November 19, 2010

Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows - Part 1 (11/19/2010)

Lettergrade: B

Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows - Part 1 adapts the first half of the series' final book, its seventh, into an exciting, well-paced 2 1/2 hour movie. Being a devotee of the books, I have my complaints about what made it into each of the flicks and what didn't, but by and large I try to look at the movies as separate entities: Are the characters and story points clear and interesting on screen? Is, at the very least, the spirit of the source material there? And above all, do the films simply "work" as enjoyable reasons to go out to the cinema? For the most part, I'd say that this one did. I've got some major beefs (beeves?) with how it is as an adaptation (as ranted on below), but if we're talking about it as a film that follows the other films in the series, it's a good one. The four or five action scenes in the picture are thrilling, and there's enough intrigue and mysticism to keep even casual fans of the movies entertained.

I started reading the books after the third film came out in 2004, and during these last couple movies I've sat in the theater wondering if certain moments would make a lick of sense to people who were not already familiar with the texts. Maybe concerns like that are irrelevant... If you haven't read the books by now, you're probably not that interested, and if you're not that interested, what are you doing at a teenage wizard movie in the first place?

The main action of this one breaks from the tradition of each installment covering another year at Hogwart's School For Witchcraft And Wizardry, and instead has Harry, Ron and Hermione on the run from the authorities (now under the control of the bad guys), and hunting for magical objects that will aid in the destruction of Harry's arch nemesis, the noseless Voledemort. Being free of the series' signature formula allows director David Yates to stage things on his own terms, leaving no frame of comparison to whatever the franchises' earlier three directors might have done. Unlike the Hogwart's-based stories, this one moves in a little more of a straight line from clue to clue to clue... the overall plot development is a bit more confined, and Yates is able to get things to progress much more fluidly than he was with the turgid part 6.

Because the preceding movies omitted details that wound up being important in the final book, a good amount of Deathly Hallows - Part 1 is spent filling in missing pieces and playing catchup. Early on in particular, there are several awkward scenes where "Movie Harry" must be awkwardly introduced to characters that "Book Harry" has known for years already... the new Minister of Magic played by Bill Nighy, members of Ron's family who never made it into previous films, and a questionable good guy named Mundungus Fletcher, who, had he been around earlier, would have already stolen some key stuff that turned out be a problem in this one. By necessity, Yates has no choice but to patch the holes as efficiently as he can, often by simply having one of the characters in the scene recite a short, declarative statement that doesn't seem to be motivated by anything.

I have mixed feelings about Yates' handling of these movies overall. On one hand, his entries in the franchise have had the unenviable task of boiling massive, beloved books by J. K. Rowling into functional movies, and my hats off to him for getting the feeling right in ways that some of the previous directors did not. On another, though, his three movies have also felt strangely "thin" - seeming to rely on viewers' fond memories of the books, rather than finding ways to translate that emotion to the screen as complete movie scenes. Neither part 5 nor part 6 were entirely coherent or satisfying for me, as I felt they required audiences to already know the details by heart, and even then, to interpolate feelings and ideas that the films only vaguely touch upon.

While we're on that subject, I think I finally put my finger on what really bothers me about the three Yates movies midway though this one: Although he handles individual moments in the series as well as any of the other directors, there's a weird lack of momentum, tension and context in many of his scenes (all of which practically drip off the pages of the book). By that, I mean when a character speaks, he doesn't seem to be thinking much more about what he's saying at that precise moment. You don't see his or her eyes shifting with ulterior motives... you don't get a sense of where these characters have been or where they might go next.. there's no attempt to at the very least allude to aspects of the book that the movies didn't make time for. So many scenes seem to feature passionless recitations of dialogue (ala the Star Wars prequels), as if everyone was more concerned with professionally hitting their marks rather than really understanding how the scene fits into the larger whole. The big "oh shit" moments in the movie only seemed to work for me because I remember how I felt when I read them originally, and that's really not how it should be.

During the whole first part of the film, where the kids are getting ready to set off on their Horcrux quest, there's a patently bizarre lack of discussion about where they might need to start looking. In fact, I don't believe they talk about it at all, which is the exact opposite of the book, wherein every waking moment is spent trying to figure out what the miniscule clues they've got might mean. Later, when the kids are stranded in the woods, without any ideas about what to do next... what are they thinking about? Well, they don't seem to be thinking about anything. They don't talk about anything or really even do anything... they sit and sulk, gradually getting more and more pissed at eachother. The book has scenes like this too, of course, but unlike the film, it always keeps the personal squabbles in the context of the impossible task ahead.

One of the great running concepts throughout pretty much all the books are that the adults - even the ones the kids really look up to - all have their flaws... ranging from vanity, to egotism, to pride, or to long-standing disappointment that makes one bitter. Really, there are no benign older characters at all... not even Dumbledore, who, starting in the sixth book and especially in the seventh, is revealed to be just as imperfect and as troubled as anyone. I can't tell you how disappointed I am that this movie in particular failed to capture that aspect of the books. Posthumous stories come out about Dumbledore and his early life (in the book, at least), which are not entirely truthful, but nevertheless make Harry feel angry and abandoned, as if he didn't know his old teacher at all. It's agonizing and soul-crushing for him, and indeed I would argue that the whole element of Harry kind of losing faith in Dumbledore and becoming more aware of his less-than-saintly attributes is pretty much the essence of the first half of the book! There miiiiiiiight be a line or two of dialogue in the picture that references this, but it sure doesn't get you to feel it.

And while we're at it, there's another powerful component of the book that the movie fails to stage effectively too: The idea that Harry's thought-be-be-dormant psychic connection to Voledemort has again started opening up at will, giving him chaotic, uncontrolled peeks at what the baddie is up to. In the fifth movie/book, Harry attempted (unsuccessfully) to control these visions, but then they sort of went away on their own anyway. In this one they're back, and just as dangerous as ever. There's powerful scene from the middle of the book (appearing close to the end of this film) where Harry digs a grave with intense emotion, and has a series of blinding epiphanies. Without getting into specifics, he's suddenly renewed with a searing sense of purpose and at long last his thoughts are clear and focused, meaning, among other things, that he is now in control of those visions, and can keep them out whenever he likes. It's a major turning point for Harry, and it is appropriate that the first part of the story should conclude not long after. Nevertheless, my key argument here still applies: Yates shows images that kinda sorta represent this major change in his lead character, but I'll repeat that he sure doesn't get you to feel it. Had I not known what I was looking at from reading the books, would I have intuited that it was such an important moment at all?

My journal entry on part six, Harry Potter And The Half-Blood Prince

And my entry on part five, Harry Potter And The Order Of The Phoenix

No comments:

Post a Comment