Harry Potter and the Final Verdict

PrintE-mail Written by Laura Pitts

Harry Potter is a franchise that requires no introduction. The books have won critical and popular acclaim, gracing top ten lists the world over, and are set to carve out their place in literary history- but does the film series live up to the promise held by their source material? Or are they a commercial cash-in, popularised by hype and existing solely to feed the growing Pottermania? As the last of the movies, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part Two is released on DVD and Blu-ray, I wanted to take a look back at the film franchise that has dominated the box office for over a decade.

The Beginning...

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was released as Pottermania was starting to gain worldwide momentum and only served to add fuel to the fire. The first film is the one that’s most aimed at children; it’s a gentle adventure set in a magical boarding school, wherein our hero fights bullying teachers and schoolboy nemeses. It’s a loveable film that’s drenched in old school nostalgia, invoking memories of Sunday afternoon children’s dramas and roaring fires. The primary achievement of Philosopher’s Stone was that it took its time to carefully lay down the foundation of an unknown, fantastical world, although this did mean that it skimped in terms of character development, and depth. It was here that we were first introduced to the now globally recognised Daniel Radcliffe who portrays the lead character, alongside Rupert Grint and Emma Watson as trusty sidekicks Ron and Hermione. The three leads showed enthusiasm and were chubby-cheeked and cute enough to grin their way cheerfully through, but, lacking any true skill as child actors, were wooden for most of the film. All in all, it’s a charming and heart-warming family film, strategically appealing to the entire Potter demographic. As an adaptation it did a decent job, although it didn’t deliver on the thrill factor, but it was a credible beginning to a monster movie franchise.

Jar Jar: Redux?

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets successfully continued the trend of comfortable family drama, providing a stand-out moment of the entire film series in Harry and Ron’s daring jaunt in a flying Ford Anglia, and a great action-filled finale, wherein Harry fights a giant snake with the sword of Godric Gryffindor. More of the wizarding world is revealed, as we visit The Burrow, the home of the Weasleys, which is surely one of the most interesting sets of the entire series; it’s a place that you’d like to spend an afternoon, drinking tea with Mrs Weasley, watching knitting that knits itself, and playing with cats that wear jumpers. An obvious, although unavoidable, flaw with the earlier films of the series is the dodgy use of CGI, most notably in the case of Dobby the House Elf, who was fully realised using CGI. Dobby has been likened to the Jar Jar of the Harry Potter series, which seems rather harsh considering that, CGI aside, Dobby is rather a likeable character (and approaches nowhere near the levels of annoying that Jar Jar did), as he helps and hinders Harry in equal amounts. Chamber of Secrets is a Potter film made from the same mould as the first; a bright and shiny family film that merely skirts the edges of depth held in the book and only offers glimpses of the darkness to come.

The Godfather

Prisoner of Azkaban was the movie that changed the tide in terms of how the Harry Potter franchise was viewed by people who hadn’t read the books. It was this film that shone as something more than just a kids film as it noticeably darkened and deepened, both in its themes, its imagery, and its development of characters. Directed by Alfonso Cuarón, this instalment was permeated with dread and gloom, particularly in the scenes featuring the Dementors, who suck the happiness out of its victims. In one notable sequence where these creatures force their way onto the Hogwarts Express, the windows slowly freeze over and the colour is leeched out of the frame as they make their presence known, bringing a level of depression and heaviness previously unseen in the series. The themes of betrayal, revenge, and friendship are prevalent in the movie, as the mystery of Sirius Black and his connection with Harry’s parents’ deaths is unravelled. One disappointment was that the Marauders’ tragic story was exorcised, without even a hint to non-readers of who they were; as such a pivotal piece of information in the book, it added a layer of poignancy missing in the film. The level of cheese was generally reduced in Prisoner of Azkaban as its darker tone and more complex themes lent itself to a film that, while not completely free of its child-friendly reputation, had more depth and emotion than its predecessors.

