7/11/2007

THE POTTERVERSE EXHALES


Like the proverbial 'eye of the storm', the worldwide Harry Potter fan base doubtless moves toward a moment of relative calm: after a whirlwind week in which the film accounted for 90 percent of Fandango's weekly ticket sales, the most devoted of fans no doubt had their thirst for all things Potter slaked by the midnight premiere.

(ahem) I'm afraid that I don't count as excessively devoted, inasmuch as I didn't wear a costume or attend the mad affair with a horde of shriekers. However, I did arrive home after 3:00 in the morning, so my thoughts on the film are fresh.

The film begins unsettlingly: not only is the dementor's attack on Harry sudden and unnerving, but it is in a gritty visual style very different from past films. This creates a sense that, at any moment, anyone could be attacked again. The comic touches which have typically defined the opening set pieces of past HP films are almost entirely lacking; in fact, the reactions of the Dursleys evoke a genuine sympathy for characters who have mostly served as contemptible comic foils.

Action as the film moves back to Hogwarts is at a faster pace, and more heavily-telescoped than in past films, which no doubt reflects the difficulty of adapting the longest of Rowling's works. Many treasured subplots and details are omitted or referred to so cryptically that only devoted readers of the books will notice them. Much of this works beautifully: an extended montage of the growing dictatorial powers of new villian Dolores Umbrage framed by a series of ever-more imperious decrees from the Ministry touches just the right note, and a similar whirlwind treatment of the education and development of 'Dumbledore's Army' is similarly effective.

I would say, however, that the film would've benefited from a more deliberate pacing after the initial shocks in the first hour. Opportunities for fuller character development were set aside, particularly in the conflict (now largely implied) between Snape and Sirius. A few minutes more of the tense, beautifully done ensemble work of the Order attempting to pull its headquarters and its spirits together would have provided important context for the revelation (during Occlumency lessons) that Snape was victimized by Harry's father. This could've led to a more intelligible account of the Sirius/Harry relationship, which seems hurried and a bit glib.

Finally, I regret the film's ending. The book ends with a rather distinctive symmetry, when the team of Aurors that rescues Harry in the beginning returns him to his relatives, implicitly recognizing his growth in their estimation. This would've been tricky, as there would've been a danger of an anti-climatic thud, but by focusing attention on the Order itself this would set the stage for the war that is coming. Instead, a new scene is crafted on the Hogwarts grounds, where Harry acknowledges the power of love and friendship that has pulled him through. The camera zooms out to reveal the many members of 'Dumbledore's Army' following the Trio (Harry, Hermione and Ron) to the train station, with the implication that they will continue to follow Harry's leadership---and that Harry is no longer alone. It's a good scene, but perhaps one that hints more as to what might be revealed in Book Seven than in setting up the mystery, heavily padded with backstory, of Book Six.

Speaking of which, this feeling of relaxation in the Potterverse is temporary. Tension will build to an even greater pitch within days, as the final Book is released. My (ahem) copy has already been ordered. This tension, the way that Rowling has drawn so many people into a world with characters that you desperately care about, beggars similar fan interest in fantasy films: remarkable!

1 comment:

Charlie said...

Scott, the family and I saw Harry V today, and I have to say that, for me, it's the best of the films so far. Whereas some of the earlier films in the series seem to founder on sentimentality or obviousness, this one strikes a right balance and does a pretty good, though not pitch-perfect, job of negotiating and, as you say, telescoping Rowling's diffuse plot. I think the films have been better on adolescence than on childhood, and, for once, I think Daniel Radcliffe is up to the job. Plus, the visual storytelling in V, while relying on stock devices such as newspaper headlines for exposition, etc., does a nice job of refreshing those old tropes and moving the story along in thrilling fashion. Finally, design-wise, Harry V has a dark, distinct look, well tailored to the book's issues, and climaxing in a grand Dept. of Mysteries showdown. It may be that I liked the film because V is the Rowling book that I like the least, and therefore I didn't have such high expectations going in, but I do think that the film delivered the goods.

The real pity of these movies, of course, is that you don't get enough of the characters you really like, e.g., Luna Lovegood (who was very well played in the movies, BTW, as was Imelda Staunton's horrible Prof. Umbridge).