Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Quick thoughts on Harry Potter and the latest movie

I'm not going to actually review the new Harry Potter movie. It's successful at least insofar as they somehow managed to distill an 800 page book into about 140 minutes without it becoming an incoherent disaster. Granted, there are scenes that feel totally unnecessary from the perspective of either plot or character - throw-aways that are never revisited and so offer no pay-off, like Harry invading Snape's mind to see that his dad was actually a bit of a dickhead - but one assumes that they'll be more meaningful in the next film or two. (Since this one, at least, has not read the books.) Many sequences are rushed and so the tension is totally dashed - Bellatrix should be terrifying, I imagine, but she's only very briefly foreshadowed, her escape is about 15 seconds long, and she's on-screen again for maybe a minute before she commits the only act that necessitated her inclusion. So the film makes you entirely too conscious of its own structure and narrative compression, yes. But I still enjoyed it, and maybe that's actually something of a triumph with these sorts of restrictions.

What interests me more, though, is the way the filmmakers have gradually rejected Draco Malfoy as a suitable nemesis for Harry. He's arguably been a comic-foil since the second film, was nearly absent from the third, and hardly rates a cameo in this one. I briefly checked the synopsis of his character's role in the text of Order of the Phoenix to see how it compares, and I'm not entirely sure that Rowling rates him as any sort of threat to Harry either - it seems that he's mostly just responsible for discovering Harry's secret club and a failed attack on Harry at the book's end. It hardly compares to the threat posed to Harry by Voldemort or even Draco's own father. (Granted, too, Harry doesn't seem to be a match for Lucius in a fair fight, but he seemed to be more than capable of injuring other Death Eaters and resisting Voldemort's psychic attacks, so maybe he is.)

It's an interesting movement, anyway - Draco was positioned in the Philosopher's Stone as Harry's ostensible equal but opposite, a status that now shifts to Lucius or Voldemort himself. The move makes the story more epic and Harry himself something larger than life, but at the cost of the versimilitude and empathy: Harry is no longer good-natured orphan as contrasted against the spoiled-brat, but the yang to Voldemort's yin in some spectacular battle for the control of magic and humanity; this is no longer a story about more-or-less normal kids at a school for magic, but epic fantasy that happens to be staged primarily at a school and also happens to star kids. (Though they're quickly growing up, so the appeal of naive tweens embroiled in magical mystery has mostly vanished.)

Again, it's hard to fault because it seems to work well enough - but I can't help but feel that the Harry Potter story has strayed from what had made it initially appealing (there are caveats to this appeal, as there always are, but i won't get into them now) and gone somewhere much more generic.

One last (disconnected?) thought: During the penultimate battle where Bellatrix does that thing she does (I'm trying not to spoil anything!), I was reminded of Ebert's criticism of the fight scenes in the Star Wars prequels: they're damn fun to look at it, but they're really just visual cacophony and lack a lot of drama precisely because we know that the principles can't die. Reasonably, it doesn't matter what kind of danger you put Harry, Hermione, and Ron in because we know they'll escape it. Rowling's cast is so huge that it means there's no shortage of potential-corpses, but we'll never be as invested in any of the others. The threats have to be something other than mortal ones - it's much too late for this bit of advice, sure, but why can't the climax be something more subtle?

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