Friday, December 03, 2010

Not Entirely Wild about Harry - Review of Harry Potter & the Deathly Hallows Part 1

Warning: Spoilers (although, is it really necessary to give a spoiler warning when the film's based on a book that's been on the shelves for 3 years?!)

The biggest problem with going to see Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (part 1!) last week was that it's been so long since I read the book that it was hard to place everything in context. It was hard to figure out what was faithful to the novel and what wasn't, and whether that was good or bad. Hell, I'll come right out and admit it, I've completely forgotten a lot of details from the book (such as the titular Deathly Hallows themselves!), and while in most cases with a film adaptation that would be alright because the film would be faithful to the book and have a plot that ran smoothly or because it would diverge from the book but still have a plot that ran smoothly, in this case it was a major problem.

The film tries to be faithful to the book (at least, from what I can remember), but faced with the daunting task of trying to compress and represent a huge amount of story (even though it's only half of the story) in 2-and-a-half hours of screentime the pacing is extremely choppy. One minute you're in a scene, the next it's jumped somewhere else - possibly with the same characters, sometimes with a completely different set. It was as though the movie was frenetically trying to jam in everything it could to paint the whole big picture of everything that was going on, even though the only way to adequately do this was to have the huge amount of time and space that the book was able to devote to it. The consequence of the rapid changes from scene to scene was that often scenes were robbed of their full impact.

Case in point: the broomstick escape battle near the beginning. This was significant to the story because it's the big opening act that tells the reader (now viewer) in no uncertain terms that the war is now on. Oh sure, there have been fights in the previous installment of the Potter franchise, but those have been quick skirmishes. This is full-on war with a pitched, take-no-prisoners battle involving many soldiers wielding powerful weapons/spells. I remember the book devoting a fair amount of pagespace to describing the aerial clash between Voldermort's minions and Harry's friends. But the movie just gives us a rapid, confusing, largely dark, twisting flight with distant flashes of light and every now and again an enemy swoops into view before Hagrid dives down to the highway or something. There's no sense of the scope of the battle. Maybe that was deliberate. Maybe director David Yates thought a kid-heavy audience would enjoy a visual rollercoaster ride more than a Midway-style dogfight (in which case I'd say he's seriously underestimated an audience that goes bonkers for Star Wars fighter battles). Maybe Yates has done it deliberately to try to show us the confusion of battle where an individual soldier wouldn't take-in the entire scene, but would rather be focussed on his own survival. And there might be some merit in that point of view, but I think there's an argument to be made for combining the two perspectives, as was done in The Longest Day and Saving Private Ryan, because as valid as it is to show how confused and frightening the speed of things in a battle can be to the individual, it's also important to the overall story to paint the larger picture of what's going on because it helps emphasize the stakes.

And it's the sacrifice of the larger picture and the stakes of the opening battle that create a serious weakness in the movie right from the start. It's a battle where Harry witnesses two significant deaths: Mad-Eye Moody and Hedwig the owl. While everyone would agree (and I have some vague memory of someone saying something to this effect in the book) that old Mad-Eye going down fighting was they way he'd want to die, this death was important because it reiterates right away the lesson that Harry learned with Dumbledore's death in The Half-Blood Prince, that even very powerful wizards can be killed by enemies and that fights are generally not fair. But we don't see this in the movie - it's mentioned quickly in passing later on and then the story jerks off in another direction. The death of Hedwig is important too because Harry has to deal with the death of a true innocent (say what you will about the death of Cedric in The Goblet of Fire, an animal is far more of an innocent for being unaware of and unable to comprehend what's happening - Hedwig only knows that she was more or less content until everybody took off and suddenly someone threatened her boy, she moved to prevent that harm, and got blasted out of the sky) who was close to Harry and died because someone wanted to harm him. It's an especially significant event because this death, possibly more than any other (from what I can remember of the book), weighs on Harry throughout the story and is something that he revisits often. There's no weight given to it in the movie though, just a quick moment when the snow owl swoops in out of nowhere to attack the Deatheater and then she's an exploding clump of feathers. It's quick. It's shocking. But the film promptly discards the moment, doesn't revisit it, and the impact on Harry is totally lost. Sure he shows that he's depressed throughout the film, but he doesn't vocalize it, we get no real window into his thoughts, and so there's no indication of how these things are affecting him.

And this was just the beginning. There were plenty of other scenes that I thought were given short shrift by the choppy pacing.

