More Thoughts on ‘Harry Potter 7.1’

Posted: November 30, 2010 in Jeff Holland, reviews, Threat Quality

Generally speaking, I liked Harry Potter 7.1. It did the job it was supposed to do – basically, get you ramped up for 7.2 next summer, when, y’know, the BIG stuff happens.

And it pretty faithfully adapted the book yet again, which in this case meant I nearly fell asleep during the whole wandering-around-in-the-woods-looking-for-horcruxes-and-kind-of-ripping-off-Lord-of-the-Rings section, but was roused back to consciousness once that was over.

But my problem with the movie series in general starts right there – they adapt the books faithfully, while missing that what makes for a good book doesn’t make for a good movie. The Potter book series is fine going off on tangents and side-plots because, well, they’re books. They have the space and the readers devoted enough to the universe that they can take the time. In book form, taking a 20-page chapter of downtime to enjoy a formal occasion feels a lot like real life – no matter what’s going on in your life, if you’ve got a friend’s wedding coming up, well then, you go attend that wedding. That’s nice…in a book.

But movies have two hours to tell one story, and for that to work properly, every minute captured on film needs to relate to the overall narrative. When I started reading Deathly Hallows, at about 100 pages in, I thought, “Well, they’ll probably have to cut out that whole Bill Weasley’s Wedding part, since Bill’s such a minor character that explaining why everyone’s gathered at a wedding when there’s so much bigger stuff afoot will slow the movie to a halt.”

Turns out I was half-right: Despite slowing the movie to a halt at an exact point where it needed to pile on the excitement (considering the wandering-the-woods middle section was coming up), they went ahead and stuck the wedding scene in, just tightened to within an inch of its life.

But, condensed to the point where there’s no real context – Harry meets Bill for the first time and the dialogue amounts to “Hi Bill, I’m Harry” – it feels like a set-piece that only exists because no screenwriter was told, “Chop up this 800-page book and make it into a workable movie.”

So the opening action sequence – the ill-advised “Let’s all look like Harry” gambit – leads into the wedding scene. And while it’s all accurate to the book, the big dramatic note in those opening 20 minutes is MAD-EYE MOONEY IS DEAD NOW.

Yet what should be a grand emotional moment barely lands, since the movie’s too busy getting ready for the next set-piece. In being faithful to the book, the movies sometimes lose sight of what the most powerful moments are.

But my bigger problem…I don’t know who to blame for this, but it starts with the fact that the lead actors are not all that good. This isn’t to say they don’t have good moments, and those are usually moments of levity and joy. When the three leads get to play with a comedic scene, or – in this movie, for instance, dance goofily with each other – it works. They seem to have a handle on that.

But when it comes to a dramatic moments, they each latch on to one rigid expression – the furrowed brow – and deliver every line as slowly as possible. The dialogue doesn’t help, since all sense of personality is lost in favor of explaining How Important This All Is, so it all sounds like:

Hermione: Harry, I’ve discovered something.
Harry: … … … What’s that?
Hermione: … … … It’s about the horcruxes.
Harry: … The horcruxes? … … … What about them?
Hermione: … … …
Harry: Have you figured out a way … to destroy them?
Hermione: … … … Yes, but … … …
Harry: Please explain basic magic to me because apparently I haven’t paid any attention to my classes in the last six years. (OK, not the point, but still…shit, Harry, crack open a goddamn book.)

It honestly sounds like every one of them forgot their lines and had to check off-stage cue-cards.

Again, I’m not sure who’s really responsible for this. I mean, sure, the actors should have, by now, after starring in several movies, watched a couple of their performances and noted, “Oh shit, why did I wait so long to deliver that line? And why do I look constipated during this whole scene?”

But they’ve been working with the same director, David Yates, for multiple films now, and as the director, shouldn’t he have some idea how to wrangle an effective performance out of these guys? It’s not like he has to worry about the supporting players – it’s like two dozen of the Guild of Greatest British Actors Ever hanging around in robes and neat vests and not needing any coaching at all on that set.

(It’s not even all the child actors – Neville and Luna knock all their scenes out of the park. Neville! C’mon!)

But I get it – it’s a huge movie, big special effects and such, a lot for a director to worry about. Sometimes performances fall by the wayside.

So maybe we need to nudge the film’s editors a little bit. Guys: you have control over the entire pace of the movie. Every time you watch a scene in an editing bay and it seems to drag into infinity? CHOP UP THE DIALOGUE. Just a half-second here or there, and I swear it’ll add up to everyone in the theater getting home 20 minutes earlier.

