by Lady Lupin
The premiere of the final two Harry Potter films seems a good time for Lady Lupin to make a brief appearance at MuggleNet. With the books published, the series ended and many other things to do, allowing Spinner’s End to fade into history seemed appropriate. However, it’s a new era – the eventual winding up of the film franchise – and a new article seems to be in order.
I look at my title and it sounds quite harsh; perhaps more so than I intend. However, it does seem apropos. Adapting any book to the screen is a notoriously difficult enterprise, and though it’s done often it’s rarely done well. There are exceptions, of course, and the Harry Potter film series has some wonderful qualities to recommend it. I have never missed one of the films and don’t intend to, until the series ends. However, I do have a bit of a tempestuous relationship with the franchise.
I learned several films ago to put the books away before going to the cinema – at least whichever book was the foundation for the current film. The two media couldn’t be more different or have more varied requirements for greatness and success. I have enjoyed all the films, while at the same time heaving an occasional disgruntled sigh as they wove off in directions that I felt shortchanged the story and characters.
In fairness, the films have had, among the obvious challenges presented by Rowling’s sprawling and imaginative work, two perplexing sets of circumstance with which to contend:
- For the first five films, the screenwriters were largely flying blind, not knowing how the series would end, and had to make their choices without being certain what would prove important later in the series.
- Starting with the sixth film, we all know the endings and so the filmmakers can’t hope to make the same impact that scenes like the Lightening Struck Tower made when read for the first time.
The film of Half Blood Prince was successful on many levels and enjoyable for those of us who love this world and Rowling’s great stories. I smiled through most of it and found myself accepting the trajectory of the film without complaint. When it was over, however, I began to realize that we had spent a lot of time meandering on a path that seems very secondary to the main thrust of the plot.
The issue isn’t that material from the book had to be cut, or even that new material was added (though sometimes I questioned the wisdom of the choice of material). The issue this time is that the main focus of the story – that which will drive the plot forward and eventually home in the coming two films – was completely back-burnered for what was effectively a sub-plot: teenage romance.
In the film as well as the book of Sorcerer’s Stone, we were trying to answer burning questions: what was Dumbledore hiding on the third floor, who was Nicholas Famel, etc. Further, we learned bits and pieces of important plot points that would be more fully realized in later stories (Voldemort’s fall, Harry’s first triumph, Lily’s sacrifice, that James owned the Invisibility Cloak, the importance of love, etc). On both screen and page, in Chamber of Secrets we were trying to figure out what the monster was that was petrifying people, what and where the Chamber of Secrets was, etc. We also learned that Tom Riddle kept a diary, and that the horror that emerged from that diary was unlike anything Harry had encountered before. In Prisoner of Azkaban we wanted to know how Sirius Black was getting into the castle, why he had betrayed Lily and James, why he wanted Harry dead and why supposedly dead Peter Pettigrew was showing up on the Marauders’ Map. Yet in Half-Blood Prince, the vital questions of what and where the Horcruxes are, how can they be found and destroyed, and what is the identity of the Half- Blood Prince were all overshadowed by who’s kissing whom. A charming sub-plot but… a sub-plot.
The writer’s and director’s decisions about where to put the emphasis of the film seemed off point, and left us – and Harry – without much knowledge of Voldemort and his plans, or what Harry needs to do next. I would have wished for a more aggressive unfolding of What Makes Voldemort Tick, and for Harry to have thrown himself into that study – not to the exclusion of everything else, but as Book Harry did: with erratic forgetting and remembering, interest and frustration. I would wish for more clarification of Harry and Snape’s relationship and less clarification about Snape’s true loyalties. And I wish that Harry knew that Snape told Voldemort the prophecy that led Voldemort to seek out Harry’s parents. The film could have been used largely to drive the plot and Harry’s character and destiny forward, using the raging hormones of teenagers as backdrop and comic relief. Instead, it seems that the core of the film is the romance, and the background is Voldemort’s history and Harry’s destiny. It was backwards.
The film left several large plot holes for the trio to navigate as they get ready for their life or death camping trip in the next film. I wonder how the film makers plan to tie up their loose ends, and which ones they will just snip off and ignore. Some things that Film Harry does not know at the end of HBP that Book Harry does:
- Book Harry knows that Dumbledore believes that the remaining Horcruxes are Hufflepuff’s Cup, Nagini, something of Ravenclaw’s or Gryffindor’s and the part of Voldemort’s soul that resides in his new body. Film Harry knows none of this.
- Book Harry knows that Dumbledore believes Voldemort was unable to obtain an object of Gryffindor’s (perhaps a reminder of the sword hanging in Dumbledore’s office would have been helpful as well, since it will come to play a large part in DH). This points towards the mystery Horcrux being a Ravenclaw object.
