by Spenser Milo
Ah yes, the wizarding world of the Harry Potter franchise. The books, the games, the fanfiction! All of these hve their place in pop culture, particularly in the last ten years. Back in 1997, when author J.K. Rowling wrote the first book, she wrote “there won’t be a child in our world who doesn’t know his name,” and now, well, who doesn’t know at least a little about Harry Potter? Thanks to the immense popularity and brilliancy of her writing, the books became movies and then more people were exposed to Rowling’s novels as both the film franchise and books were being released. It’s just too bad the movies aren’t very good.
Now hold on, hear me out here! If the movies were indeed any good as a whole, wouldn’t they be able to stand on their own? The fact that most of the films require a friend sitting next to you who has read all the books to fill you in on just who the hell some of these characters are and why certain characters are acting the way they are doesn’t equate to a good film. Instead, it makes most of the Harry Potter movies fairly useless and incoherent collection of “Harry Potter’s Greatest Hits,” featuring disparate scenes from their accompanying book. Below is an examination of how these story, tone, and writing problems permeate the Harry Potter film series.
I will do my very best not to simply compare and contrast the books and the films. That entire argument has been done before, and is essentially unwinnable. The films should succeed independently; luckily, three of the Harry Potter movies (Half-Blood Prince, Prisoner of Azkaban, and Deathly Hallows Part 1) achieve this, and will be used as the basis for the following piece. Let’s begin!
LACK OF IMPENDING DANGER
Voldemort is Harry’s nemesis throughout the entire series, correct? He’s the man who killed his parents, terrorized both the wizarding and muggle world, and was a pretty mean dude even before that. Voldemort, all in all, is a pretty fantastic enemy for a hero to go up against because he’s evil incarnate. So where’s the sense of danger in the films if he’s such a bad guy?
The Harry Potter series doesn’t portray much outside the castle, so feeling a sense of impending dread is tough to come by. But look at Half-Blood Prince or Prisoner of Azkaban. Those movies make the backdrop of living in the castle while danger is afoot terrifying. Our characters are literally stuck in Hogwarts while some mass murderer Sirius Black is roaming the halls at night in Prisoner of Azkaban. In Half-Blood Prince, we know Draco Malfoy is up to something that’s putting students in danger; Katie Bell gets cursed, and Ron nearly dies of poison. The sense of danger is run throughout these films and much of that is thanks to having someone to actively root against because they’re tangible villains; they have antagonists.
Before we go on, let’s run over to Google to find the definition of what makes an antagonist:
“An antagonist is a character, group of characters, or institution that represents the opposition against which the protagonist or protagonists must contend”
Interesting! So in Prisoner of Azkaban you can definitely call Sirius Black the antagonist (with Snape on the side) and in Half-Blood Prince you can call Draco the antagonist (with Snape on the side). Snape is also a side dish in the first two films, yes, but because those films tend to run directly parallel to the medium-that-must-not-be-named, they won’t be covered too much here. The point is that those first two movies I mentioned have an antagonist to hate and root against while the others really don’t (sans Deathly Hallows Part 1 & 2). Who’s the antagonist in Goblet of Fire? Voldemort, I guess, but he doesn’t even show up until the end of the movie. All of the movie’s plot and character moments (if you want to call them that) are unaffected by the danger surrounding them; because there isn’t any danger! The entire film is Harry going from point A to point B to point C with no sense of consequence other than, hey, he might lose at the trials. But who would he lose against? Cedric Diggory? Hardly, he’s Harry’s friend! The movie doesn’t have an antagonist until Voldemort’s final reveal and then Mad-Eye Moody’s reveal as well. Which, hold on, I gotta rant about.
Mad-Eye Moody is such a problematic character in function to the series. When we first meet him, he’s a suspiciously interesting character roaming behind the professor’s table in the Great Hall. Actually, come to think of it, the characters are pretty interested in him all around and, eventually, he proves to be a really great Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher! He shows the kids dangerous spells, treating them like adults, helps Harry out with the Triwizard Tournament trials, and even picks on Draco to let us know that he’s on our side of things. As far as we’re aware, Mad-Eye Moody is a cool dude.
