Deathly Hallows Part 1 and the Audiovisual Soundscape it Wasn’t

by Selina

Abstract: This essay expresses the less-heard opinion on the latest film, that it was neither “the best one yet” nor spellbinding in any way. It argues that this was the case because of the poor use of its soundtrack, and how this takes away from the overall experience, making it harder to find yourself transported by the cinematic experience.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 1 premiered this week, and fans around the world are currently celebrating its success and brilliance.

But I wish to address a major issue I had with the film, one which made it impossible to truly immerse myself in it and enjoy the experience: the lack of an epic soundtrack. Don’t get me wrong, I truly enjoyed the film and there are a lot of excellent elements to point out as well, but this is so important to me, I wish to single it out.

I don’t like comparing the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings movies – mostly out of fierce loyalty to HP, because the LotR movies are undeniably, unfathomably better. My mother always says that the difference between the franchises can be summed up by looking at the difference between the trolls in Philosopher’s Stone and Fellowship of the Ring: Quirrel’s troll looked like a cartoonish little brother to the frightening, colossal troll hiding in the depths of Moria. And more than anything, the difference between the HP and LotR adaptations lies in their placement on the “epic scale” as I like to call it.

Where Peter Jackson’s aim was to create the ultimate, be-all-end-all version of Lord of the Rings, to create a product that lifelong fans (himself included) could enjoy with as much intensity as the books, the various Harry Potter directors seem to be way too busy trying to overcome the notions that HP is a children’s series by making the films “serious” and “artistic” that they completely fail to consider their (in an ideal world) one and only true audience, the fans. And when I say fans, I don’t mean the 8-year-olds and their parents, I don’t mean the ones who’ve never bothered to read the books or the ones who like Alan Rickman but frankly don’t care about Lily and whether Snape ever loved her. I mean the fans. And if you’ve ever been a fan of ANYTHING – be it football, Star Wars, Robert Redford or whatever, your mind should be open enough to accept that even if your interest has never been peaked by one particular thing, it doesn’t mean those who cherish it and value it and obsess about it are less than you, or to be discouraged or looked down upon. Sadly the directors, particularly the last few, don’t seem to get this and spend way too much energy trying to make the films appeal to children and the mass audience.

But I am sidetracking. My point about Lord of the Rings was that, to me, one of the reasons the film worked so well, why it brings tears to my eyes every time, and why it means something to me, is because of its score. The composer Howard Shore has managed to capture the essence of the book and transpose it into a soundscape, which so perfectly and seamlessly weaves in with the on-screen action and dialogue to create the complete, full experience that is the Lord of the Rings trilogy. And in my opinion, by trying to be “artsy” and “serious”, David Yates has – both in Half-Blood Prince and Deathly Hallows Part 1 – denied us half of the magic. He has given us a dramatized version of the book and allowed us to experience the written word performed, but he has taken away from us the opportunity to experience the wonderful story through music.

Some say that a soundtrack you notice speaks of a failed product, where the music is used to manipulate you into feeling what the acting and directing failed to make you feel, but say you have a product that is so good, so powerful on its own, and THEN add the powerful, emotional soundtrack. Shouldn’t it, by this logic, be doubly as powerful? Shouldn’t the combination be enough to make you forget you are sitting in a crowded theater, that you are watching a movie, and allow you to immerse yourself so fully in the experience that when the lights go up and the credits roll it’s like you’re awakening from a trance? That’s a successful movie, in my opinion.

Ironically, the Prisoner of Azkaban movie is probably the Potter film that springs to my mind when I am describing this. It’s ironic because it’s my least favorite movie; I find its incessant attempts to be different frustrating and annoying. But yet it succeeded in the theatre where DH failed: it made me feel like I was watching a movie, that it was an experience I could never have gotten from reading the book. While I think Cuaron strayed too far from the book, I also think Yates is not straying enough. Of course, the screenplay doesn’t help – action, action, action, all the things we’ve read in the book but without the internal monologue which actually explains what the hell is going on. What we are left with is a, to the uninitiated, completely random collection of incidents that have no significance, rhyme, or reason, and to the book lovers, exactly what we expected after reading the book. Nothing less, nothing more. Add to that the lack of an original, powerful soundtrack to replace the literary narration, and what’s left? Dry, linear action. Nothing less, nothing more.

To some, it was enough. And surely there is a lot to be commended, too: the acting was superb, and whether because she grew up or through Yates’ direction Emma Watson has truly developed into the perfect Hermione. She got over her anger issues from PoA and GoF and has matured into a fantastic actress, whose unspoken emotions carry the film in many places. Rupert Grint is another actor who has been allowed to shine, as screenwriter Steve Kloves has finally had to relent and give Rupert something other than comic relief to work with. Even Bonnie Wright has vastly improved from her last performance, and Alan Rickman surprised me by actually varying his performance from what he has done in the past six films. The beginning and the Ministry sequences were particularly well done, and the polyjuiced Harry, Hermione, and Ron all did excellent jobs. After Ron leaves, Harry and Hermione’s chemistry is almost too good, but I don’t begrudge the shippers their new music video material, though I do begrudge Kloves sacrificing the Ron/Harry epic friendship in favor of the Hermione/Harry one (check your books, folks: Hermione is actually Harry’s second choice for a best friend, believe it or not).

I mourn the fact that I was unable to fully enjoy any of this because I never felt immersed in the story the way I was in the first five. While Hedwig’s Theme is perfect in so many ways and I am firmly in the camp that they should have brought John Williams back for DH part 2, in my opinion, the most enjoyable score has been Order of the Phoenix‘s by Nicholas Hooper: “Another Story” is a particularly powerful theme, which even now makes me feel something I can’t put a name on. I might be in the minority here but I feel that if a piece of music does not affect you, it has failed. Perhaps Desplat’s score is in fact wonderful on its own, but in the context of the film, it just wasn’t good enough, leaving me feeling apathetic and unconnected to the product as a whole.