I feel compelled to do this because I just finished watching this film for the first time. I resisted watching it for three years because, when I finished the book, I bawled like a tot– and for people who know me, that’s a very strong reaction on my part. There was no way on God’s green earth that I intended to risk the same reaction in a movie theater.
As it turned out, I need not have worried. I don’t know who chose David Yates for the director, but I do think somebody ought to have sat him down and explained to him certain valuable facts about fantasy films. The first of which: underplaying a scene to heighten its emotional intensity is a powerful strategy, but not if you do it for half the film. Then it just flattens the emotional flow of the film. The second of which: this is a genre that provides– demands, if you will– scope for the imagination (to borrow a phrase from a fictional, albeit not fantasy, character, Anne Shirley). That ought to open up a range of possibilities, but Yates didn’t take any of the opportunities that practically flung themselves at him.
I am aware of the difficult that lies in taking a 652-page novel and reducing it to a 153-minute film. Most of the side plots and supporting characters need to be pared away in order to accomplish the task. It takes a deft hand to glean out the one central thread and its absolute requirements from among all the myriad details of the novel and fit them together into one screenplay. The mere act will flatten the story somewhat. That doesn’t mean the story cannot be a rich narrative in its own right, but Yates made a choppy stew of Rowlings’ work. The film reminded me of the one and only time I entered a haunted house at a county fair. The scariest part was when, on the upper level, the little car toting me through the house felt as if it would lurch off its rails and tip me out for a fifteen-foot drop. The things that were supposed to be scary in this film were underdone; the humor had no rhythm, so the punchlines ended up lost in awkwardness.
Here’s an example of what I mean: with so much material at his disposal already, Yates chose to create his own opening scene, one that didn’t fit Harry’s character and one which attempted but failed to underscore one of the major themes: the danger of Harry’s coming-of-age. No, the peril wasn’t supposed to be in Harry becoming your average oversexed adolescent, trying to pick up girls whenever possible. The real danger was in losing the protection of the mother’s-blood charm vested in the Dursley house. Not enough time, cut the Dursleys– fine. That I understand. But putting in a cute waitress instead? Really? What was the point?
Another scene addition/omission combination that I found inexplicable in the extreme: the burning of the Burrow, and the absence of the battleground scene at the end. The book used the constant defensive measures surrounding Harry as a rather efficient way to build tension. So… to create tension in his own way, Yates removes all this, burns a house that shouldn’t burn and heedlessly throws open the doors to a school supposedly the best-defended in the entire Potter world. Nobody does a thing to protect either place. I don’t understand this choice. It didn’t create any sort of emotion except perplexity in me– particularly the Burrows scene, because it hardly had time to register before I was jerked along to another stretch of not-scary haunted house immediately afterward.
Third example: Harry hiding under the observatory floor at the end. The point wasn’t supposed to be that he didn’t do anything, but that he couldn’t do anything. We did the “I got someone killed” schtick in the previous film; guilt wasn’t supposed to be part of this one. The point was supposed to be that Dumbledore was orchestrating events to his own ends (pun intended), and that no one understood why. Leaving Harry loose and yet inactive completely wipes away any impression of control Dumbledore might have left on viewers. It was as though the flaccid nature of the film ended up embodied in Harry, which is completely contrary to his character. He may (and often does) choose to do the wrong thing, but he never chooses to do nothing. This scene just didn’t fit. Sad, though, seeing as it was supposed to be the climax of the film.
Speaking of sad should-have-been-climactic moments, I also found myself bewildered by the last exchange between Severus Snape and Harry. For all the enmity between them, the scene couldn’t have been duller. There was no spite, no vengeance between them in the end. Forgive me another analogy: I went to see the third Matrix film with a group of friends when it was released into theaters. We laughed. Oh, but we laughed. It wasn’t meant to be funny, though Keanu Reaves films so often are, unintentionally. The best part, the part that got the biggest laugh, was when he realized he couldn’t escape from the subway. He uttered one obscenity, but he did it with such flat affect that we all cracked up laughing. His shoelace might have broken, for all the reaction he gave. The same happened in this last exchange between two alleged enemies. After all the mutual hostility and suspicion, is that really all they would have said to each other?
But time constraints demanded it, one might argue. No. Time constraints demand many things, but inefficient use of dialog is not one of them. It doesn’t take long to establish a relationship between two characters, be it friendly or malicious. When that relationship is established, it takes even less time to depict their relationship. A form of shorthand is developed, if you will– “Like your father” is one trigger-phrase often used to good effect between Snape and Potter. One could also argue that Snape is a subdued character, but not when Harry is involved. Harry brings out his emotional side, primarily his venom. That’s why they play off one another so well, because Snape brings out Harry’s dark side. That’s not a character relationship that ought to be tossed aside so lightly.
The funny part is, I didn’t really enjoy the book. I liked it slightly better the second time through, since I knew the ending and could see the details more clearly, but it wasn’t one I particularly enjoyed. The fact that it was butchered to make a film doesn’t bother me as much as a film in its own right was butchered. I’ve watched movies that wiped their feet on the favorite books that inspired them, and I’ve enjoyed those films all the same, as imaginative works independent of the original story. This one stayed relatively faithful to the book and still managed to wipe its grubby feet on something. I rather suspect that something to be the viewer.