Four Champions and a Sparkling Corpse

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire was directed by Mike Newell, a filmmaker known for his romantic comedies; it’s perhaps fitting then that it was he who first had to tackle that dreaded beast- teenage hormones. It’s less cringe-worthy than you’d expect, as the lead trio of actors have grown into their roles enough to pull off the awkward first crushes with aplomb, and it’s the funniest film of the series, with Rupert Grint in particular expertly exercising his comedy chops. The last forty minutes of Goblet of Fire, however, couldn’t be more different in terms of tone, as Voldemort is resurrected, Harry is tortured and we witness our first death. Casting Ralph Fiennes as the Dark Lord was a stroke of genius as he chews up the scenery in a spectacularly cold, menacing, snake-like performance, and it’s now difficult to picture anyone else playing You-Know-Who. The moment that spelled the beginning of the end of Harry’s childhood and one of the pivotal points of the series, was the instant that the corpse of Cedric Diggory (played by a pre-glitter Robert Pattinson) hit the ground with a thud of finality. The portrayal of Cedric’s murder is harsh and sudden, and for the first time death is real, immediate and un-reversible, and its finality is devastating in a world where we have been lead to believe anything is possible. This moment showed the audience that children can die and that no one is safe, giving the series a much needed boost in terms of tension and danger. Goblet of Fire fluctuates from light-hearted to absolutely heart-wrenching in a roller-coaster bit of storytelling. The audience is brought up high with the comedic exploits of Harry and Ron’s first dates, and then harshly reminded of the finality of death, the memory of the shiny happiness of previous films completely wiped out.

The Muggles, The Ministry and The Mayhem

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is the first of the war films, with a grittier, more realistic feel. The film has a real-world tint to it, particularly in an opening sequence which sees the Millennium Bridge in London collapse, bringing the threat a step closer to home in a timely reminder that our safe muggle world is also in danger. This message is drummed home as the magical world intrudes into the determinedly normal, suburban lives of the Dursleys. Harry’s summer with the Dursleys at first appears more like a Mike Leigh film than a magical adventure as all colour is leeched from the frame and the usually sweeping, grandiose score is unnervingly muted. The atmosphere gradually thickens in a painfully fraught exercise in tension-building as Harry and his cousin Dudley are attacked by the soul-sucking Dementors first seen in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.

This is the first adaptation of book to screen that works tremendously well. It’s the longest of Rowling’s works, resembling more of a brightly-coloured brick than a book, and the second shortest film of the series (just 8 minutes behind Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part Two, which hardly counts as it’s the second half of a two-parter), and David Yates, in his first directing effort for the series, has managed to get the balance just right between being faithful to the spirit of the source material and creating a fast-paced, tense action film that stands on its own merit. This film builds to an exciting finale, which involves the first display of non-practice duelling, which is spectacularly vicious and incredibly dynamic, as witches and wizards thrust their wands at each other and leap back and forth in movements akin to sword-fighting. It’s the least flabby of all the films, withstanding the complete removal of Quidditch, and an extremely cut down finale. Thematically, the book and film feel extremely similar, despite the cuts made to the text, but it’s Harry’s growth as he deals with loss and the coming war that marks the most interesting changes between the two. The book sees Harry break down in fury over the death of his godfather Sirius Black, while the film approaches Harry’s reaction in a very different way- by having him numbed by the pain, his grief overwhelming him. Indeed, one of the most memorable and effective moments of the film series comes at the end of Order of the Phoenix as Harry is stood in the centre of the destroyed Ministry of Magic after Sirius’ death, and he is confronted by a wall of photographers in a ghastly impromptu press conference. Harry stands there blood-drenched, and tear-soaked as cameras flash in his face, a moment Daniel Radcliffe plays beautifully. The war against Voldemort is heating up, and it is in this film that Harry is forced into becoming a leader and into fighting for what he believes in, an important step on his road to his destiny as the hero of the wizarding world.

Will the Real Tom Riddle Please Stand Up

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is a difficult film to categorize. There are three prevalent sides to it: discovering Voldemort’s master plan, Draco’s story, and, incongruously, girl troubles. It’s an odd mix that doesn’t quite balance out as Harry has one foot in a romantic comedy and one foot in a thriller for most of the film. Daniel Radcliffe exercises his comedy muscles valiantly throughout as Harry deals with a love-struck Ron, the highs and lows of dating his best friend’s sister, and, in a particularly amusing sequence, imbibes a potion that makes him incredibly lucky and inexplicably turns him into a cheerful, gurning imp who skips across the Hogwarts grounds attending funerals and drinking mead.

Half-Blood Prince is an important part of the overall series as it is here that the tale of Tom Riddle’s journey towards becoming Voldemort is told, as we learn of his heritage and his master plan. The casting of Hero Fiennes and Frank Dillane as Tom Riddle at ages 11 and 16 was a major boon in the effective telling of this story, as both infused the character with cold fury, pure malice and an advanced ability to manipulate that explained very well how the Dark Lord seduced and frightened in equal measure. This movie took an interesting angle in highlighting something that had not been touched upon in the novels- the duality of Harry’s and Draco’s separate struggles as they fight on opposite sides of the war. The film was able to achieve something that the book did not by allowing us to see Draco’s side of the story, and sympathise with a character that has been extremely easy to despise throughout the series - in part, this was due to Tom Felton’s impressive portrayal of Draco’s struggles.

