Verdict? Good times and a perfect end to a decade-long series of unparalleled big-budget films of (almost) unwavering top-notch quality.
Also. The Marlowes remind me of the Weasleys. There, I said it. They remind me of them because they are one of those close-knit ‘salt-of-the-earth’ you-just-want-to-be-around-them-all-the-time sort of families and they have red hair. Shallow? Stereotyping? Yes. But for the amount of times Colin has compared me to someone he knows, he had it coming. As Nate would say: “This one deserved it”.
Anyway, it was a fantastic wedding made all the more fantastic by going to see the final Potter film the day after with the newly matrimonial bride and groom (they weren’t leaving until the next day) so it was a rare treat. Watching the film with them was a perfect end to a perfect weekend, friends returning from far off places and giving us a glimmer of the community we once enjoyed at dear old Wheaton.
My history with Harry Potter goes back the beginning of the last decade. I first read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone in the thick of its popularity on the eve of my entrance into High School in the year 2001. At the time the only thing I’d heard about it was that it was “better than The Lord of the Rings“. Well, that couldn’t be true, so I identified myself proudly as an anti-Potter force in the literary world. I picked up the first book to read and critique for an inter-scholastic critical review competition and planned on critiquing the hell out of it.
I finished the book at 2 AM on a school night a week later. It wasn’t as good as The Lord of the Rings, but Rowling had done her job well. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was a concise, mysterious and ultimately charming book with adventure, whimsy and magic that took me back to my elementary school days of reading Roald Dahl. Rowling was a bit wordier than Dahl and a touch too visual for my tastes, but the same elements remained: a lonely boy discovers a magical world and is whisked away to live the life of imagination young boys and girls only visit in their dreams. The only thing I could, in good faith, criticize was a few sequences that seemed to drip with marketability (a long and unnecessary description of magical candies and wizard trading cards that, though factored into the plot, seemed to me to be a big ‘nudge-nudge’ in the direction of product-makers). Still, this was good children’s literature, a rare commodity as far as I was concerned. I had all but pronounced the death of children’s literature after volunteering at the Scholastic Book Fair year after year. Captain Underpants and other off-color and completely base concepts ruled the day. Imagination was lost. Rowling put it back on the shelf.
From there, I enjoyed the first three books thoroughly. The third was particularly good and I appreciated and loved their episodic structure. Each book represented a school-year when the magical children would be whisked off to Hogwarts and begin their years’ studies and be caught up in inevitable adventures. It was nice, comfortable and satisfying entertainment that could be enjoyed by a fire with a hot drink.
Then, in a tizzy of hype, the fourth book came out and Harry Potter officially went off the rails.
I remember seeing Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire on the shelves, a 734 page tome. It rendered the previous book, a not-short 436 page read, modest by comparison. Compared to the original book’s 309 pages, it was clear that the Harry Potter franchise was so dang popular, it didn’t matter how long it took to read it or how many unnecessary dialogues there were. Silly 11-year-olds were going to stay up all night no matter what and love every page.
This is where I and a legion of staunch Potter defenders part ways. Where the first three books had been palatable and episodic, The Goblet of Fire succumbed to what I like to call ‘Star Wars’ syndrome and also suffered from a distinct case of the ‘darker is better’ myth. Glossary below:
Star Wars Syndrome: A condition in which a perfectly good series of films/books/etc. abandons its episodic format for a larger, sweeping ‘epic’ approach often leading to multiple, meandering plot threads and sequences that exist for no other purpose than ‘immersion’ into ‘the world’ and above all the pretension that one’s world is worth just pointlessly ambling around in. In the case of films it often comes with the dreaded decision to film more than one movie simultaneously. Notable victims: The Matrix 2 & 3, Pirates of the Caribbean 2 & 3.
The “Darker is Better” Myth: This is a cold caught from the enthusiastic but rickety comics industry which, just like it sounds, is the assumption that making a story more thematically mature (i.e. introducing violence or sexuality or lots of sad things) automatically upgrades it to the next level of quality.