The other effect of the herky-jerky scene changes was that it heightened my sense that I was missing elements of the plot. It not only reinforced to me the fact that my memory of the story wasn't perfect, it left me with the sense that there was stuff going on - possibly important stuff - that it wasn't showing the audience and that we were just expected to know. No movie should create this feeling. A film, specifically because of its limitations of time, narrative perspective, and scope, should make the audience feel like they're seeing all they need and want to know, and all that's relevant. The illusion should never be weakened or shattered like it is here - it's integral for a movie that you never get the sense that the man behind the curtain is frantic because he can't fit everything in; the audience can't be left wondering if something is missing or walk away with the vague feeling that something didn't make sense.

And yet, for all of the rapid scene changes, there were plenty of moments which were far too slow. Some of the scenes with Harry, Ron and Hermione on the road seemed to drag (and while Clerks 2 may have made jokes about how The Lord of the Rings trilogy had a lot of walking shots, at least those scenes were effective and interesting), and the bit where they're in the Lovegood home limped along painfully slowly aside from the telling of the Deathly Hallows story via animation, which despite being interesting, had a fairly mellow pace.

What's the solution to the pacing issue? Maybe it shouldn't have been a 2-parter. Maybe The Deathly Hallows should simply have been a single, 4-hour movie. Oh sure, a 2-part flick holds the promise of making waaaay more money in box-office and DVD/Blueray sales revenue than a single film does, and the studios need all the money they can get right now, but if Part 1 was choppy, I'm not convinced that Part 2 won't be as well, and that's a serious disincentive for me to shell out extra money to see Part 2 in the theatre or to buy either of them on DVD. Besides, we're talking about how to solve the pacing issue, and clearly splitting the movie in 2 hasn't worked for scene changes. I think forcing the studio to put together a single 4-hour story would require the director to make it flow better and feel more coherent in order to make it watchable - especially for that length of time. One might argue that a film with a large percentage of its audience composed of children couldn't run that long because the kids wouldn't sit still for it, but I disagree; give a kid an interesting plot, and they'll stay locked to the story for hours. Look at kids watching Saturday morning cartoons (at least 20-30 years ago when networks actually ran Saturday morning cartoons and the cartoons were worth watching), or these days playing plot-oriented videogames, or, most importantly, kids reading the Potter books for hours on end. Make it good enough, and they'll sit still to watch it (although an intermission like they used to have for long movies in the 60's & 70's might help). Could a 4-hour film, even if it was cut better so as not to be choppy, contain all of the plot elements of The Deathly Hallows. Probably not. I'll openly commit heresy here and suggest that some of the plot elements in the book could be removed entirely (far more than the current presentation) to make a story that was able to flow onscreen. It worked for LOTR, it could work for The Deathly Hallows. But that would probably take a braver director than currently exists in Hollywood, and somehow I doubt JK Rowling would go for it.

The other problem, and call me shallow if you want to, is that looking at Emma Watson and Rupert Grint onscreen together in the later Potter films is increasingly and alarmingly like looking at a new rendition of Beauty and the Beast. The kid who plays Ron can't help how he looks, of course, and we should probably be giving the Brits serious kudos for casting (and continuing to cast) an unattractive guy in a lead movie role since Hollywood sure as hell wouldn't, but... eeesh!

It wasn't all bad though.

The movie does capture some nice moments in the growing relationship between Harry and Ginny. There's also a nice scene (which I recall reading somewhere was not in the book but rather written for the film) where Ron has left and Harry and Hermione are dancing and experience a quick moment of uncertain attraction that you'd expect from a couple of teens who have shared as much as they have and suddenly find themselves in close quarters with no-one else around. And the scene where Bellatrix tortures Hermione (largely off-camera) is well-done in terms of being genuinely scary - in fact, I don't remember it being as unsettling in the book as it was in the film.

Is Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 worth seeing? Well, if you've followed the franchise this far, yes. If I had to do it again though, I probably wouldn't have paid full price at the theatre - a cheapo Tuesday or discount matinee would be worth while, but if those options aren't available I'd probably go as far as to recommend just waiting to rent it on DVD/Blueray or download it online. Those options might not be available until next summer or close to the release of Part 2, but if it does get released for purchase that late, at least you will stand less of a chance of forgetting the details ahead of Part 2. Who knows, it might even look less choppy when seen closer to Part 2.

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