The novel Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by JK Rowling was first released in 1997. I was 11 at the time and on holiday in Spain with my family, and my friend Thomas Drew, who was coincidentally on holiday in the same area, lent it to me. I was instantly hooked – as a child who desperately wanted magic to be real (something I’ve never been able to fully get over) the story of an lonely boy who discovers that not only is magic real, but that he is in fact the messianic saviour of a magical universe that has previously been hidden from him was irresistible. I devoured the next three installments, getting Chamber of Secrets as soon as I came home and getting the next two on the day they came out.
But by the time Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix was released, I had lost interest. By then I was a pretentious fifteen year old, suddenly painfully aware of the limitations of J.K. Rowling’s writing and more interested in reading angsty, “deep” novels like The Perks of Being a Wallflower and Girlfriend in a Coma. I completely lost interest in the books, and didn’t bother with the films either.
But lately, Pottermania has been taking its toll. My understanding that after Goblet of Fire the series takes a much darker, more epic turn intrigues me to say the least, and I’m totally over the idea that it’s somehow unworthy of criticism just because it’s not art. A good story is a good story, and I want to assess, as an adult, how good a story Harry Potter is.
That been said, I have stuff to do, and this is a film blog, so I’ll skip the books, thank you. Instead, I’m going to watch all the films – first, the four I’m familiar with, then the latter four while Deathly Hallows Part 2 is still in the cinema. It’s this second half of the series which interests me the most, especially as I want to know how clear the story is on screen for those who haven’t read the books. Harry Potter may be a massive franchise now, but the backbone of it will always be those seven novels, and I suspect the films won’t take newbies into account.
Anyway, without further ado, we start with…
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone
Or rather, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, if you’re in America and can’t understand simple concepts like ‘philosophy’. Let’s make this clear from the outset – Philosopher’s Stone is not a good film. In fact, it’s terrible. The kid actors are all underacting while over-enunciating, the script hasn’t been written so much as it’s been generated by a cliché-and-exposition machine, and the score is overbearing and hokey. Worst of all, though, is director Chris Columbus’s visual aesthetic, which manages to be at once grotesque and cartoonish and horribly, horribly bland.
If memory serves, Rowling’s first installment in the series isn’t exceptional, but it is a serviceable and entertaining read that begins a very big story admirably, hinting at a much larger world and much more to come whilst being it’s own little self contained narrative about a hidden stone that Voldemort wants or something. Mostly, though, it’s about a boy who hasn’t had a very happy life discovering that there’s a whole world that he’s at the very centre of, and that world is bursting with fantastic, magical things. When trying to work out the appeal of Rowling’s books, people often overlook the fact that, in comparison to other similar novels, there’s way more magic. Literally everything in Rowling’s world is enchanted, from the sweets to the pictures to the books to the ceiling. In reality, it would probably become quite stressful, but safely confined to the page there’s a genuine sense of wonder and excitement when say, Harry first enters Diagon Alley, or the Grand Hall at Hogwarts.
It’s that wonder that’s missing from Colombus’s film. He seems to think that CG effects will do all the work for him, but I’ve never seen a room filled with floating candles and talking paintings and ghosts and a ceiling that looks like a sky look so boring. Furthermore, his desire to get every last detail of the book onto the screen may have been something that fans demanded, but it translates to a turgid story that never seems to be going anywhere. The various classes and Quidditch games work well in the book but their episodic nature makes them seem like distractions on screen, and when the plot finally kicks in, it feels like another episode. Only the scene in the forbidden forest feels hints at part of a larger picture, and it feels like it’s from a different film entirely. As an introduction to a larger world, the plot elements are diligently there, but the scope of the books is nowhere to be found.
So far, then, Potter’s not working his magic. Let’s move on, then, to…
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
Chamber of Secrets is a funny one. It’s the least consequential and necessary of the books, only really serving to build upon the world that was established in Philosopher’s Stone without really moving things along at all. We learn about Lord Voldemort’s childhood as Tom Riddle, and we learn about certain prejudices that some in the wizarding world have toward muggle-born wizards (something I understand becomes crucial in the later books), but mostly we have lots of classes to take and Quidditch to play and the introduction of Dobby, the Annoying House-Elf.
Chamber of Secrets the film, though, is a big step up, at least from an aesthetic standpoint. The camera moves around a lot more, and there are faint flickers of that sense of wonder that was missing from the first film, especially at the wonderfully realised Weasley’s house. It’s a shame, then, that Hogwarts is still as lifeless as before, and not even a fantastically over the top Kenneth Branagh can inject any life into it. The big set pieces are especially dull, as the film tries desperately to excite with CG giant spiders and snakes and a preposterously loud score.
