Wednesday, July 20, 2011

"Death is But the Next Great Adventure:" Reflections on 10 Years of Harry Potter Films

There is a moment in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Pt. 2 where Harry ventures alone to meet Voldemort, and his fate, in the Forbidden Forest just outside of Hogwarts. Before he reaches him, however, he encounters the spirits of godfather Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), dear friend and former Defense Against the Dark Arts professor Remus Lupin (David Thewlis), and parents James and Lily Potter (Adrian Rawlins and Geraldine Somerville, respectively). Harry asks them, "Why are you here? All of you?" He might as well be addressing the audience, and Lily's reply echoes that of the generation of Potterphiles who grew up with the boy wizard for the last 14 years: "We never left."

There are plenty of articles out there about why Potter fans are so passionate about this world of witchcraft and wizardry, and most draw the same conclusions: unlike Twilight, which is about romantic wish-fulfillment, Harry Potter has been a series that readers and movie-goers grew up on, not to gawk at and swoon over but because they have developed real relationships with the characters. In the books, author J.K. Rowling went to impressive lengths to deepen and layer her characters over the course of the series, allowing them to grow up and become complicated people. And indeed, as the audience grew up, the books did too, becoming more sophisticated, darker, and complex. That was the great miracle of the books: they included the audience, becoming a companion for an entire generation who were growing up in uncertain post-9/11 times.

My own experience with Harry Potter doesn't follow this narrative. For the first half of the series' existence, I was completely unaware of it. Pokemon had my attention at the time, and when it came to reading, I was hooked on tales of survival, such as My Side of the Mountain, Rascal, and Hatchet. When I was in fifth grade, my school tried to encourage teachers to play the audiobooks, less for the content (this is a conservative town, after all) and more for the fact that they were popular among kids our age and the school's name, Mary Potter Intermediate, rhymed (no joke). In my class, my teacher, Mr. Fuller, gave Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone a valiant try, but we just weren't interested in listening to a book on tape. Similarly, I didn't go to see either of the first two movies; in fall of 2001, I was much more interested in seeing Monsters, Inc. than I was in Harry Potter.

A few years later, my younger brother bought Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire at a book fair, just after it had come out. He didn't read much of it, so one day I picked it up instead. Perhaps this wasn't the most traditional way to enter a series (it was the fourth book, after all), but within a few pages I was hooked. I zipped through the book, and immediately picked up the previous three entries. Though none of those stacked up to Goblet of Fire, I was now a convert, sucked in by the epic scale that never forgot the importance of smaller, character-driven moments. Yes, I pre-ordered the last three books, and spent three days of a week-long vacation to Myrtle Beach devouring Deathly Hallows.

The movies, on the other hand, were a different story. Again, I started deep into the saga: my first Potter movie was Prisoner of Azkaban, which I saw in theaters (it would later place tenth on my top 10 list for 2004). After seeing that, I caught the previous two on cable, and was less than impressed. From there, Azkaban would remain my favorite until Order of the Phoenix, which in turn would remain my favorite until Deathly Hallows Pt. 2.

My fandom, though, didn't extend to the heights that many reached. I never went to the midnight release parties for the books. Nor did I attend the packed midnight premieres of the movies, joining fellow fans in the experience of seeing it for the first time. I've never owned a costume in any aspect (no Gryffindor ties for me). In fact, perhaps the nerdiest things I've done involving Potter were buying the Harry's textbook set (including Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them) and finding out which house at Hogwarts I'd be sorted into (Ravenclaw, every time). Perhaps this is because of my unorthodox, late discovery of the series. However, that doesn't mean it didn't resonate with me. I still came in at a time when I was roughly the same age as Harry, and I could relate to his struggles of growing up in a world of darkness and fear.

