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The Burrow: For the Greater Good: Lessons for Deathly Hallows from Lord of the Rings

An original editorial by Peter Wagner (Wimsey)

Adapting a story from one medium to another always presents challenges. Here, I will discuss why Peter Jackson’s adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings offers a good template for the adaptation of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. This will touch upon the nature of both stories, how aggressive adaptation can emphasize and enhance stories, and why Deathly Hallows is best presented in a single 3-hour installment.

Why use LOTR as a template for DH?

Comparisons are obvious, simply because LOTR and HP are arguably the best-selling and most popular fantasy works of our time. Moreover, both LOTR and DH are the final stories in series linked by common themes, and in which the plots depend on items from earlier stories. On the other hand, in many ways the two tales are antithetical. The HP stories are mostly character-driven ones that revolve around a single protagonist; each story centers on Harry’’s choices. Conversely, LOTR is a plot-driven epic with no one protagonist.

The reason LOTR offers a good template is that the film (and I will refer to all three as one film, as it really is a single movie shown in three parts) does an excellent job of telling a story. This was why LOTR was both a popular success (see boxofficemojo.com for audience reactions) and a huge critical success (see RottenTomatoes.com and film award nomination and winner lists from 2002-2004). Peter Jackson & Co. did not accomplish this by sticking to the book. Quite the opposite, they altered the presentation far more than have any of the HP movies. Instead, they aggressively condensed and modified the presentation to communicate Tolkien’s story on screen. Analogous condensation of the much shorter DH story will both clarify the presentation of the story and allow for a single 3-hour film.

Adaptation Rule #1: Present the Story, Not the Book

A fictional book, movie, play, etc., is a presentation of a story and should never be confused with the story itself. If one is re-telling a story in a different medium, then mimicking the original presentation (in our case, the book) inevitably obfuscates or even loses the story, as different media demand different means to make the same points. If a lizard is a book, and a fish is a movie, then the animal is the story. Tossing a fish onto land and expecting it to work as a lizard results in flopping, gasping and eventually death.

So, the question here is, what is the story that the movie should tell?

In his letters, J.R.R. Tolkien writes that LOTR is a story about death and immortality. Note that he does not mention rings, kings or even hobbits; Tolkien did not confuse the devices presenting the story with the story itself. As a plot-driven story, death and immortality is the metaphorical forest made up by the “trees,” or the rings of power, the transition to the Age of Men and the fading of the Elves, the corruption of Gollum and the Nazgul, Arwen’s choice of a mortal life with Aragorn, Théoden’s rise to the level of his fathers, and Frodo’s malaise after the destruction of the ring. All of these devices speak literally and figuratively of death and immortality.

I, like many, think Tolkien fails to tell this story. Tolkien acknowledges in the introduction to LOTR that it was a story that “grew in the telling” — that is, he wrote much of the book with no story in mind. (His publishers had rejected The Silmarillion but had shown interest in another tale about hobbits.) As is clear when reading prior drafts of LOTR in The History of Middle-earth, the ideas of death and immortality are not present early on, but creep into later chapters and revisions. However, the different scenes and plot are united by the theme of risking all to preserve and restore the natural order. This includes the death and immortality elements, but it better describes the restoration of Isildur’s line, the saving of the forests and bucolic Shire, and the defeat of the unnatural powers of industry and sorcery. In particular, preserving and restoring summarizes the “evil” deeds; Sauron, Saruman, Gollum, Grima, Boromir and Denethor all present examples of individuals claiming power that is not their due in natural order.

And this is why, I think, the LOTR movie succeeded with both audiences and critics: it emphasizes the story of preserving/restoring the natural order. This is the most important lesson for any movie, regardless of whether it is an adaptation or an original screenplay. All of the scenes should contribute to the story. If it doesn’t, then why is it there? (This is simply an extension of an old storytelling axiom: Chekhov’s statement that the gun shown early must be fired late. Otherwise, do not show it!) The LOTR movie does not focus on the story that Tolkien ultimately wanted to tell, but, then, neither does the book! The film also does not focus on all of the narrative details that the book provides. Hence, it was reviled by many who were fans of the book rather than of the story. However, the movie does focus on the story that the book tells.

