Saturday, July 16, 2011

Harry Potter and the Journey on the Silver Screen

There is a “through the looking glass” moment deep into the final hour of “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II.” Moments after Lord Voldemort has slit his throat, the dying Professor Severus Snape urges Harry Potter to collect one of his tears. Harry needs to do this, as he will feed the tears to the Pensieve, a device which allows him to see the past, like a movie. We need this moment to understand all that his life has meant, not only to Snape, to the dead Professor Albus Dumbledore, to his archenemy Voldemort, but also to himself. We as the audience need this if we are to understand what may happen once Harry walks into the Forbidden Forest to face his nemesis, presumably for the last time. The movie becomes a movie about a movie which tells those in the movie what the movie has been about. A story, if it goes on long enough, ultimately begins to tell another story, which is itself a story about the story it sprang from.

We have grown together, the Boy Who Lived and his audience, first as readers and then as viewers. The last 10 years have brought eight installments of the Harry Potter series, the most successful “franchise” in the history of motion pictures. The Harry we were introduced to in the pages of the J.K. Rowling’s series is, in some ways, very different from the one Daniel Radcliffe embodies. And the movies have created something else, as they usually do, a country of their own out of the universe Hogwarts and the Death-Eaters inhabit.

It’s become commonplace to say that the first two Potter movies are the weakest of the lot. A frequently heard criticism is that they are slavish to the books and try too hard to satisfy the reader without creating a magic of their own. By the second movie, “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets,” there are glaring “Ten points for Gryffindor!” moments that seem to beg for cutting. But the overall criticism, I think, is on the whole ungenerous - the filmmakers were still trying to figure out what they had. By the time the first film made it to the screen, there were only four of the seven promised books available. It was important to establish the world, especially if they didn’t know where the story was going to end.

Looking back on those first two movies, directed by Chris Columbus, the sets and costumes once Harry enters the magical world evoke memories of Dickens and Victorian England, or an England at home with our cultural knowledge. We may not know exactly what “Oliver Twist” is about, but we recognize the capes and hats and long tailed coats of an earlier age. We understand the charm of a hearth, and appreciate how it can just as easily be the portal to another place.

With the third film, “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,” the tone changes to something else. Most critics favor this installment, directed by Alfonso Cauron, over the others. It’s worth remembering that “Azkaban” is the only film which does not feature Voldemort as a character. In it, the (perceived) threat is from the escapee, Sirius Black. But the children are teenagers now, and a little wiser after a few brushes with death. This is still mainly a child’s story, but there are hints of what is to come.

Rowling’s “Goblet of Fire” is much longer than its predecessors, much more sprawling in its imagination, and the beginning of the series’ slide into a sometimes stifling darkness. This is not a criticism - too often stories opt for a rose-colored threat which can easily be dispatched, rendering their heroes hardly worth celebrating. But here is another point where the movies differ from the books - the appearance of a fully-embodied Lord Voldemort, back from the grave, played perfectly by Ralph Fiennes. The movies give us, I think, a better Voldemort than the books.

The two books where Voldemort figures heavily - “Chamber of Secrets” and “Half-Blood Prince” - show us that Voldemort is a much more vivid character when we discover his backstory than the hissing murderer who pursues Harry in the present. When Fiennes appears, his Voldemort has a grand malevolent intelligence which convinces us that Harry could perish before the story is over. For that matter, Daniel Radcliffe’s Harry is nicer, more obedient, less rebellious and less arrogant than the Harry of the books. The absence of these qualities is necessary - after all, this is still a Hollywood production. We like less-complicated heroes on the screen.

The Voldemort appearance at the end of “Goblet of Fire” helps that episode immensely, as it is the weakest of the eight pictures. Because the story had so many diversions, (Harry and Ron, the Tri-Wizards Tournament, Mad-Eye Moody) the filmmakers had a hard time keeping a cohesive narrative. They righted themselves with “Order of the Phoenix,” the shortest film from the longest book. The appearance of director David Yates also signaled another change in tone. The next three Potter movies slide us out of the Victorian magical background and into something that looks more like the modern world. The Ministry of Magic, an immense set, give us something that looks like an office building, creating the bureaucracy of spells. Harry, Ron and Hermione are becoming adults, and the magic of their childhood is becoming darker, more threatening, and closer to reality.

In “The Half-Blood Prince” and the first part of the final installment, Yates gives us quiet moments instead of the busy music of the earlier films. He trusts the material to work the magic, and instead of a childish fantasy, we begin to see some of the larger themes of Rowling’s work. Those themes arrive full-blown in the final film, where we are once again in the magical world of the first two films, full-blown action, wands and wizards flying past us as Harry learns what his journey means.

When Harry dips Snape’s tear into the well of memories, he sees that Dumbledore has been in effect “using him,” knowing he would have to die in order for Voldemort to be destroyed. But death in Harry Potter’s world, as it can be in ours, is not totally the end if one inspires love. Dumbledore has been preserving Harry’s life, but so has Snape, so long the bane of Harry’s existence. Thankfully, the movies did not attempt to water down this part of Rowling’s story, which is almost Biblical in its subtlety and power. We, like Harry, are shaped at a distance by the power which watches over our lives. The power that protects does not always shield us from danger, and the spirit which corrects and humbles is not always against us. In the figures of Snape and Dumbledore, the “two bravest men” Harry ever knew, we see a picture of the double qualities of Providence, protecting and preparing us for the eventually journey to the Forbidden Forest.

On the page, Rowling’s coda showing Harry at the train station to see his own child off to Hogwarts reads awkwardly at first, as though she was unwilling to lead the story finally end. But on the screen, it fits. We are reminded of how we first encountered Harry, as children, our bundles ready for a journey that will take us into a world prepared for us, where we will learn through hard lessons the best parts of ourselves.

Buy my book, "Brilliant Disguises," for .99 cents here. Available in all e-formats.
Buy my book, "The Uncanny Valley," for $5.99 here. Available in all e-formats.