Of the two, it was Star Wars Syndrome which afflicted the series the most, from book 4 on out. The most awful side-effect of this unfortunate condition is that the author starts to see explaining the story’s environment as an end in itself. Book 4 transformed Harry Potter from a series of potent and concise episodes into a rickety and unclear epic. This overstuffed book gorged itself on its own mythology at the expense of a sensible story. There is so much explanation of what ‘can and can’t’ happen in Hogwarts. Star Wars syndrome also comes with the fallacy that establishing ‘rules’ of the universe makes the story inherently more intelligent. This is also untrue. The long, dull explanations of what ‘can and can’t’ happen in the world drove the wonder of magic into a rut of arbitrary plot points. You can’t apparate in and out of Hogwarts, you can’t do this, you can’t do that, pollyjuice in a flask, random, unimportant characters from the story’s fake past come in and do convenient things to move the plot forward, long, long unfunny pages dedicated to Hermione’s House-Elf charity organization. It left the world of imagination and entered the world of virtual reality. It’s just knocking around in an author’s obsessive-compulsive headspace.
Turns out I’m not imagining things. Rowling just announced Pottermore which appears to be an online marketplace/encyclopedia/fanfic forum dedicated to preserving all the incidental fluff of the Potter universe, disembodying it from the narrative altogether. It appears to be something like a literary MMORPG, constantly expanding and mutating with (approved) user generated content. I predict that the site will not capture children’s imaginations like the books did. Instead, it will capture their brains, taking their little detail-oriented minds by storm and filling their heads with the dead weight of complexity and withholding from them the true magic of the Potter books, which is narrative.
On the site, Rowling explains that writing fantasy like Harry Potter is “a collaboration between author and reader”. I don’t understand her basis for this, and it’s where I’m at odds with Rowling and most of what passes as ‘literature’ nowadays. A story is necessarily hierarchical. It is handed down, as if from on high, from a creator to an audience. An audience may have an experience beyond or different from what the author intended, their imaginations will certainly run wild with imagery and sensation that the author couldn’t have dreamed of inserting into her tale. They maybe multi-faceted, but stories are still given. No matter how many fan clubs there are, one still experiences a story more or less alone. Narrative is not a democracy.
“But she had everything planned out from the beginning! That’s why you need all that extra stuff in there!”
Well, that’s not true. She only had Dumbledore and Snape’s stories worked out. Quoting from this nerdy article: “The Harry Potter author said some of the less crucial story lines were not always planned right from the begining and evolved as she went along, “But the big ones, the Dumbledore storyline, the Snape storyline were always there because you — the series is built around those.” Plus, even if she did, then she planned out a mostly uneven, illogical story from the beginning and didn’t really make it any better.
One thing that a comic book nerd like me can teach a Potter nerd is something called a ‘retcon’. A retcon is a reworking of continuity so that incidental parts of the earlier stories are worked into the fabric of the larger mythology. For instance, just because the Sorcerer’s Stone (or ‘Philosopher’s Stone’) from the first book was one of the “Deathly Hallows” and Riddle’s diary ended up being a ‘Horcrux’ doesn’t mean they had always been meant to factor into the series’ conclusion. By the time she got into the latter books in the series and Star Wars syndrome was in full fever, she very obviously pulled on elements from her past stories and wrote secret histories into the unexplored gaps. She ‘filled things in’. She didn’t have ‘everything planned out from the beginning.’ A better picture of what she did from the 4th book onward was to connect little, incidental elements from her past books whose origins were left unexplained (like the Sorcerer’s Stone, Riddle’s book, the invisibility cloak) and connected them with written history. The problem is that because these elements were just plot devices and interesting anecdotes in the original stories, the plot threads that connected them in later books ended up being strangely shaped and coincidental, like trying to connect scattered points on a map with a single pathway. What you get is a misshapen, serpentine road of plot that conforms to the story’s own mythological landscape rather than the formal lines of logic.
