I’m not about to make the grandiose sweeping statement that every single Harry Potter film has been great. No doubt some are better than others, but what I definitely WILL be doing is objecting, pretty strenuously, to the idea that they should be uniformly dismissed solely because of what they are. That is to say: adaptations. There is definitely a larger argument here about adaptations in general. It’s in the same vein as the remakes argument, and I’m not going to get into all that. I’m here strictly to speak about the Harry Potter movies.
To start with just a bit about me and my background, I feel I should be up front. I’m a “glass is half empty” kind of guy. You could call me a pessimist or a cynic, and you’d probably be right. So I guess it’s somewhat odd that both of my pieces thus far for culture wedge have been in defense of something roundly criticized in certain nerd circles. What can I say? Am I a self loathing troll? God I hope not.
As for my Harry Potter experience, I came to it late in the game. I worked in a book store a good three years before I cracked one of the books or saw any of the movies. I admit I resisted them initially, dismissing them as “kids books”. I was wrong. I’m not about to spout off that they have all the makings of classics or they’ll be the Lord of the Rings of our time. I’m merely saying they’re incredibly entertaining fantasy books, and it’s certainly undeniable that they’ve had a massive impact on pop culture. Whether or not they end up classics, only time will tell. Flash forward a few years and I’m looking at my requirements for school. Low and behold, there’s a Harry Potter class that fulfills a lit requirement at my University. By that point I’d read the books multiple times, and I was pretty confident that this class was right up my alley. A semester and an “A” later (ahem), I discovered that there’s a pretty large contingent of hardcore HP fans (probably none more so than my professor) who pretty much despise the movies on general principle. I guess I was naïve, but before that I was surrounded mostly by people who had the same attitude about the movies I do. To wit: I don’t expect them to be chapter-and-verse accurate, just entertaining, and on that track, I think they (mostly) succeed.
Yes, it’s true, they are not the books. My response to that is…good! What works on the printed page almost never works on the screen. Calm down, let me explain. Let’s start with L.A. Confidential (yeah, I’m going there). The third in James Ellroy’s L.A. Quartet of books certainly isn’t the most popular or celebrated, but damned if it didn’t make for a spectacular movie. The first book, The Black Dahlia, on the other hand, probably is the best of the group, but when it finally hit the silver screen it was kind of forgettable. Confidential worked because it was adapted well. A good script and particularly good casting made it fantastic. Conversely one of my favorite books is a science fiction book from the mid 90s called Relic. Ever see the movie? No? Good, it’s awful. All the subtleties and complexities (and the best character) of the book are excised and the whole thing devolves into a really lame monster flick.
Oh and by the way, the ace most commonly pulled on me is Jackson’s LOTR adaptation. You ever read those books? Go ahead and read them, I’ll wait a few months. Back? A lot more going on there than in the movies huh? What matters is not the word for word dialogue or making things look exactly like Ms. Rowling described them, what matters is the SPIRIT, and in that regard HP movies are, to my eye, successful. My point in all this is that adapting a book or play or whatever isn’t easy. It’s an art-form unto itself, and when you’re successful, it REALLY works. Just ask Peter Jackson.
It’s probably worth mentioning what they got right and what they got wrong. What they got right was the casting. The odds of casting three children who would turn out to be pretty good actors 10 years later were slim, but here we are. We can probably debate whether or not Rupert Grint will have much of a career beyond Ron Weasley, but Emma Watson and particularly Daniel Radcliffe show a great deal of potential. In any event I’m not really talking about the core trio. The supporting cast is a who’s who of great British (I know some of them are Irish or Scottish, but you take my meaning) actors: Maggie Smith, Alan Rickman, Robbie Coltrane, Jason Isaacs, Richard Harris, Emma Thompson, Kenneth Brannagh, Gary Oldman, Helena Bonham-Carter, Ralph Feinnes, the list just literally keeps going. And I might add these are the supporting characters. So it’s true that Radcliffe, Watson and Grint may go on to be pretty terrific actors, but there’s no denying that they spent 10 years in one of the best schools of acting I can think of.
Directors? Hmm it’s a mixed bag. When the producers were getting started there were a lot of names thrown out. Jonathan Demme, Peter Weir, Wolfgang Peterson, Rob Reiner, Tim Robbins, Terry Gilliam (how awesome would he have been?), even Steven Spielberg. Eventually, Chris Columbus got the nod. Now, the first two books are undoubtedly the simplest, and the most juvenile. So were the first two movies. Chris Columbus? Meh. I could take him or leave him. His entries in the series were the least complex, and really followed the books pretty closely. So after a guy who added very little of his own flavor, it was quite a shock when little known Guillermo Del Toro (another guy who would have made an awesome HP flick) protege Alfonso Cuaron got the job. Talk about different. Cuaron created an incredibly dark atmospheric mood for Prisoner of Azkaban, in stark contrast to light and bright feel of the first two. Mike Newell’s Goblet of Fire didn’t do much for me, though the musical score is quite good. David Yates has had the helm ever since, and while he might not have the same brooding sensibilities that Cuaron did, but I certainly feel he’s gotten the best performances out of his leads. As for the stories themselves….well omissions have to be made, no way around it. Some are better than others. People who haven’t read the books probably did have some trouble acclimating to a couple new characters who were thrown at us pretty fast and furious, but these are minor parts to say the least. And honestly there are a handful of improvements, I think Harry’s relationship with Snape is better portrayed, for example.
What is a little surprising to me is that the harshest critics of the movies tend to be hardcore fantasy literature buffs. The parallels between Harry Potter and the Arthurian legend are readily apparent, and as we all know there is no one definitive telling of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. So I guess it’s kind of confusing to me why these people who so love those stories, in their many forms, take such issue with two interpretations of the same story now. If that helps think of it like that: two different people telling you the same story. It’s a modern day folk tale if you will.
In the end it’s worth remembering a couple things. First of all I know that you’ll never please everyone. The debate will rage on in book clubs and message boards for years. I for one choose to just enjoy the movies with my friends for now. Secondly this is the most successful movie franchise in history, and they’re not going anywhere. My guess is, this argument will be rehashed again in the next 20 years or so when the movies are inevitably remade. But the question becomes when that does happen, and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone tickets go on sale, will you be there for the midnight show? I think most of you will. Be sure to look for me! I’ll be the guy dressed up like Remus Lupin.