So, what is the story of DH? It is Harry Potter’s right vs. easy choices concerning the greater good. This comes through in Harry’s decision to hunt for Horcruxes with just Ron and Hermione, leaving the security of Hogwarts, Ginny and the Order; Harry’s struggle to comprehend Dumbledore’s motivations and Harry’s role in those schemes; Harry’s temptation to obtain Hallows rather than Horcruxes as perhaps an “easy” way to defeat Voldemort; and, finally, Harry’s acceptance that he must die just as his mother died in order to save everyone else. The movie should strive to present this story properly on screen, and that means doing it differently than Rowling presented it on paper.

When to Bombadilorate…

Writers like to write. They also will include things that hook readers into a tale, even if they are not strictly germane to the story. As a result, books often include sections that have nothing to do with the story. In his letters, Tolkien writes that Tom Bombadil actually played no part in the LOTR story. He wrote the Old Forest/Bombadil/Barrow Down sequence while still looking for a plot, and he kept it because the hobbits needed a little adventure. Tolkien retroactively “justified” it by having Merry’s Numenorean sword from the Barrow Downs be responsible for the Witch King’s demise (rather than Sting, as in the early drafts). However, the movie successfully ignores this altogether and uses the combination of woman and hobbit to ironically satisfy the prophecy. Thus, the plots and story are no further along when hobbits arrive at Bree than it would have been if they’d just gone straight to Bree — which is exactly what the film did! Only those that remember the book know that something is “missing” there.

DH presents at least two similar scenarios. The “retrieve the locket from the Ministry” adventure contributes nothing to the story. In contrast, the decision to break into Hogwarts to get the fourth Horcrux and the decision to accept the help of Dumbledore’s Army to get the fifth Horcrux both involve Harry debating what is the greater good — first, Horcruxes vs. Hallows, and then whether to involve others in the quest. Consider where Harry is after he gets the locket from the Ministry and where he would have been if Slytherin’s locket had been in Dumbledore’s pocket. Now, add some new element (see “…And When to Faramirize” below) that drives Harry from Grimmauld Place. The difference? None at all. Indeed, if cut we are spared bad cinema; extended sequences that do not feature the protagonist or secondary characters and do not further the plot by bringing Harry closer to another Horcrux will turn off audiences. So, provide a different pretext for driving Harry from Grimmauld Place (much as LOTR provided a different pretext for killing the Witch-King), and we get to the same place in 20 fewer minutes. The audience would no more recognize that something was missing than they did when Faramir began questioning Frodo and company. Conversely, they will resent the waste of time if the excursion does not put Harry further ahead than he would have been had the locket just been at Grimmauld Place.

Another candidate for Bombadilioration is the parting scene with the Dursleys. Had Rowling omitted this completely, the tale would have been no different. Indeed, the extended LOTR shows this within one story: the theatrical “Return of the King” omitted Saruman’s demise because wrapping up stuff from 12 months earlier just did not work (as can be seen if one watches “King” without watching “The Two Towers” immediately before). Dudley’s forgiveness and Petunia’s reticence never come to anything. It will mean something only to those who remember the prior stories well, which will be a small minority of the audience. The rest will resent the obvious waste of their time.

Numerous other minor characters can be cut. I discuss some in more detail below, but characters such as Shacklebolt, Percy, teachers other than McGonagall, the Centaurs, Scrimgeour, etc., will simply muddle the presentation by taking up too much time and by overwhelming the audience with too many faces. What little contribution these characters might make to the story or theme can be made by others.

…When to Arwenize and Glorfindelize…

Adapting a story from book to film does not require only cuts, it also can require embellishing upon characters who can make the same contributions to the story, only with a much different presence than given on page. LOTR offers two prominent examples: Arwen and Éowyn. Tolkien wrote that the tale of Arwen and Aragorn was very important to the story, and it clearly contributes both to death and immortality and to preservation/restoration; however, Tolkien could not find a way to work it into the book without disrupting the narrative theme.

