Friday, July 15, 2011

10 Years with Harry Potter at the movies

My first experience of Harry Potter couldn't have come at a better time. I was recovering from a personal crisis, going through a major career change, and to facilitate both of those, working as a Teaching Assistant at an elementary school in rural Alberta, thirty minutes outside Edmonton. I had taken to spending my lunch breaks reading books from the school library, introducing myself to A Series of Unfortunate Events and The Time Warp Trio. In reading children's fiction, I found myself retreating to a safer and happier space of memory in my own childhood, recalling reading The Hobbit or Paul R. Fisher's The Ash Staff, and collecting Tintin and Asterix and Obelisk books. I'd avoided the Harry Potter books because there was something about the hardback covers that never grabbed me.

However, when a concerned parent phoned the school to protest grade three and four students taking a field trip to attend a private screening of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone at a local theatre (which had received an upgrade to its sound system just in time for the release of the film), I decided to read the first book, just to see what the fuss was all about. The school's principal knew of my theological background, and hoped I'd be able to bring an informed opinion to the table. I had to return with the reply, "I know where they're coming from, because I heard this sort of thing before (in the '80s, with Dungeons and Dragons), but from my own perspective, I don't understand it."

I've never understood the evangelical Christian prohibition on Harry Potter, largely because I fell in love with the wonder and whismy of the series. Furthermore, when I attended that private showing for our students, I was in a theatre filled with the target audience, and was transported back to the way I felt as a kid, seeing cinematic magic with a wide-eyed-wonder. The students' excitement was contagious, and I took my wife to see the film early in its releases. She asked me to read the first book to her at night, and that, along with seeing the films, became a tradition for us.

I've often looked back on my year at that school, my time among those students, and seeing Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stones as healing points in my recovery. I'd never go so far as to say "Harry Potter saved my life," but I could safely say, "Harry Potter restored my sense of wonder."

Recently, Jenica and I watched the whole series in 40 minute chunks, watching it like a season of television. Once again, I was transported to a place of wonder and magic. I have trouble assessing the books and films with a critical eye, because I'm an unabashed fan. Nevertheless, as the final installment is released, here are my most recent thoughts on all of the previous films (all written separately, so there's some repetition), as a tribute to a great decade of wonderful cinema for children, and those who enjoy occasionally being child-like.

Philosopher's Stone

Despite being more a realization of Rowling's first book, as opposed to cinematic adaptation per se, I retain a sentimental fondness for this first Harry Potter film, which transported me back to seeing films like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang or Mary Poppins as a child. My first viewing was in a special showing with students from the elementary school I was working at, and that viewing has coloured my memory of it. Lacking the sophistication later installments will achieve, Philosopher's Stone, as it's known outside the U.S., is a film that needs to be seen with the eyes of a child. The franchise will grow with both audience and the three acting leads. Here, the hyper-saturated colour palette suits the point-of-view of an eleven-year-old Harry: prior to adolescence, many of us view the world with wide-eyed, rose-colored vision. This is the same vision the film demands to be perceived through: a cynic will find too many plot holes, too many convenient coincidences. This is a children's story, filmed for children by one of the best director's of films needing a child-like appreciation, Chris Columbus. While there are a few gaffes to poke holes in, there is much to be admired about this opening chapter in one of the most successful, and for my money, most entertaining, film franchises in history.  

Chamber of Secrets

One might say that "Chamber of Secrets" is simply more of the same Chris Columbus's cast and crew gave us the first time around with "Philosopher's Stone," but that would make it sound like a bad thing. Rowling's story certainly takes us further into the world of Hogwarts, but the film only advances marginally in terms of technical achievement: the special effects are better (it's nice to see a time when animatronics were still being paired with CGI - Fawkes the Phoenix is a wonderful bit of puppetry), but the real improvement is in the three principle actors, who demonstrate discernible maturation in their performances. It always seemed to me that they grew up between films 2 & 3, but watching 1 & 2 back-to-back proved me wrong in that respect. The baby faces are already transforming, and I am reminded just how much this series is about growing up. It's by no means the best of the series, but Chamber of Secrets still enchants, despite an episodic narrative. 

