Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1 (Book and Movie)

So it has come to pass. Twenty years after an “idea simply fell into” author J.K. Rowling’s head, we are nearing the completion of a franchise development truly without precedent. Not only did Rowling manage to write an extremely rare heptilogy of novels, and make every one engaging enough to keep readers begging for more, but Warner Brothers Studios is now nearing completion of a truly unique achievement: an actual octilogy of multi-hundred-million dollar films, consistently written and cast over ten years. This achievement deserves mention, even if it’s ultimately just a testament to mindless consumerism. With so many major characters in the epic tale, many of them juveniles, keeping the entire cast together for eight movies must have been a managerial and legal nightmare, to say nothing of churning the movies out fast enough to (almost) keep up with the aging actors. Add to that the level of special effects the story requires and the problems always posed by child actors, and it’s truly amazing any of these films turned out decent.

And I would have to say, that’s just what they are: decent. Nothing more, nothing less. None of them are bad by any means, but it’s impossible for me to watch one without thinking about how much more powerful the book was. The books, unfettered by the logistical problems mentioned above, and free to be as long as they needed, took us to places no movie ever could. Two of the most powerful scenes from Book VII – when Ron destroys the locket, and when Herminoe attacks him afterward – have been reread many times by me, drinking in every word and feeling the raw emotion of the characters. Both of these scenes are pretty flat in the movie. In all honesty, though, I can’t read the more recent books without longing for the early books.

The tone of the stories has certainly changed along the way from Sorceror’s Stone to Deathly Hallows. Check out this excerpt from Stone, chapter 8:

There were a hundred and forty two staircases at Hogwarts: wide, sweeping ones; narrow rickety ones; some that led somewhere different on a Friday; some with vanishing steps halfway up that you had to remember to jump. Then there were doors that wouldn’t open unless you asked politely, or tickled them in exactly the right place, and doors that weren’t really doors at all, but solid walls just pretending. It was also very hard to remember where anything was because it all seemed to move around a lot. The people in the portraits kept going to visit each other, and Harry was sure the coats of armor could walk.

Now listen to Hallows, chapter 1:

“Do you recognize our guest, Severus?” asked Voldemort. Snape raised his eyes to the upside-down face. All of the Death Eaters were looking up at the captive now, as though they had been given permission to show curiosity. As she revolved to face the firelight, the woman said in a cracked and terrified voice, Severus! Help me!”

“Ah, yes,” said Snape as the prisoner turned slowly away again. “For those of you who do not know,” said Voldemort, “We are joined here tonight by Charity Burbage who, until recently, taught at Hogwarts.”  There were small noises of comprehension around the table. A broad, hunched woman with pointed teeth cackled. “Yes, Professor Burbage taught the children of witches and wizards all about Muggles … how they are not so different from us …”

“Severus … please … please …”

Nobody laughed this time. There was no mistaking the anger and contempt in Voldemort’s voice. For the third time, Charity revolved to face Snape. Tears were pouring from her eyes into her hair. Snape looked back at her, quite impassive, as she turned slowly away from him again.

Avada Kedavra.”

The flash of green light illuminated every corner of the room. Charity fell, with a resounding crash, onto the table below, which trembled and creaked. Several Death Eaters leapt back in their chairs. Draco fell out of his onto the floor. “Dinner, Nagini,” said Voldemort softly, and the great snake swayed and slithered from his shoulders onto the polished wood.

We all love stories about more exciting worlds hidden in our own. As we all know, the premise of Harry Potter is that there is a civilization of wizards and witches living in hiding somewhere within our own world. There are enough of them and they have enough power and resources to have their own towns, traditions and unique modes of transportation. Of course, if you’re buying this, you’ll probably buy that there are mutant turtles practicing ninjitsu in the sewer. Why haven’t any of the zillion satellites orbiting the earth photographed Hogwarts? How could an airborne event the size of the Quiditch World Cup go unnoticed by Muggles? If wizards are so powerful, why do they need to hide? The story occasionally posits flimsy explanations for this, but of course, we all know, the real answer is WHO FRICKIN’ CARES? Harry Potter gives us the chance to escape our world completely and enter one of dragons, adventure and the moral clarity that’s hard to find in real life.