But then the twist happens at the end of the film and all of that is thrown out the window. The person with whom we’ve spent the entire movie is not on our side at all and is actually a Death Eater. It’s a neat twist in the midst of things, but in the end what was the purpose of it? Mad-Eye never showed an inch of being a person to hate until all of a sudden he’s been working behind the scenes against Harry the whole time. This sucks because what the hell? If Goblet of Fire had a character for us to hate, why didn’t it use them when we needed it most? It’s a waste of an opportunity that ultimately makes the movie a dreadful mess.
Anyway, that’s not to say that if a movie has an antagonist/sense of danger then it’s definitely a good movie, no. The supporting evidence for that is with the best antagonist J.K Rowling has ever provided for the Harry Potter series.
Just her name causes people to start screaming in rage. Hell, some fans of the series legitimately quit reading because of how awful Umbridge was to Hogwarts and the trio. In the film, it’s just about the same way. She’s a terrible, ignorant, downright horrible human being who is also absolutely powerful in her position. In other words, she’s the perfect antagonist for us to root against, and we feel satisfaction when Harry and his friends to finally tell her to bug off.
However perfect she is at being a horrible human, Order of the Phoenix fails to capitalize on her presence. Remember when I said that some of Harry Potter movies are just “Harry Potter’s Greatest Hits”? This movie is one of them. In an attempt to somehow fulfill fans of the book, director David Yates and his team took it upon themselves to just show off some of the most memorable scenes from said book and mash them together to make a film. Ugh. Plus, Umbridge isn’t even the main antagonist she’s built up to be. There’s a significant amount of time in the film where it seems like everyone has forgotten that Voldemort exists and is killing people. Order of the Phoenix falls into the same problem as The Dark Knight Rises; so much screentime is given to the secondary bad guy, not the main one. If Order of the Phoenix had toned down Umbridge while also raising Voldemort to be a legitimate threat, the movie would have succeeded in that respect. Instead, Voldemort just seems like the final boss of an old videogame.
Deathly Hallows Part 1 and even, ugh, Part 2 (more on that “ugh” later) are successful where Order of the Phoenix fails with its antagonists. In those movies, we obviously hate Bellatrix Lestrange, but not more than Voldemort; she’s just following his rule so it links them together in our hatred.
TONE AND PACE
Tone is the feeling evoked throughout the entirety of a work; it doesn’t matter if it’s literary or film. To use an example outside of the Harry Potter universe, Toy Story is a film that, when boiled down to it, has two tones: somber and funny. It finds humor in the former tone so it can run its theme through all of its needles and become a beautiful tapestry. It’s all linked and purposeful, people!
The overall tone of Harry Potter is incredibly scattered. There are scenes where the audience is supposed to laugh edited right next to scenes where we’re supposed to be very frightened; Deathly Hallows Part 2 is basically the whole point and case of this situation. Seriously, just watch that movie and try to figure out what the overall tone is and how it relates to its climatic scene between Voldemort and Harry where Harry just dies.
Unfortunately, I can’t let you watch that horrible movie so here’s an example: In Deathly Hallows Part 2, there’s a scene where Neville is on the bridge looking out towards the enemies – the snatchers who are now battling on Voldemort’s side – and, while danger is all around him, shouts “Yeah! You and whose army?!” Cue laughter from the theater until Neville is running for his life on the bridge because he’s being chased.
Aren’t we supposed to like Neville? It’s like the writers and director forgot that Neville is a person we’re supposed to care about and there’s really no need for us to laugh legitimately right before he’s running for his life. It doesn’t make sense tonally because the movie is supposed to convey that danger is all around our characters! Any of them can meet a tragic end any second now, so we’re going to spend the time laughing at their stupid, cliché jokes?
A good example of how the movies portray tone is Prisoner of Azkaban. Holy crap, that movie has so much style it’s riddikulus (I’m sorry for the pun). Right from the beginning, we’re shown a dark world with Harry using magic to just light up his room. From there, we see dementors on the way to Hogwarts and then meet Lupin — who is a really neat guy, but also kind of dark (unlike the totally light character of Lockhart in Chamber of Secrets). Do you see what I’m trying to say here?
