Sunday, July 17, 2011

Deathly Hallows Part 2

A few days before the premiere of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, my roommate Zach asked me if the Harry Potter movies were any good. He'd asked a much tougher question than he thought he had.

When you're adapting a book to a movie or TV show, you're necessarily dealing with a story, characters, a setting, and sometimes even dialog that aren't your own.  So whether you've made a "good" movie or not often rests less on your cinematic skills than on the quality of your source material.  For instance, say you're a film studio that's charged with adapting a certain book into a movie.  It's not a very good book--it has a cast of unrelatable characters and a plot pockmarked with holes--but you do your best.  You direct it artistically, produce it professionally, and depict it faithfully to the book.  Have you made a great film?  By independent artistic standards, probably not, even though you've done your job well, and fans of the book will probably like the movie very much.

On the other hand, say your film studio somehow lands the job of adapting the hypothetical Greatest Story Ever Told, one with a cast of delightfully complex characters and an intricate, powerful plot.  Again, you do your job, doing justice to the book and turning out a well-made film.  Have you made a great movie this time?  Possibly--but how much credit can you take for it?  And in either case, you're going to have the purists who cry foul if you so much as change one character's hair color arguing against the interpretive artists who lament an adaptation that's too faithful, lacking an original spin put on by the filmmaker.

I thought about Zach's question for a few seconds, and I told him, "they do a good job visually representing the books," knowing full well I hadn't answered his question.  Whether the Harry Potter movies are good disproportionately depends on whether you think the Harry Potter setting is any good, characters are any good, story is any good.

For example, Minerva McGonagall (played by Maggie Smith, both the most underrated character and actress in the entire series) marshaling the defenses of Hogwarts is an impactful, triumphant scene.  It looks great on film thanks to director David Yates, but without JK Rowling having written it four years earlier, it never would have been part of the movie.  Similarly, the epilogue is among the worst scenes in the movie.  (I'm in the "epilogue is more corny than cathartic" camp, though I recognize that not everyone shares that opinion.)  But short of excising it completely, what was Mr. Yates supposed to do about it?

Instead, where the film adapter can succeed is in illustration of the books and its themes, in using cinematic devices to emphasize the most important ideas and events in the novels.  As much as Part 1 of the Deathly Hallows story is about diving deeper and deeper into despair, Part 2 is about reconciling all the emotional highs and lows of the story into a coherent (and ultimately happy) ending. 

(For all the awkwardness caused by calling a movie Harry Potter Part 7 Part 2, it's clear from both the first installment of Deathly Hallows and this one that splitting the movie in half was exactly the right decision.  The two movies together run a total of 276 minutes, and they really do need at least four hours of that to tell the story completely.)

Both narratively and cinematically, one of the artistic successes of Deathly Hallows is how sharply it contrasts with the earlier volumes in the series.  Innocence, childhood concerns, and a world that's firmly steered in the right direction by its adults give way to tragedy, adult emotions, and moral compasses that don't function any longer.  Mr. Yates does a fantastic job of illustrating this, however briefly, in the landscape shots of Hogwarts after its destruction and in the Snape's-memories-in-the-Pensieve scene that shows footage from the first movie.

Speaking of Snape, Severus Snape is by far the most interesting character in the Harry Potter story.  You could call him the only truly three-dimensional character, and while you might be overly critical, you wouldn't be wrong necessarily.  So it's fitting that the character is the recipient of the best acting performance in the series.  Alan Rickman's Snape is egotistical, sardonic, and antagonistic--but vulnerable in the right time.  It's an iconic performance, one that will be sorely missed now that the metaphorical train has moved "on" from King's Cross Station. 

But we're going to miss a lot more than that.  One of the reasons that Harry Potter resonated so strongly with this generation was that the story was timed just right to coincide with our lives.  Sure, I was twenty when Harry was seventeen in the last book, but I'd been a teenager right alongside him.  And Harry Potter and I were both eleven-year-olds slightly enchanted by fantasy and magic back in 1998.  A twenty-year-old reading through all seven books would likely find the story derivative, even juvenile; an eleven-year-old would find the entire experience far too intense and wouldn't be able to appreciate the gradual maturation of both the characters and the series.

That's why we think Harry Potter is good.  A skeptic might argue that Harry Potter is a story that's been told a thousand times and populated by stock characters, and all JK Rowling did was change the narrative perspective.  But maybe that's all she needed to do.  To bring the logic around fully circular, the people who are going to be attending a midnight showing of a Harry Potter movie, camping for four hours on Kittredge Avenue next to the Berkeley Public Library, are going to be people who think the Harry Potter story is at least good--most of them going much further than that.  So maybe the real test of whether an adapted movie is good is whether it pleases the fans, and by that standard, Deathly Hallows Part 2 succeeds unequivocally.

Currently listening: "Come Clean," Eisley


Kierston said...

Just lovely. Also, this has opened the floodgates to me reading all of your Harry Potter related blogs...

Matt Pavlovich said...

Thanks! I took a look back at some of the older ones, and be warned: my writing four years ago made a lot less sense than it does now.