- Film Harry knows nothing whatsoever about who and what Fenrir Greyback is, or why he’s particularly threatening. He is introduced without explanation in the film. (It is hard to believe the filmmakers missed the golden opportunity they themselves created for clarity near the beginning of the film, given the proximity of Greyback and Lupin, one of his victims, during the attack on the Burrow.)
- Book Harry not only knows that Tonks is in love with Lupin, but he knows that Lupin is worried and reluctant to go forward with the relationship because of his condition and the prejudices against him.
- Film Harry knows nothing whatsoever about the character of the new Minister.
- Film Harry has no idea that Dolores Umbridge is still employed by the Ministry, despite her terrible record at Hogwarts in Film & Book 5.
- Film Harry has never met Mundungus Fletcher. Incidentally, neither have viewers, and we have been told nothing of his character or history, nor the fact that he was stealing objects that someone like Aberforth bought, etc. He and every plot point he touches, including the location of the Locket and the Two-Way Mirror are non-existent at this point.
- Film Harry has no idea he owns Kreacher and Grimmauld Place.
- Film Harry doesn’t know the role of the Ministry in the hunt for Voldemort or that they want Harry to be a ‘mascot’ for the Ministry. By cutting points 5, 6, and 9, the film eliminates Harry’s well-founded distrust of official power and authority, which are important to several of his upcoming choices. It also cheats a significant and growing theme in the books – that power corrupts not just malevolent outsiders such as Voldemort, but weak, venal, and paranoid-minded “insiders” as well, even those like Scrimgeour, who insist that protecting society mandates all manner of curtailment of civil liberties (witness the imprisonment of Stan Shunpike).
- Film Harry does not know that he has his mother’s protection at 4 Privet Drive and will until his seventeenth birthday. Even if this is stated in an earlier film, it certainly would have benefitted by a reminder somewhere in HBP.
- As compared to Book Harry, Film Harry has very little information on the evolution of how Tom Riddle became Voldemort and the psyche of the Dark Lord, with which Harry will have to contend in DH. Since Voldemort’s psyche is largely responsible for his downfall and Harry’s victory, that is an unfortunate omission.
- Pursuant to #11, Film Harry doesn’t know how and where Voldemort obtained objects of significance to make into Horcruxes, or anything about Tom Riddle’s ability to charm others into giving him what he wanted. This will handicap Harry’s sleuthing ability when encountering the Grey Lady, whom Film Harry also never heard of. That may be less of an issue, since Book Harry didn’t pay any attention to the Ravenclaw ghost either. However, it would be nice if viewers at least understood that each Hogwarts House has a ghost. Have we ever even seen the Bloody Baron?
- Film Harry doesn’t know why Tom Riddle was orphaned.
- Film Harry doesn’t know that his potions book is hidden under a beat up old Tiara. The recollection of this Tiara is an important moment for Book Harry in DH, and will eventually lead him to the Room of Requirement.
- Film Harry has no connection to or knowledge of Bill Weasley and hasn’t seen or spoken to Fleur since the end of Year Four. And yet, in DH, their wedding is the jump-off point of the Trio’s hunt for Horcruxes, and their home plays a major role as a sanctuary.
- Film Harry does not know that it was Snape who betrayed the Prophecy to Voldemort. The lack of that knowledge is unfortunate in that the realization escalates Book Harry’s hatred of Snape and ultimately becomes a vehicle for his acceptance of his former enemy-teacher.
I would also say that Film Harry has not developed nearly so far as Book Harry towards real leadership or towards the enormous job he has to do next. The filmmakers failed to show Harry as an emerging leader. I can think of examples from the books that would have accomplished this, but were omitted from the film:
- When Film Harry is holding Quidditch tryouts, he needs Ginny to quiet the students so he can hold the tryouts. While this is a nice way to show the emergence of Ginny’s own charisma and power, it undermines Harry in a moment when, in the book, students are hanging on his every word, and are there to try out for him as much as to try out for Quidditch. The book turns the tryouts into an opportunity to see Harry continue learning how to lead people and deal with his own celebrity, which was well started in Film 5 with Dumbledore’s Army. Here, however, the ball is dropped and he looks lost and ineffectual.Further, Harry’s use of Felix Felicis on Ron before the match makes no sense in the film, because we have no understanding of Ron’s nerves leading to the game, how fragile his skills are at this stage as a Quidditch player, or of the fact that Harry is cleverly strategizing as a Team Captain how to get the best performance from his team.
