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movies / July 19, 2009

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So Harry Potter, the latest one. Making a lot of money. Yep. How many more to go? Ten? Oh, only two? Well, good, that means they’ll finish up before the kids turn thirty.

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I’m not into the Harry Potter phenomenon. I have friends who are fans. I also have friends who are foes, who find it a source of intense bitterness that Diana Wynne Jones—a vastly superior writer, they tell me, within the same genre of young adult fantasy fiction—has never had a fraction of the recognition or reward spewed at J.K. Rowling.

But I’ve got no investment one way or another beyond liking genre stuff, plus a vague interest in seeing what supposedly creative types do when they have all the money and attention in the world, when they’re in Fat City. The film Harry Potter and the Half-blood Prince is a good example of what often results: a bland safe bet, plush and comfy, taking no chances, and pleasantly vegetative to watch.

It’s old news that, when directing the third film, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004), Alfonso Cuaron came up with the bright idea that these films ought to look good, at least. The previous director Chris Columbus hadn’t thought of that. He’d been too busy documenting every time Dumbledore blew his nose, in deference to the fans’ obsession that he omit nothing of vital importance from the books, in which everything is, of course, vitally important.

Cuaron put the production designers and CGI people to work bringing gorgeous gloom to the series, its rains and mists and rich colors and trails of black smoke. That’s done a lot to ease the pain of watching these things. The current director David Yates follows Cuaron’s lead in dedicating a chunk of the budget to beautiful weather effects. Nice snow scenes!

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A much bigger chunk went, as usual, to buying up British actors and not challenging any of them, so they noodle around at their individual crafts, presumably to stave off boredom. Alan Rickman practices his vocal exercises, for example, in the role of Severus Snape. He tests how long he can draw out dramatic pauses, how sonorously he can extend syllables versus how severely he can clip off the final consonant, how nasal he can get if he really tries, which is so extremely nasal it’s like that old commercial with the giant stuffed-up nose talking about allergy relief.

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Don’t misunderstand, I actually like Snape, I look forward to Snape scenes. He’s one of the few dark, interesting characters in Rowling’s world who gets to stay center stage for any length of time. She’s forever shoving the villains and weirdos and monsters to the margins, or converting them, or revealing them to be really good underneath, so we can spend more time with all the virtuous types. (Sirius Black was a potentially great character who could never be wholly “safe,” so she killed him off.)

The film directors, sadly, follow her lead. No proper sense of sustained menace. Jeez, people, Dickens laid all this out for you. The villains must be scary, powerful, and ascendant for the bulk of the story, squeezing the virtuous into tighter and tighter corners, with everything light turning dark, until the sudden reversal at the very end! As Snape would say, the very ennnnnnd!

The Half-blood Prince was structured to be suspenseful. It sets up the gathering evil right away: Death Eaters have so broken the bounds they’re even attacking the Muggle world, students are dropping out of Hogwarts, and Snape is involved in some mysterious double-dealings, taking “the vow that can’t be broken” to defend and protect the vile Draco who’s been commissioned to do some awful deed, etc.

Clearly we’re supposed to retain this impression of impending doom while Harry, Ron and Hermione (Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, and Emily Watson) go through the torments of teen love. But we don’t. Draco and Snape lurk around, Dumbledore gives Harry strange secret assignments, but it’s all episodic and unconnected. It seems to have no relation to the mooning around of the goofy old-fashioned teens with nothing on their minds but their hair. The impression should be, “Hogwarts is under deadly attack, Harry, stop worrying about the prom,” but instead it’s just A-story, B-story.

But then, maybe I don’t have a clear sense what counts as menacing these days. I read an interview with Michael Gambon, who replaced the late Richard Harris as Dumbledore, and he claimed that whereas Harris was a warm and twinkly wizard headmaster, he himself plays Dumbledore as formidable, even dangerous. Wow! Totally news to me. I’d have said there was nothing formidable about Gambon’s Dumbledore but his fake beard.

