Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Some Reflections on Planet Narnia

Michael Ward, Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C.S. Lewis (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008)

One of my most fondly remembered childhood adventures was when my father took me gold panning. At the start of the trip, I remember wondering why my father never thought of quitting his job, since he knew where there was gold lying about for anyone to come and dig up. I never asked him this question but kept it in mind until I found the answer for myself: after a day’s panning, if one was lucky—and thankfully I was—one could return home with some treasure, a few rare and slender flakes of gold, but the ratio of gold to dirt was not high enough to make a commercially viable project out of it. As someone who spends considerable time reading literary criticism, I sometimes find it like gold panning, sifting carefully through vast amounts of muck for a few scraps of glitter. But when I do find glimmers of treasure, the excitement of it far outweighs the toils in getting there. Taken in terms of profitability, the intellectual income per unit-of-time spent, hard-headed people will never see literary criticism as anything but a waste of time. But for the treasure hunters, the excitement of the chase and the ecstasy of that rare find is what drives the hunt.

   Every reader has different ‘finds’, those moments where an old favourite becomes something new. One of my best ‘finds’ was William Empson’s observation, in Some Versions of Pastoral, that death jokes pervade the Alice books of Lewis Carroll. The implications of this one observation were legion. Suddenly, these books became something new; they became more complex and a shade darker than they were the last time I had read them. This comment changed forever the ‘feel’ of these books for me. That is the sort of experience that I look for in literary criticism. Michael Ward’s Planet Narnia: the Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C.S. Lewis, which offers a key to the Narnia Chronicles, envisioning each book in terms of a correlating planet, has many such ‘finds’. One random example: in The Horse and His Boy, Ward connects the twins Cor and Corin to the mythological twins Castor and Pollux, who together form the astrological sign Gemini (153). Castor is a breaker of horses and Pollux a boxer, which is entirely suitably to the twins of Archenland.
   Ward, however, did not write Planet Narnia to provide parcels of insight here and there, but to present what he believes to be C.S. Lewis’s own secret imaginative scheme, which lurks behind each book of the Chronicles of Narnia and further serves as a unifying element. The secret key is the influences of the planetary spheres of medieval astrology, a topic that Lewis writes about in his scholarly work, The Discarded Image. The planetary scheme for the books is as follows:
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe....Jupiter
Prince Caspian.........................................Mars
The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.............Sol
The Silver Chair....................................... Luna
The Horse and His Boy.............................Mercury
The Magician's Nephew............................Venus
The Last Battle...........................................Saturn
A couple of notes: firstly, envisioning each book in terms of a planetary influence is supposed to compliment, not supplant, the Christological design of series:
This theological disposition is worked out in each of the Chronicles as the children, who by common grace of ‘nature’ are already part of a planetary world, become more so by special grace as they follow the planetary deity’s leading. Thus, in The Lion they become monarchs under sovereign Jove [Jupiter]; in Prince Caspian they harden under strong Mars; in The ‘Dawn Treader’ they drink light under searching Sol; in The Silver Chair they learn obedience under subordinate Luna; in The Horse and His Boy they come to love poetry under eloquent Mercury; in The Magician’s Nephew they gain life-giving fruit under fertile Venus; and in The Last Battle they suffer and die under chilling Saturn (237).
Secondly, the planets are supposed to provide a sort of intuitive and pervasive influence on each of the books, seamlessly holding the series together; they are not supposed to appear bludgeoned into the narrative by the hammer of allegory.
   Ward claims that his book holds answers three key questions: why were the Narnia books written? ‘Why is the series not uniformly allegorical?’(4) And why are these books so popular?
   In chapter eleven, ‘The Music of Spheres’, Ward tackles third question. Personally, Lewis’s works have followed me through life. One of my earliest memories is watching an animated version of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, while now, conducting my own work on medieval and Renaissance literature, I walk past Lewis’s old college at Cambridge almost every day on my way to the library. I loved the Narnia books when I was young, profited much from Lewis’s apologetics in my teens, and profit still from his highly opinionated but highly readable literary criticism. My interest in Narnia, however, has never been consistent. I like Narnia for different reasons now than at the age of eleven, but the reasons I had at eleven were perfectly valid then as those I have now are valid for the present. I don’t enjoy Narnia more, I enjoy it differently. At eleven I loved the terror of the White Witch in her various incarnations, and the imaginative potential for creating my own stories set in the marshlands of Puddleglum or the strange underland and sunless sea in The Silver Chair. I now mostly enjoy Lewis’s hints or allusions to myth and literature, along with the pure adventure. There are even things I see differently: the hodgepodge of myth and nomenclature infuriated me at eleven as I found it distracting from the illusion of reality, whereas now I find it delightful. I was twenty before I experienced anything like what Lewis in Surprised by Joy calls ‘joy’ in reading about Narnia. Ward thinks his scheme explains the popularity of Narnia. Such a claim is incomprehensible to me; I cannot even see anything irreducible or consistent in my own experiences in Narnia.
