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Thursday, 18 November 2010

The Prisoner of Adaptation: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

How do you judge a film adaptation of a novel when the novel isn’t all that good? Because much as we’d all like to think a film stands alone in the audience’s mind, when you start to get down the best-seller end of things it’s impossible to deny that for a lot of people what they’re coming to see on the big screen is the book. But what if staying faithful to the book results in a bad film?

The big problem with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows isn’t that it only adapts the first half of the novel. On that level it actually works fairly well, ending on an ominous note without going flat-out for a cliffhanger, while the story structure – slam a whole bunch of action right up the front, then have our heroes on an extended camping trip for much of the second half – works just fine. It doesn’t even feel unbalanced dramatically: the slam-bang chases and attacks early on simply happen to the leads, while the countryside wanderings provides a chance for them to reflect on what they’re going through – the second half is when all the action actually has an impact on them, so in that sense there’s a balance to it all even if it feels a lot quieter.

The problem comes from J.K Rowling’s amazingly lazy plotting. Forget the now-typical “we’ve got to find this character that’s never even been mentioned before RIGHT NOW!!” moments and quests for amazingly powerful items no-one’s bothered to bring up once over the previous six books: There are at least two super-powered magic items / characters on the side of good who can literally turn up anywhere at any time. How can there be any sense of effort on the part of Harry and his buddies when, whenever they’re in a jam, something literally appears out of nowhere to help them? Of course the story up until now has all been about magic, but at least then the quests involved actually looking for people and items: here Harry et al just wander around kinda hoping something magic will turn up to push the plot forward, and aren’t they lucky when it does.

This kind of thing doesn’t just make for lazy story-telling – plenty of equally lazy films are still fun thanks to big effects or great performances or snappy dialogue – it strikes at the very core of what the Harry Potter story is supposed to be about. It’s a story about a boy becoming a man (becoming a werewolf… sorry, that's a 30 Rock reference there) – basically, a quest for adulthood, preferably one where he won’t be threatened / killed by the forces of evil.

As such, and in contrast to a story about, say, surviving a shipwreck (where how you survive is important, but the story still works whether you survive by your own actions, are rescues, or just fluke it), it’s vital that Harry does his own heavy lifting. It’s his story, it’s about him, and we want to see how he overcomes the challenges put in his way – otherwise it’s just a story about some entitled chump with friends he doesn’t deserve.

When those challenges are defeated by “oh look, that magic sword that can appear anywhere at any time has arrived just in time” or “thank goodness Dobby the teleporting elf has arrived to help teleport us out of here”, anyone could do them. And if anyone could do them, why are we watching a movie about Harry Potter, especially as pretty much every single other character in this film is more interesting than he is? After all, they all have a goal – to either protect or harm Harry Potter. Potter’s goal is to, um… smash a bunch of magic amulets?

Of course, by the seventh film in the series chances are you don’t need to be convinced that Harry is worth paying attention to. And if he doesn’t do much of anything in this installment, presumably he’ll make up for it in the next. But it’s still disappointing because clearly the extended period of countryside wandering the three main characters go through is meant to be the last big chance for us to get to know them as people. No doubt in the final film there’ll be too much action and magic explosions and special effects for us to get much breathing space to take note of the kind of people we’re cheering on, but the camping sequences here – which serve much the same purpose of meeting up with friends at a pub for a drink or two before all going off to a concert where you’ll be doing something fun together but won’t actually be interacting with each other much – seem to be just an excuse to make people think “oh look, Harry’s not in Hogwarts any more”.

Again, it’s not the film’s fault. There just isn’t all that much more to J.K. Rowling's characters than “Ron is decent and loves Hermione but is a little scared of her and isn’t great with his emotions” and "Hermione is serious and smart and a bit of a buzzkill but kind of knows it so she’s likable anyway”. And Harry is the chosen one, so that’s him sorted then. Supposedly the magic amulet thing with part of Voldemort’s soul turns them all surly and evil from exposure, but it’s only really Ron who suffers seriously from this, and he only storms off in huff so he can come back - there's never any real sense that we're being shown any hidden resentments at the core of his character, and his belief that Harry and Hermione are secretly getting it on might have worked if Harry actually seemed like someone who'd ever really get it on with anyone.

(that said, How cool would it have been to see Hermione really crack it with the guys? Oh wait, that’s her regular personality 80% of the time. No wonder this stuff drags.)

The end result is a film that’s so off-the-boil weird – pretty much every big fight / attack scene and sequence has almost no impact, but the opening dinner table chat with the forces of evil is amazingly disturbing and effective even though they just really just chat – that it's hard to tell if it's the most interesting or the least interesting film in the series. Some major characters die off-camera: others’ equally tragic deaths are lingered over at tear-jerking length. Subplots progress in dreams, everything stops for a wedding between two characters who barely figure in the story and for an extended period our three main characters are wearing other people’s faces. If J. K. Rowling knew what she was doing, all this would make a lot more sense – and be a lot less interesting for it.

Anthony Morris

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