June 19, 2004

A Little Touch of Harry in the Night

Attila the Hub and I saw the latest Harry Potter film today. We enjoyed it, but the Azkaban story was the first book that spun out of control (depending on your point of view) in terms of length, so the amount of material that had to come out of the book in order to bring the movie in at under five hours was noticeable. I will have this problem with the next two films, for sure--and probably all of them in the future: there's no way they will be able to include all the sub-plots. This is what Rowling gets for writing the Nineteenth-Century Russian Novels of Children's literature.

A lot has been written about the "dark, gritty" quality of the movie. It's true: both literally and figuratively this installment is darker than the first two. It was like watching a child's first horror movie at moments, it was so gothic in feel (yet modern-scary, too, with a lot of fast cuts meant to startle the audience; thank you, M. Night Shymalan). And striking this dark note might be a good warning for parents: after all, Movie Number Four (Goblet of Fire) will begin the Significant Present-Day Casualties. It could be that the filmmakers were letting us know: "The party's over. Don't take your youngest kids to these films any more."

Still. Why do that before you have to? So much charm, wit and humor was stripped out of the story that it made it hard to indulge the director in a lot of the "extras" that made it in. ("You cut out my favorite parts, but want me to hang with a long ride over a lake on a Hippogrif? I'll have to think about that one." I didn't think long, because that is one of the best visual scenes in the movie, and foreshadowed the importance of the lake in the coming plot twists. But, still.)

Some things were done right. Showing the kids in contemporary street clothes was absolutely correct: this story is set in present-day Britain, though Hogwarts is as old as a lot of European castles and contains ancient wizard traditions within its walls. I was also okay with the kids getting visibly older. After all, so do the characters: by a year or so per story [/snarkiness]. (Though I didn't have any of the same "ohmigod I'm a pedophile" moments that I experienced with the Chamber of Secrets. The camera didn't linger on Daniel Radcliffe's face in the same way, so one only noted in passing that he's developing into a fine-looking young man, as opposed to being struck over and over that This Kid Will Be a Serious Heartbreaker in About Five Years.)

And then there is the genuinely lovely symbolism: We continually see Harry and his friends against the backdrop of a building-sized clock, with a pendulum that sweeps along the main hall, hovering just over their heads in a swing that encompasses thirty feet or so. This is (obviously) a hint that time will be one of the adversaries in this story. And as the movie opens we see only darkness until we zoom in on Harry, reading by the light of his wand, which he's using as a flashlight, muttering the spell that makes it emit light over and over: the framing of the scene shows Harry's importance as a leader in (and savior of) the wizard world—and the lumos spell foreshadows the importance of his Patronus to the plot.

Still, I'd be happier if more of the charm and humor of the original had been left in. For instance, The Knight Bus was a lovely chapter in the first book, but becomes ugly and frightening in the movie.

Also, some elements were downplayed that will only have to be addressed in the next book, most notably the tension between Dumbledore and the Ministry of Magic.

And then there are my smaller quibbles: we are cheated out of a second view of the white stag, and its significance is never explained. And most fans are pretty unhappy that we never learn the origin of the Marauder's Map. I'm not sure Cuaron and Columbus would have done better by giving us more historical background, though: as it was there was some "talky" explanation that bogged things down a bit, as my husband remarked. No easy answers, here.

I think it's about time for me to re-read all the existing ones, and check on the release date for book Number Six.

I liked this the least of the existing three movies, but I recognize that at this point I'm always going to have an argument with the plot-trimming that will simply have to be done.

Nostalgia ain't, as they say, what it used to be.

Posted by Attila at June 19, 2004 03:51 AM

I am not the best one to comment since I admit that I lost interest in the Harry Potter books near the beginning of the fourth book, and I didn't care for the first two movies at all.

All that said? I think the darker, grittier stuff is not a problem for kids. I think they understand that stuff better than we want to give them credit for.

Posted by: Dean Esmay at June 19, 2004 11:50 AM

Hm. I think Bruno Bettelheim said much the same thing.

Posted by: Attila Girl at June 19, 2004 02:53 PM

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