Prisoner of Azkaban plays with the same lighthearted tone but balances it against the dark plot. For instance, take the scene where Lupin lets the students go up against their Boggarts. Boggarts, just in case you’re unaware, are these creatures that take the form of your worst fear; isn’t that sort of messed up? It’s frightening, to be honest, but the film splices in lighthearted music during the sequence to form the specific tone it’s attempting to convey.
The difference between the laughter and terrifying moments in that scene from the Neville scene in Deathly Hallows Part 2 is major: Azkaban laces the tones together seamlessly, whereas Hallows does not. It comes down to Deathly Hallows using an “and then this happens” approach in its tone. Neville is stupidly funny, and then he’s not because he’s running away for his life and is in danger. They don’t form a cohesive entity.
Tone isn’t all about conveying a certain feeling from scene to scene; it has a lot to do with pacing and the film’s drive towards any one of its goals. Half-Blood Prince doesn’t linger even though we’re shown a lot of exterior shots of a gloomy Hogwarts; the same goes for Azkaban. Each scene is there to convey the movie’s overall tone and … yada yada yada — I already said all this stuff so let’s get to the bad example.
Have you noticed that, when watching all the movies in order, Goblet of Fire seems like a weird hybrid between the tone of Chamber of Secrets and Prisoner of Azkaban? That’s because it is. There’s the goofy portkey sequence which then leads to the playful Quidditch tournaments, and then suddenly the Dark Mark is raised and people are screaming. The movie portrays this crucial scene like an afterthought because it’s had so much fun telling the playful stories of Harry Potter. We don’t even get to see the Death Eaters do anything bad other than raise the Dark Mark – which we know nothing about until after the fact – and start some fires. It’s a very “look, these guys are bad aren’t they? Let’s move on!” moment. The rest of the movie hinges so much on that scene, but doesn’t treat it with its actual importance.
Returning to an earlier point, who exactly is the bad guy in Goblet of Fire? Was it supposed to be the Death Eaters that show up once and then again at the end? How is the audience supposed to know that when they’re not treated as so? “Is this a kid’s movie? I thought the last one was an adventure film for all ages!” some guy probably said.
At the risk of being redundant with the whole “who is the antagonist?” jab, we’ll move on and take a look at one of the biggest issues – if not the biggest issue – of the films: The Yule Ball.
The Yule Ball sits so widely in the middle of Goblet of Fire, stopping any momentum the film was able to generate, and yet if we were to remove it from the film, nobody would notice. Tonally, The Yule Ball is exactly what Goblet of Fire is going for: goofy, teenage, coming-of-age humor. In fact, it’s a fairly all right sequence that does its best in solidifying itself as a Big Deal for the trio and all of the Hogwarts students. Despite that, it’s not executed as it was set up, and doesn’t add anything to the movie whatsoever. This brings us to our next point.
OMISSIONS AND ADDITIONS (but not the way you think…)
I know that I said I wouldn’t bring up the novels but I swear this has nothing to do with comparing them to the movies. I promise there’s a purpose for why I’m going to bring them up!
Liberties must be taken when adapting a movie or television series from a book, duh. Just take a look at Game of Thrones and how well those writers have taken hugely dense material to just ten hours of TV for HBO. It would be insane for someone to think those guys couldn’t remove and add some things in order to help tell the story!
However, when a scene was added into the Harry Potter films, fans were up and arms at how the writers were destroying a great story. The burning of the Burrow for Half-Blood Prince comes to mind, as well as the beautiful dancing scene in Deathly Hallows Part 1; as “blasphemous” as these scenes are to fans, they add to the movie’s action and drama, therefore making the film a lot richer than it was originally. Again, these movies have got to stand on their own instead of using the books as crutches.
