Harry Potter--But Without All That
Making a movie based on a well-loved book is fraught with peril, and so
is reviewing that movie.
I dreaded reviewing Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1. I
figured that, as the penultimate installment in a long series, it would
only be marking time, postponing the inevitable.
But I also dread reviewing any Harry Potter movie because of the heated
reactions from fans. They leave flaming comments for any critic who
dares give less than a perfect score to the movie version of a book they
So I wrote my review, carefully making the case that the movie was
better than expected - there is more to it than simply marking time --
but acknowledging that it suffered from trying to be too faithful to the
books. It had too many details and not enough focus.
Predictably, I got flamed by fans of Harry Potter for not liking Deathly
And what was their complaint? That I hadn't read the books!
"If you're too illiterate to read the books, then don't expect the
movies to impress you."
"Read the books and stop complaining. This may be a film but this film
is made for fans of the book not people like you. The films shouldn't be
taken as 'films' but as extensions of the books."
My point exactly!
Complaints from a Muggle
A couple of examples spring to mind from the latest film.
At the beginning, characters from previous films gather to help Harry
escape. There are a dozen of them -- too many to keep in my head for as
little time as they're on screen. Some of them die and we're supposed to
feel their loss, but we don't have time to absorb the deaths, much less
grieve for them.
The film ends with the death of a CGI character we rarely saw in the
other films - I barely remember this character from the first or second
film. Yet here, he changes himself with one of his last breaths,
culminating some sort of liberation movement never mentioned in the
films (I'm guessing, based on one of the comments I received). His death
is played for high tragedy and given prominence at the climax of the
film. If you know who he is and of his movement from the books, I assume
you will be moved by his cinematic death. But if all you know is the
films, you'll feel like you're watching a non-sequitur.
A better adaptation would have to spend the effort to have these deaths
mean something to a purely moviegoing audience. But there hasn't been
much room for more in any of the films, which seem to run long as it is.
Missing the Point
Read a book out loud and it will take you 12 hours. Most movies are only
about 2 hours. It's just not possible to fit it all in. People have
been trying for as long as there have been movies. That kind of
adaptation is not possible, and it misses the point of making a good
But there is such a thing as a good adaptation of a book. The word
"adapt" means you make something fit what it wasn't designed for. There
are great films that are adaptations - Gone with the Wind, Apocalypse
Now, Dr. Strangelove. Readers of Electric Spec might join me in thinking
the Lord of the Rings trilogy belongs in that list. Those films elided
all the traveling time, the songs, the return to the shire, and any
number of scenes, but they stood up on their own.
For a good adaptation your best bet is to trust a talented artist in the
new medium. The art and the medium have to be more important than
devotion to the source material. Francis Ford Coppola knew the language
of cinema intimately, to the advantage of The Godfather. The baptism
scene is written about in scholarly books on film editing. There are
even adaptations of "unfilmable" books that became great movies, notably
The English Patient. These films have probably survived better than
their book counterparts.
You can focus on the plot points in the source material, but you have to
balance that with thematic resonance, visual metaphor, the emotional
power of the characters, and emotional continuity. In general, I think
the Harry Potter movies aren't very good as adaptations. They're
translations. They focus too heavily on plot points at the expense of
Ironically, Deathly Hallows Part 1 does much better than some
predecessors at not slamming the screen with rapid-fire developments. It
has more breathing room. There are long stretches in the middle where
"nothing happens," except for character development. Harry, Hermione and
Ron spend a lot of time camping while waiting for inspiration on how to
find the next Horcrux. Slow though they are, these scenes are some of
the most effective.
Pack It All In
I do understand the desire to pack it all in. You love a book, and you
don't want some filmmaker to ruin it for you. For me that book was The
Princess Bride. Luckily, the movie struck a good balance. It was true to
the book, but lots of scenes went missing. In the end, it was about as
good as I could have hoped.
I've never disliked any of the Harry Potter movies. But when they are at
their worst, sequences don't flow. Too many plot points are introduced
and resolved, one after another. No doubt included for those who
obsessively love the books.
Whenever that sort of rapid-fire development happens, I think back to
Daffy Duck pitching a movie called "The Scarlet Pumpernickel" to a
studio executive. His script, running thousands of pages, describes an
epic with heroes, villains, maidens and damsels, fights, chases,
escapes, floods, volcanoes, and the rising price of foodstuffs. (His
title is a play on The Scarlet Pimpernel, itself a novel, adapted from a
So why is it that fans of Harry Potter seem to demand - and the
filmmakers seem to comply - that every scene and development from the
book be included in the movie?
Well, when you're the owner of one of the most successful franchises in
the history of books, you can see how the movies really are
merchandising tie-ins. As action figures were secondary to the movie
with Star Wars, so the movies are secondary to the books with Harry
And if you own the franchise to something so successful, you don't
really want some Charlie Kaufman running off and making an adaptation
like Adaptation. (Adaptation is a movie ostensibly based on a book
called The Orchid Thief (which in turn is based on a New Yorker
article), about flowers so rare and valuable that people poach them. The
movie ended up being about the writers'-block frustration of a
screenwriter named "Charlie Kaufman" hired to adapt a book called The
Orchid Thief, and not at all about orchid poachers. That experiment
worked for audiences, but think of the lynching he'd get if he'd done
that to Harry Potter.)
So it is that the Harry Potter movies are close to the books. They are
made for those who have read the books. They are not made for
"illiterate people like me."
And so it is that if I criticize Harry Potter movies for not being
better adapted for the screen, I will be hated by fans of the books who
agree with me completely.
And so it is that on lists of best adaptations, scholars and critics
will continue to write about The Godfather, The English Patient, and
even Adaptation without thinking twice about Harry Potter.