“But The Lord of the Rings was just a bunch of fake history! Why do you like that world and not the Potter universe?”
Because Tolkien spent upwards of twenty years reconstructing Norse, Gaelic, Finnish, Celtic and Gothic mythology. The purpose of ‘Middle Earth’ was to reconstruct a picture of lost mythological history, not sell $$$$loads of merchandise. It was a careful work of speculative mythical history and it had intrinsic value of its own. Plus it was just better. Tolkien’s mythology was airtight and solid and Middle-Earth could not be divorced from the stories within it. The entire history was plotted so carefully that it frustrates any attempt at user generated content or the bane of narrative innovation: fan fiction. For me, it was the anti-Pottermore, a series of books that encouraged me to go write my own stuff instead of just hanging out in its world. The Lord of the Rings and its supplemental material was a complete imagined world with academic value and a deep cultural resonance.
It may seem like I’m anti-imagination here but I assure you, I’m not. The Harry Potter books (particularly the first three) sparked the imaginations of millions of kids, but now Pottermore threatens to gobble it up. I just think it would be better to encourage kids to go write their own stories than spend hours online building the infrastructure of the Harry Potter universe. Why not create a site promoting kids’ original stories? Let them build their own worlds.
How the movies saved the Harry Potter series from itself
Unfortunately, my objections went unheard. The two films that had come out were decent but the quality had decreased greatly by the second film and the series appeared poised to follow down the path of recreating and worshiping the books’ pointless intricacies.
Then the third movie happened. Chris Columbus had apparently had enough of bratty kids and a heavily stressful work environment and abandoned the Potter franchise. It was the best thing to happen to the series. Alfonso Cuaron came on board and changed everything. For the better, I might add. Hogwarts was darker and looked like it was in the Scottish highlands. The castle and Hogsmeade were expanded to great effect and above all, the world didn’t overshadow the story. This is not to say the film wasn’t visually impressive, it was just a different kind of eye-candy. Cuaron’s Hogwarts oozed style. Tricky camerawork replaced bland, green-screen effects sequences. The main contribution, besides the more sophisticated color palette, was the leaving of all the incidental non-story material, well…incidental. The camera would focus on the story, leaving the book’s many details as easter eggs decorating the backdrop. The lack of distraction made everything flow better. David Thewlis and Gary Oldman gave wonderful, heartfelt performances. The kids were allowed to quit parroting Rowling’s bland dialogue and act like real teenagers. The finale brought me close to tears.
The only misstep was the replacement of the late great Richard Harris for the lame soulless monotone of Michael Gambdon, but Cuaron (and Newell and Yates after him) supplements the ‘father-figure’ gap with such a rich palette of emotion that it’s a fair trade. Better to have a good movie with a bad actor than a good actor in a bad movie. Still, I often think about how much more incredible the films would have been if Harris had lived through them. His twinkly-eyed Dumbledore would have turned the final films into masterpieces.
My greatest respect for Rowling was how much she backed this bold re-imagining of her world. She even appeared in a lot of the interviews smiling and nodding at Cuaron’s impassioned expression. Cuaron also convinced the producers not to split the film version of the fourth book into two unnecessary films. Instead, he encouraged them to act like real filmmakers and adapters. Cut out the ‘fat’ of the story and maintain the bare narrative. Basically, the fans already know everything about the story they don’t need to be told incidental details over again. Just show the world, don’t explain it, and it can be magical again.
The lack of exposition made the movies better vessels for Rowling’s stories than her original books. While Rowling traded an editor for a Potter nerd secretary who would help her keep all of her universe’s ‘rules’ in check, Steve Kloves was editing and reworking the stories heavily to ensure the narratives retained emotion and didn’t get bogged down in incidental detail. He was turning Rowling’s bloated epic back into clear, concise episodes again and the subsequent directors, Mike Newell and David Yates stayed well within the penumbra of Cuaron’s muted, intricate style. The result is definitely the most consistently good series of big-budget franchise films ever made.
