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Pottering Away: Reflections on the Harry Potter franchise…

It’s quite strange, considering a movie series as opposed to its independent constituent elements. It seems like in taking in the broad tapestry of adventure allows the viewer a completely different appreciation for the story being told, especially when measured against considering each individual film on its own terms. With the Harry Potter series finally ending, I had an excuse to go back and dig through the old DVDs, watching each and every instalment in the series as a means of saying one final goodbye. However, despite the fact that some of the films may have been less impressive than others, or the fact that the plots didn’t always flow consistently from one film to the next, I still think that the eight films taken in their totality represent a rather wonderful accomplishment for all involved.

You could make the argument that the movies aren’t really individual stories, that they’re one over-arching story divided into eight pieces for easier digestion. The idea is that they chart the character growth and development of Harry and his friends from one to the next, with little ultimately getting resolved in each. Only in taking in the entire collection of films can one truly see all the patterns emerging, and follow each and every character in a vast and impressive cast as they embark on their own personal journeys. In a way, it’s an opportunity to grow up not just with Harry, but supporting characters like Luna or the two Weasley twins. While not much might happen to each individual thread over the course of a single movie, they develop over the entire saga.

I honestly don’t think you could really make that case about the films in question. At least not the first four films, to be fair. At the most obvious level, the films from Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone through to Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire each have strong primary plotlines that are relatively episodic. Indeed, Voldemort’s presence is only tangentially felt during Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, which feels like more a character-building adventure than a chapter in an on-going narrative. Even though one can spot the threads advancing and developing, they are very much in the background, and don’t necessarily tie together.

On the other hand, I think you could make the case that the films from Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix through to Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part II are just one long story broken into chapters. Looking at each, it’s hard to discern a primary plotline (for example, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, where the prince in question is an after-thought), but rather a collection of subplots tying together and moving in one general direction. The Order of the Phoenix suffers because not enough of these threads advance far enough, but the Half-Blood Prince works better because – despite the fact nothing gets resolved – the plots all advance a fair distance. So, I think you could make the argument that the second-half of the series is a giant ten-hour film.

In fact, another area where the second half of the series is connected relatively strongly is in the direction. David Yates directed each of te last four films, and one can feel the same visual style at play. The first four films, however, came from three very different directors and – as a result – have markedly different feels. The first two feel like somewhat half-hearted attempts to evoke the seventies and eighties adventures from Steven Spielberg (not a bad influence, to be frank), while the third feels much more macabre and atmospheric – featuring perhaps the best production design of the series. The fourth feels somewhat leaner and tighter than the rest of the series, and more efficient. As a result, it can be quite jarring to watch them all relatively close together.

However, regardless of whether one considers the series as eight distinct films, or merely eight episodes in a larger story, there’s no denying that it was quite a feat to keep pretty much all the actors together and to make sure things tie up relatively well. With the unfortunate and tragic exception of Richard Harris, all of the important players who started from the first film ended in the last one. When an important (or even unimportant) member of the cast was added along the way – Emma Thompson or Jim Broadbent come to mind – they turned up for the big finale. That sort of commitment is rare in Hollywood, where even Christopher Nolan couldn’t carry across his entire cast from Batman Begins to The Dark Knight and the X-Men movies featured three versions Kitty Pryde. Even on a purely nerdy level, one has to appreciate the logistical nightmare of organising something like that.

Still, I think it works not just as a geeky little in-joke. I think keeping the cast so consistent makes it easier to spot and trace the characters through the films. It’s weird to watch the first film and see Ginny and Harry interacting, as the same actors, both actors and characters clearly unaware of what would develop for them. It’s nice, and it adds a certain level of depth to the films that really pays off when watched in a marathon.

On the other hand, the big problem with looking at the films all together is that, while J.K. Rowling seemed to know exactly where her stories were going (right down to Dumbledore’s de-luminator from the opening scene ending up useful to Ron in the final film), she didn’t seem to share it with the people adapting her work. There are obvious exceptions, like the fact that – reportedly – she explained Snape’s entire emotional arc to Rickman so he could play the character convincingly, and reportedly insisting Kreacher be featured earlier in the series so there was no trouble adapting the final book. These are nice touches, but they somewhat ignore the fact that they were the exception rather than the rule.