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I dread the Dumbledore scenes for their sheer length and mildness. He always talks to Harry like a kindly uncle in approximately six-to-eight interminable scenes in every book/film, and kindly uncle-talks just aren’t the most riveting things in the world. Maybe it’s different if your uncle’s Jack the Ripper, but not if he’s a gentle bearded wizard who snuffles, “Once again I must ask too much of you, Harry.”

My grandmother was more formidable than Dumbledore. Ten times more.

Jim Broadbent plays a very middling sort-of villain as Professor Horace Slughorn. He experiments with an impressive range of smarmy, fatuous academic expressions, including one with blank eyes bugged out so far I feared the sockets couldn’t hold them. Helena Bonham Carter is more promising as the nasty Bellatrix Lestrange. She looks like rotting fruit, which is very becoming, and she flings herself around with abandon trying to generate some sense of depravity in her few scenes. But really, there’s not a lot to do.

Flashbacks to Lord Voldemort’s youth as the brilliant Hogwarts student Tom Riddle are sadly minimal. These are the memories Harry is assigned to retrieve from Professor Slughorn because they will give Dumbledore needed intel with which to fight the Dark Lord. Trouble is, when Harry finally retrieves the key memory, Dumbledore already seems to know all about it, rendering Harry’s efforts moot.

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I know—whatever. It’s a Harry Potter movie.

But since they do spend so much time on the teen hormone angle, I have to say that the Harry Potter-Ginny Weasley love story is disastrous in both book and film.

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It’s eye-wateringly dull, and Harry passes up so many other, better bets—sweetly eccentric Luna Lovegood (Evanna Lynch), and that beautiful girl who makes a date with him at the coffee shop early on, and almost anybody else he walks by in the halls of Hogwarts—that you really have to wonder about Rowling’s fixation on the drab and virtuous.

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28 Comments

Add your own

  • 1. Mrinal Bose  |  July 19th, 2009 at 11:15 pm

    Nice review. Harry Potter is shit in both print and film. Its decline has already started, and hopefully Harry Potter would vanish from our consciousness soon.

  • 2. jonny.m  |  July 20th, 2009 at 5:46 am

    “[F]ixation on the drab & virtuous” seems pretty common among the English. What I don’t get is why other peoples seem to get sucked into that, too. I guess because the special effects are nice and the girls are cute — with those two things, I bet they can sell anything.

  • 3. vapid twaddle  |  July 20th, 2009 at 7:44 am

    You actually admit to having friends who are “fans” of J.K. Rowling. The exile is not the proper place to discuss Harry Potter’s freakin taste in women. Dolan and Ames are OK with this? I think some sort of public apology is in order.

  • 4. Greg  |  July 20th, 2009 at 8:49 am

    The books are at least a welcome diversion from the Petrarch, Valla, Machiavelli, and Guicciardini that I normally read. They’re not the most sophisticated, but Rowling’s world is still more intriguing than most fictional worlds, even though, as the Exiled reminds us every day, the real world is far more interesting and brutal than anything we could dream up.

    The movies, meanwhile, take the worst elements from the books – the plodding, repetitive narrative and the often flimsy characterization – and place even *more* emphasis upon them! And, c’mon, Eileen, the child “actors” cast for these films make Rickman and Smith look like they’re turning in Oscar-worthy performances.

    Obviously lots of shit needs to be cut out for book adaptations; that’s why Columbus’ films sucked, because they tried to get every little idiotic thing right.

    But Cuaron and Yates leave out many of the genuinely good parts of the series, especially the Snape bits, which are, as you pointed out, probably the only ones that demonstrate any kind of subtlety or sophistication as a novelist.

    In their place, those idiots put in a lot of boring dreck interlaced with shitty child actors doing awful CGI action sequences (even here, they leave out some of the few exciting bits of the books).

    I’d rather watch the Young Indiana Jones Chronicles if I wanted those. Thankfully, as I am not a movie reviewer, I don’t have to watch any of it!