Prisoner of Azkaban

Despite a number of departures stylistically and in cast and crew, The Prisoner of Azkaban remains one of the top three films in the Harry Potter franchise to date. Alfonso Cuarón stepped in to replace Chris Columbus, which proved to help the series grow up with its actors, striking a darker, more compelling tone than the previous installments. Gone is the oversaturated colour palette, and with it, much of the wide eyed wonder that characterized the first two films. Michael Gambon found himself stepping into the very large shoes left by Richard Harris, but proved himself up to the task. Thankfully, Cuarón's aesthetic and tonal innovations provide Gambon the opportunity to reinvent Dumbledore. When I first saw The Prisoner of Azkaban, I was struck by how Gambon's Dumbledore has less whimsy than Harris's: Harris is the chld's view of Dumbledore. Gambon is Dumbledore as Harry sees him in his teen years, as he matures. The pacing is excellent, the performances superb, and the overall product one of my favorite film adaptations of Rowling's work. 

Goblet of Fire

Although director Mike Newell doesn't drop the ball, the series goes down a notch from where Alfonso Cuarón had taken it to. In a perfect world, Cuarón would have remained to shoot the next film, handing the torch over to David Yates, who has done a brilliant job with the rest of the films. With "Goblet of Fire," the Potter film franchise begins adapting Rowling's "Door Stopper" sized installments, and screenwriter Steve Kloves is forced into a game of truncation and concision. Contractors may complain of digressions from the book with an almost scriptural fervor, but from the perspective of the film standing on its own, Kloves succeeds. There are still a few obvious cutting-room-floor moments, but overall, the narrative coheres. One wonders why the Potter franchise never went the way of Lord of the Rings, to release longer versions with more footage for the die-hard fans. And despite rolling along at a breakneck pace, the film doesn't feel rushed in the way Order of the Phoenix does. It's jarring to see Robert Pattinson outside his brooding Twilight persona, and just as odd to watch David Tennant turn in a decidedly wicked performance as the evil Barty Crouch. Highlights include the challenge with the Dragon, and the Yule Ball, which has always felt like John Hughes getting to direct Harry Potter. Also noteworthy is Blendan Gleeson's set-chewing, scene-stealing rendering of Mad-Eye Moody. The film ends on a slightly down-note, reminding the devoted Harry Potter viewer of how we're no longer living in the saturated wide-eyed world Chris Columbus invited us into.

Order of the Phoenix
 
Watching these films again all in a row, there's a feeling that everything prior is all just prelude to this and the following films. Thankfully, director David Yates comes on board at this crucial juncture, remaining director for the rest of the franchise. I really love Yates' direction: all his Harry Potter films are among the strongest in the series. As Harry and crew continue to grow and mature, so does the look and feel of the franchise. The most gothic in its mise-en-scene, returning in many ways to the feel of the third film under Cuarón, it is also the most intense in its pacing. The script does an admirable job of truncating Rowling's epic source material, especially through the use of signs posted throughout the school, and montages of headlines from the Daily Prophet. Unlike previous installments, there is also a thematic core to the film: the need for community, to stand unified, not alone. While Hagrid's half-brother underscores this concept of friends and family, the inclusion feels superfluous: more time could have been spent building the centaurs' antagonism toward Dolores Umbridge. As the fluffy pink monstrosity, Imelda Staunton proves a more loathesome villain than Voldemort, true to her literary counterpart. This is among the best in the series, achieving the Herculean task of truncating the longest book in the series into a single film. Fans need to quit bitching about what individual pet moments or characters get left out, or quit going to see these adaptations. Considering the script packs 26 hours of out-loud-reading into two hours, all Potter heads should be thankful Rowling's creations aren't getting the treatment Paolini's Eragon did.      