The films, to me, stand out in my memory more than the books (I mean, what else did you expect?). The films  managed to conjure up their own kind of magic, starting with the hiring of Steve Kloves to write seven of the eight films (Order of the Phoenix was written by Michael Goldenberg). Kloves has been the unsung hero of the films, adapting the stories in a way that pleases fans while cutting away various subplots from the books (S.P.E.W., anyone?) and focusing on the important parts of the narrative (well, apart from those Quidditch matches, which he wisely ditched after Goblet of Fire). Most impressively, he created his own details to the narrative, allowing the films to breath and create a slightly different story than that of the books. Moments that could have alienated the fanbase were instead wholeheartedly embraced. This is one of the franchise's greatest successes, and the reason why comparing the books to the films is a moot point:

Of course, that's not to denounce the efforts of the actors themselves. The casting of Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, and Emma Watson as the main trio could not have worked out better; each one of them has grown over the past decade as an actor and each has a promising career ahead of them. Stacking the adult cast with a litany of British thespians including Maggie Smith, Emma Thompson, Alan Rickman, David Thewlis, Gary Oldman, Richard Harris, Michael Gambon, Brenden Gleeson, Ralph Fiennes, Helena Bonham Carter, and Kenneth Branagh was an impressive move; no wonder the kids developed into such great actors, working alongside a cast like this. Even those in smaller roles, like Tom Felton as Draco Malfoy and Matthew Lewis as Neville Longbottom, have flourished. And let's not forget that Robert Pattinson owes his career to Potter, playing the crucial Cedric Diggory in Goblet of Fire.

In a recent article sizing up the Oscar chances of Deathly Hallows Pt. 2 (an argument that I disagree with; I'll be discussing this in an upcoming post), Awards Daily's Sasha Stone - a terrific writer, if you're not already reading her - writes, "The Harry Potter series has always had the problem of lacking a single consistent, visionary director behind the films." I strongly disagree that this is a problem. If the films had stuck with it's original director, that means we would have seen eight films directed by Chris Columbus, who handled the derivative Sorcerer's Stone and Chamber of Secrets. Those two films were flimsy, relying way too heavily on "hey look, magic!" effects without really providing a sense that it was important. In fact, changing directors was one of the best things to happen to the series. Alfonso Cuaron brought darkness and maturity to the franchise when he took on Prisoner of Azkaban, and though he didn't make a perfect film (it still relied a bit too much on those same "magic!" bits), it was a step in the right direction. When Mike Newell took over for Goblet of Fire, he pushed it further, though not quite as successfully (it dragged more than any of them). David Yates, however, has proven to be the franchise's blessing. Helming the final four films, he brought the complexity, the maturity, and the sophistication to the series, including creating a two-part finale that, when seen back to back, is phenomenal. Changing directors didn't hurt the franchise; it probably saved it.

Of course, the series is over now. Though I'm a fan of it, I genuinely hope this is the last we see of Harry Potter. No books that continue the story, regardless of whether they're by Rowling or another author. And certainly no more movies, forging ahead to tell more stories. Hollywood currently has a problem with letting go of franchises, namely because making money is far more important than telling stories. This story came with an ending, and that ending has been presented. There's no need for more. Seeing as how Harry Potter is the highest-grossing franchise in history, no doubt Warner Brothers is looking for ways to keep their cash cow around (especially with their other big franchise, Batman, wrapping up next year). But hopefully, the studio will be wise and let this one go.

In the same scene mentioned at the beginning of this piece, Harry, fearing death but resolutely accepting it, asks the spirits of those who mattered most to him if they will be with him, staying by his side as he accepts his fate. And once again we, the audience who have a very real connection to the Boy Who Lived, who resign to ourselves that this is the last we'll see of Harry, Ron, Hermione, and the rest of the Hogwarts wizards, answer with Lily: "Always."

1 comment:

Kalli said...

Deathly Hallows Part 2 is by far my favorite movie in the series. The part in the forest with Harry about to face death alongside his loved ones and Snape's memories really got to me. I want to go see the movie again, even though I've already seen it twice! I can't help it though, I love it!