Some more questions about Harry’s world: if Parseltounge is such a rare gift, why can any human apparently talk to Aragog the Spider in Chamber of Secrets? Why is Hogwarts full of ghosts, while Harry’s parents and other’s killed by Voldemort are truly gone?  (This one must have hit Rowling about halfway through the series, because she starts ignoring the ghosts as much as possible about then.) Things like this weren’t a problem when we laughed with 11-year-old Harry on magical school grounds, but as Rowling made the books more and more serious and world-changing, we were forced to question them more and more. One of the most irritating features of the movies is that they increasingly portray Harry against a backdrop of skyscrapers. Harry Potter was at his best when we could join him in a closed universe, nothing like our own, and forget our troubles amid the innocent fun of quiddich and wizard’s chess. Frankly, the subject matter of Harry Potter just isn’t worthy of epic battles and mature romance.

Having said all this, I must confess that I still genuinely enjoyed the later books, and genuinely enjoyed Deathly Hallows, Part 1. Splitting this story in half enables the film to at least come closer to the depth and richness of the book. I’m eager to see Part 2. If you’re a Potter fan, you should check this one out. Just do me one favor. Don’t deprive yourself by only watching the movies. PLEASE read the books.

The Book:

The Movie:

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Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Part 1)

Harry Potter Deathly HallowsI’m not the world’s most aredent Harry Potter Fan.  I read the first three books partly out of a sense of generational obligation, and partly out of mild curiosity, but always found their Lord of the Rings-lite sensibilities to be more than a bit uninteresting.  They were entertaining and charming, but midway through Goblet of Fire I gave up and went back to George Orwell and Tolkien.  I just wasn’t too interested in Harry Potter’s adolescent crises amidst the magical world of Hogwarts and bludgers and muggles…oh my!  Well, not in reading about them anyway.  I did enjoy the movies, as they tended to distill the essence of each book into an easily digestable cinematic experience, and all of them have been pretty solid film offerings unlike some other book-to-movie adaptations.  I also appreciated that the themes of the books and movies tended to mature with the characters and, subsequently, their audience.  There’s only so many Quidditch games and slug-vomiting potions a guy can take before he takes the advice of his 6th grade D.A.R.E. instructor and just walks away.

But the most recent movies like Order of the Phoenix and Half-Blood Prince (not to mention the ending of Goblet of Fire, which I thought was a bit of a cheap move on Rowling’s part, but dark nonetheless) have seen the tension factor ratcheting up higher, the implications of the conflicts grow ever wider, and the characters dealing with some serious life-and-death stuff.  Add to that some examination of spirituality and romance, and the Harry Potter series really has come a long way since magical chess games and diatribes on the correct pronunciation of Wingardium Leviosa.

Deathly Hallows: Harry, Ron, Hermione Grown Up

Harry, Ron, and Hermione, all growed up.

And so we have the stage set for the final chapter in the Harry Potter series.  Doing away with the concept of exposition entirely, since if you don’t know who these people are by now you have no business watching, the film gets right down to business with Potter and his friends on a mission to escape a posse of evil Death Eaters sent by Lord Voldemort, J.K. Rowling’s counterpart to Dr. Claw.  They all meet up at the Weasleys, the most ill-conceived safe house location ever (unless Hagrid and company were hoping Voldemort and his goons would overlook the most obvious place in the world for Harry Potter and his friends to hole up for a while) and take pains to evade detection by the most powerful evil wizard in the world by having a gigantic wedding party for a pair of secondary characters whom we are supposed to know or care about.  Soon Harry, Ron, and Hermione set out on the ultimate teenage wizard road trip/collect-a-thon as they try to locate seven Horcruxes–objects where Voldemort has stored up bits of his eternal soul.  Destroying these will bring an end to evil once and for all and allow Harry to finally get some much-needed closure about his parents’ murder too.

It’s actually kind of refreshing to have a Harry Potter movie focus so much on the three main characters.  Hogwarts is nowhere to be found in the entire film, and instead Potter and his friends set out to make the ultimate travel brochure by visiting every last gorgeous landscape and sweeping vista to be found in the entire United Kingdom.  As they magically transport from one locale to the next, they deal with a lot of relationship issues and even have a bit of good old-fashioned romantic jealousy come between them (even though Ron and Hermione are about as believable of a couple as Anakin and Amidala) while seeking out the Horcruxes and delving deeper into the mystery of the Deathly Hallows.  We are also given much more insight into the characters of Draco and Lucius Malfoy, and begin to ask some serious questions about Professor Snape as well.  It’s this type of three-dimensionality that this final installment offers that sets it high above so many other entries in the fantasy genre.

Deathly Hallows: Draco Malfoy

Draco Malfoy, who doesn't know the meaning of the phrase "bad hair day."

