Friday, July 17, 2009

Harry Potter and the Half-Assed Film Adaptation

Right...I have a blog.

Its funny that when I returned to this blog from my months-long hiatus, I was met with Starey McBlueBritches from the execrable Watchmen. I haven't been posting because I hate blogging about myself, and I've been busy with broken arms and dogs and vacations and general spring/summer enjoyment. But there is one thing that is sure to get my hackles up and fuel my tank for a good internet-rant: a crap movie. I don't know why this is so. Maybe its the feeling that I was just robbed of $10 and several hours, although I have no similar reaction to losing equal time and vastly more $$ to, say, an orthopedist. But it doesn't matter why, what matters is Harry Potter and the BlahBlahBlah was the laziest screenwriting specimen I've seen in a while.

First off, let me say that I thought this movie was pretty fun (although I can only imagine what someone unfamiliar with the books thought- completely incoherent is probably top of the list). I thought the beginning was great, especially the Londoner in-joke with the wobbly destruction of the Millenium Bridge (and a cameo by the Tate Modern!). Jim Broadbent was a nice mixture of bluster and fear as Slughorn, and the wee Tom Riddles hit just the right tone of nascent CrazyPantsEvil. I even enjoyed the (slightly forced, chemistry-free) Adolescent Sexual Awakening Played for Laughs. It was kind of a butt-number, but as a Harry Potter Fan (TM), there was enough there to keep me happy.

Also, full disclosure, the 6th book was my favorite and so I may be judging a little more harshly than I would for, say, the lameness that was Chamber of Secrets. I mean really, who expected that one to be any good? I also recognize that there was a hell of alot of exposition in this book and no immediate villian (bar the perpetually whinging Draco) which makes film construction more difficult. Its really just a tee-up for Deathly Hallows. I get it, Mr. Director, I do. Its a difficult book to adapt, the most difficult in the series even.

But that's where my sympathies end. Because what the book does have is a tremendous emotional climax, the death of Albus Dumbledore. And bafflingly that is where the filmmakers decided to get off the direct book-to-film transposition train. Why??? Its the easiest part of the book to adapt! Its all there- Draco's (relative) redemption, the spawn of the Great Snape Debate, Harry's frantic suffering at his physical inability to do ANYTHING to save his mentor & protector, the Hogwarts battle, the death itself (scriptwriting paydirt!)... And then the emotional denouement, Dumbledore's funeral, which, apart from providing closure and a proper send-off for Herr Primary Plot Driver (I mean, beloved character), sets up everything for the next steps.

And what do we get? Well, I'll tell you.

1. We get more of this:

Yep, the same snivelling Draco we had for the last 2 hours. Honestly, did he have a line in this movie? All I remember is "WAAAAAAAAAAHHH." Yeah, he whines in the book, but hey, that's a book and if there's one constant in bad adaptations everywhere, its that things that work on the page don't often translate directly onto the screen. Even in the theater, I couldn't help drifting off into thoughts of Lord of the Rings, and how Peter Jackson et al really thought about the book as a film. They agonized over pacing (as one must when one is dealing with these kinds of running times) and had no compunctions about chopping stuff out, changing the order of action, and moving things from one book to another film- but never without a real narrative or editorial reason for it.

My LoTR uber-fandom makes my Harry Potter fandom look decidedly anemic, and when I first saw the LoTR films (esp Fellowship) alot of those changes enraged my purist sensibilities. But looking at them now, I can see that they do make the trilogy better able to stand on its own as film. The fifth Harry Potter film, Order of the Phoenix, came close to achieving this- it was tighter and much more structured. They pared it down to the essential story and told it relatively well. Unsurprisingly, I have since learned that Phoenix was the only Potter adaptation not penned by Steve Kloves. Blargh. I mean, it was the same director (David Yates) so I feel like the fault has to be mostly in the script. Except for the whole thing where the director is ultimately responsible for the script, of course...

2. We get the removal of all question about Snape's loyalty. Really, even without that ridiculous pre-murder interlude with Harry its pretty obvious that Snape's one of the good ol' boys. One of the great things about the 6th book is that you really don't know where Snape's allegiance lies or why he really cursed the old guy. On the one hand, you have the ultimate betrayal of the ultimate good, cementing Snape as perhaps more evil than the Dark Lord. On the other, you have the potential for a pretty sweet reveal in the final novel, and a staunch statement in favor of trust. Internet debates galore between the release of those two books!

