Arresto Momentum: A Look Back at the Harry Potter Series

 

ImageHarry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

Anecdote about reading the book: CC2K emeritus staff member Cyrano Halleck put it best: This one dropped like a crate of Wonka bars.

By the time this book came out, Potter mania had finally and fully taken hold in the States, and as I recall, Halleck was working for a prominent media outlet the summer it came out. He got to cover one of the release parties, which took place at the same Barnes and Noble near our college campus. It was the first time I had seen people in costume for a book release, and I was buzzing. I had just inhaled the first three volumes, but I had to hold off on buying the book myself — my mother had pre-purchased a copy off of Amazon that I knew was waiting for me at my apartment.

Anecdote about seeing the movie: I had been waylaid at a party in the Hollywood hills the night before, and I didn’t get home until 5 a.m. My whole office had been at the party, so we all blew off that day of work. I spent the free day going to see Goblet of Fire, and I distinctly remember openly weeping at the teaser trailer for Superman Returns before I wept my way through the movie itself. I was pretty punchy.

Anyway, let’s talk about the movie: Mike Newell took over the series for one chapter, and it’s just as well. Cuaron went on to magnificent movies like Children of Men, and Newell got to deliver one of the most oddly shaped — but deeply satisfying — entries in the cinematic series. I call it “oddly shaped” because by necessity, Newell had to cram several genres together to make this movie work, and I think he pulled it off.

And it can’t have been easy to manage a script that included the broad invention of the Quidditch World Cup, the John Hughes-style shenanigans of the Yule Ball, and the gothic horror of the final scenes. Crammed in amongst all that madness was a mini-sports movie with the Triwizard tournament. All of this had to make sense as a part of the larger Potter series, but Newell pulled it off by committing to every tonal shift the script threw at him.

To wit, let’s talk about the Yule Ball sequence. You could lift it up and out of the movie, and it could function as its own short — a slice-of-life look at an old Hogwarts tradition. Tonally, it veers between a more juvenile vibe (which is less effective), but it finds its sea-legs when it hits the ball and goes into full Sixteen Candles mode. One of the series’ most well executed storylines — the slow-burn love story between Ron and Hermione — hits a high point here. Here’s the whole dang Yule Ball, but skip to 5:45 for the best stuff:

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One of Rowling’s singular accomplishments in this series is the Ron Weasley character, through whom she accurately and skillfully portrays a lunkheaded guy who’s no good with women, but who slowly — and through years of hard work — figures it out. (I’m one of those guys, and so I’ve always felt a kinship with the big-hearted ginger. He’s like a Han Solo who never gets laid.)

But even more than Ron, Hermione will probably age the best of any of her creations. (Well, Hermione and Snape, most likely.) In the Yule Ball scene above, we get to see one of the major pivots in the larger storyline between Ron and Hermione, and we get to see some of the best acting from Emma Watson, who has distinguished herself as one of the series’ best performers. (She and Rupert Grint both deliver strong performances in HP7.1, but I’ll talk about that later.) The image of a weeping Hermione removing her high-heels on the staircase is pure John Hughes, and I’m still delighted that this whole sequence found a home in the Potter series.

Arresto momentum moment: The Mad-Eye Moody twist. Let me refresh your memory: In book four, the guest-star teacher is the piratical Mad-Eye Moody, a dark-wizard hunter (“auror,” in Potter parlance). But one of the book’s major twists is that Moody himself had been kidnapped with replaced with an impostor.

An impostor. Who taught at Hogwarts for the entire year.

OK, OK, OK — I’m being an asshole. The idea of a deep-cover operative in the wizarding world is a fascinating one, and Rowling has a great one in the resolutely heroic Severus Snape, but … I really have a hard time emphasizing how silly it is to introduce a major character but have his entire appearance in a whole novel be a sham. I mean, we really don’t meet Moody until book five, and then for all intents and purposes, we have to get to know him again.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

Anecdote about reading the book: I advance-ordered this one, too, and I remember it arrived at my home right before I had to pull an insane 17-hour shift at the cubicle farm where I was working. I took an hour break in the middle of the shift, and I spent the entire hour reading Order of the Phoenix while occasionally nodding off. (I was nodding off from being up for 30 hours, not because of the book.)

Sorry to mess up my own structure, but:

Arresto momentum moment: Occlumency. Once again, I find myself pointing to something I kind of like about the books that turns out to be a weakness. Remember when I argued that the first two volumes in the Potter series are just warm-ups? Well, if we remove those two books, we’re left with a five-volume cycle that begins with Prisoner of Azkaban and ends with Deathly Hallows. That makes Order of the Phoenix the middle chapter of the series, which by any estimation should also make it the Empire Strikes Back of the series.

And it almost is. Order of the Phoenix certainly delivers a payload of grim imagery and miscellaneous brooding. We even get a sad little love story between Harry and poor, damaged-goods Cho.