This is why the Potter films (from film 3 onward) are, on the whole, superior to their original source material. Where Rowling meandered through page upon page of unformed characters, redundant dialogue and unnecessary circular reference to her own paper-thin mythology, Kloves and directors Cuaron, Newell and Yates turned the Potter world into a lean, beautiful hit machine that would not only seek to make immediate box-office success (that was already promised) but would be remembered fondly and celebrated as good, great and sometimes excellent films. Blockbusters take note. It doesn’t hurt your profits to make a good movie now and then.
I think most ‘Potter’ fans balk at this claim for two reasons, one because there’s still an embedded sense that reading something is a purer experience of fiction than watching it on film. Classically, I believe this to be true, but most modern ‘literature’–especially Rowling’s work–are little more than very long, complex screenplays. They are visual descriptions of events that are meant to recreate images in your mind’s-eye (e.g. “sparks shot from Harry’s wand as he dodged to the right, etc. etc.”). Reading a Harry Potter book is like reading a movie. The literary pedigree doesn’t penetrate much deeper than that. Secondly, fans are tied to their own original experience of reading the book. This is fair of course, since what’s in your mind’s eye is always more fantastic than what anyone can show you onscreen, but it remains objectively true that the latter books have terribly imbalanced plots and regularly take a battleaxe to logic (yes, fiction has logic) in order to lengthen an already bloated story. Compare the major story points of the first book (i.e. the story points to which the most time/pages are dedicated) to the fourth book:
1. Harry is introduced to the wizarding world
2. Harry learns of his strange past and the villain of the story, Voldemort
3. Harry makes friends at Hogwarts
4. Harry and his friends discover that Voldemort is trying to secretly come back to life.
5. Harry and his friends investigate the secrets of Hogwarts and discover who is hiding Voldemort
6. Harry and his friends battle magical opponents beneath the castle to prevent Voldemort’s return and save the castle.
1. Before school, Harry and his friends use something called a ‘portkey’ which is an ordinary object that’s been enchanted to teleport them to the Quidditch championship which is attacked by bad guys. Harry sees one particular bad guy.
2. Harry and his friends get to school where they have a new professor who is very stern but helps out the kids.
3. Harry is mysteriously entered into an interscholastic wizard tournament.
4. Harry passes the first of three trials by outwitting a dragon.
5. The school has a Christmas ball where some things happen. Hermione likes one of the quidditch players from the game at the beginning. Ron is jealous. Harry takes a random girl and wishes he could take another one who’s taking another guy who’s also competing in the tournament.
6. Harry sees a magic minister named Barty Crouch in the woods acting weird.
6. Harry is interviewed by a muckraking reporter who misquotes whatever he says.
7. Harry passes the second trial by saving his friends from mermaids underwater.
8. Hermione creates a charity for house elves. Harry and Ron have various opinions about it.
9. Harry learns that Barty Crouch put some people on trial a long time ago. His son was among them. Harry thinks he looks familiar.
10. Harry enters the last task and touches the trophy at the same time as his rival and they are both teleported to a graveyard somewhere where Voldemort’s servant kills the other guy and uses Harry’s blood to resurrect Voldemort. Then Voldemort tries to kill Harry but Harry escapes.
11. Harry learns that his new professor had arranged Harry’s entry into the tournament all along just to get Harry to touch to the trophy to teleport him to Voldemort. Then Harry finds out his professor is actually the son of the magic minister guy in disguise (thereby negating everything nice he did for the kids) who is also the same guy he randomly saw at the beginning of the book. He tries to kill Harry but the professors save him.
