by D.W. Lundberg

Tuesday, November 23, 2010


First off, we've already established that adapting children's books into movies can be a tricky business. There's a lot of padding involved in turning a 30-page tome into a 90-minute feature, and I'd hesitate to call any attempt at this (so far) an unqualified success.

The world of Harry Potter, meanwhile, is a completely different matter. J.K. Rowling's Witches and Wizardry series is so chock full of incident, so ripe with characters and fantastical creatures and iconic moments, that it's a struggle deciding what to leave out. This has been a great source of frustration for fans loyal to the books, especially after the first two entries in the series, Harry Potter And The Sorcerer's Stone and Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets, which were short enough (at 300-340 pages) that director Chris Columbus and his team could follow Rowling's narrative without deviating from it too much. As the books expanded, though, subplots had to be dropped, character beats fell to the wayside, and it’s been fun listening to Potter-philes express their growing exasperation over what didn't make the cut.

One thing you have to understand is that the good folks at Warner Bros. don't actually mean to make anyone upset. In order to reach maximum profitability (because, after all, that's what movies are all about: making money), a film has to be just long enough to play a certain number of times in theaters a day, and if they managed to cram every nook and cranny of these books onto the big screen, each movie would equal roughly 4 hours plus in running time, which just isn't financially feasible.

Warners' main responsibility, they've always said, has been to the fans. If they mess with formula too much, they risk alienating their core audience, which would lose them millions and millions of dollars in revenue. Harry's fourth adventure, Goblet Of Fire, is riddled with so many subplots director Mike Newell even toyed with the idea of splitting that one in two, just to keep fans happy. That didn't happen, though, and up until now, it's been six books, six movies.

Then came Rowling's final installment, Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows, which carries so much importance, and fans have been so vocal about missing a single beat of that, that filmmakers finally couldn't bear the weight of the responsibility heaped upon them. So instead of one giant, four-hour opus, they’ve split Hallows right down the middle, and we now get a Part 1 at two hours and twenty minutes, with Part 2 (due July 2011) at a running time yet to be determined.

From the beginning, I've had mixed feelings about this. If producers had been so concerned about turning a single book into a single movie before, then why the sudden thought reversal? The answer, again, is obviously about the money. Only now, they've realized they can make twice as much in box office receipts by releasing two separate movies, eight months apart, for maximum profitability. And they can claim it's about making the fans happy all they want, but the question is, if they cut stuff out before, why couldn't they take their scissors to the material this time out?

To be fair, the version of Deathly Hallows just released into theaters is a reasonably solid entry in the series, even if it's really just one half of a bigger movie. England-born director David Yates, who's directed every Potter adventure since Order Of The Phoenix (that's Book 5, for anyone keeping score), continues to show a sure hand with the material and his actors and the overall look of the movie itself. There's a welcome sense of realism that's crept into the franchise since Alfonso Cuaron's The Prisoner Of Azkaban (when the kids actually started dressing like teenagers), and Yates, blessedly, shoulders the burden well, especially as the themes of each movie have grown progressively more adult.

Hallows, Part 1 is the darkest so far, and it sets its gloom-and-doom tone early on, as Harry, Hermione and Ron say goodbye to their families and prepare for the journey ahead. (You'll remember, or maybe you won't, that the end of The Half-Blood Prince saw Hogwart's School in turmoil, with headmaster Dumbledore murdered, and Harry vowing to seek out the remaining five Horcruxes – the fragmented pieces of Voldemort's unclaimed soul – with the help of his friends.) Cut to the forces of evil gathered at Malfoy Manor, where Voldemort, as a demonstration of his thirst for power, murders a Hogwart's teacher in cold blood... and promptly feeds the corpse to Nagini, his snake, as his loyal followers look on. It's an awful, horrifying moment, made all the more palpable since it's clear some folks in that room – Lucius, Narcissa and Draco Malfoy, in particular – no longer seem to trust in the path they've taken.

No more than ten minutes in, the stakes are raised almost unbearably high. Goals have been stated clearly, plans have been laid out, and then it's off on that journey, with our trio of teen heroes trying to puzzle out the location of those pesky Horcruxes. They try to stay out of sight (Harry, naturally, has been targeted for death by Voldemort's armies), setting up a makeshift camp in various, wintry locations. They bicker. They doubt themselves. They venture into the Ministry of Magic to retrieve one of the Horcruxes, and barely escape with their lives. They bicker some more. They separate. They find each other again. They set up camp in another secluded location and try to figure things out.

Did I mention the movie feels a little bloated? I get that all this uncertainty and jumping around from place to place is meant to show our protagonists for what they are – confused teenagers, on their own against the world – but do we really need three to four scenes of these kids sitting outside their tent, lost in thought, when one or two would have sufficed?

And what's with all the "greatest hits" appearances from characters and artifacts so important to previous Potter lore, reduced to mere cameos here? Look, it's the Dursleys! Or, more precisely, the backs of their heads as the pack up their car and drive away! There's Mad-Eye Moody! Nope, never mind, he's gone. Look, it's the Marauder's map! It's the snitch Harry caught during his first Quidditch match! There's Rita Skeeter! And Professor Snape! Oh, no - it's Dolores Umbridge! Will she...? Nope, back to camp.

I realize I'm nitpicking here, but the point is, why include all these references and "meaningful" character moments just as an afterthought? Why include them as distractions to the main story, when they could have easily been left on the cutting room floor? Are they really so important that Potter-philes couldn't live without them?

I don't know. I enjoyed the much-needed attempts at humor, and the return of Dobby the house elf (whose CGI-rendering seems a touch weightier since The Chamber Of Secrets), plus I'm impressed how Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint handle the plot's darker turns like pros. But the movie feels like it meanders from one scene to the next, until it just stops in its tracks; the "climax" doesn't feel climactic at all, as much as it comes across as a logical place to end things. (There is, admittedly, a nice rhyming structure to how the movie opens at Malfoy Manor and ends there, too.)

It's an obvious thing to say, but I think Hallows flows better as a book. It's got more room to play there, it's easier to reflect on what Rowling's trying to do, and in its unexpurgated form I'm not sure it translates as well to the big screen. Trim the fat, and you could easily combine this half with the next for a tighter, emotionally-grounded experience. As a movie, I wish Part 1 stood better on its own two feet. It's a story with a beginning but no end, at least until next July, when we'll no doubt continue to bicker and argue over the merits and misgivings about leaving your expectations at home.

1 comment:

  1. I agree that the movie didn't stand on it's own very well. I think viewers that hadn't read the book probably left with a lot of questions and quite confused. my opinion...they could have and should have added more to eliminate this confusion and then the movie would have been great! That kind of differs with your wanting it shorter though. And I wonder, could the second half be short enough to have combined both like you wished? I think there is a LOT more too the second half of the story and in my opinion would be way too hard to make it short enough to have done that. =)