It’s been months since the initial spark of disappointing reading and stage performances that lead me to write about poorly crafted language, tone, and adaptation and what I thought were ways to resolve those problems. I guess I ranted about how Roy didn’t consider the nuance of subjective states while purveying an intricate story that would be dependent on them. Why, for instance, would she describe events simultaneously from a subjective child’s point of view and an objective writer’s ability? I felt that it made for confusing scenes, as though Roy didn’t know what was really important to her story--the naïveté of her main characters and their loss of innocence, or the long view reflection on postcolonial Indian society.
I thought almost the same of Orlando; it seemed to ignore the reality of the main character’s long life and sex change which seemed so central and so starkly real in other adaptations and, I am given to understand (thanks to Bernie and Adrian), the source material. Orlando pretended to use high concept blocking, minimal cast, minimalist props, and third person narration to equally present the scope and reality in the details of the story even though it basically forgot that, on stage, these choices can limit the trancient qualities of a good actor’s performance--i.e. using third person narration takes the personality out of a character’s line--and thereby detriment the production.
But all that is, unfortunately, too past to dwell upon. And as a new year dawns, and I go off to the University of Minnesota in days, and hang around my old climbs of AP College English work for now, I find myself wanting to retread some of this ground. So I’ll use another access point because the trouble remains; artists don’t understand their art, and nowhere is it more clear than in the more pulp orders of novels and film.
So I guess I’ll talk (to whoever’ll listen) about something that’s been on my mind in the same vein as those two earlier posts so long ago. It’s time for “Juices Truces: The Conclusion”. It’s time for something magical. I am going to talk about the Harry Potter film franchise, how David Yates ruined it, how Deathly Hallows is not a Harry Potter book even if it is necessary to the story, why magic is not magical, and why the wizarding world is not a different world. I’ll try not to get bogged down in themes and in-depth analysis of Harry Potter as ostensibly post-war literature or anything like that (even if it’s true). I’ve got my work cut out for me on this one, and I hope that I can “solve” the problems with Harry Potter to boot All in an effort to conclude a post I started a long time ago about writers (or their theatrical/cinematic counterparts) not grasping the intricacies of their stories.
Harry Potter is the story of a boy who discovers he’s a wizard and is then whisked away from the home of his abusive aunt, uncle, and cousin to Hogwarts where, as a result of his return to the wizarding world, his nemesis in Lord Voldemort begins a rise to power in an attempt to return the world to a state of pure blooded, magical superiority with himself at the top. Some of the fundamental characteristics of the Harry Potter universe and story are the clandestine location of the wizarding world’s artifacts, the generational division between those who engaged Voldemort in battle and those who now deal with the repercussions of that war (must restrain urge to perform stock post-war analysis), the extraordinary possibilities of magic coupled with the perceived normalcy wizards see those possibilities realized in, and (for lack of a better way of putting it) the reality of the wizarding world and magic. Let’s cut to the chase, in Harry Potter everything ordinary or extraordinary can happen and is real.
If that is the case (and it is), any portrayal or adaptation of Harry Potter, the wizarding world, magic in general needs to be real rather than magical for it to operate meaningfully in the universe created. I’d like to emphasize that this does not just mean realistic. Rather than dwell upon the abnormality, accentuate the oddity, and present the removal, adaptations should subtly stress the perceived normalcy, play it straight, and highlight the proximity of the different worlds. I believe that it is necessary when presenting the Harry Potter world to make choices as far as design, writing, and action are concerned that would not suggest difference--make the point that the wizarding world is somehow outside our grasp without Harry or a directors eye--between wizards and muggles but rather suggest that they are two sides of the same coin, cohabiters of the same planet.
The idea in the books is that we walk the same streets and are unaware that there are wizards in our midst. Muggles and wizards see different things in the same light. Muggle-born might become wizard and wizard-born might become magic inept. Movies need to reflect the diversity and reality because therein is the novelty and the imaginative vision of J.K. Rowling. Fantasy takes place elsewhere and usually needs the voice of a Tolkien to tell us what’s going on. Harry Potter is not like that. Harry Potter takes place in a reality. Nevertheless, the Harry Potter film series became a brand of fantasy more and more after David Yates took the director’s chair and removed the similarities between our spheres and focused more totally on the magic of the Potter universe rather than the reality of it.
