Review 2010: The Opinion Engine: 12/31: Harry Potter (suggested by Annette)

Indian Eagle Owl (star of Harry Potter)

Film On a couple of occasions recently people have asked me where I stand on Harry Potter. The questions seems to be an attempt to divine the kind of human being I am. My initial reaction is that I’m perhaps not as passionate about Potter as some other franchises, certainly not as much as the various Whedonverses, Douglas Adams or Doctor Who.

But I'm certainly not anti-Potter. I just took two decisions early on that have probably effected my connection to the franchise. Firstly, I haven’t read the books. I've decided to enjoy the films as they stood and not have the alternative textual version running in parallel in my head throughout. Second, I’ve only seen everything since Chamber of Secrets once, for reasons which will become apparent.

No queuing at midnight for each exciting hard copy or as I imagine my version would be preordering it on Amazon before Rowling had even finished spell checking (which has to be a nightmare with Potter or has Microsoft supplied her with a special non-muggle version of the dictionary?), so no stories either of dressing as Hagrid and making the appropriate advances to a female peer dress as Herminone.

The most extra-curricular excitement I’ve had is listening to Mark Kermode’s reviews as he comes to terms with the fact that they’ll probably never be as good as The Prisoner of Azkaban but that they’re still rather better than some of the Benjamin Sniddlegrass-like clones, his flappy hands becoming ever more agitated when he's faced with descenting voices. Oh and hello to Jason Isaacs.

Instead, I've spent the past seven-odd years avoiding the tiny spoilers at the expense of the great big ones. With the ever increasing gap between the publication of JK Rowling’s hardcopy and the widescreen version, I’ve often felt like I might as well have returned to source. The unfortunate event at the close of the Half-Blood Prince was broken within minutes of publication, but I managed to avoid hearing about the method.

Which means that when I think about what I love about the movies, I’m mostly trading in faded memories and images in a way which has to be reminiscent of films fans before the home market, remembering vaguely the time travel sequence in Azkaban to the scary search through the swamp in The Half Blood Prince, Hagrid’s laugh to McGonagall glower and only a vague notion of the jargon.

When next Christmas, after nearly a decade, I’ll finally be able to sit and watch these films in a couple of sittings, there will be three elements I’ll be looking out for along with whether it’s possible to enjoy these films as a single story or if they really are just a bunch of episodes. The narrative structure, the actors and the atmosphere. Oh film school, how I miss thee.

I've often pitied Steve Kloves, the screenwriter who's adapted all of the Potter films; like anyone else in his position he's had to deal with the prospect of producing a story the details of which its core audience will already have an intimate knowledge but unlike them, he's had to deal not only with a huge mythology but one which has developed generally outside of his control.

Unlike the Bourne franchise, in which directors Doug Lyman and then Paul Greengrass essentially kept the name of each of the books and then did what they liked, for Potter fans the pictures must ring true to the words. Apparently sections of The Half-Blood Prince had to be reshot in light of revelations from the print version of The Deathly Hallows so that the closing couple of films could still be relatively faithful to the source material.

Most Hollywood franchises also become very bothered with the business of making sure the main character has a goal which is set up at the beginning and is dealt with at the climax. What Kloves has done is appropriate the alternative narrative style of the art house, in which a collection of incidents cumulatively lead to a story, with only the broadest of linking tissue between the scenes.

I love this. If you’re simply keeping with the films they can at times be as entertainingly scatter-shot and obscure as an Andrei Tarkovsky film and all the better for it. I’m frustrated when people complain that they don’t understand some plot element because they haven’t read the book, because it actually allows the viewer to become part author of the work, filling in these gaps for themselves.

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Impossible as it is to imagine now, but sometime around the making of The Goblet of Fire, the scuttlebutt was that since the actors were growing beyond their character’s screen ages, the studio was putting some thought into replacing the leads in the Harry Potter films. If ever there was a banner moment as to how proprietorial I was towards the franchise it was this and I was flabbergasted.

A point of difference in the Potter films was the knowledge that we’d be watching these three younger actors grow and develop both into their characters and in their craft and it seemed unconscionable that the film company could even find worthy replacements. Luckily they’ve seen sense and sure enough once the final two films are released, that unique quality will remain intact.

In casting the central trio the producers with very lucky and clever. Just as Grint has grown into a very fine comic actor, Daniel Radcliffe has gained timelord heroism and Emma Watson could become a very good leading lady in the Kiera Knightley mould assuming all three can find some way of respecting the opportunities this franchise has offered whilst simultaneously not letting themselves become synonymous.

The series has also been able to retain the wider cast in their respective roles. With the high profile exception of ZoĆ« Wanamaker (and Richard Harris god rest his soul) all of the adults, a galaxy of British acting talent have stayed in place, as we’re also seeing a whole school full of kids growing into young adults. If nothing else, the Potter franchise has inspired loyalty amongst its cast.

* * * * *

The films have all retained a consistent atmosphere, better even than some television series, whilst simultaneously pushing the feel of the imagery ever darker. After Alfonso Curan abandoned the golden hues of the two Chris Columbus openers, the photography has become increasingly bluer and greyer, with some scenes in The Half-Blood Prince bordering on nourish monochrome.

This could be interpreted as demonstrating the slow maturity of the main characters, Harry’s inextricable journey towards darkness and his inevitable rematch with you know who, but for me it shows that as directors Mike Newell then David Yates see these as valid artistic endeavours rather than simple franchise pictures, eager that what appears on screen has integrity beyond simply reframing someone else’s text.

Even if those first two films were relatively staid and conventional, they set up the world perfectly so that each small and large measure of destruction wrought on Hogwarts is keenly felt because it means we and the kids will no longer be able to enjoy a game of Quiddich for what it is, the main dramatic thrust whether Harry will can goal, or sit in the main hall and cheer Gryffindor’s end of year score.

So here’s to the end of the series, and to next Christmas when I’ll be able to watch the whole thing again. Perhaps after that I’ll understand more of the jokes, be wanting to buy a Hogwarts scarf even read the books finally and hoping that Rowling will indeed succumb to the temptation and write a proper epilogue so that I can stand outside Waterstones at midnight knowing that I won’t be sleeping for the next seven hundred odd pages.

1 comment:

Annette said...

Good synopsis of the series, but, really, you haven't read the books?!