It’s an engaging tale well told, and as dark and grim as the series has ever been.  A couple beloved characters have been dispatched over the various entries in the series, but in Deathly Hallows it seems no one is safe from the Grim Reaper’s scythe.  The film even has some genuinely disturbing parts too, and is certainly not a movie for kids.  Women are tortured and sacrificed, bodies are mutilated, and we see Potter and his friends go to some very dark places in order to do what needs to be done.  It’s a world of ambiguity and grey morality, and offers some thought-provoking questions on what it means to simply do the right thing.

In the nine years since The Sorcerer’s Stone was unleashed into theatres, Harry Potter and his friends have been on some absolutely incredible journeys.  It’s almost sad to see things finally coming to an end, and as such I didn’t mind at all that this final film was split into two parts (Part 2 is scheduled to blow the doors off the box office in summer 2011).  We’re in the homestretch now, and even though Deathly Hallows is a striking departure from the rest of the series, it is a fitting beginning to the graceful swan song the series deserves.

Rating:

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Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

harry-potter-and-the-order-of-the-phoenix-1-800x600The best installment of the franchise so far, ‘Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” is a dark and visceral film full of spectacle, action and strong storytelling.

Harry and friends must now do battle with the new evil Professor of Defense Against the Dark Arts (it seems there’s always a new one), Professor Umbridge (Imelda Staunton). She takes over Hogwarts and abuses her authority under Ministry rule to rid the school of any performing of magic. No one believes Harry that Lord Voldemort has returned, and since the school can no longer prepare the kids for the dark times to come, Harry takes it upon himself to secretly train his fellow classmates, under the title ‘Dumbledor’s Army,’ to prepare for battle.

This installment of the franchise is brilliant from beginning to end. The story here is most involving. David Yates comes on board for this fifth film adaptation and works wonders. The events in the film truly take the series to new realms and darker corners, but these characters are just great to watch. Imdela Staunton as Professor Umbridge is an evil delight, and a strong addition to the film.  With the impending battle between Hogwarts and Voldemort drawing closer, ‘Order of the Phoenix’ has the opportunity to have a much more plot-driven film, a suspenseful action-adventure that sees further drama bridging to the final events to come. This is a great film.

-MJV & the Movies

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Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

azkabanHarry Potter has a chance to simultaneously lighten up and get serious in ‘The Prisoner of Azkaban,’ widely considered (to my disagreement) the best installment of the franchise thus far. A new director and a fresh tone do liven things up a little bit as our lead hero enters his teenage years with rebellion and frustration intact.

The story sends the young magic trio back to school under the alarming news that Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), a savage murderer– also an accomplice in the death of Harry’s parents–has escaped from Azkaban prison. Dementors (wraith like spirits with soul-sucking power) are dispatched to seek the prisoner out, that is if Potter doesn’t find him first and have his revenge, or possibly fall victim to the dementors himself.azkaban 2

Right out of the gate, I think ‘Prisoner of Azkaban’ trumps its predecessors as far as all the technical aspects go. The action and special effects are first-rate. There are some great sequences to thrill to, especially a few CGI additons: a horse-bird hybrid called Buckbeak and a few menacing werewolves.  The plot is serviceable enough–I particularly enjoyed developments toward the film’s climax.  The story also introduces us to a new ‘Harry Potter,’ a blood-thirsty teenager not just sad about the loss of his parents and not so easily cornered by his tormenting aunt and uncle. This Harry fights back with disregard, and all three youngsters mature in that light.  Credit the lighter feel of the film to its new director, Alfonso Cuaron, who trims the running time by approximately twenty minutes, allows more humor to find its way into the material, and somehow manages to make this darker premise not so heavy.  I will say this is the most inventive film of the series, but I felt the plot contained less suspense than ‘The Chamber of Secrets’ and lost some of that ‘dreary and haunted’ vibe. And to Cauron’s credit, that’s because ‘Azkaban’ seems aimed at being more fun. I did enjoy it, but it wasn’t my favorite.


-MJV & the Movies.