Uh…what? That’s not a story, that’s soup. It’s just a bunch of things that happen and then something big happens at the end. There’s no sense that anything in the story had any purpose other than to fill pages and increase the pricetag. If the bad guy knew enough to make the cup a portkey and disguise himself, couldn’t he have just made something else a portkey, like Harry’s pants or something? Oh, wait, right he couldn’t do that because there’s something called a Sneak-O-Scope which detects those things but the enchantments around the cup made it so that they couldn’t detect it around the cup for some reason. That’s stupid. The rules of a world shouldn’t impede the internal logic of a good story.
David Yates is the guy with the most Potter films under his belt. Films 5-7/2 (4 films) came out of his work ethic and unwavering sense of style. Unlike Cuaron, Yates has prefers sobriety to whimsy. His ‘Potters’ are taut rubber-bands of tension, muted scenes, heavy with understatement that explode into dizzying, awe-inspiring action sequences. His Potter films were solidly, sometimes shockingly spartan. He knows there’s precious little he can do with the three leads. When dealing with characters that iconic, it’s best to play things close to the belt and they were fairly flat characters to begin with. So instead, he encourages the actors to be intentionally stoic while playing with the mood and tone of the overall movie to achieve the emotional attachment needed to propel the story. No one performance can provide emotional depth, so Yates conjures it out of thin air, in silence, color, music, fine editing and careful camerawork and ‘haunts’ the story with it. In my opinion his unflinching sense of mood single-handedly saved the horrid story of the 5th book, particularly its wildly senseless conclusion, and gave us a wonderfully humorous re-interpretation of the 6th book.
The best thing about Yates is that he stays true to the source material, but he never worships it. His style is one that understands that the people who care about the little details of the story are the ones that already know what’s going to happen and are spending tons of mental time in that world already and thus will not ‘enjoy’ his interpretation of the events to the same degree as someone who’s never seen it. Fans may want a loving and faithful recreation of the Ministry of Magic, so Yates builds it, but instead of reveling pornographically in gratuitous special effects, he charges right through the beautiful environments, hits the major story points, then leaves as quickly as he came. His films are a train-ride through the world set firmly on the rails of the plot. At times he finds it necessary to straighten out the track or add a detour here and there, but those moments are few. Yates cuts a middle way between the age-old argument of whether a film should be ‘doggedly faithful’ to its source material or be willing to take vast ‘artistic license’. He focuses, almost dogmatically on the core story all the while injecting it with a misty mood that makes the film a decidedly interpreted experience of the book’s story. He leaves the details of the Potter universe where they should be, incidental, unspoken, unexplained, in the background. His films are a slow, reflective ride through the stories we’ve grown to love.
Re-invigorating the imagination
The result of Yates’ approach (which originated with Cuaron) is that it focuses squarely on what is magical about fantasy: the story, and as a result, makes the world of the story all the more infatuating. He doesn’t spend any extra time explaining the magical world of Harry Potter which is exactly what makes it all the more magical. Limits are good. In an information age of instantaneous access to information, only omission can recall the ghosts of imagination and allow us to feel a story rather than just consume it.
The sad truth that Pottermore will have to face up to, is that the more you ‘hang out’ in the world of a story, the more that world is cheapened. Star Wars is the perfect example of this. Before you know it you’re making prequels and you’ve got a six foot Jamaican fish-duck wagging its tongue at you. Apocryphal material explains away all the mystery and whimsy of an imagined world until you’re left with a legion of obsessive compulsive geeks who ‘know’ everything about it, but who, for all the world, don’t appear to enjoy any of it. There’s a difference between reveling in imagination and satisfying an addiction to information. If we’re not careful, we can turn stories into encyclopedias.
Stories are like dreams. They are wondrous, horrifying, beautiful and sad, but at some point you must wake up. In order to preserve the beauty and mystery of an imagined world, the curtain must close on it. Just like life, there is a beginning and there is an end with all manner of adventures in-between. We must allow ourselves to be haunted by the mysterious magic of stories and ultimately learn to close the book and leave them behind. Revisiting stories we know and love is always fun, but the real way to pay them tribute is to allow ourselves to be inspired enough to write new ones.