    PS: You know what would be pretty awesome? Dolan working with Rowling for a script. It’d keep the world she created, but damn if it wouldn’t be the coolest pint-size wizards I’d ever saw.

  • 5. Plamen Petkov  |  July 20th, 2009 at 9:26 am

    speaking of cute girls, Emma IS sporting a nice set of boobies nowdays. Too bad they said on Howard Stern the guy who plays Harry most likely is a fag.

  • 6. Eren  |  July 20th, 2009 at 11:19 am

    God damn Harry Potter hysteria is driving me crazy.

  • 7. ince  |  July 20th, 2009 at 4:25 pm

    It seems as though I am trying to write a comment as lengthy and tiresome as this film franchise. I applaud you Eileen for writing something intelligent. Wish I could too.

  • 8. rick  |  July 20th, 2009 at 5:29 pm

    The books are mainly notable for domesticating the Joseph Campbell narrative (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monomyth). They re-create the monomyth with every episode…something the pompous Star Wars and Matrix idiots couldn’t do, because success convinced them they were actually talented at constructing narratives. They weren’t. God save the world from George Lucas. But the Potter series painfully, strategically re-creates the hero’s journey with every episode. That’s why it’s grotesquely successful. She read “The Golden Bough” in preparation for the last episode, obviously, and she fucked up, profoundly, but people read it anyway, because she’d already established the crack-cocaine trail.

    It’s like marketing class, if it wasn’t entertaining, and my ex-girlfriend got me to read the books. This was the least entertaining of all the episodes. The last book also sucked.

  • 9. Paul  |  July 20th, 2009 at 7:27 pm

    I’ve always like the Harry Potter series! I can’t wait for The Deathly Hallows!

    http://www.sbpdl.com

  • 10. korman643  |  July 20th, 2009 at 9:35 pm

    Do yourself a favour, and start reading Diana Wynne Jones NOW. For 15 years I thought I was the only one in the world who knew about her before I’ve read Dolan mentioning her books in The Exile. Believe me, she’s as good as John says! “Charmed Life”, “Howl’s Magic Castle”, “Eight Days of Luke” and “Fire and Hemlock” are seriously great, but my favourite right now is “Dark Lord of Derkholm” – it’s incredibly funny and well written and even poignant in places and everything. Buy Diana’s books and stop bickering about horrible plagiarist Rowling!

  • 11. Tam  |  July 20th, 2009 at 11:58 pm

    Nothing inherently wrong with having ‘a fixation on the drab and virtuous’ After all, you (and I) liked Coraline, which had basically pretty much the same message. Difference being of course, that Coraline was brilliant.

  • 12. Mike Gogulski  |  July 21st, 2009 at 2:58 am

    Coming soon: Harry Potter and the Order of the Rosy Palm in which young Harry starts learning all sorts of interesting things about his body…

  • 13. Jyp  |  July 22nd, 2009 at 5:50 am

    What is this shit? I mean WHAT IS THIS SHIT? Get a fucking life, fool. We’re going down the fucking toilet. We’re drowning here. If you want amusement, get drunk, get high, high on some broads. If you want to hang around in the dark grooving on shit like this, be quiet about it!

  • 14. monopole  |  July 23rd, 2009 at 2:44 pm

    At least Diana Wynne Jones got an excellent movie adaptation of Howl’s Moving Castle by Hayao Miyazaki. While the books have a degree of whimsy and eccentricity, the movie adaptations are uniformly awful. And frankly Alfonso Cuaron is so busy adding odd stylistic elements he mauls the plot to the point of incoherence.
    What would be great is if the adaptations had been done after the last book, with appropriate foreshadowing. Imagine Dumbeldore played as a cynical puppet master. An eldrich George Smiley.

  • 15. montyeinzz!  |  July 23rd, 2009 at 4:23 pm

    Harry is annoying !

    I’ve always like the Harry Potter series! I can’t wait for The Deathly Hallows!