And that’ll make us that much more excited for the last movie, “Harry Potter and the Slightly Less Interminable Pauses.”

A barely-linked question: Which is your favorite installment of the film series, and why? (Me, I go for Prisoner of Azkaban, because it looks gorgeous, it feels like there’s some legitimate danger, and Sirius Black and Remus Lupin actually resonate emotionally for me – and make me wish I was watching a film franchise about them – which is pretty much the only reason I enjoy Order of the Phoenix.)

  1. braak says:

    You know, the thing about Bill is interesting, because he basically isn’t in the movies at all, but I didn’t feel like I needed to know something about him that I didn’t, which makes me wonder — is the Harry Potter series really the first series that can reliably assume that 90% of its audience has actually read the books? That it can actually count on the audience having a robust body of consistent, a priori knowledge to inform the movie-making?

  2. Jeff Holland says:

    Good question. I was going to say the Lord of the Rings trilogy or Watchmen, but they aren’t even close to HP numbers.

    So…Twilight and Eat Pray Love? I believe those are the only comparable book-to-movies. (Not that Eat Pray Love is a series yet, but who knows how many more sun-dappled romantic adventures Julia Roberts may yet go on?)

  3. Dave Bailey says:

    I found The Deathly Hallows to be very interesting. I agree that much of the drama is created by really… long… pauses, but overall I really enjoyed it. I thought Yates did a great job of creating a real sense of dread that you don’t see too often in a 12A/PG-13 movie.

    I don’t think you can blame Yates for the performances of the kids. If they are bad actors, they’re bad actors. They were cast at the age of 9 or 10, and by this time it’s too late to change them.

    Anyway, I wrote a review of it on my blog, if you’d care to check it out.


  4. Deathly Hallows 1.1 was the first of the films I’d seen without reading the books. It’s also been a few years since I read book 6, “Half-Blood Prince.” I had no idea there even was a Bill Weasley, but I took it as one must when digesting these movies … with a shrug.

    The things that did entrance me about 1.1 were the touches of entropy and devastation. The landscape the kids traipse through really is a Waste Land, dire and bleak. Even the brief moments of joy (Harry and Hermione’s dance) are set to dolorous Nick Cave songs, and end with the sad acknowledgement that they are fleeting. There are suggestions that not only is the world changing under the shadow of war, but it’s also been devastated economically — housing estates like Privet Drive emptying out, vacant trailer parks that have obviously been trashed.

    So Rowling’s occasional (heavy-handed) attempts to make her world mirror ours are done justice, and done better, in Yates’ filmed vision. This made me thankful, rather than resentful, that the book has been split into two for filming: had it all been compressed, those visual moments are the ones that would’ve gotten cut in editing.

  5. Christian von Schack says:

    The pacing/editing problems have been there for a while. I haven’t read the books, and I often feel lost, which I blame that on the utter unwillingness to excise ANYTHING for the sake of a more streamlined cinematic telling.

    The last one was like this too: The usual hubbub about how the stakes are getting higher, more fucking quidditch, and Helena Bonham-Carter with her tits nearly falling out of her bodice (this part was, admittedly, very very good) followed by what felt like a random, yet completely expected, revelation from Snape : “I…am…the…[pause]…half-blood…prince.” Yeah, so? Maybe that was a big (shocking) reveal in the book, but in the context of the movie, it was akin to a wet fart.

    Lastly, I saw Radcliffe on the Graham Norton show last week. He’s really tiny, but he knows Tom Lehrer’s “The Elements” by heart, so I kind of liked that.

  6. braak says:

    Yeah…you know, I have a hard time remembering what happened in which book, but I don’t remember the “who is the half-blood prince” reveal being altogether that significant in the book, either. In the first place it seemed like some kind of weird, backward rationalization (Snape is a half-blood, and his mother’s maiden name was Prince, I think?) that made it seem like Rowling had thought up the title first, and only figured out how it related to the story at the very end. And, in the second place, by the time you find that out there’s about a million more important things going on than “who was this guy who wrote in Harry’s textbook?”

  7. Right. Pacing has been bad in all of them except the third one. I don’t know who you get to blame either. From what I understand, most of what was cut from Azkaban was the flashbacks and the universe of James Potter, Lupin, Black and Snape. That only really served to benefit the idea, because it gave the entire story this wonderful presence of history. It was a lived in universe. I’ve never gotten that from any of the other films. They spend far too long explaining each background aspect and making it equate to something we know of, so you don’t think of it as a lived in universe, but one Harry (and the audience) visits from time to time.

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