Éowyn is much more prominent in the book than is Arwen, but Éowyn still has only two lines in “The Two Towers” before flinging herself at Aragorn at the outset of “Return of the King.” Obviously, this would not have worked with a post-Victorian movie audience. Moreover, Éowyn is very important in the story for showing the restoration of the House of Eorl, and also for showing the “rightness” of her willingness to risk all in battle. And for the movie to communicate this, it had to show her being the wild thing trammeled in her hutch, not simply state this.

Elrond and Galadriel’s roles also are elevated. But equally important, Saruman and Sauron have much greater presences on film than on page. Saruman’s expansion was particularly important, as he was used to explicitly develop the industry vs. nature aspect of the story as well as that of usurped powers. The monstrous eye on its cruel tower was simple, effective visual symbolism: this should not be.

Jackson & Co. “Arwenized” Tolkien’s characters in two ways. One way was to embellish de novo. The LOTR movie invented scenes to keep Arwenized characters in the audience’s mind and to emphasize both their contributions to the story. Another way is to “Glorfindelize,” that is, cut characters, but unlike Tom Bombadil, keep the roles of those characters and assign them to the Arwenized character. Glorfindel is a good example; Arwen takes his role entirely, giving Arwen a “beginning” that pushes story. Éowyn “Glorfindelizes” Éomer in “Towers” to the same end, with Éomer given Erkenbrand’s role in the plot, Faramir Beregrond and Beregril’s roles, etc. “Glorfindelization” can extend to plot elements, for example, the sword Anduril took over the role of Arwen’s standard in the films.

For DH, Ginny is (appropriately!) the character who most needs Arwenizing. The book provides a fine reintroduction of Ginny and her relationship to Harry. However, the book keeps Ginny in our minds in the middle by keeping her in Harry’s mind. But although “G-I-N-N-Y” communicates Ginny on page, only Bonnie Wright’s face communicates Ginny on screen. In LOTR, Jackson & Co. deviate from narrative form to show us Gandalf’s deeds while he was away from the hobbits. DH could do this with brief scenes of Ginny (and Neville and Luna) trying to steal Gryffindor’s sword, trying to prevent Luna’s kidnapping, and re-organizing Dumbledore’s Army.

LOTR also used dream sequences. in DH, Ginny must be shown kissing Harry farewell before he “dies.” Beyond this, DH could insert Ginny into some dream sequence when Harry is unconscious after Godric’s Hollow. This could be used in tandem with Lily to develop both characters (see below), and it would later serve to advance another character (see “… and when to Faramirate” below).

Also, Ginny (and Neville) can have a Potterwatch segment. Kingsley is unimportant to the story and Ginny can Glorfindilize him. Also, this can streamline the plot later when Harry returns to Hogwarts (see below). And, of course, a much more emphatic conclusion to Harry’s Ginny-arch is needed: Ginny should be the one to inspire Harry’s Patronuses in the final battle. That is the perfect spot for the clinching “I love you.”

Now, why are these changes needed? Well, it’s not to develop a teen love story. You can find much better ones elsewhere. However, this is the protagonist’s love, after all, thus Ginny gives context to Harry’s decisions concerning the greater good. Seeing Ginny working for this is a nice bonus, but what is much more important to show is that Harry has some “selfish good” to which we can all relate, and that Harry has incentive to not be a martyr and thus not choose the greater good.

Just as Arwen could not just turn up and marry Aragorn, Dobby cannot simply turn up and sacrifice himself. It is both arbitrary and lacks emotional impact because the first time we see Dobby in the book is when he dies. (The fact that Dobby was in prior films means little. People are much too busy to remember small details of action/adventure films, and they are paying to see this story told properly now. If the Bond girl of a prior movie showed up in the middle of the next Bond movie with no introduction, most of us would have no memory of who she was.) The wedding offers a good way to introduce Dobby (part of the hired help, no doubt) and develop a past between him and Harry. A flashback to “Chamber of Secrets” would be useful here, a scene that tells the audience why Dobby is so loyal to Harry as well as Dobby’s past with the Malfoys. Glorfindelizing Kreacher here would then offer a good “middle” for Dobby, and thus the audience (hopefully) will care when Dobby sacrifices himself for the greater good.