This is his face immediately before/after murdering Dumbledore- come ON!

Yeah, most people seeing the movie have read the books and so yeah, they know- but that ambiguity, apart from its greater narrative interest, informs many of the choices Harry makes in Deathly Hallows. If you give away Snape before the seventh film even starts, aren't alot of those decisions going to a)make Harry look like a blind idiot, or b)become entirely nonsensical? Not to mention the loss of impact of that redemption scene!

3. We get Harry as a free agent during those crucial moments, thus tearing down SIX FILMS (yes, I meant six) worth of characterization. Instead of spending the scene petrified under an invisibility cloak, unable to do anything but watch impotently as Dumbledore is mown down, Harry is simply "ordered" to remain out of sight and not interfere "no matter what happens." So he stands there. Watching through the floor boards like a scullery maid. With his wand drawn. Pointed at feet.

Granted, he looks mighty upset about it. But did you not just spend the entirety of five films and the bulk of the sixth setting him up as an overly impulsive, overly loyal, overly protective boy wonder with no particular regard for orders or his own safety? How does this behavior make sense given anything we've seen from this character? Not one hour ago we watched him run alone and wand blazing into a cornfield full of Death Eaters just because they showed up in the vicinity of his friends' house! And now we're expected to believe he's going to stand there and watch the only father figure he's ever known take the pointy end of a killing curse just because he's ordered to?

Or, even worse, because he actually believes his blood is "more precious" than Dumbledore's, thanks to all those lines awkwardly shoe-horned into the horcrux-retrieval mission?

Or maybe it was because the aforementioned pre-murder interlude with Snape made Harry go all weak at the knees and realize that his years-long hatred for the potions master was actually just insatiable lust. They were making goo-goo eyes at each other, after all. And there was an awful lot of "wand" pointing. And it took place in the Astronomy Tower- everyone knows what goes on up there. Actually, this would make the last film pretty interesting...

But I digress.

4. No Hogwarts battle. While one could argue that its not strictly necessary to the plot (unlike, obviously, the Ron-Lavender make-out sessions), the battle inside of Hogwarts gave a nice sense of immediacy to the story. It was an invasion of Harry's home, his sanctuary, and an hors d'oeuvre of the final battle. It was (if I recall correctly...which I may not) the first chance we get to see Dumbledore's Army in action, and all of Harry's little friends get to have their Not Just Students Anymore moment. Plus, it was a ominous taste of what could happen if Boy Wonder fails to defeat Voldemort. Instead, somehow all these Death Eaters just run right out of the castle without being the least delayed so that Harry can get right to his teary, pathetic confrontation with Snape.

5. No funeral. Instead there was a sort of impromptu candlelight vigil by all the Hogwartians. This bugged me less than it did some others, who felt cheated by the cheap send-off of a hero. They felt they weren't given the chance to grieve. Bitches, you grieved in the book. Quit crying. Seeing Dumbledore's tomb could have been nice, since it has a pretty big role to play in the finale. But narratively speaking, the funeral wasn't super important either. From a filmic perspective though, I don't really get its exclusion- its a pretty easy emotional denouement, wouldn't have had to take any more time than the way they did it (back in the Astronomy Tower??), and would have given them a chance to have one of those CGI-heavy crowd flyover shots filmmakers like so much.

What really gets me though is that I have a sneaking suspicion that the funeral will in fact be rendered on celluloid- but that it will be bumped to the seventh film. Not for any narrative reason (clearly as an opening it will be stripped of all impact), but to help justify the splitting of the final installment into two movies. Double the movies, double the cash!!

And that's essentially how this whole movie felt. Harry Potter films will make money- by now, that's a fait accompli. So it seems like the filmmakers just don't care anymore (if they ever did) whether they make a good movie or a mediocre one. But, dammit, they ought to care! The story is chugging along, the actors are getting to an age where a director can actually do something with them, and the material is good! Its all there! They just have to think about how it translates to the screen rather than make a slavish translation of the book with a soupcon of sops to the fandom.

Although the real kicker here is that it could have been salvaged if it had been a little more slavish. I mean, really, two hours of tedious teenage hormones and you only decide to veer from the book in order to eviscerate the totally cinematic finale? Back to Screenwriting 101, Steve Kloves.

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