It’s hard to understand why the ridiculously large deal from Rowling couldn’t have had her reveal the entire plot of the saga to the writers adapting her books. Becuase it’s very hard to adapt one book in a series as tightly-knit as this when you don’t necessarily know what threads are going to be picked up. Though most of the plot holes could be filled with awkward exposition, this really kills the series with the underlying themes. In fact, as one watches the movies, it’s hard to get a consistant read on what the key points of the series as a whole are.

There’s obviously the power of love, which appears fairly consistently throughout, but the movies pick up and drop several themes repeatedly. The connection between Harry and Voldemort – and the debate over whether Harry could ever actually be Voldemort – was alluded to in the first film, discussed a bit in the fourth, and pops back in the fifth, where it is dismissed with a bunch of nonsense and completely forgotten about. It’s a shame, because the scene in the fifth book would have had great emotional resonance if it had been foreshadowed in any way. In the books, Harry does some fairly horrible things (admittedly to some very bad people), but the films kinda gloss over that. So it’s hard to take Sirius’ observation that there’s a continuum between good and evil, when Harry is never anything less than “good.”

I also wish that perhaps the movies weren’t so structurally faithful to the books. Film and books are different mediums, so it stands to reason that works need to be trimmed and chopped in transitioning from one to another. I can’t help but feel like certain sections of the films might have flowed a bit better if the series had been more concerned with telling a great story rather than staying true to the source material. In particular, the reveals about Snape probably should have been handled in a different way on the big screen, instead of being dumped in one giant exposition-filled flashback.

But these are minor complaints. For the most part, the series does hold together well, and most of the movies are solidly entertaining, with one or two being downright exceptional pieces of entertainment. I honestly think that there’s a lot of love out there for the film series, and it’s certainly well-earned. Because, much its three leading actors, it genuinely feels like growing up. It’s that transition between the youthful optimism of the Chris Columbus films to the revelations in the last instalment that not everything Harry believed to be true was necessarily the case. It feels like the audience has watch Harry (and his films) grow up right before their eyes – and it’s quite startling to watch the films in quick succession – it does seem almost like seeing an old friend reach adulthood before your very eyes.

I don’t know if we’ll end up classifying the Harry Potter films in that same affectionate space we reserve for franchises like The Lord of the Rings or the original Indiana Jones and Star Wars trilogies. Truth be told, I’m not sure they fit that categorisation, if only because none of the individual instalments are as powerful as The Empire Strikes Back or Raiders of the Lost Ark. Instead, I think the films exist in a distinct category, where the sum of the experience adds up to be far greater than the quality of an individual film in the series – things like, arguably, James Bond or Star Trek. But it’s arguably distinct from those two, as they can’t really be seen as steps on the same long journey (what does the Bond of Live and Let Die have to teach the Bond of Die Another Day?).

But I think that’s it. I don’t think there’s ever been a franchise quite like Harry Potter, and certainly not one that can be measured against it. Perhaps that’s the series’ greatest legacy captured as a whole: it’s really the first saga of its kind. And that, my friends, is magical.

Read our Harry Potter reviews:

4 Responses

  1. I have always thought that the whole of the saga was truly greater than the sum of the parts. Each movies taken individually are very much flawed and nowhere near masterpieces but taken together, they are truly something special.

    I think keeping the cast together was central to the success of the series. Would most people have been “into” Harry Potter had they recast Harry, Ron and Hermione after the 2nd or 3rd movie? I highly doubt it.

    • I think that’s it in a nutshow. Seperately, they range from “disappointing” to “very good”, but add them together and you’ve got movie magic.

  2. I actually don’t think the first 3 movies were very good at all. IMO, they worked better as books than as movies. There were too, for the lack of a better word, plotty to work well as movies. I think a fair point to bring up is that it took awhile for the main three actors to learn how to act. I don’t think Radcliffe became good until at least the Order of the Pheonix.

    I think the last three “stories” worked much better as films than as books. One of my biggest complaints about the Order of the Pheonix and Half Blood Prince as novels is that barely anything really happens as a stand alone story (unlike the first four installments). This allowed for more “cinematic” moments. The Dumbledore Army sequences played much better on film than they did in the book, as well as the whole affair with Umbridge.

    • I’d agree with you on the first two being diappointing. I like the third less than most, but I think it has stunning production design. And I actually think the kids were better in the earlier films, if only because I probably expected less from them there.

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