The omissions in the films are a lot more problematic than the additions. That’s definitely not a groundbreaking opinion, but it stands up to scrutiny. But by omissions I don’t mean the total non-existence of S.P.E.W. or taking out Percy’s drama with the Weasleys; I mean huge, character-building moments. The thing is, the writers didn’t need to use things from the you-know-whats in order to develop their characters. They obviously took the liberty to be creative, so why not do so with Hermione and Ron, Harry’s supposed best friends? We’re told that Hermione and Ron are also main characters and yet they don’t really do much until Half-Blood Prince. Before that? They just stand there to casually tell a joke or give some plot important information for Harry to turn into action. They are both basically background level characters — they don’t feel like people at all! Hell, even Luna Lovegood is more of a character in Order of the Phoenix than Hermione and Ron, and she’s not even in the first four films!
It’s a hard truth, but Harry isn’t the most important person in the series. In actuality, the trio are the most important people later in the series with Half-Blood Prince and Deathly Hallows Part 1, and without all three, these films wouldn’t work as well. Movies like Order of the Phoenix, Chamber of Secrets, and Goblet of Fire feel like they drag because it’s All About Harry.
“Wow, you’re really ripping into Goblet of Fire! How about you tell us how to fix it then, tough guy?”
You know what? I will! And I’ll fix most of the movie with just one sequence that has already been deemed tremendously problematic. I’ll fix it with addition of writing liberties and the enriching of the characters alongside our hero, Harry. You know, something the writers should have done. Here we go:
THE YULE BALL FIX
We’ve been over how The Yule Ball is a mess in terms of plot and character value; it simply exists in the movie. How could we fix it using what we’ve learned so far about character importance, tone, and establishing an antagonist?
Well, we’d have to begin at the announcement that all these wizards and witches need to find a date to the dance. In the midst of the Triwizard Tournament, the Yule Ball sticks out as a pitfall of what’s exciting and relatively entertaining in the movie – even for the characters involved. So in order to make sure that it doesn’t feel that way, we’d have to establish that Harry and everyone wants a break from the trials and all the hoopla around Cedric Diggory, Krum, and Fleur. They want a return to normal Hogwarts days but unfortunately they get The Yule Ball and just have to deal with it.
So Harry and Ron are groaning because they have to participate in a ball, right? Meanwhile, Hermione is quite excited! Ron resents her for it because, well, that’s Ron’s usual role in the series, and now that he and Harry have made up since their debacle earlier in the film, they’re a little more buddy-buddy than usual. But just because Ron realizes that Harry didn’t put his name into the Goblet of Fire for attention doesn’t mean the rest of the school does. Actually, they all still kind of hate Harry. Everyone except Cedric.
You see, Harry now hates Cedric because he asked out Cho Chang before Harry had the chance. But Cedric is a nice guy, just a little too full of himself, and Harry’s arrogance paints Cedric as a bad guy. We’re actively going to root against Cedric because he’s against our hero and he got the girl before Harry could. Not to mention that everyone had someone like Cedric in high school, right? Good looking, athletic, lucky with the girls, and not very appreciative of it (until we learn later in the movie that Cedric is a nice dude, but that’s all so we feel sympathy for his death; something the movie just lets happen because it has to happen).
The ball finally begins and is pretty much exactly how it’s depicted in the film. But instead of Hermione and everyone around her finding out she’s “a girl after all,” there would be added weight to that character development. When she’s being treated like a lady by Krum, he gets a little cutesy with her and she realizes she can use her sexuality in order to get some information about the next Triwizard trial! This turns the Ball from a complete waste of time to being plot mandatory, as well as giving Hermione some power instead of just knowledge all the time. Yay, Hermione!
That’s not all, though. While Ron is sulking over Hermione looking pretty and Krum being a tool, he spots Mad-Eye Moody doing something suspicious. Maybe make Mad-Eye freak out over not having his potion or something. Give us some scene that makes us begin to reconsider Mad-Eye’s motives in the movie. Then make Ron mention it to Harry like “Wow, I didn’t know he had such a drinking problem!” because you can’t have a teenage dance without the topic of drinking. You just can’t.