    1. Hired promotion, WE WANT MONEY!I LOVE MONEY!
    yawn ..selfish destructionwhore pathetic scams leading nowhere

    2. Private person, slightly on the boring side..actually
    somebody that fucking boring, hows that even possible?

    … mi-5, mi-6 harry potter – ..secret services are really clever – always making money sooo impressiv, and they are by no means pathetic filth with no purpose whatsover..
    “burn after reading” is already called a conspiracy, maybe CNN is debunking soon – investigating hard already!
    Yesterday I sneezed..!

  • 16. wiseguy  |  July 23rd, 2009 at 7:24 pm

    I’ve always loved Harry Potter since childhood. Its going to be ending soon, and a chapter in the lives of (now ex) kids who grew up reading these stroies will close. The series will be finishing so while its around we’ll have fun and go watch the movies.

  • 17. wiseguy  |  July 23rd, 2009 at 7:30 pm

    It must be mentioned; the last chapter of the last Harry Potter book is an allegory by the now rich (yet still emotionally healthy) Ms JK Rowling on ending childhood, putting away those things we once grew up with and embracing the obligations of adulthood. It is a subtle message to her often fanatical (cross Atlantic) fan base on the idea of moving on. Since she gained fame across the wide English speaking world (beyond Britain) she has seen the extreme sort of fandom that can take place. I commend her on using her plot resolution in the last book to inject moderation and maturity into her story. I believe that this message board can learn something from these ending themes.

  • 18. grak  |  July 23rd, 2009 at 11:17 pm

    If JK Rowling ever reads that recent Dolan article on death, the next book will be “Harry Potter and the Gnawing Empty Terror of Impending Pointless Doom”.

    oh the horror

  • 19. aleke  |  July 25th, 2009 at 10:40 pm

    @wiseguy

    If you loved Harry Potter you gotta try Yu-Gi-Oh! It’s a kids world! Hey, it could happen!

    See ya,
    [skateboards off to Bart’s house]

  • 20. korman643  |  July 29th, 2009 at 11:39 am

    Miyazaki’s version of “Howl” is good because it doesn’t try to make a miniseriesof DWJ’s book, but uses it to tell something different. It’s not entirely successful (and I wish he had used more of the original subplots) but it’s still a terrific movie. BTW, watch Ponyo – only Miyazaki could get away doing a kid movie with a megatsunami and the Ride of the Walkiries.

    Another thing I want to make clear – there’s more Tolkien in three minutes of “Princess Mononoke” (particularly the suicidal charge of the Boar Gods) than anything of those Peter Jackson flicks.

    And – last but not least – there’s “Little Norse Prince” from Isao Takahata… which I hope someone here has seen… if you haven’t, well, you’re really missing something.

  • 21. Broken Soup  |  April 14th, 2010 at 10:30 am

    Really funny, and true, I guess. J.K.Rowling and the film producers have kind of stretched this Harry Potter thing out to far. It’s getting boring now. And what you said about the ‘kids’ ages is so true! Daniel Radcliff is like 20 now. Also it isn’t sinister at all with all the teenage love. And Voldemort isn’t the least bit scary. Belatrix is defiantly my favourite character though, the most interesting by far. But you are so wrong about Ginny if anything it is Ginny who has the wrong taste in boys not Harry in girls. Harry potter can really get on my nerves sometimes, i don’t know why.

  • 22. Hermione  |  January 12th, 2011 at 1:27 am

    Harry Potter is a great Series. You must not have a Life. Only people without interesting lives go on for 2 pages and a bit about something they hate.

