Idea stolen from @feelinglistless pic.twitter.com/1NxfxhoEaL
— Simon C (@CastleQuirm) February 23, 2015
Film The people who follow me on the social media that wasn't hip in the early noughties will have noticed that for the best part of a week I've been watching my way through the Harry Potter films for the first time since they were released. Potter's been a fair weather friend to this blog, me never having been that much of a fan. Should you care to glance through this search you'll find the odd review, links to some news items, awards predictions and the odd bit of commentary, notably from back in 2010 when regular reader Annette asked for my opinion of it during the end of year Review in 2010. She'll be displeased to know (judging by the comment) that I still haven't read the books. I don't read much fiction especially if I know it's going to be turned into a film. But that's a discussion for another time.
There's isn't anything in this piece I don't still agree with and having forgotten most of what I'd written there, because I forget most of anything I write here, there's some analysis in there which I thought again this time around as though it was all new, especially about the screenplays and narrative and how unlike typical Hollywood screenplays but like art house films, they're not especially goal orientated in the traditional sense, the screenplays (mainly by Steve Kloves) favouring cumulative, episodic incident that beneficially ignore three or four act structures in favour of the broadest of linking tissue between scenes that eventually leads to a climactic struggle about something connected to the title. As a series it resembles levels of a video game generally with each film's Professor of Defence Against the Dark Arts as the end of level boss and he who shall not be named as the main boss at the end.
Having watched it in tandem with the fourth season of Game of Thrones, it's also possible to see that now that the Potter film cycle is completed, it most resembles is an eight episode television mini-series of single episodes ending in a two-parter (the recap at the start of The Deathly Hallows Part Two is nothing so much as what's always happened in Doctor Who). Perhaps if modes of production had been different back then, if Warners hadn't been desperate to have its Lord of the Rings follow-up, the best place for these stories would have been television, where JK's texts would have had room to breath, with incidents and characters so obviously abbreviated in the films given room to develop. Though there's obviously little chance you would have gotten this cast and this quality of production design on the small screen even with a network like HBO taking a chance, and it's impossible to think of these characters being played by anyone else now.
Perhaps this is just me, having spent that past week with those actors and characters and this story somewhat desperate to see more of it, because, well, I confess, I've become something of a fan. Not necessarily of the story. However enjoyable the meander, there is a lot of waiting for something to happen via delayed exposition (see below) but the atmosphere, the incidents, the humour, the, well everything which exists during those waits. There are moments, such as when Luna (one of the best characters to appear on film) simply turns up to dinner in fancy dress as a lion for no particular reason and no one comments on it which are just awesome. To watch the #potterwatch hashtag on my Twitter account over the past week, is to watch someone falling in love with a series of films in a way which has surprised even me. Why should this be the case? Since I've written myself into a corner, here are at least three potential reasons.
I bloody love these #harrypotter films. I really do.— Stuart Ian Burns (@feelinglistless) February 19, 2015
(1) Hermione Granger. Yes, yes, Emma Watson is amazing, but under the pen of JK, Cloves, this actress and the production team, unlike similar figures so many similar clones, as is acknowledged throughout the films, of the three central characters, Hermione's the most powerful and more importantly the cleverest. Even when she's catatonic during The Chamber of Secrets, she's the one who ultimately points Ron and Harry towards said receptacle. Hers is a story of empowerment, fighting against the patriarchy at every turn and as Buzzfeed video it would be wrong not to link to right now says giving "zero fucks". This against a background of extra prejudice within the wizard world thanks to her "muggle" origin. Plus despite all that, despite theoretically being capable of getting any man, she falls for Ron Weasley, which feels really normal and human and with due deference to JK, having her turn into Harry's arms would have been just wrong.
