As Jeff points out below, a traditional “review” of a Harry Potter movie at this point is superfluous: “you’re either in or you’re out.” Instead, we thought a dynamic dialogue covering a range of key talking points in the series was in order. Please enjoy, and join the conversation by voicing your opinion in the comments!
It seems kind of pointless to “review” a Harry Potter movie. At this point, you’re either in or you’re out. And judging from the box office numbers, most of us are in. Which taps into something I want to discuss a little later. I thought a conversation about the movie might be more productive and illuminating, and might take both of us to places we didn’t expect. As for a brief review, I thought the movie was really good. And not just “good for an adaptation of a book that can never be lived up to”, but actually, genuinely good as a free-standing movie. These last two movies (which are really just one long movie) really felt like they hit a nice stride, and it’s the most invested I’ve been in any Harry Potter movie. I think a few things happened: first, the last four movies (covering books 5, 6, and 7) have all had the same director, while the first 4 had 3 different directors, all with wildly different visions. The first 4 never really felt consistent to me, as the tone shifts between movies was at times jarring. But over the second half of the series I felt like the vision unified, and everything felt internally and externally consistent.
Second, the principals grew up, and turned into not-bad actors. I don’t know about you, but nothing takes me out of a movie faster than poor acting, and children aren’t always great actors. But as Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, and Emma Watson grew up, so did Harry, Ron, and Hermione, and the emotional depth and investment that always existed in the books suddenly started appearing on screen. I was no longer digging into emotional muscle memory from the books to feel anything; I was feeling spontaneously and viscerally. I like that, and that made the movies more authentic experiences, rather than just so-so visual replicas of something I truly love.
Something else I noticed is the music. Music in movies is a fine line, because at its best it enhances and enriches a moment; at its worse, it dominates and removes you from a moment. The line between those two acts is razor thin. But in this final movie in particular, I really noticed the music in a positive way. Two specific points (the dragon flight scene and the scene right before Snape dies when the three leads are running through the wreckage of the battle) almost moved me to tears. I should mention the composer, Alexandre Desplat. Looking through his credits, he’s done some incredible work over the last few years, and The Deathly Hallows are his only Harry Potter credits.
What about you: what did you think of the movie and it’s place in the series? Anything in particular jump out at you? And the point I really want to dive into: what do you think of Harry Potter the franchise (books, movies, etc) being “the last water cooler” in our culture, ie, the last thing that is almost universally shared amongst the vast majority? With everything fragmenting faster and faster by the day, do you think we’ll ever see a work of art be so universally appealing or consumed again? I have my own thoughts on this, but I can’t wait to hear what you think.
First, I completely agree with you that these last few movies of the series brought the saga to a mature, self-standing fruition. Let’s face it, there are still plot details and subtle character chemistries that a non-reader will never experience through the movies alone. But that said, a non-purist looking for a good longitudinal drama benefitted from the continuity of having the same director for the last 4 films–the mood and vision was able to build cumulatively rather than reset with each succeeding film, as it did for each of the first 4.
I’ll be honest, there were moments throughout The Deathly Hallows both Part 1 and Part 2 that felt tedious to me, as if the movies were on overdrive to tie up the myriad plot lines. It was about half-way through Part 2, however, when it came emotionally home to what for me was the core of the story: the three-way dynamic relationship between Harry, Snape and Dumbledore. The moment Harry “exits” the pensieve from his journey through Snape’s memories, his world, and ours, is turned topsy-turvy and we see there was an unforeseen depth, a treasure of character and mystery, that Rowling and the directors had managed to conceal for 7 books/8 movies.
I know it’s interesting how that turned out to be the core of the story for me, and there may or may not be a deeper reason for this resonance. The fact is, though, that this was just one of many plot veins that one could connect with. For many, if not most, it was all about Harry/Voldemort in a sort of Moby Dick like fable of universal balance. For others, it could have been the heart of a transcendent friendship (based on your first letter maybe this is the heart for you) or even the limitlessness of parental love. I could go on here. My point is that this multiplicity of resonances is the hallmark of a “water cooler” flick. It has to call out to several frequencies across a diverse cultural spectrum and bring us all home to a common core.
I think there will be others, but we must wait them out patiently. Aside from the multi-frequency plotline, there are many other elements that must come together, most of which you alluded to: authentic acting, craft of presentation (i.e. music, visuals) and–here’s the kicker for me–an echoing of cultural archetypes. The mythical creatures and allusions to magic are the obvious archetypes, but I think there is something in us at a more subconscious level that longs for the idea that there are hidden away ancient, isolated and sacred institutions of secret knowledge (Hogwarts) where a wisdom beyond our superficial capitalistic rat race lives on in waiting.
So, I do want to hear which of the plot lines/character dynamics was “home” for you. And then let’s hear your theory about the future of “water cooler” flicks.
Can’t wait to hear back,
It’s funny you should mention tedium, because I felt quite the opposite in Part 2. My fear was that the movie was going to be all ‘overdrive’ and action (the movie essentially takes place over the span of about 36 hours and contains multiple ‘battles’) at the expense of space, levity, and heart. And yet I found the movie full of space and growth, and never felt rushed.