The wedding brings us to another necessary Arwenizing and Glorfindelizing: Bill and Fleur’s role should be given entirely to Tonks and Lupin. A side effect of this would be an easy Arwenization of Lily, James, Sirius and Pettigrew. All that need be done is have Lupin present Harry with a picture of his parents and friends from James’ and Lily’s wedding day, a thoughtful and believable gift from a groom to the sole son of a good friend. That also allows an early introduction of Lily’s sacrifice (a major “greater good” moment) as well as general comments of “greater good,” and, of course, it can introduce Pettigrew’s debt to Harry. Shell Cottage can then be given over entirely to Tonks and Lupin, and we can see Teddy. Seeing all of that before we see their lifeless bodies will make their contribution all the more poignant and palpable, and make Harry’s subsequent decision on this score all the more understandable.

Both Neville and McGonagall need Arwenizing, as they are the faces of Dumbledore’s Army and the Hogwart’s staff. The wedding is a good place to introduce both. Neville can be further Arwenized in the same scenes as Ginny. Opportunities are scarcer for McGonagall, but I would have McGonagall Glorfindelize Molly, too, for two reasons. First, it is an early expression of Harry’s willingness to work for the greater good when he refuses to return to Hogwarts. Having him do this to McGonagall solidifies her connection to the school, and also makes it look like Harry is standing up to an authority figure rather than an overbearing mollycoddler. That feeds the second reason: having McGonagall first treat Harry as a child and then treat Harry as a leader would have the same sort of impact as Boromir originally scorning Aragorn but then accepting Aragorn as king, dynamically advancing an important character, and showing that McGonagall recognizes that following Harry is for the greater good.

Ron and Hermione do not need to much Arwenizing. However, the movie would benefit from cutting Xenophilius. That whole adventure provides one unique piece of information, and that can be “Andurilized” by having the trio work it out from Hermione’s book and Ron’s childhood stories. Those books can provide the information about Horcrux destruction also. They simply need to understand that one of the stories is actually about Horcruxes, even though nobody remembered this anymore. Moreover, this provides more opportunities for Harry to debate what is the greater good and Dumbledore’s game with Ron and Hermione, making the connection of the stories to the Story more obvious.

Harry’s ability to see things through Voldemort’s mind obviates The Gray Lady. Ron can know about Gregorovich, and that obviates Krum. (Ollivander, however, should be retained.) Arwenized Dobby and Potterwatch can “Glorafindelize” Aberforth’s role in the plot, and Dumbledore can easily “Glorfindelize” Aberforth’s contribution to the story. Similarly, a Potterwatch call to arms Andurilizes the DA coins.

On the other side, the roles of various Death Eaters should be given to Bellatrix, Lucius and Snape. For example, there is no need for Greyback. Instead, have Bellatrix, as the secondary antagonist, capture the trio and have Bellatrix and Malfoy lead the attack on the wedding. This does not build story, but it does make the antagonists familiar and loathsome. Narcissa also can be cut. Luicius can take her role, or it can be cut altogether. (Selling out the Death Eaters by being too selfish to support even one’s own cause is a nice thematic touch, but it muddles the plot as Voldemort would simply have killed Harry and then gone to Hogwarts anyway!)

As for Severus, see more below…

There are times when themes and plot devices need to be Arwenized in the sense that they need more prominent showing. In LOTR, Jackson & Co. heightened the story by having first Aragorn then Merry and Pippin draw off the Uruks to let Frodo continue the quest to restore natural order. Similarly, Théoden openly presents the case why Rohan should ignore Gondor, and making his decision to ride to Pelennor all the stronger of a contribution to the story. Plot elements such as the Palantirs received much greater build up.

There are two examples of this in DH: wand loyalty and Lily’s sacrifice. Both ideas confuse many book readers. Fortuitously, they can be explained together. Intent, not the deed itself, is what matters in magic. At Shell Cottage, Lily’s sacrifice can be used to explain the general theory of magic and why Draco’s wand can become Harry’s. Then, at Kings’ Cross, Harry’s sacrifice can set up his realization that it is not just Draco’s wand that belongs to him, but also the Elder Wand. Do that, and the audience will understand exactly on what Harry is pinning his hopes in the final confrontation, and how a selfless act for the greater good was not just the story, it was the crux of the A-plot.

