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Harry Pottering On: Research & Reviews…

This evening, I will be lucky enough to attend a screening of Harry Potter & The Deathly Hallows: Part II, and have a chance to get my review on-line. However, I must concede that I am not a Harry Potter fanatic. I haven’t read the books. I’ve seen the films, enjoyed the majority for what they are, only found one to be an exercise in tedium, and have a genuine respect for what they’ve managed to accomplish in bringing to life a fairly iconic series of books in a manner that can please both the hardcore fans and the casual movie-goer. However, as I brace myself to attend the screening tonight, I wonder what a film critic owes their subject matter in terms of research. Do I owe the people who made the film, and – possibly – the fans that are going to see it, enough to dig into as much of the back ground as possible before the cinema lights go down?

Witch approach should I adopt?

I quite like the theory that films deserve to be watched in vacuum – the notion that you judge a movie purely based on what you see on the screen. It doesn’t matter what the source material is, how much you loved or loathed the earlier movies in the sequel, any particular respect ou have for an individual writer, actor or director – it all rest on the time between the moment the production company logos appear on-screen and the instant the end credits roll. It’s a somewhat romantic ideal, and it’s one that makes sense from a rational point of view. After all, a movie that can claim to good based solely on the power of its source material probably isn’t a good movie to begin with, and a movie that’s only “weakness” is a possible lack of fidelity to the original can’t really be too bad overall.

I also like this approach in theory because it starts with the safest possible assumption: nobody knows anything about the movie before it starts. This might not necessarily be the soundest assumption to make, but – while the fans of the books in question will devour the film – I imagine a significant portion of the audience will come to it never having read the work of J.K. Rowling. To be honest, a great many of them will have watched the earlier films (much as I have), and I imagine that there will be a wide variety in the type of knowledge of the franchise they will have. Some, I imagine, will have only seen each movie once (perhaps even in the cinema), while others will have watched the last film countless times before jumping into this one.

There's no guide to handling adaptations...

So it’s impossible to claim that any specific level of knowledge can be said to best represent the “average” film viewer. And, in that sense, it seems reasonable to start at the lower end of the scale. After all, there are countless well-run and articulate fan-sites out there that will offer a breakdown of how the movie diverges from the source material at a given point and pointing out an inconsistencies with characterisation across mediums. I am just a movie buff attending a fantasy film, perhaps it makes sense to go in at something close to complete blindness.

The only problem is that this is not only completely impossible, but also completely inconsistent. It might be a good idea in theory to view films in a vacuum, but I don’t really think it’s possible. I will freely confess, for example, to growing up as a Star Trek nerd. I knew (and, to some extent, still know) the franchise inside-out. I may try to leave that knowledge and bias at the door going into JJ Abram’s superb relaunch, but I am not so rigidly rational that I can divorce myself entirely from it. I may try to watch the film around that big pool of knowledge and affection that the average cinema-goer doesn’t have, but it will creep into my perception of the film, and subtly colour my review.

It's hard to keep trek...

Does that render my review invalid? Does it make it biased? Does it distance my commentary on the film from the average film fanatic who is just looking to kill a few hours on a lazy Saturday? I would hope not.I think that a good movie is still a good movie, and I can spot that through my own prior awareness of an actor, a movie or a brand. Even if I can’t, I don’t think I’m that much more irrational than any other film critic, who must logically face the same sort of problem from time to time. When the inevitable big-screen release of Catcher in the Rye comes along, which reviewer’s opinion is more valid: the one who has read the original book, or the one who hasn’t?

Of course, all of this is predicated on the argument that any opinion can be “valid” or “invalid.” I see this argument on-line all the time, especially when it comes to geek-related properties that mainstream critics have decided to attack with a rather severe viciousness. The latest example is Green Lantern, but Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen arguably falls into the same pattern, with commentators suggesting the a reviewer’s opinion in invalid because they don’t possess an in-depth awareness of the source material. The argument seems to be that if these reviewers knew a bit more about the source material, they’d appreciate the attention to detail in bringing it to the screen, and that this knowledge would translate into a much greater affection for the film. And, to be honest, I find such a position downright offensive.

A little research can transform a bad movie?