   Ward’s second question about the series’ uniformity occupies the bulk of the book, but we will return to it. The question of why Lewis wrote these books is treated in chapter ten, entitled ‘Primum Mobile’. Ward thinks that the occasion for the composition of the Narnia Chronicles arose from the debate between C.S. Lewis and Elizabeth Anscombe at the Oxford Socratic Club in 1948, when Anscombe criticised the arguments against naturalism that Lewis had made in his latest book Miracles­­­. According to some sources, this outcome of this debate humiliated Lewis and at least one of Lewis’s biographers has claimed that the humiliation of the debate caused Lewis to turn away from writing apologetics to writing children’s books, as a form of psychological regression, turning Anscombe into the White Witch and so forth. This argument has many flaws, however, the most glaring one is that Lewis did not turn from apologetics to imaginative fiction after the debate: on one hand, Lewis continued to write apologetics, and even modified Miracles to account for Anscombe’s criticism, and on the other hand, the Narnia Chronicles were neither Lewis’s first nor last attempt to explore Christian Truth through imaginative fiction. When one, however, reads through Lewis’s various essays, one sees that he had in fact made his same arguments against naturalism in print quite often, and if in finding them refuted by Anscombe, Lewis was not at least a little disconcerted, he ought to have been. Ward revises earlier arguments that Lewis turned to an imaginative fiction after the debate, arguing that Anscombe ‘had reminded him [Lewis] of the generic deficiency of apologetics that rational argumentation can never convey the concrete realities of spiritual experience’ (221). The composition of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe chronologically follows the publication of Miracles and his debate with Anscombe and therefore Ward has some ground in maintaining that this debate set the occasion for Narnia. That is, Ward could be correct in claiming that Lewis wrote the Narnia Chronicles in order to articulate an imaginative response to Anscombe’s criticism. But while Ward is certainly correct in summarising the advantages of an imaginative approach with difficulties with apologetic writing, I still do not see the necessity of drawing the connection with the debate. Reading through Lewis’s collected essays and collected letters one sees Lewis ruminating over philosophical and theological concerns that he addresses in Narnia over a space of several decades. Certainly it is better to see the occasion for Narnia in terms of years spent in contemplation of Christian Truth and his practical experience and difficulties in teaching it to various audiences through books, radio broadcasts, personal letters, lectures and conversation, rather than hitching it all on to one event. The arguments of Mere Christianity are as present in Narnia as those of Miracles. It is not that Ward does not find interesting parallels in presenting The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe as a sort of revision of Miracles in light of Anscombe’s critique, but he no doubt would have seen more interesting contrasts and parallels between Lewis’s apologetics and imaginative writings if he had taken a broader scope and not hinging the writing of Narnia on one event in Lewis’s life of arguable importance. But this would not serve Ward’s purpose in using his analysis to answer a wider question. That is, if Ward had engaged in a fuller account of Lewis’s approaches to imaginative fiction and apologetics, he would have to abandon the claim that he was discovered the occasion for Lewis writing about Narnia.
   The bulk of Planet Narnia, argues that planetary scheme, already mentioned, serves as a unifying function for the Narnia books. When I first read of Ward’s alleged discovery, I—as I suspect was the case with many others—was sceptical. The first things that came to mind were various passages from Lewis’s own literary criticism, in which he himself warning against this sort of reading. But this sort of counterargument not really fair, as Ward’s thesis ought to be tested on its own merits, and not dismissed on the grounds that Lewis might not have approved. After I read Planet Narnia, I was undecided whether Ward had proven his thesis or not; he does make a lot of persuasive points. It was only after I reread the Narnia series with Planet Narnia in hand, that I became thoroughly unconvinced by its arguments. Although Ward deserves credit for showing the presence of cosmological symbolism in the Narnia books, I cannot believe that Ward’s imaginative scheme is correct.
