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Culture Warrior: The Past and (Possible) Future of Harry Potter

By  · Published on July 19th, 2011

That the final Harry Potter film became the biggest opening weekend of all time seemed only natural and inevitable. Something so monumentally culturally pervasive could have only gone out with a loud bang. After all, it is – as I’ve been repeatedly reminded – the most successful movie franchise of all time, adapted from a series of books whose sales history rivals that of The Holy Bible.

Yet unlike some head scratch-inducing huge opening weekends of the more uninspired entries of blockbusting franchises who rival Harry Potter in their monetary intake but not their longevity (Spider-Man 3, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest) and the former reigning champ whose buzz was accompanied by fascination with the untimely death of a star (The Dark Knight), the mass participation in the cultural event that was the release of Deathly Hallows Part 2 won’t likely be rivaled anytime soon. The Harry Potter films simultaneously represent the inevitable logical extent of franchise filmmaking as much as it is exceptional and anomalous in this same regard.

The Past

When the first Harry Potter film was released in 2001, it seemed like a kid-specific alternative to the first entry in the Oscar-beloved Lord of the Rings trilogy, released only a few months after. Chris Columbus was certainly an adept enough director-for-hire in terms of introducing the world of Harry Potter, but it became clear that the franchise had to change directions if it was to transcend beyond the stigmatized category of children’s entertainment. According to English professor Greg Garrett on last week’s Reject Radio, Columbus’s films suffered from a comprehensive devotion to the source material, which would prove to become a problem as the films would be adapted from longer books (the 161-minute Chamber of Secrets, the longest film, was based on a 341-page book, one of the shortest in the series).

In hiring Alfonso Cuarón to do The Prisoner of Azkaban (and releasing the unrivaled favorite entry amongst movie fans, but arguably the least loyal adaptation for book devotees, or so I’ve heard), Warner Bros. showed, as Dan Kois argues in this piece from Slate, how a Harry Potter film could both be the work of an auteur and still be a Harry Potter film. But the distinction to be made with this entry is the term “a Harry Potter film.” These were no longer just adaptations. The notion of making a loyal adaptation of one of these tomes was impossible. They became films, and a phenomenon all their own.

But to me, the next move in the Harry Potter franchise was the worst. Despite the fact that the films were funded by Warner Bros. and despite the reality that Harry Potter’s American fanbase, as a force of nature, certainly rivals its UK counterpart, the Harry Potter films are – or, at least, eventually became – specifically British films. It seems only natural that the migrating directors chair of the franchise would finally approach a fellow Brit. But hiring Mike Newell, who embodies the exact opposite of Cuarón, was a regressive move. Newell, like Cuarón, is “versatile,” but only in the most superficial sense. Instead of taking a signature visionary style to a variety of work, Newell approaches everything from gangster films to Gabriel García Márquez adaptations with a droll and uninspired touch that’s as bland as English cuisine. As engrossing as any adaptation of Rowling’s books may by the story alone, The Goblet of Fire as a film felt like a step backward into Columbus territory, except without the patient world-shaping or the “excuse” of being a kid’s film.

The series finally found some cohesion with fellow Englishman David Yates, who possessed a compelling visual style similar to Cuarón’s while emerging from television without the burden of “the auteur” (the Harry Potter series, perhaps more than any Hollywood franchise ever produced, exhibits the essential importance of the individual directorial vision, even with a collaborative medium and a series carrying with it an impressive regular stock of cast and crew). Cuarón’s film showed the promise of Harry Potter films becoming films on their own, and hardly just for children, while Yates’s helming of the second half of the series fulfilled this promise.

By the end of it, Harry Potter films weren’t simply generation-spanning, but were arguably no longer kid films at all. Exemplified best perhaps by Severus Snape, between eight films the characters were permitted growth in moral ambiguity and complexity well beyond the good/evil paradigm we come to expect from even the most well-respected of movie-spanning franchises.

The (Possible) Future

With the release of Deathly Hallows Part 1 last November, I wrote about how the Harry Potter films follow the basic model of fantasy franchise filmmaking (boy wonder emerging from prophecy to reality as savior for the good in an inevitable, potentially apocalyptic good/evil conflict a la Star Wars, The Matrix, etc.), but at the same time has revealed itself to be a significantly more complex exercise in that each film (especially the recent “half-films”) is dependent on one’s familiarity with a variety of texts and avenues of knowledge which determine one’s cinematic experience. As somebody who has never read the books (though I will some day), the film series has interested me through being able to witness the films themselves mature along with their central characters.

But I’ve always felt, more so than with many adaptations, that the Harry Potter films were supplements rather than substitutes, that I’m missing out on a vital aspect of the series’ appeal by having only seen the films. While the vast response to the end of the series has been awe and respect to the (admittedly imperfect) decade-long cinematic journey that is more like the feeling finally saying goodbye to the characters of a long-running beloved television series than the final chapter of a film, it’s easy to forget that, as films, the Harry Potter franchise hardly came out of the gate with this level of respectability. As a film series, Harry Potter is a durable, impressive, and unrivaled cinematic achievement, but as a series of individual films, it is inconsistent at best, having not found its footing until somewhere between one-fourth and halfway through. Unlike its initial cinematic rival The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter is hardly a unified work of collaboration between an artist of the page and an artist of the screen.

This is why after eight films, the series to me feels incomplete, not in the sense of failure, but in the idea that, by virtue of its initial lack of a consistent approach to the screen, the Harry Potter films exhibit a variety of ways one could have made any individual Harry Potter film. In the first two as opposed to the rest, we see what a loyal (I’ve been told) adaptation would look like. With the second half of the series, we see how Harry Potter as a consistent and unified cinematic vision would come across film-to-film. And with the last two films, we see a different possibility altogether. In making the shrewd business decision of splitting the last book into two films, Deathly Hallows Part 1 engaged in opportunities not available in the other films, opportunities to take a break from condensing the episodes of the book to actually spending time letting moments breathe, including an extended quiet episode with the three protagonists stuck in the woods and (for me, one of the series’ best and most surprising moments) even letting Harry and Hermoine dance quietly to Nick Cave’s “O Children.” I know full well that I’m in the minority for loving this subdued element of the first Deathly Hallows film, but these moments certainly would not have existed at all had Deathly Hallows been adapted as a single film, and even in dividing them into two still didn’t make room to include many important textual elements of the source material (or so, once again, I’ve been told). Imagine for a moment that the Harry Potter adaptations consisted of fourteen films.

Peter Hall recently made a prediction that the Harry Potter films would one day be remade, and while it’s hard to imagine Warner Bros. walking away from a multi-billion-dollar series easily, between Rowling’s tight reign on the rights to the series and our difficulty as audiences of presently envisioning Potter in a different temporal context, it is certainly not outside the realm of possibility that decades from now this series of books would be re-adapted to screen, with whatever storytelling opportunities are available in cinema’s future. While Harry Potter has “ended,” and satisfactorily, I agree with Hall’s sentiment in that it hardly feels like the end in terms of its possibilities. The uneven evolution of the film series as titles rolled out is, in all seriousness, its virtue, not only in achieving those things it does right, but also in showing the many possibilities in bringing Potter to screen, not just in terms of taking a second shot at adaptations that could include and exclude different textual material which would make important elements, like Dobby’s death, just as resonant for film audiences as they are for devoted readers, but also in the potential of different cinematic approaches altogether, as exemplified by the franchise’s existing variety of “visions.” Sometimes both accomplishment and the feeling of incompletion bring opportunities.

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