Rowling also sets up Snape as the unlikely Yoda of the book. It turns out that because of a fated connection between Harry and arch-villain Voldemort, Harry is left vulnerable to mental invasions by the dark lord. Because of this, Dumbledore instructs Snape to teach Harry the art of occlumency, which is the only defense against these invasions.

Unfortunately, Rowling doesn’t deliver on this great idea. I forget if she writes it out of the series — I think she does — but suffice it to say that the potential greatness that might come from watching Harry learn from Severus Snape falls by the wayside. Too bad.

Anecdote about seeing the movie: Not much to report here, other than I saw it on opening weekend with my befuddled girlfriend and surrounded by chattering kids.

My feelings about both the book and the movie overlap. After Rowling made the admirably intense decision to resurrect Voldemort, she short-circuited her entire series. Like I said before, she started out writing quaint boarding-school adventures that fell into convenient sections that followed the ebbs and flows of a traditional school year. But when she resurrected Voldemort, it got harder and harder to hold to that pattern. Oh, she managed to kill some time by explaining that Voldemort was marshaling his forces, but for better or for worse, it drained a lot of the fun out of the series.

Let’s pause and consider what I just said: It drained a lot of fun out of the series.

By no means am I arguing that Rowling shouldn’t have raised the stakes in her series. Neither am I arguing that any part of her series — much less the later chapters — had to be fun in any sense of the word. In fact, my mourning the departure of fun from her series happens to mesh well with the loss of innocence that her heroes undergo.

But …

I’m not so sure Rowling fully understood that herself. Which brings us to:

ImageHarry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Anecdote about reading the book: After the marathon read that was Order of the Phoenix, I wasn’t sure what to expect from the penultimate book in the series. I picked it up a few days after its release, and as I cracked it open, I felt impatient — bothered that I even had to read another Potter novel before the final volume. I don’t think it was unreasonable of me to feel that way, given that by her own admission, Rowling considered dealing with some of the information in Half-Blood Prince, in book two, Chamber of Secrets. She even considered calling book two Half-Blood Prince.

Looking back, I submit that Rowling would have been better off combining books two and six into a larger and more satisfying volume. Pursuant to that change, she should have shortened the Hogwarts curriculum to six years. That way, book six would end as our heroes graduate from Hogwarts and into adulthood — all before they venture into the dangerous magical world that lies beyond the school’s grounds.

But here’s another the problem: I also had a lot of fun reading this book.

I re-read Half-Blood Prince recently, and my original reaction to it stands: It’s the Animal House of the series, and it has no business being that. When I first read it, I wrinkled my nose at its leisurely pace and its tendency to lovingly linger on the details of life at Hogwarts. Classes. Quidditch. Snogging. Skullduggery. It isn’t surprising that Rowling lingers on these details, given that she ejects her heroes from the friendly confines of Hogwarts in the final volume. But again: Once she heightened the stakes at the end of book four, the series’ “boarding-school adventure” structure, as well as the day-to-day details of life at Hogwarts, rapidly became less and less believable.

Once again, let me reiterate my argument that the series would have benefited from the combination of books two and six — or at least the elimination of one of those volumes and the dispersal of their content over the remaining books. In my revised structure, we would delay the resurrection of Voldemort and pack the gang’s senior year with the lingering nostalgia seen in Half-Blood Prince. Their graduation would be tinged with the tragedy of Dumbledore’s death — and then they would embark on their first great quest as adults.

Anecdote about seeing the movie: All I remember is that I found the movie so overlong and boring that it ruined my (and my girlfriend’s) entire weekend.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Anecdote about reading the book: I remember walking out of the Barnes and Noble at the Grove in Los Angeles and immediately sitting down to start reading it. A custodial worker passed by and asked me how it was. He was buying his copy as soon as he got off shift.

The experience surrounding the release of this book was a gas, but the book itself was a major disappointment for me. You can read my laundry-list of gripes in my original review of the novel, but briefly: All of Rowling’s shortcomings came to light in this novel, and as readers, we finally had to face up to the reality that she had been winging it the whole time.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with winging it. Novel-writing is a largely improvisatory performance art anyway, but Rowling liked to say that she wrote the ending to the whole series well in advance of writing the series itself. I don’t know what you guys thought, but that claim made me think that Rowling had conceived of the climax to her series already, when the reality is that she had simply thought of the downer of an epilogue before she wrote the seventh book.

Anyway, let’s get to my:

Anecdote about seeing the movie: Not much to tell. I woke up early and decided to dash up to Glendale to catch it. I’ll say this for HP7.1: Much of the book’s incredibly boring first half played better onscreen, largely due to some crackerjack directing from series journeyman David Yates (the helmer since Order of the Phoenix), as well as some remarkable design work from the creative team.