To explain what I mean I’ll go back to the beginning. Not of Harry Potter as a franchise, but to the beginning of the films and work my way through the truly stellar direction of three auteurs who understood what was needed for the movies that they each did and, interestingly enough, was the perfect person for their respective film. Then Yates will arrive and diminish the luster of the direction of the films and hold on to the job for too long.
Alright, Chris Columbus is not a great director but he was great for Potter. Columbus wrote “Gremlins” and “The Goonies”; two not so amazing 80’s movies that nonetheless presented a new class of family entertainment that he has been a master of ever since. I’d characterize his best and best well known films as family entertainment liquorish. “The Goonies” and “Gremlins” have an element of fantasy to them but are not dependent on the fantastic. Rather those movies depend on the abilities of the actors to carry off the ingenious, endearing unlikely hero amidst the slightly off-color but no less wholesome drama caused by the unlikely. This brings me to what Columbus is really good at in his movies. He’s been attached to a lot of movies but what he’s known for as a director is the first two Harry Potter films and “Home Alone” and therefore being good with kids.
Chris Columbus is the master of honest child directing. So often kids fall flat in movies, even Emma Watson had first-time-actress syndrome in “Sorcerer’s Stone” (you know those moments where she’ll take a really big breath before she says fairly trivial lines--“(deep breath) I read about it in Hogwarts (deep breath) A History.” But Chris Columbus manages to play it off in the context of the movie as a whole as who the characters are. Hermione is bossy, Ron is plodding, Harry is wide-eyed, Neville is awkward, and so on. There were older, well trained actors around the youthful main characters too who simply breathed their characters--actors like Richard Harris and Maggie Smith.
I think that Columbus was the perfect director for the first two movies because nothing really happens in them besides the establishment of the characters, their abilities, the arc each story takes, and the characters were really young. Chris Columbus can really break that down nicely and initiate the young actors like no other person in the business especially with material as rich as Harry Potter. I think that it is fascinating, therefore, that these were also among the longest movies (“Chamber of Secrets” is the longest). But it also makes sense, like some sort of bulky early computer--all the machinery is there, there wont be too many changes as far as bare bones go (that is to say it’s not set in New York or animated or any such nonsense), but it’s a little slower than it will become. As a director Columbus hit the nail on the head for the first two films by giving us character first and foremost and magic as the frosting.
With a certain amount of grit and danger involved subsequently that Columbus’s buoyancy would have glossed over, Alfonso Cuarón was an obvious choice for “Prisoner of Azkaban”. The wizarding world expands greatly in the third installment and it required a careful hand to make sure that that expansion was done properly. Cuarón handled new generations and new creatures better than any other director. Cuarón was a perfect choice for directing a Harry Potter movie. But what’s more, Cuarón was a perfect choice for directing “Prisoner of Azkaban” more than the others.
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban the book was poorly written by comparison to the others; there’s some inconsistencies, a lot of melodrama, and even though it establishes many of the generational and temporal elements of the subsequent books, they don’t seem particularly thought out at this stage. I suppose the movie had the benefit of something of a sneak-peek at how the story was going to develop immediately afterwards which may have made adaptation easier, but not by much because the specific scenes were vastly inferior in the book.The third installment in the series had problem written all over it but came out strong as a movie because Cuarón knew what he was doing as far as magic--which becomes more important in the third book over its prequels--went.
I know that I said that magic is not what is important about the magical world of Harry Potter, it’s the reality of it that is important. But I must qualify that by saying that the idea is magic is real. Therefore magic must be dealt with frankly and as a matter of fact. That is what Cuarón brings to the movie. Magic is not something that is strange to him, rather it is something that has a great deal of nuance that cannot be completely know but can be shown. What I mean is that, in the world--and therefore any other world--there is simply too great a volume of material for any one person to fully understand everything. Thus, when creating another world, we have to hint at the presence of things beyond what the people making it can imagine. Cuarón does this by playing the magic totally straight. Some of my favorite moments in this movie are when the Womping Willow sheds its leaves and kills a blue jay because it gives something that is magical because it is abnormal a personality that is relatable. What’s more, there is no need to create some kind of access point to the tree in these brief scenes because it’s motion is so carefully animated and considered that this CGI tree’s performance is universal.