And this comes from someone, if you’ll forgive me a hint of immodesty, who prides himself on his geek knowledge. I know my Green Lantern mythos inside and out. I know my Hal Jordan from my Kyle Rayner. I know my green ring from my yellow ring. I knew Sinestro was going to turn evil even before his name was spoken aloud (because “Sinestro” is kinda a big hint). And you know what? None of this makes the movie a good film. None of the attention to detail or background information invalidates the rather significant flaws in the film in question.

Because, to be honest, a good film is a good film, and a bad film is a bad film. None of the flaws with Transformers 2 or Green Lantern had to do with the source material. They had to do with how the movies were made. You could take the same movies and build them around different (or even original) constructs and they’d still be very weak examples of cinema. The structure of the films are weak. Green Lantern has a horrible script crammed with exposition rather than dialogue, and races through its scenes like a checklist rather than a joyride. Transformers 2 is just a muddy, convoluted, hard-to-follow mess. Knowing the background information is like having a map – it might help you make sense of what you saw a bit more, but it doesn’t take the potholes out of the road.

You don't need nerd love to make a gripping adaptation...

It works the other way as well. Even if you’ve never seen Batman before in your life (which is, admittedly, highly unlikely), The Dark Knight is a very well-made piece of cinema. I knew very little about Harry Potter at the time, but I really enjoyed Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, because it was an efficiently made and enjoyable piece of work on its own terms. I think that most movie critics and film-goers just want to see a good film, and I think that they’re smart enough to recognise that when they see it – regardless of how of how much or how little they know about the source material in question.

And, to be honest, fidelity isn’t a virtue of itself. I think Watchmen – which I enjoyed more than most – taught us that. The movie worked (just about), but it struggled in bringing the static panels from the comic to life, rather than trying to reinvent the story for a new and different medium. Hell, if you ask me, Tim Burton’s Batman Returns is one of the most impressive comic book movies ever made, and it divorces itself fairly dramatically from any previous incarnation of the characters involved – but it says something very true and clever about the world of Batman, and illustrates why he works as a Tim Burton character (best line: “you’re just jealous because I’m a real freak… and you have to wear a mask!”). Even that most beloved adaptation, The Godfather, significantly reworks Mario Puzo’s pulpy little book to make something incredible and powerful in its own right.

A straight from the page adaptation can often just be a soulless copy of the original...

That said, I do think that a little knowledge and insight to external factors can enhance certain viewing experiences. But this is my own personal opinion, and that’s the wonderful thing about the web – everybody can voice their own opinions. So, I won’t pretend to speak with authority on this (who am I kidding, I never pretend to speak with authority), but I’d suggest that Apocalypse Now is a much more powerful viewing experience if you know about madness that seemed to infect the shoot. Similarly, I’d argue that Shutter Island is a more interesting film to watch if you know that Martin Scorsese turned down the chance to direct Schindler’s List. But, once again, I don’t think that this background knowledge is necessary or required – and I don’t think they’ll redeem either film if you don’t like them, or ruin any if you love them.

I suppose my conclusion is that I don’t really have a conclusion, beyond the belief that any film should be able to stand independent of its source material. After all, different people will know different things going into a film, and there’s no real objective baseline that everybody starts at. I suppose that’s true of any basis of evaluation of any film, not just with background knowledge or source material.

I’ll just try to do my best.

2 Responses

  1. Honestly, no amount of research would save one’s opinion of “Transformers.” In fact, the animated show having been a staple of my childhood made Bay’s films even more unbearable for me.

    I was, however, able to forgive some of the faults of “Watchmen” with the graphic novel in mind. Being able to see some of the panels animated brought me enough joy to get by on.

    If you get a chance this summer I would read the “Harry Potter” books. I would love to read a comparative retrospective of yours. Seven (some of them lengthy) novels might seem a daunting task but, I assure you, they all read incredibly fast and effortlessly.

    If one thing can be said of Rowling’s work it would be that it’s accessible; I’ve never spent more than 48-hours reading any one of the novels and I’m not a particularly quick reader.

    • Might give it a go, although I’ve already ran through (most of) the films. Looking at Goblet of Fire’s width, I imagine a chainsaw had to taken to that one.

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