The acting, though, is a lot better, and visually it does have a lot more life in it that Philosopher’s Stone. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that if Columbus had gone on directing the series some of the later installments might even have been considered ‘good’. A pity, then, that he bowed out and handed the reins over to Alfonso Cuarón for…
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
Except it’s not a pity, is it? Because, as everyone knows, Cuarón’s adaptation of what’s generally regarded to be the best book of the series is really, really great. I’m not a particular fan of his other films but his overhaul of Harry’s world is more than welcome. Suddenly, Hogwarts is a much more alive place, as Cuarón fills every frame with all sorts of magical, silly things going on alongside the action. One of my favourite shots in the film is when the fat lady (scene stealer Dawn French) goes missing, and the camera pans round to hundreds of paintings, each one depicting a scene suddenly in distress, all going on at once, so the entire wall looks like it’s moving. Prisoner of Azkaban is a much darker installment compared to what’s come before, but it’s Cuarón’s visual sense of humour that really brings the film to life. Not to mention the art design – the Dementors are legitimately terrifying and Buckbeak the hippogriff is elegant and noble, just two elements which I’m certain Columbus would have fumbled if he’d continued.
Cuarón’s not the only one who makes this film great, though. Something has to be said for the new introductions to the cast – in particular David Thewlis as the kind, fatherlike werewolf Lupin, Gary Oldman as the titular prisoner Sirius Black, and of course Michael Gambon, taking over the role of Dumbledore after Richard Harris sadly passed away. In addition to the already stellar supporting cast, these three really tip the balance and whenever they’re on screen you feel like you’re watching something special.
And these characters are something special, aren’t they? It was during this film that I felt a growing admiration of Rowling’s abilities. It’s hard to write characters that eschew such overpowering benevolence as Dumbledore, Lupin, McGonagall et al., not to mention the overpowering malevolence of Voldemort, a character that still hasn’t fully been seen but hangs over every scene like a dark cloud. (In contrast, Snape’s ambiguous nature throughout makes him more intimidating in a world of black-and-white than he would in another, more nuanced world.) This writing is all broad brush strokes, yes, but no one wants nuance in an epic, do they? The appeal of these books suddenly becomes apparent – these are characters that are brilliantly, wonderfully easy to love, and hold close, and root for.
Cuarón does make a few missteps: this is the first film that takes some liberties with the plot, which is fine, but he misses a plot point that is crucial to the emotional power of the film’s climax, when when it’s revealed that Harry’s Patronus takes the form of his father. It’s easy to forgive, though, when the rest of the film is teeming with inventiveness and genuine, human emotion.
Now I’m invested, let’s move swiftly on to…
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
Goblet of Fire occupies a curious position in the series. It’s a transitional film, the first one to really pay attention to the fact the the kids are growing up, but concerned largely with a self-contained narrative that doesn’t contribute to the larger whole at all. It introduces some crucial elements for the ongoing series – most importantly the rebirth of Voldemort – but for the most part they’re not really part of the story this film is telling.
For some time whilst watching it, I thought this was the worst film thus far. Apart from the ominous and very well done Death Eaters scene early on, everything about director Mike Newell’s approach seems too much. Everyone, especially Dumbledore, seems to be bellowing their lines, Hogwarts is inexplicably constantly shrouded in an ugly, thick fog, and the soundtrack seems to bear little relation to what’s on screen, instead depicting some other, altogether more portentous film. This, thankfully, calms down as the film progresses, but there are still some hopelessly ugly moments, like the scenes where Harry confronts mermaids in a dangerous (read: cloudy) lake, or when he winds his way through a foreboding (read: foggy) maze.
The biggest problem, though, is the book itself, and I mean that quite literally. Goblet of Fire is twice the size of previous installments and it’s plot, if I remember correctly, is needlessly convoluted. In adapting it for the screen, the writers have obviously taken some shortcuts, which at best are amusingly conspicuous (such as when, at the Quidditch World Cup, we cut suddenly to the afterparty just as the game begins) and at worse garble the story somewhat. It never becomes bad enough to make the overall plot unclear, but you often feel that you’re only being given the gist of the story. As the next two instalments are similar length, let’s hope David Yates can do a little better.
Newell, does, however, get the final few scenes spectacularly right. Harry’s confrontation with Voldemort (played astoundingly by Ralph Fiennes) is brilliant, thanks to Newell’s decision to make the Dark Lord, who has heretofore been a shrouded, ethereal figure, seem suddenly, dangerously real. When he talks to Harry, he doesn’t appear like a shadowy, ghostly apparition, but sounds and stands and acts like a real, solid human being, and that contrast makes him all the more terrifying. Better still is the moment when Harry and Cedric are transported back to the arena and the crowd’s cheers give way to mourning as they realise what’s happened. After given so much publicity and buildup, Cedric’s death always seemed like an anti-climax in the books, but here it stings. It seems that Newell excels at these small, human moments. It’s a pity that so much plot got in the way.
So there we have it. After watching these first four films again, I’m still not sure how I feel about the franchise, but I’m optimistic about going forward. Although two of these films were really quite bad and only one was legitimately good, I can’t really honestly say I didn’t enjoy any of them, purely because I’m so easily enthralled by stories like this. As long as Harry keeps rising to the occasion and facing his demons, and as long as there’s magic – lots and lots of magic – then I’m having a good time.