   Alongside the Narnia books, Ward looks at the cosmological symbolism in Lewis’s poetry and science fiction. Ward’s evaluation of the planetary symbolism in Lewis’s Space Trilogy alone is well worth the price of the book. It not hindered by a governing theory and so Ward darts back and forth, unwrapping layer after layer of depth and insight. Ward’s treatment of feminine theological imagery pertaining to Venus in The Hideous Strength (171-75) gives a depth to Lewis’s treatment of female sexuality that would surprise many critics to find in Lewis’s work. Another great observation connects Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra with Jupiter: 
Almost the last words of Ransom in [Out of the Silent Planet] had been, ‘Somebody or something of great importance is connected with Jupiter.’ The very first words spoken by Ransom in Perelandra are, ‘By Jove, I’m glad to see you.’ He says this out of relief that Lewis (the Lewis in the story) has survived the spiritual barrage that had bombarded him as he arrived at the cottage in Ransom’s absence. But it is not merely a conventional expostulation it is a literally meant expression. Lewis’s survival and Ransom’s gladness at it have both been brought about ‘by Jove’ (48).
Yet it is Ward’s treatment of Lewis’s science fiction makes his treatment of Narnia all the more disappointing. Ward acknowledges that the planetary symbolism is not limited to one planet one novel, a problem Ward addresses in a section entitled ‘Why is the Scheme Not More Perfect’ (232-233) and which he answers by arguing that although one planet is the dominate influence in each book it is not the exclusive influence. If Ward was not stuck on insisting that he had solved the problem of Narnia’s unity, he could have paid more attention to the presence of different planetary influences in different books. But instead we get only the much narrower treatment of one planetary symbol per book, made worse by the insistence that this scheme somehow ‘explains’ the series.
   I have chosen Ward’s treatment of one planet and book to serve as an example of his method. According to Ward’s scheme, The Magician’s Nephew corresponds to Venus. Therefore, when, for example the jackdaw tells a joke (or is made a joke of), we are supposed to feel the levity of Venus. The book’s lightness and humour is supposed, by Ward, to stand for a sort of Homeric ‘Sweet-laughing Aphrodite’. Now, the goddess Venus does have a style of humour, there is even a Latin word for it, undoubtedly known to Lewis, venustus, which designates charming, graceful, elegant wit. But this is not the laughter of the jackdaw, the bear throwing a beehive at the magician’s head, or Jadis tossing Digory’s Aunt, which is more slapstick or jolly good fun than the wit of Venus. Jadis, Ward identifies with the cruel Babylonian goddess Ishtar, which is more than unnecessary as Venus in her Greco-Roman form could be cruel enough (178). Reading the description of the Charn as ‘that great city’ as an echo of Jonah’s description of Nineveh, where in ancient times Ishtar was worshipped, seems to me a stretch. If Charn must match a biblical city, I much prefer, ‘Standing afar off for the fear of her torment, saying, alas, alas that great city Babylon, that mighty city! For in one hour is thy judgment come.’ (Revelations 18:10), since there at least we have a ruined city. Other symbols of Venus include the pairing of animals, the pairing of Queen Helen and King Frank, and images of growth and fertility. The ‘erotic charge’ (181) Ward sees in the creation of Narnia is lost on me. As is the ‘Venus Anadyomene’ (Venus rising from the sea) which Ward finds suggested in the rising from pools in the Wood between the Worlds. Some foam, sea shells or nude virgins would have helped. In what I regard as utter violence to the text, Ward argues that Lewis portrays ‘Aslan as the incarnation of Venus’ (185). He even hints that one of Lewis’s  proposed titles for The Magician’s Nephew, Digory and Polly hints ‘at the “coupled” nature of this Chronicle’s presiding planetary power’ (186). That is, Digory and Polly represent the act of coitus. The question of audience is relevant here; certainly not too many children can have ever been expected to notice this. Continuing this line of symbolism, Ward says that ‘Aslan brings Narnia to birth like Venus’ (186). Does Aslan really ‘give birth’ to Narnia? This seems to me to greatly confuse Creation and procreation and, what is more, I can find no evidence of this symbolism in the text.
   Ward also claims that Lewis makes use of two images of Venus derived from the Renaissance philosopher Ficino:
It was not only Lewis’s beliefs about feminine divine imagery which made composing this story difficult, but also the general complexity of Venus’s literary history, for Lewis wanted to depict more than just ‘Venus-as-God’ in The Magician’s Nephew. He also seems to have had in mind Ficino’s two Veneres, the Angelic Mind (Venus coelistis) considered in its contemplation of Divine Beauty, and Venus naturalis, the generative power in the Anima Mundi. (187)
I spent a fair amount of time making sense of this passage. At first I wondered why Ward gives Ficino as source of this concept, when it comes from Plato’s Symposium specifically and is present throughout Italian Neo-Platonism generally. The answer is that that Ward is working from a passage in Lewis’s book, Spenser's Images of Life (1978, pp.50-51) that mentions Ficino, which Ward must have forgotten to credit in the footnotes. In any case the passage is unclear for anyone not familiar with the concepts at stake and inaccurate for anyone who is. I have to admit that I am still at a complete loss as to how the figure of Aslan conflates divine beauty and animal sexuality; I just don’t see it in Lewis’s text. Ward writes, ‘The vivification of Narnia is brought about not simply and solely because of a single creative act by the Venereal Lion. Rather, Aslan-as-Venus achieves its creation in consort with Venus coelistis and Venus naturalis; it comes forth between them, together, at once.’ (187). I am at a loss to find what passage in The Magician’s Nephew illustrates this as happening and would be only delighted to learn what other readers make of it.
