The Elephant in the Living Room

by Barb Powell

It is now several weeks after the debut of the third Harry Potter movie, and I’m beginning to see a trend among the people who discuss the movie’s fine points with me. Most of them start by saying, “Oh, I really loved the movie, but …” After the “but,” a myriad of criticisms follow. “I wish Alfonso had …” or “I wonder why …” or “It’s too bad that …”

So I started wondering what was causing the “I love it, but I didn’t like it” reaction. The answer is a classic case of the elephant in the living room which everyone sees but no one wants to acknowledge. The intent of this editorial is to name the elephant and continue the discussion.

To start off with, I feel that the movie was worth its weight in gold galleons for the wonderful job Alfonso Cuarón did as an acting coach for Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint. As actors, the trio improved 300-fold in PoA.

The adult actors, when given the opportunity, also were wonderful. Gary Oldman was outstanding as Sirius, David Thewlis brought an interesting twist to Lupin that was unexpected and delightful. Timothy Spall did well as Pettigrew and Emma Thompson’s Trewlawney was incredible. Dame Maggie Smith, Alan Rickman and all the other returning adults also were brilliant, as usual. But as for Michael Gambon, I loved and didn’t love his Dumbledore. The reason may lie in the direction.

I thought Gambon brought an impish aspect to Dumbledore that was intriguing; but what was lost in his interpretation was the power of the more regal Dumbledore. One of the most complex ideas that Rowling puts forth in the books is the idea of a Dumbledore who is at once youthful and spry, yet powerful and commanding respect. It almost felt as if Gambon was so determined to “not be Richard Harris” that he went over the top in creating a Dumbledore that was the opposite of Harris’ creation.

As a director and actor myself, I understand that an actor wants to and should take risks with a character. But I also know that it is up to the director to guide the actor and to make sure the risk-taking is appropriate to the character. In PoA, I think Cuarón needed to guide Gambon a bit differently.

Perhaps part of the problem was that Cuarón also seemed determined to make a film that was nothing like its predecessors, regardless of the cost in plot and consistency. While, certainly, there was room for improvement in the first two films, it felt to me as if Cuarón went too far in trying to be different.

It is, to me, a question of overall perspective and vision. Quite simply, the Hogwarts of Cuarón is too dark. It’s almost as if he borrows from the later books, particularly OotP, instead of hitting the Book 3 mood accurately.

There needs to be differentiation between the forces of light and the forces of dark. That difference can be subtle, but it needs to be there. Unfortunately, in the third movie, good and evil all seem to look alike, in large and small ways.

For example, why did Dumbledore’s fingernails have to look like he, too, had spent the past decade disguised as a rat rummaging through trash? It simply doesn’t make sense. I know that sounds like a small point, but a lot of small details–like Dumbledore’s fingernails–add up to a larger problem of interpretation.

On a larger scale, the whole of Hogwarts–and the entire wizarding world, for that matter–seemed almost a caricature representation of that world, instead of being realistic. The addition of the bizarre talking heads, most of the secondary adult characters, and much of the feeling and tone of the movie were almost stereotypic fairy tale meets horror movie. Not that the feel had to be like the first two books. That would have been inappropriate; but to make everything seem gloomy, dark and dank–or else stereotypically ghoulish–gives the impression that the entire wizarding world is gloomy, dark and dank (or ghoulish). That’s just not the wizarding world portrayed in the pages of Rowling’s books.

Also, to me, much of the movie seemed choppy, moving from vignette to vignette, with a comic whomping willow (which, I admit, was quite fun) or a symbolic, solitary floating leaf marking the transitions from one disconnected vignette to the next. Some of these transitions work brilliantly. Others made me, as a moviegoer, say, “If I see one more lone leaf symbolically winding its way to the ground, I’ll scream!” Those kinds of cinematic devices work well, but in the case of PoA, were overdone.

I’d rather have seen some of the time devoted to those redundant transitions given over to more fully developing the adult characters in the movie. Perhaps one of the reasons that I had trouble with Gambon’s Dumbledore is that there was too little of his character developed during the movie. Most of the adults–including McGonagall, the Weasleys and Hagrid–were little more than backdrop or set dressing for Harry, Hermione and Ron.

I understand that Cuarón made the decision to focus only on the action of the three young leads. That is a viable choice, but it was a choice that needed more flexibility. I’ve noticed that in Harry Potter, one of the things that keeps the horizontal movement of the story intact, acts as transition, and fills in the plot to keep it from being two-dimensional is the interweaving of the adult characters with the trio. In the third film, these scenes, with the exception of the Lupin-Harry scene on the bridge, were either lacking altogether or were superficial glimpses of what they could have been. Again, it seems to be a case of going overboard or trying too hard to be different. The adult actors–and, at times, the actors portraying students of Hogwarts (with the exception of Harry, Ron and Hermione)–rarely had the opportunity to really delve into their characters.

There are many choices Cuarón made that, while I don’t understand them, I wouldn’t have minded if everything else was fine. For example, I can live with the change in the layout of Hogwarts, though I fail to understand why it was necessary.

I understand why Snape’s “mad scene” was cut – though Rickman’s beautifully understated fury in the Shrieking Shack scene gives a good indication of how brilliant he would have been in the mad scene.

It’s fine that the Firebolt scene was moved to the end of the film, and I didn’t mind the Buckbeak/werewolf scene either; but in his single-minded focus on the trio, Cuarón left out significant plot points that needed to be there.

Why was there no explanation of Moony, Wormtail, Padfoot and Prongs? How in the world did Lupin know that “the scrap of parchment” was a map, let alone the Marauder’s Map, which he knew exactly how to use? The viewer never finds out.

I ached for a scene at the end of the movie where Harry would say, “Professor, how did you know it was a map?” to which Lupin would reply, “Haven’t you figured it out Harry? Because I’m Moony.” And then a simple explanation of how and why the four friends created the map. Perhaps a line earlier (perhaps in the scene in Lupin’s classroom after Snape catches Harry at night and Lupin rescues him) where Lupin tells Harry the map was made by his father and their friends, Lupin among them.

Simple, short, but speaks volumes.

And about Harry’s patronus. Why didn’t the stag gallop across the lake, dispersing the Dementors? Why was the patronus a vaguely defined animal standing stationary emitting a “force field” a la Star Wars? Rowling so vividly describes it that it would seem that there would be no way to do the patronus badly.

Without the stag patronus galloping across the lake, there could be no stag patronus approaching Harry so he could say, “Prongs?” That touching moment connects Moony, Wormtail, Padfoot and Prongs with Harry and the present. Without it, another important plot point is missed.

While the DADA scene with the boggart was wonderful (and Matthew Lewis was terrific as Neville), why was Lupin’s boggart shape so obvious? A silver disk could be many things. The moon with clouds would leave few Hogwarts students needing Snape’s essay assignment to figure out that Lupin was a werewolf.

At best, the movie had some wonderful acting, great acting coaching, sporadic good direction, and moments of great innovation, but was a disappointment. That, to me, is the elephant in the living room.

It was a disappointment because of too many deviations and inconsistencies of character; too many missed opportunities to explore the adult characters; and too many omissions of important plot points. The sad part is that if these shortcomings had been fixed, the Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban film would have been more than just a watchable movie with some brilliant moments. It would have been a brilliant film.