Half-Blood Prince is an odd beast in that it does the job of bridging the gap between the earlier films and the conclusion; it’s here that Harry stops struggling and finally accepts his destiny, and, with Dumbledore’s help, takes the first steps on the path to defeating Voldemort. The tone varies wildly, which makes for an uneven but still vital film in the series, giving us one last chance to take a breath before we are plunged into the murky waters of a war-torn wizarding world in the concluding two-parter.

The One In The Tent

It’s not difficult to see why Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part One has frequently been referred to as ‘the one in the tent’. Harry, Ron and Hermione choose to go on the run, searching for Horcruxes and hiding from Death Eaters, instead of returning to the once safe haven of Hogwarts. As the trio struggle to solve the riddle of the Horcruxes, their journey treads water as much as it surges forward, and the film does lag in the middle with scenes of our heroes sitting in a forest seemingly endless. Harry, Ron and Hermione are in the eye of the storm, only hearing rumours of the horrors occurring throughout the wizarding world as they focus on the task at hand. Their separation from the world outside provokes an interesting study on friendship and how it breaks under the pressure of war, and Rupert Grint shines as for once his role is more than just comic relief.

Despite the overall dreariness, and the frustration and tension nearing boiling point, there are also several set-pieces that feel more like the Harry Potter films we are used to. The trio break into the Ministry of Magic in a risky move that results in their near capture, but is undeniably entertaining and also provides us with a few amused chuckles in a film sparse on humour. Similarly, Harry and Hermione’s encounter with Nagini the snake was both exciting and terrifying in possibly one of the scariest scenes of the entire series, particularly for those who experienced the movie at the cinema in 3D and jumped out of their seat when the giant snake lunged from the screen in an excellent use of the technology.

The change of pace is disconcerting for an audience used to Harry Potter films employing a specific structure, but the uncomfortable tension that permeates Deathly Hallows Part One succeeds in setting the stage for the finale in terms of plot, character development and tone.

And Now The End Is Near…

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part Two is pure payoff. It’s the shortest film in the series and packs in an unbelievable amount- there’s what feels like a thousand set-pieces as one action scene flies (sometimes literally) into another, and there’s barely time to catch your breath as bridges burn, beloved characters die, evil reigns, Horcruxes are destroyed, and the wizarding world comes together to fight a great evil.

The Battle of Hogwarts is surely the best depiction of a magical battle ever committed to film as director David Yates takes great joy in destroying and perverting all of the most beloved sets of the series; the great hall is now an infirmary, the courtyard is a graveyard, and the forest is where the enemy lay in wait. The representation of Voldemort’s final demise was satisfying in a way that it wasn’t in the source material. Unlike in the book, where his body remained a corpse, we actually saw him disintegrate, which, while disgusting, was fascinatingly visceral (especially in 3D), and a fitting end to a creature who was barely a shell held together by a malevolent spirit.

One of the most touching scenes of the entire franchise comes as Harry steps into the now-deceased Snape’s memories and, through a montage of sorts, we see his motivations and point of view from various episodes throughout the series. Alan Rickman has frequently stolen the show with his acerbic put-downs and raised eyebrows, but it is here, as Snape’s barriers are broken down and we are allowed to see his pain, that Rickman’s performance is truly affecting. As Snape cradles the body of the dead Lily Potter in his arms, it’s impossible not to be moved to tears by a character long misunderstood and brave to the very last.

As a conclusion to eight films, Deathly Hallows Part Two works well at giving everyone a last moment to shine. Professor McGonagall orders Hogwarts to defend its students, Ron and Hermione finally get it on, Luna holds a key piece of the Horcrux puzzle, and Mrs Weasley gets the moment we’ve all been waiting for. It’s Neville Longbottom, however, who almost steals the show. His story is as heroic as Harry’s as he steps up and, against all expectations, becomes a leader. It’s in this film that Neville is thrust into the spotlight and gets more screentime than ever as well as a triumphant, inspirational speech, multiple comedy moments, and even a bit of a love story, all of which are nowhere to be found in the books. It’s impossible not to cheer for Neville, played with down-to-earth charm by Matthew Lewis, who has always been the underachieving everyman that Harry, with his mantle of ‘the boy who lived’, never quite was.