And with that, The Yule Ball is fixed! Well, perhaps not entirely fixed; there’s a lot more work in making twenty minutes of a movie meaningful other than just plotting and character placement, but it’s certainly an improvement! The entire sequence fits into the movie’s themes and improves upon them, and also allows for Hermione and Ron to have a purpose other than to be Harry’s best friends. It all boils down to one thing…
The reason Hermione and Ron have a much larger purpose during the Yule Ball revision is because they need goals while navigating the movie’s plot. As discussed above, these three characters are very, very important to Harry Potter’s success. Without them, do you really think people would have read about The Boy Who Lived for seven novels and watched eight movies about him? No way.
Hermione and Ron are mostly neglected in the films. Ron can only be angry at Harry/Hermione or make stupid jokes (while eating, usually), and Hermione is portrayed as a plot device know-it-all. Without her, the film’s plots would come to a standstill. It’s a shame, because Ron and Hermione should have their own problems and quirks. They should have stories and issues and moments of flaws and triumph. They should have times when they’re happy and times when they’re sad. I feel like I’m describing two movies…
Oh yeah, that’s all in Half-Blood Prince and Deathly Hallows Part 1!
Unfortunately there are many fans out there who believe those two films are the most boring of the series. That’s their opinion, which is fair, but it ignores that both of these films have a near perfect style to them. There’s danger on the outskirts and it is felt. There are character moments all over the place (Ron and Lavender’s entire relationship; Hermione crying about Ron; Harry and Ron just laughing for no particular reason in the hall; Harry using his wit to fool Ron and Hermione; Hermione and Harry dancing together; Ron telling his story about finding them again) and the time devoted to those scenes makes those films much, much richer! Deathly Hallows Part 1 might seem slow at first glance, but good God does it benefit from taking its time in getting to where it needs to be. All of those “boring” moments spent in the woods hiding from Death Eaters and Snatchers are crucial to reminding us that this world is in overwhelming danger. Not only that, but our characters are still teenagers that are growing up in a time of war. The additional scene of Hermione and Harry dancing totally conveys the message that they’re still young kids who are used to having fun and enjoying each other’s company. Instead, they’re stuck in the woods looking for something they don’t entirely understand while being hunted by thousands of powerful people.
This attention to character moments delivers clear goals for them to pursue throughout the film. Harry obviously needs to find the horcruxes, but he also wants this war to end so his friends will stop dying. Hermione wants to help Harry solve the mystery of the horcruxes but she also wants Ron back in her life. Ron is feeling jealousy towards Harry, but his family is also on the brink of being attacked so his mind is elsewhere. The character goals, spliced with the important plot goal, make the film stand out amongst its peers and a much better film in the first place. It’s no longer just “Harry needs to get from point A to point B,” it creates a tension and a real sense that these characters are fallible, despite being wizards after all. Granted, Deathly Hallows Part 1 was released at a certain time during the series, and that leads us to our last point…
Sorcerer’s Stone was first released into theaters in 2001. The book version of Goblet of Fire had just come out a year previously, while Sorcerer’s Stone was in production. After the first movie had become so successful, the rest of the series was pumped out year after year except 2008, where Half-Blood Prince was pushed from a winter to summer release because of money. The Harry Potter film series became a landmark for Warner Bros. studios to make some money every year – and even now the company is to recreate the Harry Potter world with another franchise because without Batman and Harry, money isn’t pouring in as it used to for the company.
The point of that little history lesson is to show the short distance between publications of the-source-material-that-won’t-be-mentioned to the start date production for the movie. It lasts every year until 2008, when the movies decided to take a break.
It’s no coincidence that in 2009, Half-Blood Prince was released and all the previous issues of the films had been wiped away. By then, the writers were able to settle in with the source-material-that-still-won’t-be-mentioned, allowing themselves to finally see the finish line. Prisoner of Azkaban falls into this category as well: at the time of its box office release, the source-that-is-sort-of-being-mentioned had been out for five years, so the team working on the films in those five years could consider how best to portray it on screen.
