Thursday, November 18, 2010
It’s always been a given that fans of the Harry Potter books were going to enjoy the Harry Potter movies, whatever their faults as movies may have been. But it has also been the case that there was plenty for nonreaders of the books to get out of the films.
They have been increasingly powerful metaphoric horror-fantasies about, on a small scale, adolescence, and, on a larger scale, about cultural anxieties over what fresh hell the world is coming to these days. Lonely boy wizards discovering the power of, ahem, their wands, and fascist grownup wizards wielding political power they’ve stolen over those who object to it… there’s always been a helluva lot going on in the Harry Potter films to appeal to adult fantasy fans with no patience for 800-page novels.
But it’s also been true, too, that even the most casual of moviegoers could instantly grasp the underlying foundations of the movies: Boy discovers he’s secretly a wizard, goes to magic school, and fights evil. Simple.
But now, with the first installment of the final chapter of Harry’s saga, I’m not sure any of this is still true. (The Deathly Hallows is so chunky a story, even by J.K. Rowling’s standards, that it has been cut into two films; the second arrives next summer.)
Some Potter-maniacs will love it unreservedly. Some – like me – will be left feeling oddly let down, as if the core of what made that last novel so riveting and so painful has been forgotten. And I’m almost entirely sure that no one who has not read The Deathly Hallows will be able to grasp what’s going on. The Deathly Hallows the film is damn nigh impenetrable without the background of the novel, and all the previous novels in the series. It was almost impenetrable to me, who has read all the books, at least on an emotional level.
School life at Hogwarts has been left behind now for Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and his best friends, brilliant Hermione (Emma Watson) and goofy Ron (Rupert Grint). They are on the run as they attempt to hunt down the Horcruxes that give Voldemort life and make him unkillable… and if you don’t know what a Horcrux is, good luck figuring it out from Steve Kloves’ script. You’ll just about work out that Voldemort is Really Really Evil And Dangerous, but how he comes by such power – facts that the story hinges significantly upon – is never brought to light, or is glazed over in terms that only make sense within context much larger than what is on the screen.
I’m not sure any of that is necessarily a killer for a Harry Potter movie. It would be for any other film… and it makes this Potter movie a first: It is strictly for fans, and not even all of them (though I realize it’s pointless to try to convince any fans it’s not worth their time, and I’ll be delighted for them if they all, to a one, disagree with me and find the film an unmissable treat). Its inaccessibility is a disappointment, particularly when director David Yates made the two previous films in the series, The Half-Blood Prince and The Order of the Phoenix, so relevant and so fascinating apart from their Harry Potter-ness.
There are things to appreciate here. All the young cast have grown into creditable actors, particularly Watson, who brings a complex maturity to Hermione that Rowling’s initial sketch of her as a know-it-all might not have presaged. And Radcliffe and Watson are quite extraordinary depicting the kind of relationship between teenagers that I can’t recall ever seeing on film before: one of deep affection but no romantic inclinations. Yates does bring an appropriately gloomy air of despair, loneliness, and disconnect down over the proceedings, as even friends and allies are driven apart by the magic they’ve taken for granted before. Characters are injured and killed here, in a way that we don’t usually see in such films: the stakes are obscenely high, and nothing pretends otherwise. There’s a lovely animated sequence, too, illustrating a folktale from the wizarding world that is key to Harry’s understanding how Voldemort may be taken down.
So I’m willing to withhold final judgment till next summer, when The Deathly Hallows: Part 2 completes the saga. Perhaps what seems too opaque and too rushed here will resolve itself then.