It’s funny that you latch on to the Snape-Harry-Dumbledore relationship. To me, the best and most illuminating relationship (in the books) was always Harry and Dumbledore. They always had the Master-Apprentice dynamic, but it dug much deeper than that. It was a father-son relationship, as well as a true friendship built in equality. There was an obvious mutual respect and love between the two characters. Up until Dumbledore’s demise, each segment of the saga usually ended with a long conversation between the two, and these conversations for me were always the highlights of the entire saga. They allowed the story to slow down and take a breath without being overly expositional. That’s the mark of truly great writing: subtext and depth in dialogues, where meaning is both obvious and obscured.
And here is where the movies probably failed me the most: Michael Gambon as the second Dumbledore. I know I’m in an
infinitesimally small minority here, but, as great an actor as he is, I feel like an essential element of Dumbledore died with Richard Harris, the actor who portrayed him in the first two movies. To me, the defining characteristic of Dumbledore is not his wisdom or his power, it’s the twinkle in his eye, his wry smile, and his understanding that even in the most serious of times, life is silly and meant to be laughed at (and with) and lived with a smile. Once Gambon took over, the winking Dumbledore disappeared, and so did a lot of the heart and humor of the films. Even in Harry and Dumbledore’s last conversation in ‘purgatory’, I feel like it’s played too seriously and with less authentic connection between the two characters. Am I crazy here? Any casting choices always irk you?
I think every relationship permutation is important (and well done) in these stories, but the overarching focus for me has always been about family, and, most importantly, the love that parents have for their children. We’re told from the get-go that the reason Harry didn’t die that fateful night years ago was because of an ancient magic, a mother’s love for her child. This relationship is echoed in the Dumbledore-Harry relationship, the Sirius-Harry relationship, amongst the Weasleys, and even in many minor characters (Longbottom, and even the Malfoys, to an extent). What really drives this home for me is the epilogue, set 19 years in the future. We don’t see Harry as some great Wizard, the hero of the Wizarding World, but as a doting, loving father full of pride as his young sons head off to Hogwarts. The story has always been about the children, and the adults who love and protect them. The ultimate fulfillment of Harry’s life isn’t finally destroying Voldemort; it’s becoming a father, and creating a world where happy families can exist.
All of this talk and we haven’t even gotten to ‘water coolers’! In short, I wonder if we’ll ever see a cultural binding event like this again. I feel with the internet, cable, smart phones, and every other piece of technology that permeates our lives, we have more power of choice in our lives, and we can tailor our cultural consumption habits more precisely than ever. There’s infinite choice for every peculiar and specialized taste out there. Art is consumed quickly than discarded. Movies have one weekend to make it before they’re considered busts. Records are busts before they’re even released if they’re not illegally downloaded months in advance. What is the defining art of the last several years? What was the last album that really leapt into the public conscience, like a “Thriller”? Harry Potter had the benefit of starting just at the dawn of the internet boom, so the stories were already implanted in our collective hearts. But what has followed? Has any story/book of the last decade caught on like Harry Potter? I do think that the last art form that is capable of achieving it is film, as movie watching has remained largely unchanged over the last 30 years, even with the rise of home theaters, DVDs, etc. “Going to the movies” remains a somewhat sacred cultural act, removed even from the movie being watched.
Which brings me to my next question for you: you talk about cultural archetypes being necessary for cultural resonance. Leaving the theater we briefly mentioned “Star Wars” as another example. My question is this: is there something about Harry Potter that digs at new ground or says something unique and authentic and powerful about these archetypes? Or is it just the latest example of an extremely well-crafted work of art mining the same old ground? And does it matter?
And, on the lighter side: what is your favorite of the books? I’m always curious to know, and I ask lots of people this question, and usually get the same answer…which is always different from mine.
A couple points you bring up I want to address right away. First, the Dumbledore switch. I’m glad you highlighted that casting change because it’s certainly gone under the radar over the last few movies–it’s hardly ever brought up. But there IS a distinct change in mood from Richard Harris (Dumbledore 1) to Michael Gambon (Dumbledore 2). There was something light and “twinkly” about Harris that imbued the whole film with a Santa-like magic (and I’m using Santa in the most complimentary way here). I’ve always liked my wise men with a little absent-minded, trans-rational wilyness (a la Gene Wilder as first Willy Wonka). Yet in a sense didn’t the shift to a more morose and brooding Dumbledore in Gambon match the evolution of the story? In the darker, final half of the series we needed to feel a pervasive hopelessness that forced even wise men into the harsh decisions of desperate times. It is a fascinating thought experiment, though, to imagine how Harris would have changed the chemistry of those black-clouded final couple of films.