I realize now that I’m really walking the line between contrasting and comparing the book series to the film series, but I swear that that is not what I’m going for. What I’m trying to say is that if, hypothetically, the films came out now instead of back in 2001, they’d be exponentially better, because the creative teams would have sufficient time to consider the source material in full. Here’s a parable to expand that idea:
For almost a full decade, the Star Trek movie business was absolutely stagnant until Paramount hired some guys named Robert Orci, Alex Kurtzman, Damon Lindelof, and J.J. Abrams to take over the Enterprise for a while. Now whether or not you believe they’ve served the series up with quality, they’ve definitely taken it a very different and more successful direction than where it was originally. Those four guys, three of them very big fans of Trek, have undoubtedly put hard work into the two movies released so far. There’s plenty of great story, Easter eggs, recurring characters, and legitimate fan service all over those movies and hey, it’s awesome. It works, and it’s an amazing feat to have nearly all the iconic things about the Trek universe included in the movies; films that certainly feel a lot more deserving of attention than the schlock being released in the late nineties. The reason Abrams’s take on Trek works so well isn’t just because the man is a storytelling genius; it’s because there’s passionate consideration put into the whole project. There’s history embedded into it. It’s actually the exact opposite recipe we got for Harry Potter!
The first Harry Potter movies were directed by the same guy, Chris Columbus. The rush to find a director of the first film was a huge, obviously, because that first book was immensely popular and talked about to be the next big thing. For multiple reasons, Columbus won against Spielberg, Reitman, Shyamalan, Reiner, and many others. The fact that they just stood by, waiting for confirmation, suggests that it was the money and not the passion behind telling the Harry Potter story motivating these directors.
What a cliché, I know. Money runs Hollywood, people. It’s no secret and sadly how things work but it’s a serious factor as to why the Harry Potter series just sucks. Spielberg himself, a man who is well known for his honesty about the business, said this about the movie:
“[It’d be like] shooting ducks in a barrel. It’s just a slam dunk. It’s just like withdrawing a billion dollars and putting it into your personal bank accounts. There’s no challenge”
As much as a film’s director is in charge of almost everything during the filming process – movies are a director’s medium after all – the writing staff is also to blame. It’s just, ugh, when compared to Star Trek and other movie franchises that have been around long enough to marinate inside the talent’s heads, it shows in the craft they’re producing. You never hear about people who say they were completely influenced by a certain movie or book that came out within five years of whatever they’re creating; it just doesn’t work that way! Look at Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel, for instance. When that movie was being promoted, Snyder and his team were boasting about how the movie was heavily influenced by The Dark Knight; a movie that came out five years prior. And look how that turned out. It takes time for a story to really resonate and influence its fans and admirers. Back when Order of the Phoenix was being filmed, J.K. Rowling mentioned that they should definitely keep Kreacher in it because he comes into play much later. Clearly, nobody knew what the hell they were doing with the story until Rowling stepped in, and she’s a busy lady! Order of the Phoenix strives to find a cohesive thread, and fails due to this apparent way of storytelling; it’s just memorable scene after memorable scene after memorable scene.
To reiterate, it’s absolutely no coincidence that when Half-Blood Prince came out the story of Harry Potter had been around for ten years and it had just finished its run. Finally the films had realized just what sort of story was being told and the immense passion that was lacking behind it for so long (due to the story being so young in age)! Oh, and because the movie wasn’t rushed to theaters for the annual Harry Potter movie going experience. You know what movie took its place in the summer of 2008? The Dark Knight.
The Harry Potter series will undeniably be remade one day in some shape or form and hopefully when it is, the production team will learn from the simple mistakes of the original films. When the series is inevitably remade, it’ll be years and years after the whole story has finished, so some true perspective can be placed within each film. Wouldn’t it be fantastic if there were a scene of Dumbledore and Snape vaguely discussing horcruxes in Chamber of Secrets, after Harry has destroyed Tom Riddle’s diary? The continuity links would be glorious and would further develop plot threads for the nerds to enjoy. The biggest benefit is that each film could take its time in production instead of being rushed out to meet a deadline. Harry Potter is a modern day classic and will be discussed and debated for decades to come. In that time, it will definitely influence some very talented people to once again take the tale to the screen. Let’s hope they learn from the mistakes of the past.