Not-so-deathly Hallows

I went to see part one of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows over the weekend, and I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it. I thought the last two films, both of which were directed by David Yates, who assumes helming duties for this one, were gloomy and terrible, neither faithful enough to the source material to please fans of the property nor engaging enough as films to interest people who were coming in fresh. (I suspect that latter group would also be totally lost in terms of plot.)

Looked at independently as a movie-going experience, I doubt that the first half of Deathly Hallows would be satisfying for someone who isn’t already steeped in the series. My husband has read all the books, but he’s hardly as detail-oriented as I am, and he thought people who hadn’t read the books would be completely lost watching the movie. But, again, at this point, how many people are going into the movie theatre fresh for the seventh part of a movie series based on a seven-book fantasy series? It’s interesting to me as someone who used to watch soap operas and read more serial super-hero comics, where the argument was always that every issue or episode was possibly someone’s first, so there should be a fair amount of exposition to help those newcomers get comfortable. I don’t know that this is possible with Deathly Hallows.

It’s packed in terms of event. I was surprised at how much of the novel Yates and screenwriter Steve Kloves managed to include in the movie without any drastic cuts or marginalization of the events’ import. And they still found a lot of time for moping in the back country, even though those sequences didn’t do the young actors any favors.

Speaking of the young actors, I’m always a little confused when critics talk about how marvelous they are and how fascinating it will be to see their careers evolve. I think in the case of Emma (Hermione) Watson and Daniel (Harry) Radcliffe, they were cast very well. Of the three, I think Rupert (Ron) Grint is the best actor by a fairly wide margin. Radcliffe may be more comfortable on stage, and Harry is kind of a thankless role and character to begin with, so it’s hard to tell how good he could be under other circumstances. I’m convinced that Watson has been badly directed since fairly early on in the franchise.

As written by Rowling, Hermione doesn’t have the dour gravitas Watson conveys in the films. Book Hermione is intelligent, task-oriented, and purposeful. She doesn’t seem to view the fact that she’s vastly smarter than her companions as a grievous burden, and the delight of the books’ version of the character is that she isn’t troubled by it. She’s just smarter; it’s what she brings to the table, and, more than any other character, she understands that Ron and Harry have their own strengths. Movie Hermione always feels like she’s hauling the others along, trying not to hurt their feelings with her higher skill level and more advanced understanding of their grim circumstances. It robs the audience of the fun of realizing that Hermione is hauling the other two along because of the conscious burden it places on the character.

And speaking of unsuccessful interpretations of a well-written character, when did Helena Bonham-Carter forget how to act? Or who decided that vicious, unprincipled Bellatrix LeStrange should be such a dull caricature? Of all of the dozens of characters translated from page to film, Bellatrix is the biggest failure, and I attribute a lot of that to Bonham-Carter’s bug-eyed take. The character’s purposeful savagery becomes an obnoxious stunt. There’s no passion to her cruelty, just noise. I think her performance as Bellatrix is even more unsatisfying than her portrayal of Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd, which was just lazy. (I did watch Alice in Wonderland over the weekend, and I was relieved to actually like her in that movie.)

But I was surprised at how much better certain moments worked in the film adaptation than the novel. A death in the opening chase sequence is miles better than Rowling’s original writing of it. Briskness helps a caper sequence in the Ministry of Magic, along with the terrific, possibly satirical work of three adult actors playing Harry, Ron and Hermione in disguise, particularly David O’Hara as the wizard Harry is impersonating. And the earlier introduction of house-elf Dobby makes his later appearance work even better than it did in the book, though I was disappointed that he was costumed in a dishrag rather than in one of his more dapper ensembles indicating his status.

On the down side, I still like Evanna (Luna) Lynch very much as a presence, but I think the character is being marginalized. I’m not sure if there’s anything Bonnie Wright could do with the character of Ginny. If Harry is a thankless role, Ginny is even worse.

But overall, I enjoyed the movie. I don’t think any new arrivals to the franchise will find it remotely satisfying, but for a Potter nerd like myself, it was a definite improvement on previous installments from Yates.

5 Responses to Not-so-deathly Hallows

  1. Well now, you’ve got me quite excited about seeing this.

    Also: “Of the three, I think Rupert (Ron) Grint is the best actor by a fairly wide margin.” YES.

    I always thought Tom Felton was one of the most skillful of the kid actors, too, though completely wasted in these films, especially in HBP where he should have had his one real opportunity to shine. Alas.

    • davidpwelsh says:

      Felton had some very nice moments in the movie… brief, but nice. He played Draco’s ambivalence and anxiety very well. I’m looking forward to seeing his work in the second half.