- In the book, there is a significant change in Harry from when he goes into the cave, to when he comes out. Going in he is following Dumbledore, being led by him. Coming out, he is leading Dumbledore, protecting and, as he thinks, saving him. Dumbledore says it so well – at the beginning of the book Harry is safe ‘because you are with me.’ At the end of the book, Dumbledore is not worried because, ‘I am with you.’ Much of Harry’s growth could have been depicted by showing him shepherding his once powerful headmaster back to supposed safety at Hogwarts. It would have required little screen time and would have said a lot.
- The Ginny/Harry kiss. In the book, when Ginny runs at Harry, he takes the initiative to kiss her. He is in a very public place in a completely public moment. He takes charge, takes in Ron’s possible objections, the reactions of all of his classmates and then kisses the girl he loves. It’s a lovely scene because they both are active in their coming together as a couple. In the film Harry is very passive in this romance, and it weakens his character.
- Finally, I think it was an enormous mistake not to have Dumbledore immobilize Harry atop the Tower before Dumbledore is killed. Having Harry just ‘go stand down there and don’t interfere’ very much weakens Harry’s character. For him to stand and do nothing; to have him, in fact, take direction from Snape in that moment, undermines his own determination and strength. It makes him look weak and set Mr. Radcliffe a very difficult job. To prevent Book Harry from taking action in that moment, Dumbledore was forced to immobilize him under his invisibility cloak. Film Harry, in contrast, is so weakened by the screenplay’s choices that he actually obeys orders from a man he loathes and distrusts. Book Harry acts on instinct and heart, charging forward in high stakes circumstances. Film Harry stands, confused and helpless. In the book of Deathly Hallows, Dumbledore apologizes for not telling Harry about the Hallows, saying he was worried that Harry’s ‘hot head might dominate your good heart.’ (Deathly Hallows, p. 720, US Edition.) We haven’t seen much of Film Harry to make that concern viable. Unfortunately, that undermines Harry’s enormous challenge at Shell Cottage. When he figures out Voldemort’s plan for the Elder Wand and has to make the decision: Hallows or Horcruxes, we understand how hard that decision is for him, because he has never ‘not acted’ when given the opportunity. Film Harry does not have that history.
The Harry/Snape relationship was obliterated by the sixth film. Snape did nothing throughout the film to raise Harry’s ire. He didn’t punish him, treat him unfairly, wasn’t cruel to him – they barely interacted, and when they did, it was quite civil, until the very end. We saw not one DADA lesson, nor was any note made of the fact that, while Harry has the opportunity to succeed in Potions, his favorite subject of all is now taught by a man he cannot stand; a man whose treatment of him is so unfair it could be called abusive. Nor do we see Harry’s suspicions that Snape does not merely respect the dark arts, but reveres them. Snape didn’t bring Harry to school after Malfoy leaves Harry on the train, tormenting and insulting him all the way, and there were no detentions after Sectumsempra. In fact, the film lost the opportunity for the frantic hiding of the potions book and confrontation with Snape and turned it into a lengthy romantic moment (another passive Film Harry moment), eliminating the chance for us to really see the panic and horror in Harry over what he has done; eliminating also the opportunity to introduce the all important tiara.
I realize we couldn’t have all those things, or the film would have been tremendously long, but without any of them, Snape is no nemesis, no obstacle, no suspected turncoat. He is a professor whom Dumbledore trusts, and it was patently obvious to me (and to a friend who has not read the books that attended the film with me) that Snape was doing what Dumbledore asked him to at the end of the film.
In contrast, one of the admirable glories of Rowling’s writing is the inscrutability of Snape’s actual allegiances. The moment of reading that scene on the Tower for the first time is one I shall not forget. I had fully expected Dumbledore to die, but never in a million years would I have expected Snape to be the one wielding the wand. It shook all of fandom and caused uproar and speculation that would still be going on if Book Seven had not yet been published. The film scene lacked surprise, and the character of Snape in the film, despite the exemplary Alan Rickman, lacked the ambiguity of the books and did not leave me wondering whose side he was on. We needed some of his clearly nasty moments from the book to achieve that, along with the bombshell that it was he who leaked the Prophecy to Voldemort, and Harry and Dumbledore’s argument over what that betrayal means in terms of Snape’s current loyalties.
Some of the many missing elements listed above can be handled with minimal adjustments to the seventh and eighth film scripts. Some could be discarded and many have to be, but that choice comes with a price in terms of the heart of the series.
