said well is murky, muddled, and nowhere near as good as it should be. Directed by newcomer David Yates (a BBC television director whose credits include several shows that do not sound familiar whatsoever), the film is beholden to the vision of Alfonso Cuaron, (who directed the third Potter sequel, Prisoner of Azkaban, which, to date, is still the best version of J.K. Rowling’s popular series of books), showing that the series produced by Warner Bros. studios may be running out of steam.

harry potter V poster

In the fifth part of the Harry Potter series, the young Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) is brought to trial for using magic in the “muggle” (human) world. Brought before the Ministry of Magic, he is only saved from being expelled by Dumbledore (the excellent Michael Gambon), the headmaster of the wizard school Hogwarts. From there, with the shadow of Lord Voledmort (the also excellent Ralph Fiennes) hanging over the entire film, Harry begins to train his fellow students to protect and arm themselves for the coming war, all while under the watchful eye of Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton) who has been placed as a mole for the Ministry. In the meantime, it is revealed that Voldmort has found a way to enter Harry’s mind and may be able to take over his body in the near future, which leads to further unease as he is being trained by Severus Snape (Alan Rickman) to protect himself against anymore attacks.

For fans of the book, the film version may come as a shock. Any element of the book version of The Order of the Phoenix that is ancillary to the main plot has been thrown out, leaving this the leanest version of the Harry Potter films to date. Gone are the childish asides of the Chris Columbus versions (Sorceror’s Stone and The Chamber of Secrets), most of the classroom activity has been put on the backburner except when needed (i.e. Dolores Umbridge and Snape’s training of Harry). All of this is fine, a lot of the time these asides only served to distract and give off the feeling of a Degrassi Junior High episode. Unfortunatley, this brings attention to what may be the biggest flaw of the Potter films; they are essentially the same thing over and over again.

In book form, the mundane details work because J.K. Rowling’s prose, while not on par with other modern writers such as Michael Chabon, still has a nice feel to it, making even the tiniest details seem important, presenting an extraordinary world in fine detail. On film, it’s another story entirely, with each film (with the exception of The Goblet of Fire), beginning at the Dursley residence, and ending with a quick talk by Dumbledore (in true Full House fashion) before the kids are sent home, leaving them with a nice lesson to be learned and packed away for the next adventure.

A lot of the problem though, falls on Yates. As a first time film director, it’s obvious that he is overmatched by the material (why Warner Bros. would give their number one franchise to a first time director is dumbfounding). The story is all tension as a war begins to build, the children turn towards moving their powers from cutesy kids stuff to violent acts meant to harm and kill, and political intrigue is introduced to the wizard world. But, nothing comes of it. A spectacular battle ends the book, where the children (who have created their own military troop dubbed ‘Dumbledore’s Army’) have to fight off Voldemort and his Death-Eater’s only to be saved at the last moment by Dumbledore and Harry’s godfather Sirius Black. Black’s sacrifice is what drives the sixth book and adds another bit of catharsis to Potter. Under an experienced director this would be the payoff, instead, with Yates, it’s a quick bit, as if it were the opening salvo of a larger action piece, and nothing more. The death of Sirius is not treated with the time and respect it should, it is almost immediately brushed aside. And the battle between Voldemort and Dumbledore, while looking spectacular, is over and done with far too quickly, leaving the audience cold, wondering why they wasted two and a half hours for two minutes of payoff and the unwaivering dread that Yates is directing the sixth Potter movie, The Half Blood Prince, which is also high on tension with an even larger payoff at the end.

At this point of the film series it will be interesting to see the approach Warner Bros. takes to the final films. With the books coming to an end in less than a week, the studio has to rely on its own product to make money, no longer relying on the built in audience of the books, who may decide to stick with the superior literary versions. If Yates continues with his pedestrian form of direction, then that may be the best course of action for the consumer. Which is too bad, for with a good director (as was seen with Cuaron), a fine cinematic experience can be mined from these great stories. And with the final two being high on tension and possibly war, an experience similar to that of The Lord of the Rings or Star Wars is in the making. But, that won’t happen with the current direction the studio has decided to take, which is worrisome. Of all the films on Warner’s upcoming slate, the Harry Potter series is one of the guaranteed moneymakers, along with the upcoming installments of Batman and Superman. But, as they did in the 90’s with the old Batman series, Warners has the tendency to look straight at the bottom dollar and skimp on what’s best for the film as art. To go with a first time director on their number one franchise was a huge mistake. Either Alfonso Cuaron needs to be brought back for the finale, or bring someone on par with Cuaron, maybe Gulliermo del Toro, or even the great Steven Spielberg (who was one of the rumored choices for the original films).

The Harry Potter series can be the cinematic equivalent of Star Wars for those in their late teens, the ones who have grown up with the books, it’s that huge. The books even appeal to those who are older, the parents who read the books to their young kids, the older brothers and sister who read their siblings’ books on a lark, Why make the mistake of ruining what could be a storied franchise by going on the cheap? Hopefully, Warner Bros. learns from their mistake (though with the way the box office is going this weekend, that won’t happen), or Yates takes a film class or two on tension. Otherwise the Potter film series will end just as it began, childish, boring, and in the end, utterly uninteresting to anyone with any love and respect for the great series of which it is based on.

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