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Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

chamberThe ‘Potter’ series gets a boost with “The Chamber of Secrets,” Chris Columbus’ second outing at Hogwarts. This time out Harry, Hermione and Ron must discover what’s causing the paralyzing of students at school, a beast or monster perhaps, buried within the mysterious  ‘chamber of secrets,’ and they must act fast as the victims are piling up, or the school will soon be closed.chamber 2

This is a much darker, meatier film than we got the first time around. The story takes interesting turns, and the suspense actually keeps the audience on edge, huge Potter fanatics or not.’The Sorcerer’s Stone’ really strayed from any straight-forward plot mechanics and simply took us into its world and introduced the characters and purpose of magic. ‘Chamber of Secrets’ allows its characters to go further and work within the confines of an interesting story that actually holds some striking interest. And while I griped that the special effects were a bit lacking the first time around, this film steps it up considerably. The Quidditch sequences are much more fluid, the flying car sequences are a treat, and watch out for the dark forest with giant man-eating arachnids– good stuff!chamber 3

I can complain about minor CGI characters or the film’s running time over and over, but it wouldn’t be worth my while. These movies are stuck at 2 1/2 hours roughly, and at least this one makes use of the time. With a production design like this, pitch perfect actors growing into their roles, and a solid story, ‘Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets’ is definitely a worthy installment and an improvement over ‘Part One.’

-MJV & the Movies

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Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

harrypotter1With the latest installment of easily the most financially viable film series of all time hitting theaters this week, I sought out the previous entries and decided to take a look back at them. I remember missing “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” in theaters. The books were sparked with early controversy for kid readers, were wildly popular, and I’ve never found my way into one to this day. In the holiday season of 2001, this was undoubtedly the most hyped movie in theaters, and was neck-and-neck with the other geek-fandom opus that was the first ‘Lord of the Rings’ installment. At the year’s end, even after ‘Rings’ walked away with 13 Oscar nominations and major critical praise, ‘Harry Potter 1’ wore the crown of the year’s biggest blockbuster, squeaking past the hobbits with only $3 million more. There’s no point in arguing that the ‘Rings’ trilogy is a better line of films, but Harry Potter has gone on to its sixth entry, with the final two productions in development.  Each flick has averaged around $260 million domestically and nearly $1 billion globally– again, that is per film!  What will Warner Bros. do without this dominating franchise? And better yet, will these films stand the test of time?

It is with this curiosity that I decided to go back to the most successful film of the series, the only one to pass $300 million domestically, the one that kick-started the whole phenomenon. Director Chris Columbus, frequent John Hughes collaborator, has seen his share of success in the industry, with the first two blockbuster ‘Home Alone’ films and ‘Mrs. Doubtfire’ to his credit — the man knows family films with mass appeal. Granted, his films never have a personal touch or much beyond the syrupy consumer pulp culminating most movies, but he does make enjoyable flicks nonetheless.

‘Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone’ is no exception. This is a good, wholesome, enjoyable movie with magic in it, but without a magical touch. I often love origin stories, and so I tend to become engulfed in how things begin, and become less intrigued when a series plays out after all this discovery. Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) discovers he’s a wizard of  famously murdered parents and finds his way to the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry where dark conspiracies run amok. He meets two pals, Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) and Ronald Weasley (Rupert Grint). The trio embarks on a Scooby-Doo investigation to unveil the secret of a dark wizard named Voldemort, whom Potter seems to have an interesting connection to, and his plot to steal the secret Sorcerer’s stone, which would grant him unearthly power.
HaPo

The plot serves and a very drawn out film at over 2 1/2 hours, but of course that’s due to the lengthy book from J.K. Rowling which I haven’t read.   I suppose that doesn’t build my credit in reviewing the film here. As such, the movie should stand on its own terms anyway. And it does.  Columbus’ film can be a bit hokey and a bit too long, but the characters are undoubtedly fascinating. The three young actors work wonders and really do add something magical to some slow pacing and shoddy special effects that don’t hold up quite as well today. I’m mostly focusing on the Quidditch game where the youngsters are flying around on broomsticks playing ‘fetch’ with a fancier title. These effects aren’t too bad, I don’t mean to point fingers at an eight-year-old film, but they are noticeable by today’s standards. The casting overcomes any of these obstacles in the way of the production and light direction.  Radcliffe, Grint, and Watson shine and add a sense of reality to their characters, an amazing feat for being so young.  The film also boasts notable supporting actors including the late Richard Harris as Professor Dumbledor, Alan Rickman in  scene-stealing over-the-top brilliance as the dark Professor Snape, and the always-intelligible Maggie Smith.
‘The Sorcerer’s Stone’ remains a solid introduction to a fascinating franchise. The film’s action sequences have energy, the characters have believability, the magic in it is fun for kids and adults, and in my book it’s not selling witchcraft and sorcery to kids any more than ‘The Wizard of Oz’ or ‘The Lord of the Rings’ series would be.  I think any of the early controversial ties go unjust. This is simply a fun mystery movie that is a little choppy, but sets the stage for these characters rather well.

-MJV & the Movies

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