Lupin’s struggles to do the right thing by Tonks and, eventually, his child, exemplify the heart of the themes of the books. We lost the lead up to those struggles by pairing Lupin and Tonks immediately in Half-Blood Prince, without any of the preamble. Tonks is a non character in the films. We know nothing about her nor have we grown to love her. Will we capture some of Lupin’s self-torment in the next film, and will it have the poignancy of the books, given that we have no clue of it up to now? I doubt it. I think it’s a tall order to play catch up now, given everything that needs to be covered in the final two films. To ignore it is a loss in terms of Harry’s own growth and the role he will play in the life of Lupin’s child. Harry’s ire and telling off of Lupin at Grimmauld Place was another salient moment in Harry’s development. Because he accuses Lupin of the exact same behavior that he perpetrates himself (wanting to leave those he loves for their own protection) it’s a moment that could and should resonate strongly with a film audience. It also is a moment when Harry is ‘in charge’ and no longer taking orders or holding back the truth from former authority figures, even those he loves. However, I’ll be surprised if we see it. Will the film be able to omit all of that and catch the …last straw’ punch of grief that seeing Lupin and Tonks dead in the Great Hall has for Harry?
But other omissions seem far more urgent to me, particularly Harry’s lack of knowledge about the remaining Horcruxes and where Voldemort was likely to leave them. Harry’s lack of knowledge about Voldemort’s past and his psyche is another concern. The Severus Snape plotline is particularly lacking – the growing loathing, judgment and animosity in Harry’s relationship to Snape, culminating in Harry’s knowledge that Snape told Voldemort the Prophecy, which was followed closely in the book by Snape killing Dumbledore.
As the entire prophecy is left out of the sixth film, perhaps it will be ignored going forward as well. Though it is certainly possible to insert the above with speed and simplicity into the next films, such a ‘band-aid’ approach is bound to lack the requisite character building and growth for Harry that is, to my mind, the single most important element of the sixth and seventh books. The depth and implications of events and character are lost when they are hurried into a script.
When Greyback appeared at the – I must say it – completely unnecessary, time consuming and purposeless attack on the Burrow, I filled in everything I know about Greyback, so his appearance meant something to me. However, to those who don’t know the books, he was just another nameless (albeit unusually hairy) bad guy. Those who know the books thought, “Oh, that must be Greyback,” and were momentarily pleased. But why give him screen time if he isn’t going to matter? Film Harry doesn’t even know who he is or that he’s a werewolf. While that can all be established later, is takes away the anxiety that led to his capture of the trio.
I have hope that, thanks to the very wise decision to split the final book, we will have an opportunity to reclaim some of the lost story. Certainly, things will need to be cut, but what is kept should be fully told, not just glanced at. Plotlines and character points that are squeezed in and glossed quickly over, but without real commitment from the filmmakers only weaken the story. Better to leave some of them out entirely than to put them in and do nothing with them.
Michael Gambon’s Dumbledore was more successful for me in the sixth film than ever before, striking a better balance between Dumbledore’s power, wit and heart. I have always had a secret longing for Peter O’Toole to have played Dumbledore and it is his voice I hear when I read the books. However, the gifted Mr. Gambon takes a lot of heat from fans for some things that I think are the responsibility of Misters Kloves and Yates.
Dumbledore is a character whose writing is off base in the films. It misses a lot of the core of the character, and I think it cost the sixth film dearly in terms of emotionality at his death. The film should have done far more to build the relationship between Harry and Dumbledore (it would have helped had prior films done more on this count), but it didn’t. This made his death less upsetting and less personal, and makes me wonder why Harry will be particularly surprised or upset by what he will learn about Dumbledore in the next installment if, indeed, Dumbledore’s life story survives the cutting room floor. Perhaps Harry’s coming to terms with the sometimes-clay feet of his greatest protector and mentor will be sacrificed to plot action in the remaining films – but if so, it will greatly impoverish the larger arc of the story, which is about a young man coming to full maturity. Part of maturity means recognizing the full humanity of one’s elders, whether they are idols or villains according to the incomplete perceptions formed in youth.
While all of the above seems an unrelieved indictment of the sixth film, it must be said that I did enjoy it while watching it, quite a lot. It was entertaining and fun, and it was nice to be once again in the Potterverse. Happily, the film was beautifully shot, the effects were great and the acting was largely well done. But it misses the mark in terms of properly setting up the thrilling end of a great story.
Despite my various complaints I will assuredly pay my money and see the next two films. I will steel myself for the fact that there are bound to be decisions I don’t understand or like, and I will enjoy each film on its own merits, as I did this one. They are great fun for those of us who want to revisit Harry’s world. And, while I reserve the right to my armchair criticism, I offer it with the knowledge that the filmmakers have undertaken a far more onerous task in trying to breathe screen life into Rowling’s stories than I can claim in sitting at home and critiquing them. I’m grateful for the efforts and look forward to continuing to enjoy the films and the actors who play Harry, his friends and his foes.