Half-Blood Prince

The best of the series to date. Deviations from the source material are a strength here, not a weakness, producing a less episodic, more coherent installment than the previous offerings have. Hogwarts and its denizens continue to mirror the aging process of the principle actors, and the oncoming darkness of the final installment descends in a cinematic cloud the book never quite achieved. While some detractors disliked the romantic shenanigans of Ron and Harry, I found them appropriate to the age of Harry and his companions: even when the world is on the brink of disaster, teenage hormones find time to make trouble. The final scenes with Harry and Dumbledore are among the most striking painterly film images I've ever seen, realizing Rowling's imagined world with poignant beauty, matching the grim tone of the film's tragic climax.   

Deadly Hallows, Part 1

Finally, the Harry Potter films divide! Since Peter Jackson released the special editions of Lord of the Rings, I've been clamouring for more Potter, even if it had to be in a special edition format. One wonders if David Yates would have made this decision had he been helming the franchise from the first film, turning the last three books into double features.

I digress.

After the brilliant scripting of Half Blood Prince, the first act of Deathly Hallows is something of a disappointment, causing me to realize that these stories are less about what happens than who it's all happening to. Certainly, we thrill to the adventures of Harry, Ron, and Hermione, but we thrill to *their* adventures, not necessarily the adventures themselves. We fell in love with these characters over seven books and seven (about to be eight) films, and we keep watching, not because Rowling's plot is original, but because her characters are compelling. And the films go a step further with these characters because of these capable actors who inhabit their roles, breathing life into them in a way Rowling's prose couldn't.

It's why some of my favorite moments in this film have nothing to do with blockbuster pyrotechnics: Hermione causing her parents to forget her,  Harry zipping up Ginny's dress, or Harry and Hermione dancing in the tent. Certainly, I still love the wands and brooms, but the best moment in the film for me is character based, and another script digression: when Harry yells, "You're lying...and you musn't tell lies" at Dolores Umbridge, it is a very satisfying character moment, and one I was surprised to find wasn't in the book. But it's perfect, and that's what I've loved about the films.

There are those who bemoan the lack of fidelity to the books, but I think they miss the point. I love the books for what they are, children's books. No matter how dark her themes became, Rowling remained solidly, a writer of children's fiction. Certainly, it was children's fiction adults love (though some apparently needed stealth covers to read them on the train, as though someone didn't know who the hell Harry Potter was on that artsy cover), but that's nothing new. The films, on the other hand, grew up. From the bright, saturated palette of Philosopher's Stone to the darkness of the Deadly Hallows, the films, like their actors, have grown up, and it's audience with it.

For those of us already old, it gave us the chance to grow up again, in our imaginations, going back through those difficult years of adolescence, with the horrors of life writ large, and the comforts of Butterbeer and All Flavour Beans to carry us along the way.

3 comments:

  1. I am literally speechless at this post. It is absolutly amazing, I physically am finding it hard to type. I've grown up with the series, they came out when I was six and obviously i'm sixteen now and i've just come home from watching the last part. I've never cried in a film but today I did. I left that cinema and as I left I said good bye to my childhood. I've read all the books multiple times and my copy of 'The Order of The Phoenix' has no cover anymore it's been handled that much. Every time a book was being released I pre-ordered every book and they take pride on place on my bookshelf. The fist book was one of the first books I every fully read myself, yes I was reading when I was six. I learnt to read incredibly fast and have a love for the english language and aspire to be a journalist in the next fews years all because of those books. All in all the books have had a massive effect on me and I dream that something i've written can change the world like Joanna's series has. Thanks

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  2. I too avoided the Harry Potter books at first. All the girls in the office were talking about them, so I thought the books wouldn't be my type. Then somebody lent me a book, and I was hooked from the first line: "The Boy who Lived".

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  3. Thanks for the comments, guys! And thanks to Anonymous, for leaving such a heartfelt response!

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