Cuarón gave his film a strong visual style that Yates would draw most heavily from. Cuarón likes to move through action fluidly and solid objects like windows and closed doors rarely keep him from an apparently continuous camera move.Yates would make similar camera moves in later films but rarely with what Cuarón had in mind which was a juxtaposition of the magical and the muggle. Cuarón always showed just how close these two, assumed separate worlds were in fact closer than anyone could know. This becomes the Harry Potter film with the most visual motifs, the best effects, and the most real and most realistic magic. Which is what the original content and thus the film demanded.
As a director, Mike Newell did the same thing only different in “Goblet of Fire”. As it happens Newell was the first of only two British directors in the Harry Potter series, but it occurs to me, as it occurred to the actors in “Goblet of Fire” that Newell is himself peculiarly British. “Goblet of Fire” demanded someone who had a real feel for life in an English boarding school that was over a thousand years old. As a 1960 graduate of St. Albans School, Newell had spent his childhood at a school that is in fact older than Hogwarts at the same time (take it or leave it) that some of the most important characters in Harry Potter would have been at Hogwarts.
So Newell turns his eye on the reality of the world too. Not so much to the magic itself, rather he creates an arena for the most dramatic and perhaps most important parts of the entire saga. The details in this movie--the somewhat more spiteful friends, the loose but required uniforms, the way in which the school is made a home by the students is something that Newell picks up on from his own life and uses to create a far more real Hogwarts than any of the other films. It’s important that he takes this view too because “Goblet of Fire” removes the safety and happiness from Hogwarts to some extent and Voldemort infiltrates, makes his corporeal return, and kills an innocent for the first time that we have seen in the series. It’s important to have a feel for what is being killed and lost by the end of the movie and the audience gets that from Newell.
Basically the first three directors established, in order a) the characters, b) the power and reality of magic, and c) the nooks and crannies of Harry’s life that can be threatened by one of the most evil characters in literature. Thus the stage should have been set for the likes of Oliver Hirschbiegel and Peter Weir to direct the last films. But they didn’t and actually may not have taken the job. I could not say. The point is that there were other directors out there of the caliber and specific capability that the last three adaptations would need and the previous four had had who weren’t contracted into it.
So David Yates gets the last movies and just kept on them. “Order of the Phoenix” wasn’t written by Steve Kloves and that was probably didn’t help. Maybe that particular movie could have just been the dumb bad one and everyone would have forgiven it because the book was too damn long to even be attempted. The movie was also too short; before “Deathly Hallows Part 2” came out, this was the shortest movie in the series based on the longest book by far. That’s a problem. And I understand the need to abridge, but it’s not the issue in this particular movie (although the montages did nothing to help rescue or even put more information into less space). The issue in this film, and the issue increasingly became that there was an obsession with the bizarre qualities of the wizarding world. Yates made some spells showy, some slapstick, and others powerful but never made any magic more real by doing it.
So here’s where we get back into the territory I was covering all those months ago. I think that there is a trend in current cinema (among other perhaps larger trends) that is more purely design focused. Basically I think that too many movies are made these days with function following form in an artistic sense. Now this isn’t a problem per se. I think that it’s good for a director to stamp each work with his own hallmark style if he can. I also realize that every art form changes over time and that art in the last hundred years has changed faster than art has before and that cinema may change the fastest out of all art forms period. But all that wont alter the fact that directors increasingly make movies with a style in mind that doesn’t necessarily mean anything in the context of the material their work focuses on. It is dangerous to good filmmaking or any artistic process because, even if your work doesn’t constitute a manifesto, the artist should probably have a sense for himself as to why the art takes the form it does even if it differs from what others see in it for themselves.