  2. Lyle says:

    Honestly, I’ve always hated the Harry Potter movies. I made the mistake of watching Sorceror’s Stone right after re-reading the book (I was re-reading it on the bus when I passed a theatre playing it, which got me to stop procrastinating on buying a ticket. I happened to get there with just enough time before the movie started to finish my reread just before the lights went dim) and watching the movie with the book fresh in mind was a bad mistake.

    I know fans are always grumbling about what’s missing when a book goes to the big screen, but I thought they kept cutting little moments, lines that added depth and nuance to scenes. That continued in later movies, even under different directors and the subtle difference in Hermione’s characterization is probably one of the bigger ways that’s done.

    The last book I read was Goblet of Fire. I just haven’t had as much time to read since reading that one… and the film adaptation convinced me to give up on the films. My partner watched all the previous films and I had to keep explaining to him what was going on, it wasn’t that the Goblet of Fire didn’t make sense if you hadn’t seen the earlier films, it didn’t make sense if you hadn’t read the book and didn’t already know the story. At that point, I decided there wasn’t a point in watching any further movies until I read the books… and I probably wouldn’t enjoy the movie, anyway.

    • davidpwelsh says:

      My most consistent problem with the movies is that they jettison the notion that these stories are taking place at a school. And while Rowling herself isn’t entirely dedicated to showing the educational process, she shows enough of it to give the books background and color beyond plot. So maybe it’s the fact that this movie is absolved from any school content that made it more successful for me.

  3. Ahavah says:

    I just saw the movie today (Thanksgiving treat!) and was really pulled into it. I read all 7 books and was a huge fan, but found movies 1-3 a big bore. I never felt that they captured the atmosphere and setting of the books that made them such fun reads. Last Saturday night, a friend of mine convinced me to watch “Half Blood Prince” with her, and I was surprised at how much I enjoyed it. Maybe it’s because I miss the world and it’s characters as I haven’t read the books in years (in fact, my friend pointed out to me that some of my favorite scenes from that book were cut) maybe it’s because the adult actors, especially Alan Rickman, did an incredible job, and the kids seemed to have grown into their roles quite well-none seemed as wooden as they had in the first 3 movies, anyway, and the teenybopper romance melodrama added shojo-esque humor an spice to the mix (although I agree that Ginny is a thankless role. She was hard to watch in some scenes. I think it was a direction/poor characterization in the script problem rather than skill, though. Ginny doesn’t seem quite defined, in a way.)

    I completely disagree with you about Helena Bonham-Carter, though. Her take on Bellatrix is a blast for me to watch, an I wish she ha more to do in HP 7.1 (then again, I love Sweeny Todd!)

    The cinematography was incredibly confusing to me, especially in a key Draco seen and in some suspense and action sequences. It could be my visual impairment, but there were many scenes in which I just couldn’t really tell what was what. David Yates has a very unique take on visual direction. He skews perspective and literally shakes the camera (like they used to do on NYPD:Blue!) I find it disconcerting.

    HP7 was good and interesting, despite its length, I still came away wishing it was longer!

    Seeing more of Fluer and Bill would’ve been nice, especially since their parts were completely cut in HP 6. Remus and Tonks were shafted almost completely. Neville, who is one of my favorite characters and has so much potential, merely got one line! {Granted, book 7 did a horrible disservice to Neville by developing his character completely off screen, and I was kind of hoping the movie would ‘fix’ that oversight}. I even thought that some of the fight and suspense scenes seemed a bit rushed. But other parts, like Harry seeing his parents’ graves for the first time, were *perfect* and hit all the right emotional notes.

    I haven’t seen enough of the movies (and admitably, don’t remember enough character details from the books), to compare movie-Hermione with book-Hermione, but movie-Harry is great, and I’d venture to say an improvement on book-Harry. It really helps his characterization to *see* his facial expressions!

    Scenically and cinamatographically, Yate’s style wasn’t as confusing in this enstallment, but I wish they’d stop shaking the darned camera!

    Some critics have compared the movie to a WWII-era French resistance flick, and I approve of that change in tone, as the original novel reminded me more of a Holocaust novel. A mixed-up, cringe-inducing and almost offensive parable on Europe’s greatest genocide in recent memory. The war against Voldemort (with its emphasis on “blood purity” and mass homicide) is much better when it mixes its fantasy and reality elements in a way that can help us reflect on actual historical events wilst allowing us the safety of its well-developed fantastical elements, and in that, the movie succeeded admirably!

    Wow, that was a long post! I hope at least part of my rambling is relevant! 🙂

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