…And When to Faramirate

Book Faramir could just turn away from the LOTR with little effort because his Numenorean blood ran true (although that did not help Isildur much!). Similarly, Book Aragorn never questioned his right to rule Gondor. Jackson & Co. changed both from static icons to dynamic characters that grew into the book products. Making “Return of the King”‘s characters’ journeys probably had J.R.R. Tolkien (a devout Tory) spin in his grave. But they also magnified the impact of both characters on the story in the minds of Joe and Jane Public.

There is one DH character who needs a greater journey than the book provides: Severus Snape. Snape is easily Rowling’s crowning literary accomplishment, but Snape’s presence in Rowling’s presentation is simply inadequate for an audience that has not thought about Harry Potter for 18 months. Yes, Dumbledore tells Harry what Snape’s motivation was in Half-Blood Prince, but will the tens of millions of people who do not even bother to read the books possibly care enough to remember?

Thus, Snape must be highly visible, and the film must be littered with ironic clues about his actual intent. In part, this means Arwenizing Snape. For example, if Snape replaces Yaxley in being the Death Eater who causes the trio to flee Grimmauld Place, then the audience can later realize Snape was trying to leave the Gryffindor’s sword there. If Snape replaces Travers in the bank heist scene, then he can see through the disguises and insist to Ron and Hermione that he needs to speak to Harry, and even start to say that they won’t find the sword in the vault before a hidden Harry Stuns him. Snape should be presented throughout as the secondary antagonist equal to Bellatrix, only to have that illusion ripped from us at the very end. If not, then his death and the revelation of his true motives will fall flat. Snape offers a great example of going to incredible extremes for the greater good for a very simple reason: unrequited love. The audience has to look back at this film alone and think, “it was there in front of us all the time and we missed it.”

The Ultimate Goal: The Greater Good

The goal of a movie is to do justice to a story, not some earlier presentation of a story. In this rather long essay, I have outlined numerous modifications that I think are necessary to make a cinematic presentation of Rowling’s story about the greater good work at least as well as the literary presentation did.

Two things should stand out. One, a lot of change is needed to make the story stay in place. Two, there is no reason to present this in two parts. If one cuts the sections that contribute little or nothing to the story (e.g., the Dursleys, the Ministry heist, Xenophilius), then we have a film in four acts: Act I, showing Harry being driven further and further “underground”; Act II, culminating in the destruction of the Horcrux; Act III, culminating in Bellatrix capturing the trio; and a whirlwind Act IV, taking us from Malfoy Manor to Shell Cottage to Gringotts and then to the conclusion. If the same tight pacing of the LOTR movies is used, then this would take three hours maximum.

Retaining the presentation of the book over two parts will result in a first half with no obvious story and a lot of “running in place” adventure. We saw this once before in “Matrix: Reloaded,” and as a result, most of us did not see it with “Matrix: Revolutions.” It would be a shame if HP bowed out on a similar note. LOTR got away with it, but it did so only because it cut away the sorts of sections that would necessitate a two-part DH film. Thus, although LOTR offers one of the only examples of a film shown in multiple parts, it ironically shows how focusing on the story and eliminating extraneous plots and characters would allow clear and succinct presentation of the DH story in one film.

Will it be the book? Of course not; movies are not books. Thus it will not please any who are fans of the book rather than of the story, just as the LOTR movies did. However, Tolkien is just (or nearly) as popular as Rowling, and any kind of fan hatred did not prevent huge popular and critical acclaim for the LOTR film. Would it sacrifice fan-favorite details for more abstract theme and story? Yes, but remember when Rowling had the choice between story and detail with her epilogue, she went for a detail-scant, thematically rich conclusion to the very first story. That was the most emphatic statement of her priorities imaginable.

The most important question is will it represent the story? If people walk out of the theater, having just seen a presentation about how right triumphs over easy choices when it comes to the greater good, then most certainly. People’s final memory of Harry Potter should be about a boy who chose to do all he could for the greater good.