Daniel Radcliffe’s last outing as Harry is undoubtedly his finest work to date. Radcliffe’s improving skills as an actor can be charted clearly through each film, culminating in Deathly Hallows Part Two, where he puts in a startling performance. While a large majority of the film is Harry running from scene to scene, Radcliffe imbibes the character with a deep sense of determination that permeates every moment he is on screen. It is when Harry, having discovered Snape’s true loyalties and having seen the bodies of friends who have died for him, decides to offer himself to Voldemort and to meet his certain death, that Radcliffe seems to have come into his own as an actor. There is no dialogue as Radcliffe stares directly into the camera, his pain and determination written clearly across his battle-hardened face, and in that moment he has never been more like Harry.

The one aspect of the final film that has divided fans and critics alike is the final scene at Kings Cross train station as an adult Harry, Ginny, Ron and Hermione wave goodbye to their children as they head off to Hogwarts and adventures of their own. While it is a nicely cyclical end the series, it is undoubtedly riddled with cheese (as it was in the novel), and, frankly, it’s hard not to snigger at the goatee beards and dowdy clothes that are meant to be a mark of adulthood. It doesn’t quite fit with the rest of the movie and one can’t help but think that the franchise would have benefitted more by it ending with the scene before, as our trio stood on the edge of the destroyed Hogwarts, holding hands, grateful that they’ve survived and now have a future.

Splitting the novel Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows into two parts was a controversial move. Many were outraged at the thought of greedy executives rubbing their hands in glee over the last drops of money they would be squeezing out of a franchise that’s been pulling in box office millions for 10 years. With both parts released, however, it’s clear to see that this was the best decision that could have been made. The extra two hours of storytelling this allowed director David Yates has meant that the conclusion to the series could be told properly, no important details had to be edited carefully around, and beloved characters could get their fitting goodbyes.

To Read Or Not To Read

The eight movies have remained fairly true to the spirit of J.K. Rowling’s series, but due to the nature of adapting a novel into another medium, certain stories have been emphasised over others, usually due to time constraints or the need to streamline plotlines. Fans have been unhappy in certain instances about the editing of beloved plotlines and characters, but rarely has their removal adversely affected the movies to an extent where non-readers have not been able to understand what was happening. This worked well in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, which exorcised giant chunks from the books, such as Hagrid’s tale of meeting his giant kin, Harry’s visit to St Mungo’s Hospital, and lengthy chapters spent at Grimmauld Place. In streamlining the film and removing all non-essential detours to the main plot, the pace is increased dramatically, making for a taut and exciting adventure. This technique was also used to great effect in the adaptation of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, which was one of the most meandering books of the series, and through careful editing and reshaping was transformed into a more concise and meaningful film, focusing on the parallel struggles of Harry and Draco.

It’s difficult to write about the Harry Potter films without referencing the books they were based on, as one has become so entangled with the other. It’s near impossible to read the books and not imagine Alan Rickman as Snape, or Maggie Smith as Professor McGonagall, but do you have to have read the novels to appreciate the films? Based on the strong storytelling in the films, the fantastic world building, the sheer epic production values, and the reactions from non-readers, I would say that the Harry Potter movie series stands solidly on their own.

The Verdict

Over eleven years, seven books, and eight films, Harry Potter is coming to an end, and personally I’m more than a little tearful to see it go. I, like many people my age, find it difficult to remember when Harry Potter wasn’t a part of my life; I’ve debated over the books, attended midnight openings, marathon-ed the films, and staunchly defended it against those who said Lord of the Rings was the better series. I’ve grown up with the promise of a new Potter book or film being released in the near future, but now that the last book has been released, and the last film is out on DVD, is it really the end?

The Harry Potter movie franchise is guaranteed to chug along for at least another few decades, riding a wave of nostalgia and affection from the fans that spawned Pottermania, but will it translate for future generations?

Like many of the great story franchises, I think Harry Potter has the staying power to stick around for many generations to come, and, unlike Star Wars or Lord of the Rings, we’re saved from things like the Jar Jar Situation and the strange Hobbit love, and rewarded instead with the epic beheading of giant snakes. The strong storytelling, wealth of heart and emotion, fantastic cast, excellent production values, and yet something more, a- dare I say it?- kind of magic woven throughout the entire movie series makes me believe that the Harry Potter franchise will be beloved by fans, both long-standing and newly acquired, for decades to come.

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