Harry Potter & The Deathly Hallows

Expecto Spoilerum!

Last November, I had something of a dilemma – did I review Harry Potter & The Deathly Hallows Part I now, or wait until the second half was released. On one hand, it was a major release that deserved some words from myself, but on the other, it was only half a story and as such hard to judge how well its set-ups were handled until you’d seen their resolutions. So then, feeling that until the second movie was in the critical bag, I’d have little to say other than repeats the general remarks on the series I’d already made in my review of the previous instalment Harry Potter & The Half Blood Prince.

And indeed, having now seen the Deathly Hallows Part 2, I’m rather glad I decided to wait, as indeed this final part of the Harry Potter saga is indeed one movie split into two pieces. The second opens with the closing shot of the first and then just keeps on going. No recaps, no usual first act shenanigans, just the title and then on with the tale. Indeed, I’m thoroughly expecting that that foggy logo will be sliced out and there’ll be a complete edition of both parts winging its way to the shelves in time for Christmas.

Now then as far as the theatrical versions go, the first big question is do they work as stand alone films? Well, despite not really being designed to, they just about do. Obviously, if you see the second without seeing the first, you’ll be pretty lost. but frankly I’ll have no sympathy – didn’t you spot that big number 2 in the title? But sarcasm aside, in fairness you’d have been equally bewildered if you hadn’t caught all the previous instalments before seeing any of the films from the fifth (Order of the Phoenix) onwards.

As I have remarked before the first four books and movies operate as a series where each story can stand alone more or less, but the last three books are far more closely linked together and function more as episodes than single adventures. Indeed, as far as the movies go, five and six (Half Blood Prince) do work better as an opener and middle section when viewing the last four as a quartet. Now I know this as I had a marathon rewatch before seeing this last movie, but I’d hazard that the folks at Warners also realised this which is why they kept director David Yates on board to handle the second half of the franchise. And indeed this was a wise decision, as these last three books needed to be consistent with each other.

So then how does the epic final chapter play out? Well, pretty much as you’d expect if you’ve been following the series – as with all the Potter movies essentially we have edited highlights of the books brought to life in a vivid and entertaining fashion, with the intricacies of Rowling’s world and characters often taking a backseat to the magical action. And for lovers of the novels, this has always been the Devil’s bargain you make with movies – will you accept seeing Hogwarts, Quidditch and battles with Death Eaters up there on the screen at the price of losing many of the small incidental moments that give the books their charm.

However in splitting the final tome into two parts, Harry Potter & The Deathly Hallows suffers the least from this process of compression. Naturally there are still elements missing but largely, it’s a far more satisfying experience for Potterheads. The extended screen time allows Part I to resolve the characters arcs and Part 2 to wrap up neatly the plot threads and deliver all the big set pieces.

Now a big issue many have with both Part I and the book, is the middle sequence with Harry, Ron and Hermione on their extended camping trip. It’s often felt that both on the page and the screen that this is section that should have been cut as it is delaying getting to the meat of the grand finale. However, while I can understand this view, and it certainly raised an quizzical eyebrow or two on my first reading of that novel, subsequent re-readings and seeing the movie, have underlined a point that I feel many may be missing.

And that is this: while the Harry Potter series is an epic magical adventure, it’s not your usual fantasy saga, it’s a lot more rooted in character than Lord of the Rings or CS Lewis’ Narnian chronicles. Certainly when you read the full sequence, it becomes clear that although Harry can perform feats of magic, he’s in a world where everyone can cast spells. He may be hailed as the Boy Who Lived, the Chosen One, the great hope of defeating the Dark Lord, he is in fact just an ordinary boy burdened with the weight of expectation and having to handle an awful lot of traumatic events. Basically, although at first glance it appears to be a typical fantasy story going up against a Dark Lord, the Harry Potter series is also a tale of growing up. And for all the fantastical and magical elements, all our young heroes act like real children – joking, squabbling and worrying about homework as least as much as foiling Voldemort.

Now bearing the above in mind, look at that camping sequence again. On one hand, what we have here is a refreshing realistic portrayal of the situation; as I daresay that most of us in that scenario (and at that age) would just end up on the run, confused, frightened and not knowing how on earth to proceed against the Dark Lord. But one the other, we have scenes that resolve the underlying tensions between Harry, Ron and Hermione that have been bubbling under through the series. Now this is clearer in the books, but Yates has brought out these elements out rather nicely on the screen. All the romantic comedy froth in Half Blood Prince builds into the dark emotional waters that burst forth in their time in the woods in Deathly Hallows Part I.

Also on Yates’ watch we’ve seen some of the best performances from our young leads, particularly in this last two parter. And again the added run time has allowed more of the character moments to make it onto the screen, whereas young Daniel Radcliffe was assured more dramatic meat as the series has progressed, at last Rupert Grint’s Ron has had more to do than just provide quips. But the real benefactor has been Emma Watson. In past movies, she has been accused of being a little wooden but in fairness the character of Hermione until Half Blood Prince and Deathly Hallows has suffered from being cut down in the screenplays to a cardboard school swot role, just there to deliver info dumps and nag the heroes for not doing their homework.

Indeed, on the strength of the character work in these last two films, I can’t help wishing that both preceding books had been given the two movie structure so Yates could have brought more of the missing little details, back-stories and quiet moments to the screen. He’s shown a good grasp of how to translate complicated plot points to the screen in an entertaining visual fashion, and indeed some of the highlights in this adaptation have been scenes in this field. For example, Ron’s insecurities becoming taunting, mocking visions of Harry and Hermione together, the recounting of the legend of the Deathly Hallows as shadow puppet animation and Snape’s montage of memories in the Pensieve.

However I do have a one serious quibble with this final movie, and yes it does missing material from the book. Now normally in the case of the Potter series, I take such things on the chin with a ‘that’s Hollywood’ shrug – as I remarked at the top of the review, the movies are just edited highlights and that a more faithfully screen version could only really be accomplished in a longer format such as a television series. However this one I feel warrants a mention as it does revolve around the handling of the final battle between Harry and Voldemort.

Now what we have on screen looks great but I can’t help feeling that Yates has let his sense of visual spectacle over power the original scene in the book. You see in the novel, the duel of wands takes place in front of the amassed forces of both Death Eaters and Hogwarts but more importantly while we have the pyrotechnics we lose the war of words between the boy wizards and the Dark Lord. In the book, in this final confrontation he calmly faces his arch foe and explains exactly why he now is the master of the Elder Wand, publicly tears down Voldemort’s image as a master wizard, and generally rubbishes him by constantly calling him by his real name ‘Riddle’. Effectively, Harry pretty much disrespects Voldemort to death, showing him up as the utterly twisted and damaged charlatan he is. He doesn’t just kill Voldemort, he annihilates everything he stands for. Now I appreciate that the scene as written by Rowling is probably too talky for Hollywood but as pretty as the FX fireworks are, I think the end would have been more powerful if the war of words element was retained, even in a compressed form.

But once again, that is the Devil’s Bargain you make as a reader of the books went you go and see the movies. And although I think that in particular losing the reduction of Voldemort to Riddle aspect misses an important dramatic trick, the climax still works. Deathly Hallows finishes the movie saga in fine style. And although there are inevitably still niggles and questions over the direction the adaptations have taken, this brace of films have served the source material somewhat better than their predecessors, and overall the series has ended in a high note. They might not be either perfect movies or ideal adaptations but they have certainly delivered solid entertainment and plenty of moments of magic.

JIM MOON, 28th July 2011