   What is most surprising about all this planet chasing is that it is supposed to make the Narnia Chronicles appear better organised. But it still does not take long before the hodgepodge nature of the books comes out. After only the first few pages of The Magician’s Nephew, for example, we have the Arthurian-named ‘Mrs. Lefay’, ancestral fairy-blood reminiscent of Anados’s ancestry in George MacDonald’s Phantastes and a box from Atlantis jumbled together in a Nesbit-style children’s story. Lewis mixes his myths; not even the alignment of the spheres can change this; love it or leave it.
   There is nothing of Venereal influence in The Magician’s Nephew that is in anyway obvious or concrete, nothing which makes the case clear-cut for Ward’s thesis. All of Ward’s arguments pile up into senseless vagaries and even then hardly pass muster. The planetary influences as Ward presents them are too abstract and could with ease be reassigned at random to different works. For example, I propose to take The Horse and His Boy as the Venus book. One could now compare Shasta’s arrival on the shore with Venus’s arrival on the shores of Cyprus. I’ll pass over the smell of fish in the first chapter. The horse is often the symbol of unrivalled beauty and thus, Bree could make a symbol of Venus. There is a pertinent description in Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis:
Round-hoof’d, short-jointed, fetlocks shag and long,
Broad breast, full eye, small head, and nostril wide,
High crest, short ears, straight legs and passing strong,
Thin mane, thick tail, broad buttock, tender hide:
Look, what a horse should have he did not lack,
Save a proud rider on so proud a back. (296-301)
There we have Bree. The sea in the second chapter appears in terms reminiscent of Venus’s birth and the venereal environment:
Before them the turf, dotted with white flowers, sloped down to the brow of a cliff. Far below them, so that the sound of the breaking waves was very faint, lay the sea.
The landscape of the novel ranges from the lush coastland of Venus Anadyomene, to the hot and heavy atmosphere of Calormen, to the tantalising ‘Valley of the Thousand Perfumes’. There are the ‘coupling’ double-romances of Bree and Hwin, and Shasta/Cor and Aravis, as well as the Rabadash’s lust for Susan. Aravis herself first appears with her brother’s armour on in the image of the androgynous figure of armed Venus (Venus armata), which paradoxically makes her a symbol of chastity while her dark features and mysterious appearance cast her as a symbol of Eros. In the form of armed Venus, Aravis meets Shasta seeking to escape from a marriage. She then abandons her armour and plays a more maidenly role in order to marry Shasta at the novel’s conclusion. In The Discarded Image, Lewis points out that Venus follows after Jupiter in governing fortunate events, appropriate to the restoration of Shasta to his family, the salvation of Narnia and Archenland, the removal of Calormen as a threat of war (since the Rabadash cannot leave his capital city) and the marriage of Shasta and Aravis. Lewis also points to Dante’s Divine Comedy, where under the influence of Venus, lovers, both in paradise and the inferno, are in ‘swift, incessant flight’, which is fitting for Shasta and Aravis as well as the Narnians trapped in Calormen. One could go on at some length like this.
   Although Ward does rightly at some points show the planets comprise a neglected layer of symbolism in the Chronicles of Narnia, his insistence on making this a unifying element does more harm than good. Nor does it provide any sense of unity out of medley of composite elements. If one argues that Father Christmas is out of place in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe because Narnia cannot sensibly have a Christmas, it does not make his appearance any less incongruous by saying that Father Christmas is a jovial image, therefore think Jupiter. I would recommend Planet Narnia for all Lewis fans; the analysis of the Space Trilogy is especially fine. But as for the thesis that C.S. Lewis wrote each of the Chronicles of Narnia with a governing principle in mind, I am now more sceptical than ever. What is worst, in my opinion, is that Ward could have written a great book, he has the critical skill for it, but instead he weakened his analysis by a rather a trivial critical flaw, in thinking that he this scheme could explain: why the Narnia Chronicles were written and why they have been successful, as well as pinning down a secret design which hold the whole thing together. Less ambitious claims and closer attention to the books themselves would have made a world of difference.

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.