Do not pity the dead, Harry. Pity the living and above all, those who live without love. – Albus Dumbledore
It can be distracting to read comments about a film before you see it. You can sometimes end up using other people’s views and opinions to form your own arguments. I find it’s better to let my own experience of a film inform my views on it. With this in mind, trying to avoid reviews and articles, comments and opinions, not to mention a whole barrage of media coverage, interviews, featurettes and trailers for the latest Harry Potter film, felt a bit like trying to avoid the bludger in a game of Quidditch. Just when I think I’m out of reach… wham!, another spoiler/review/clip smacks me square in the face.
Not that this makes any difference whatsoever when it comes to the Harry Potter phenomenon. And it is a phenomenon. Anyone who has read the books and seen the films, or even just seen the films, will know all about the plot and the characters and the magic and the hormones and “Quidditch” and “Butterbeer” and “Bertie Bott’s every flavour beans”.
As someone who has seen the films after having read the books first, there was always going to be that “how will it translate to the screen?” anticipation which always overshadows big screen adaptations of popular fiction. Will it be as good on the screen as it is in my head?
In all honesty I can say that the first and subsequent Potter films – with the exception of the third and fifth – came nowhere near to fulfilling even a fraction of this fan’s expectations. Optimistic expectations yes, but unrealistic? After all, it worked for Jackson and The Lord of the Rings. The trilogy which everyone always said was unfilmable turned out to be not only filmable but Oscar worthy, 17 times over. Those films did justice to Tolkien’s epic, so why couldn’t the same go for the Potter series?
The trouble is, Jackson & Co had only three books to adapt, a mammoth task in itself but, as an army of fan boys will testify, one they were more than equal to. For Tolkien’s books three was certainly a magic number, but Rowling’s series, with four different directors over seven years, just couldn’t quite conjure up the same appeal as the books. Not that it mattered much, the studio wasn’t worried. Like LOTR before it, Potter had a captive audience right from the start, so it never really mattered – moneywise at least – if the films weren’t any good.
Cinema will always be on the back foot when it comes to adaptations because even the most accomplished of creative talent can never match the power of our imagination. Though it can, on occasion, intuitively mirror it. The Potter films, although perhaps not in this lofty category, are fun to watch even if just to compare the films with Rowling’s imagination. “Maybe this one will live up to hype!” etc. Invariably, they rarely do, but the seventh film came as close as any before it. Remaining faithful to the book was probably the safest bet for the final instalment of a series which transfixed the imagination of a generation of pre-teens and spiked a trend in baby names.
So when I finally got around to seeing The Deathly Hallows Part II, having deliberately avoided the screaming teenagers and midnight viewings, it was pretty much business as usual, on screen and at the box office (a staggering US$882 million’s worth!) with the final Potter film eclipsing (no pun intended) its nearest rival The Twilight Saga to become the 22nd highest grossing film of all time. Not bad for the boy from the cupboard under the stairs.
Like the Twilight series the Potter books and their respective films have had their fair share of controversy, gaining notoriety as the American Library Association’s 7th most challenged book of the 90s, after parents consistently complained that they didn’t want their children to be read the books at school, claiming that they promoted the occult. One church in New Mexico went so far as to have a “holy bonfire”, burning the Potter books along with other material considered objectionable.
Part of what has made the Potter books so successful – as well as inflammatory – has been the blurring of the line between “right” and “wrong” throughout the films, characteristic of other popular anti-hero movies like Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. Right or wrong, these characters want the common good but aren’t above breaking the law or doing what they ought not to do. They are, in a somewhat reassuring sense, identifiably human characters and therefore relatable in their defects and weaknesses. We like Harry because he is basically a good person whom bad things have happened to but he struggles to do the right thing in spite of this and we admire him for it.
The Potter films are worth remembering fondly for their charm and warmth as they reawakened in children all over the world the joy of good story-telling. Even if the films fall short of the promise of the books, the stories are strong enough to make you want to watch them over again. Bear in mind though that as Harry, Ron and Hermione mature, the themes and plots get darker and more troubling as the series goes on. A guy at my workplace stopped taking his boys after the first two films.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II delivers in all the right places, providing the closure fans would expect, as the boy who lived graduates from the school of hard knocks. Though not to my DVD collection. I won’t be taking any of my young cousins along to see it, but it has encouraged me to rediscover the original magic of the books and their enchanting characters.
Ronan Wright blogs about films from Belfast at Filmplicity.