How did I not notice just how good the Potter films were first time around? Order of the Phoenix is astonishing. #potterwatch— Stuart Ian Burns (@feelinglistless) February 20, 2015
(2) Storytelling. I've already touched on this but there's some very clever adaptation which seems to have gone on here. Book readers will be able to correct me, but the approach to adaptation seems to be to have essentially hacked out anything which isn't in Harry's POV then gone in and concreted the cracks where necessary. There are only a handful of scenes which don't have him somewhere in them, which means that there are also few occasions when the audience is privy to information he isn't. In terms of audience identification, it's brilliant even if it goes against the natural tendency of drama (see Hitchcock and the bomb under the table) and leads to plenty of scenes which feature Harry sitting around being told stuff by individuals and groups. Bless Daniel Radcliffe for being able to do this convincingly. If you want to see how young actors incrementally develop their craft, watch these films back to back.
Luna's tear after the unfortunate incident. Sob. #potterwatch— Stuart Ian Burns (@feelinglistless) February 21, 2015
Some examples of where this works well: When Ron disappears in The Deathly Hallows, a more conventional film would have crosscut the two Hs in the tent with lonely Weasley but instead it stays with Harry and we're left to wonder, like Harry, where his friend is and what he's doing. When he returns, Ron tells us his story giving Rupert Grint one of the best speeches in the trilogy by forcing our imaginations to create some magic which could have been entirely conventional if it had simply been put on screen. Plus I can't think of a flashback which isn't seen or experienced through Harry receiving some potion and we're left, like him, to knit the actuality together across the years with Snape's motivations only properly revealed in the final film (see this montage which edits them all together in chronological order and sob).
Basically this narrative is structured around how quickly Hermione can read the Dumbledore biography. #potterwatch— Stuart Ian Burns (@feelinglistless) February 22, 2015
Sometimes it can be frustrating but there's an in-story reason for Harry not being told about things and so the information being withheld from us too. His connection with Voldemort. Though its not ensuated clearly at the beginning, there's a constant fear throughout that this dark lord could easily break into Harry's mind and steal this information which is why its on a need to know. Realising this during the Philosopher's Stone puts an extra complexion on the films as we're essentially we're sharing the frustration with Harry. It would have been very easy to have simply shown us the conversation between the Order of the Phoenix during that film before Harry arrives, but the tension's far more palpable in making us and him wait for it. That's storytelling which has been thought about, that is.
I sort of feel sorry for the Slitherin kids. Stuck in a dungeon because a hat said so. #potterwatch— Stuart Ian Burns (@feelinglistless) February 22, 2015
(3) Imagery. These are simply gorgeous looking films filled with spectacle. Although granted some of the creature designs don't quite work in places, notably Hagrid's brother Grawp, the production design is spectacular. The Department of Mysteries, a totally digital environment, has all the qualities of an art piece, especially as it implodes, the blue light of the crystal balls and shelves shattering into one another. The middle hour of The Deathly Hallows Part One is one of the best pieces of fantasy cinema ever, both because in the midst of this massive expensive blockbuster and it's about three people losing their sanity in a tent and they're doing it against an ominous wilderness away from all their civilisations, portrait like close-ups against wide-angle landscapes.
Luna's facial bruise is utterly terrifying. #potterwatch— Stuart Ian Burns (@feelinglistless) February 22, 2015
None of which really does it justice. Even the flaws, like Tom Felton's one-note performance until the very late stages (not helped by only really having a surname as his single line of dialogue) and Quiddich making little to no sense as a sport (is there ever a match when a seeker doesn't catch a snitch thereby disavowing the need for the rest of the team) are part of the joy of the thing. Even I was saying "Potter!" along with Draco Malfoy by the end. Will I read the books now? Not sure. I can't quite decide if the thing I like about Harry Potter now is what's in the films only or the underlying mythology and if, as I suspect, the things I do love about the films would be spoilt by seeing what's been left out or changed. We'll see. Either way, I was sorry to get to the end and if JK and the rest decide to revisit the characters at some late stage, I'll be right there. Now.