There were just too many plot coupons. I was occasionally confused about exactly what the heroes were trying to accomplish in a particular scene, and when one of them mentioned the number of magical doohickeys they still had to destroy, I thought, “Oh my God, how am I going to sit through that?”
I’ve been thinking more about my response since listening to the /Filmcast episode on Deathly Hallows, in which host David Chen delivers a persuasive rant about how the series has failed to deliver any films that really work as films, rather than as fan service for people who like the books. I am, of course, a big fan of the books (I read Sorcerer’s Stone through Prisoner of Azkaban in a single weekend, then pulled all nighters to finish each of the subsequent books), so I wondered: Is that me? Am I just enjoying the chance to see my favorite scenes from the books acted out?
Last night I rewatched the best movie in the series, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, and it really was as good as I remembered. The design and cinematography may be the most impressive I’ve seen in a fantasy film, Gary Oldman gives Sirius Black real pathos, and the script is compelling and tight.
In many ways, I think Order of the Phoenix is the perfect book for a cinematic adaptation. It has a strong plot -- the conflict between Harry and the Ministry of Magic provides more complexity than the standard good vs. evil of Harry vs. Voldemort -- but also plenty of flaws that encourage a filmmaker to offer their own take. Even J.K. Rowling has admitted that she would have probably shortened the book if she’d had more time to work on it (it’s the longest in the series). The film isn’t a radical reinterpretation, but the script is streamlined, not just eliminating minor plot threads but also condensing or replacing multiple scenes with montages and fun visual conceits.
Apparently, even before starting the film, Yates said that his goal was to make the shortest Potter film yet. I think that pays off in Order of the Phoenix’s pacing, and the way it feels like a “real movie”. I wish Yates had taken a similarly iconoclastic approach to Deathly Hallows, rather than following Rowling’s overly relaxed storytelling.
And yet … in a column about about an (apparently terrible) comics adaptation of The Alchemist, critic Douglas Wolk offers a great distillation of what we should look for when a novel or other work is adapted: “If you adapt a work from one medium to another, there has to be something it can gain from the new medium to make up for what it will inevitably lose from its original medium.”
Judged by that standard, Deathly Hallows Part 1 does just fine. Think of the fast, thrilling magic battle in a late-night London coffee shop. Or the beautifully awkward dance between Harry and Hermione. Or Rhys Ifans’ funny, fumbling, and finally oddly moving performance as Xenophilius Lovegood. And if none of that is enough to win you over, take solace in the fact that Deathly Hallows Part 2 is going to be amazing.