David Yates is just a really clear example of all those problems in art in that his sense of design and visual style (which is very strong I might add) obviates the requirements of the content he is presenting. Now this may sound kind of dumb, and it is to some extent, but the last four Harry Potter movies are just too weird. Too magical. I think that if David Yates had considered the deeper meanings of the last books he may have realized that they are not so much about the awesome power and extremity of magic but more about the possibilities of hate, evil, and the methods used to cope with those possibilities. There’s the whole difficulty that magic is inept and can’t protect us from something as basic as evil. Voldemort can get a person no matter what. It’s what makes him such a great villain.
Oliver Hirshbiegel knows that kind of stuff and he’s pondered it in his films such as “Downfall”. Hirshbiegel is a master and knows that hatred and evil are human traits and that a totalitarian regime or magic are really the same in the hands of a Hitler or a Voldemort. I don’t think that he would dwell upon what magic can do but would rather look at what kinds of people would use magic to such ends. It’s apparent that an actor as steeped in playing villains as Ralph Fiennes is thinking about the details and the inner workings of a character like Voldemort and is probably presenting those things in his performance. But his performance has to be captured by a director who will cast his eye on those aspects. Hirshbiegel would do that, Yates did not.
Now the books themselves already have problems. It’s a huge story with so many moving parts if you will, and I commend Rowling for tackling it the way she did. All the books have their ups and downs. But the seventh book is really not even in the same class as the others. It’s not a Harry Potter book. When I read the seventh book I basically see something that is lacking in the same nuts and bolts as the previous books; it just doesn’t fit in with them. The simple answer as to why the seventh book doesn’t fit with the others is that almost none of it takes place at Hogwarts or in the established Hogwarts system. There’s no going to class. There’s no learning. But as I said earlier, Hogwarts is a really important figure and stage for the drama of Harry Potter because it represents so much to the characters in it.
It is significant that Harry, Ron, and Hermione leave Hogwarts. They had to hunt down the horcruxes (I get it). But I think that at this point Rowling starts to butt up against the logic that had kept the previous books so tightly knit; that Hogwarts was still sacred ground if it could be encroached upon; that Harry would continually thwart Voldemort until some climactic battle; and that defeating Voldemort was a process that required an accumulation of magical skills and would require multiple encounters. The seventh book lumps so much together it becomes almost absurd the speed with which horcruxes are found and the lack of compassion characters get to feel during battle (compassion always being the distinguishing feature for the forces of good). If the series had been only slightly better planned by Rowling then there would be less confusion and contention over the final chapters.
Obviously this placed strain on the filmmakers, especially the less than adequate Yates so they broke up the last book into two movies when they should have just been consistent and made one longer film. I guess it might be harder to make as much money, but probably not. The result, in addition to the general problem with Yates’s directing now spread over an unnecessary eighth film, was poorly paced films that again missed what did become important in the final book which was its difference from the previous six.
The final movie should have been one, longer film. It should have been directed by Peter Weir because can present the strange and the normal simultaneously. Weir knows about pacing action and making every character matter during a battle. Weir’s battle scenes are not chaotic, they are clear and they pack an emotional punch because he doesn’t speed up or slow down too much. Again he is a director who captures performances based on what is necessary to the content of his film. He also usually does it with a particular flare. One film directed by Peter Weir would be far better than the two directed by David Yates.
The difficulty with this train of thought is how dependent it is on statements of what they should have done. What matters is what was done. And here’s the conclusion as it were: It’s creativity gone amok. As was the case with The God of Small Things and Orlando, the last Harry Potter movies have the problem of not being consistent along the lines of their content.
Again, it ceases to be a matter of what should have been done. The problem is that every time there is a line to walk in these works based on the simple propositions, the premise upon which they are founded, these artists--Roy and Yates--seemed to ignore the demands of their story in favor of adding what hoodwinks unwitting audiences into seeing complexity in their work and strutting what is possible at the expense of the fundamental commitment they should have made to the content of their works. When Roy should have stepped back and considered her story she decided to crash into it without the restrain she should have. When Yates directed Harry Potter movies he did so without bearing in mind the premise that magic is real. In any case such disregard for the content defeats the potency of the work. One should keep that in mind.
That is all.
And a record 3,780 words to boot.