Some of the highlights:

“You are not a witch.” The always impeccable Imelda Staunton returns as the cashmere-clad fascist Dolores Umbridge, who appears briefly to interrogate a suspected mudblood. I have to give due praise to Rowling for managing to conjure a Crucible-style scene where the inquisitor’s grim accusation is “You are not a witch.” This scene comes in the middle of an extended sequence where our heroes infiltrate the newly hardline Ministry of Magic, where we’re treated to some long-overdue scenes of huge, bureaucratic machinery straight out of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil.

Ron’s Oscar clip. I’ve always felt like Watson overshadowed her co-stars in this series, but Grint acquits himself admirably in this volume, especially in one speech where he explains how he found his friends after a long absence.

More earthiness, plus Helena Bonham Carter. Once again, the idea of earthiness and muggle-bound imagery asserts itself. A great deal of HP7.1 follows the events of the first half of the book — in which the heroes camp out in various parts of rural England while on the run — and even though I’ll talk about how boring these passages are in a moment, there is some great imagery in here. I love seeing a magical duel in a dumpy London diner. I love seeing our heroes trudge through a crumbling trailer park.

 

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Muggle imagery: Ron against a backdrop of cooling towers? More, please.

 

But more to the point, Yates and his team populate this movie with an array of wonderful faces, and they clothe the villains not in dark robes, but in regular muggle clothes, for the most part. Lucius Malfoy (Jason Isaacs) had heretofore appeared in the series wearing nothing but dark robes, but now we see him in a sweat-stained suit, his sunken eyes surrounded with dark lines. Another memorable face: Actor David O’Hara — you may remember him as one of Jack Nicholson’s goons in The Departed — appears in a decent-sized part, wearing a simple black suit. His mere presence adds incredible ballast to this picture.

Also, the always stellar Helena Bonham Carter shows up again as the tin-shithouse-crazy Bellatrix Lestrange. Her performance in this role continues to freak me out.

The impressively eerie sequence in Godric’s Hollow. I barely remembered this sequence from the book, in which Harry returns to his birthplace in search of clues to the story’s mystery, but Yates and his team manage to deliver a gory, grotesque and largely wordless sequence that legitimately unsettled me. Hazel Douglas turns up as very creepy-looking old woman, and in a bit that would make David Lynch proud, Hermione warns Harry that someone is watching them — and then the image jump-cuts; she’s standing right there, with her wiezened face and red-ringed eyes. I flashed on Mulholland Drive.

Long, wordless sequences. Like I said, the first half of the novel Deathly Hallows follows our heroes as they camp out across England while evading the forces of evil and searching for clues. Yates indulges in a great many wordless stretches of brooding and character interaction. Harry and Hermione enjoy a playful dance only to part ways — they’ll only ever be friends. But unfortunately, these long, wordless sequences also reflect some of this movie’s many …

Arresto momentum moments (or qualities).

Booooo-ring. Who in Crom’s name thought it would be a good idea to take the most boring 200-page stretch in the entire 1,000-plus page series and inflate it into a 150-minute movie? Everyone, apparently, especially seeing as how both movies will very likely break box office records.

Hey, I guess this was a love triangle the whole time. Except for the part where it wasn’t. In a key scene, Ron destroys one of the horcruxes — objects in which Voldemort has hidden parts of his soul. In this scene, we see the climax of one of the books mini-storylines: the resolution of Ron’s jealousy of Harry and Hermione.

Ron is jealous of Harry and Hermione? Huh?

I bitched about this in my review of the novel, but never at any point in this series has there ever been any attraction or sexual tension between Harry and Hermione. Never. The romantic storylines in this series have focused on Ron and Hermione’s circuitous route into each others arms; and Harry’s own efforts to meet girls, first with Cho, later with Ginny. (Though he should have wound up with Luna Lovegood.)

Oh, sure — wearing the horcrux drove Ron bonkers, and that manifested itself in his sudden jealousy of Harry and Hermione. Snore. Why trifle with such tiresome, manufactured bullshit when the previous six novels had afforded Rowling with so many more worthy conflicts to explore?

It’s a brand-new story! One of my biggest grievances with Deathly Hallows is the story itself: I’ve never liked how Rowling felt the need to introduce a brand-new body of mythology in her final novel. Why not draw on some of the extensive material she had already laid down? Yes, yes, yes — I realize that the all-powerful Elder Wand had apparently been in Dumbledore’s possession the whole time, but I question the wisdom of dumping a whole slew of new exposition on her audience so close to the endgame. Yates and the HP7.1 team try to inject some life into this exposition with a striking animated sequence that introduces the new mythology — but I’m disappointed that Rowling felt like she had to invent a thingamajig at the last minute to kill her arch-villain. Worse still, when Harry dispatches with Voldemort, he has to stop and explain how and why he was able to kill him. Ugh.

Closing thoughts

I know I’m hard on these books, but in doing so, I want to recall — and paraphrase — the sage words of Rob Van Winkle: For better or worse, these books occupy a central location in our pop-cultural landscape, and as such, I wish they were better. The movies, too.

I await your correction in the forums.