  • 23. leslie  |  February 6th, 2011 at 6:07 pm

    wow you’re an idiot. u probably havent even read the books have you? they are the best books ive ever read and ever will read. and i agree with hermionie, you need to get a life, and stop complaining

  • 24. Annie  |  June 9th, 2011 at 1:39 pm

    Yet again, another person criticizing a book they probably haven’t even read…

  • 25. Greasy  |  November 17th, 2011 at 2:07 pm

    Can’t take anything from JKR making a living, but alas, it’s all shit, and unfortunately damaging to human development. I can really get with an abused kid under the stairs as a powerful and relevant start, but gee whiz!!! you’re rich!!! I’d like to think that Harry would be a kid who through integrity and grit would overcome. No, no, no, he’s just another spoiled twat trying to fit in at private school.
    Hogwarts is disturbingly more petty and pretentious than the Muggle world (another huge gaff for JKR), and only proves that you can only get ahead and get out of trouble by thwarting rules, and having friends in high places. Oh yeah, good breeding and money help too! I’ve met way too many poor little rich kids – turn them into hamburger! When I finally got to college, I had to work in the dining hall, and walk everywhere. I had to study, and put in much time creating work, defending it, and confronting my own personal demons and limitations. I couldn’t afford expensive libations, fancy food, etc. The spoiled fucks from private schools networked quickly but ended up dropping out crashing cars, and are now in rehab. The never had real friends, but a cadre of similar class. This is supposed to be Sliterin, but Harry and his friends are much worse. Excellence is not a virtue, but a habit.
    My real Hogwarts was graduate school, and my real work is Special Education and Human Service – getting kids out of prison, off drugs, and away from danger. People I work with make miracles every day, but not by waving wands, by believing in others’ ability to help themselves, and survive. JKR may have helped a generation of kids fall in love with reading, but she may have also reinforced the worst of the kind of self whiny, self-absorbed drama. Kids are dying around us every day, some to years of abuse and maltreatment. Let Harry and his freinds die, who needs them. I don’t see them doing anything more than pandering to their own insecurities and their own pointless hides.

  • 26. Greasy  |  November 17th, 2011 at 3:03 pm

    Can’t take anything from JKR making a living, but alas, it’s all shit, and unfortunately damaging to human development. I can really get with an abused kid under the stairs as a powerful and relevant start, but gee whiz!!! Harry was loaded with dough!!! I’d like to think that Harry would be a kid who through integrity and grit would overcome. No, no, no, he’s just another spoiled twat trying to fit in at a cliquey school.
    Hogwarts is disturbingly more petty and pretentious than the Muggle world (another huge gaffe for JKR), and only proves that you can only get ahead and get out of trouble by thwarting rules, and having friends in high places. Oh yeah, good breeding and copious copinage help too! I’ve met way too many “poor little rich kids” – turn them into hamburger! When I finally got to college, I had to work in the dining hall, and walk everywhere (I’m still paying off the loans from 20 years ago). I had to study, and put in much time creating work, defending it, and confronting my own personal demons and limitations. I couldn’t afford expensive libations, fancy food, etc. The spoiled fucks from private schools networked quickly, but ended up dropping out, crashing cars, and are now in rehab. They never had real friends, but a cadre of pricks of similar class to pal around with while waiting to go to work in Daddy’s firm. This is supposed to be Slitheryn, but Harry and his friends are much worse. Excellence is not a virtue, but a habit.
    My real Hogwarts was graduate school, and my real work is Urban and Special Education and Human Service – getting kids out of prison, off drugs, and away from danger. People I work with make miracles happen every day, but not by waving wands. We believe in others’ ability to help themselves, and survive. JKR may have helped a generation of kids fall in love with reading, but she may have also reinforced the worst of the kind of whiny, self-absorbed drama. Kids are dying around us every day, some survive to endure years of abuse and maltreatment. Let Harry and his freinds die, who needs them. I don’t see them doing anything more than pandering to their own insecurities and their own pointless hides.

  • 27. Sally Hansen  |  March 29th, 2013 at 5:41 am

    I always loved harry potter and I think your putting them down way too hard, actors work really hard, directors and authors do too. You don’t know because your neither a actor, director or author! So stop ragging on people you barely know!

  • 28. rohan  |  June 10th, 2013 at 3:20 pm

    Harry Potter = largely crap plagiarism marketed at kids who don’t know how to discern what it is.


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