Friday, July 22, 2011

Harry Potter & The Deathly Hallows, Part 2

Seven novels, dozens of actors, hundreds of production personnel, 400 million book printings, millions of dollars spent, billions of dollars earned, we have reached the end of the Harry Potter line. The Hogwart’s Express is retired, the cast may finally move on with their careers.
And at the end of the day, the strongest emotion I feel is: Meh.

Reviewing a Potter film was always problematical, and became even more so as the series ground on. The first two films don’t even feel a part of the same galaxy as the next six, and the third is such a stand-out excellent production it feels as though it came from another universe.

The fourth is almost as good, but starting with the fifth the series fully committed to the goal of telling one enormous story. At the same time, it became increasingly clear that if you weren’t a Harry Potter reader than these are not the films you are looking for. If you had not read any of the Potter books, you could watch The Sorcerer’s Stone (the first film) and The Prisoner of Azkaban (the third film) and follow their stories nicely. For all of the others, you need a guide and interpreter, and the demand for such only increased as the series went along.

In large part, this is the result of J.K. Rowling’s legendary and fanatical control over her intellectual property. When the film series began, the book series was still being written and she did not share with the film producers where the story was ultimately going. Presumably this worked in the books (which I haven’t read) because she could leave little fore-shadowing details, but those same fore-shadowing details are completely absent in the films. The result is that the action on screen must periodically grind to a halt while an expository lump ensues.

Examples abound in TDH 7.2, none of which I can discuss without huge spoilers. Ditto my reasons for why the end product just felt…flat. I’m not alone in this. I’ve discussed the matter with my resident Potter experts, those who have read, absorbed, and adore the books, and they all agree. The entire film is a let-down after seven films of build up. Its most egregious failing is that throughout the film, its heroes fail to feel heroic.

It’s beautifully filmed; I would have preferred that Azkaban have been the style template, but the choices made here aren’t bad. I wish Azkaban could have been the template for other things, such as ensuring a feel that this is, after all, a magical world.

The music is deathly hollow and dull, though, inexplicably so given Alexandre Desplat’s other work (Birth and Lust, Caution come to mind). Some of the editing is off-putting in subtle ways, the timing of things not quite sitting right. There are scenes that should have held massive emotional heft, given what was happening to whom, and yet they aren’t given a fraction of the screen time they deserved.

Maggie Smith, though, is finally allowed to come into her own, and Alan Rickman simply shines. (He hasn’t been this much a part of the plot since, you guessed it, Azkaban.) Indeed, all of the acting is well done, with these two just being the stand-outs.

As many have said, the film is essentially one massive, rolling firefight, but so was Black Hawk Down, and in that film there was more emotional wallop than I felt at the end of this one. Which is a pity.

I reject the presumption that the book is always better than the film. I present Jaws and The Godfather as exhibits A and B, wherein the film is vastly superior to the book. And aesthetics and debate over “art” aside, there’s no excuse for requiring a viewer to have read the book in order to understand what’s going on in the film; if that’s required then you’re just being a lazy filmmaker.

Given that, the books are now done and this film series has wrapped, so I wonder if some day someone will take up the massive task of filming them again. Maybe as a seven year television series, with each season only being as long as needed to tell one given book. So the first season, being from the shortest book, would need the fewest episodes, while tomes like The Deathly Hallows, would need a full 24-26 episode arc. BBC Productions revels in this sort of thing (see Torchwood as proof).

Maybe then Harry will get the cinematic love he’s earned and deserves, and we’ll get the full story we paid for, as well as an ending that’s far better than “meh.”

Update: It would appear that the Potter fan base generally agrees, as the box office is tracking a staggering 84% drop, comparing weekend one to weekend two.

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