Next, you ask about my favorite book in the series. Above I alluded to a splitting point somewhere in the series when it shifted from light and fantastical overtones to darker ones. The exact moment of this transition, or even whether it exists, is debatable, but that’s how it organizes in my mind. That said I think I have a light favorite–The Chamber of Secrets–and a dark favorite–The Half-Blood Prince. Is there something in common between these two? A driving mystery? I have a feeling I don’t have it nearly as well thought-out as you and my curiosity is piqued to hear your favorite!
And you’ve asked me to reach deeper into my thoughts about whether Harry… says something new about our cultural archetypes or if they’ve just been recast and molded for a new generation. Frankly, I don’t know! I think back to the impact (in terms of psychology and culture) the original Star Wars trilogy had on me. Can I really do a like for like match of each of the character archetypes between Star Wars/Harry? Luke Skywalker/Harry, Yoda/Dumbledore, Hermione/Princess Leia, Han Solo/Ron and, of course, Darth Vader/Voldemort. It would truly take more analysis on my part to ride this idea out, but I know Joseph Campbell addresses archetypes like this in general in The Hero with a Thousand Faces.
You mention the evolution of media making the cultural cohesiveness of books and movies more and more tenuous, and I have an extremely relevant item for you to reflect on. It seems the Harry Potter franchise itself has finally embraced this new media paradigm: J.K. Rowling has launched the web project Pottermore.com. Users will experience an “interactive” environment in which Rowling has extended and expanded upon the Harry Potter universe. What effect does this have on the organic unity of the novel/film sequence for you?
I see your point in mood shift correlating with the shifting actors. And obviously the change in actors was brought about by necessity, not a conscious tonal shift. I think Richard Harris would have nailed the mood, and even brought just the necessary touch of levity to an otherwise bleak situation. These were certainly dark times in the wizarding world, for sure; but “twinkly” (how I prefer my wise men, as well) Dumbledore always helped to remind Harry (and us, by proxy) that there is still light and joy in the world, even at the darkest of times. I think he also helped to really bring home the point and the essence of the books, to find comfort and “home” in your family and friends and cherish your relationships.
As for my favorite book, it may very well be the one where that dividing line you speak of exists: The Goblet of Fire. Perhaps this is why it is my favorite. I love the visiting schools, the expansion of the wizarding world into the rest of the world (wait, does America have a wizarding school?), the mystery and the riddles of the tournament, the awkward transitioning of our main characters as they hit puberty. But then the end of the book is, I believe, the first real time we see Harry and an embodied Voldemort face to face. And it’s the first time that Voldemort feels like the dark presence and invincible force he will be for the rest of the series. It’s, quite literally, as we’ve just come from a giant tournament, no longer fun and games. The coup de grace, though, is when Harry risks his life to bring Cedric Diggory’s body back to Hogwarts. It shows Harry’s true character and bravery and hints at the man he will become. And it always makes me cry. (Not coincidentally, this is probably the movie that disappointed me the most, likely because I wanted the most from it. I haven’t revisited the move in a long time, though.)
I’m not sure how I feel about Pottermore.com. The cynic in me (granted, it’s the smallest part of me) sees it as a money grab, a way to get those audio books and ebooks into every iPhone and eReader in the world. The optimist in me (a much larger portion) hopes that it can be what Rowling says it will be in the opening video: an expansion of the world we already know. I feel like the starting and stopping points of the story are perfect, and the coda of the novels drives home and puts to rest the story. As much as I want to continue being a participant in Harry’s life, I think the novels stand on their own and should remain that way. I don’t need to see Harry as an adult, I don’t need to see the adventures of Harry’s children at Hogwarts. (I say this now, but if any of these stories showed up anywhere, I’d be first in line to consume them!) However, if Pottermore.com can be a widening of the breadth of the story, and not a lengthening of it, then I think it is a brilliant move, and one I will keep an eye on with great anticipation. And I’m sure it will also make a ton of money.
What are your thoughts on Pottermore.com?
Speaking of ever-expanding stories, it’s probably about time to wrap up this conversation. Like any great rambling dialogue, I feel like we’ve opened up more doors than we’ve closed and strayed a bit off the path. And mixed metaphors, apparently. I could talk about this world forever, but at some point you just need to shut up and, you know, actually read the stories. I think it’s time I crack open “The Sorcerer’s Stone” again.
Until the next culture-shifting series of novels,
I’m pretty much with you on your take on Pottermore.com. On the one hand, it does seem exploitative—millions flocking to be voluntarily juiced of more time, energy and money! And yet on the other hand I say it’s a bold move by Rowling—for an author who seems even more stuck on content-control than most, it’s an amazlingly risky way to relinquish some control of the whole legacy, isn’t it? A fan who creates his own never-ending continuation of the saga has forever altered it in some way.
But you’re right, we’ve run this to a healthy stopping point for now. I admit we zigzagged through quite a few tangents and topics, but I think we chewed on so much more than a straight review would have, and left readers with a lot of intriguing ideas to ponder.
Speaking of readers, I really hope we hear from them. After all, we are two small voices on one of the most impactful series of a generation. Let’s hope the comments are as rich with insights and “aha’s” as this dialogue was for us…