Tuesday, July 19, 2011


Putting Harry Back on the Shelf

BLOGGER'S NOTE: If you have yet to see Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 or have not read the books and plan to, be warned this piece is LOADED WITH SPOILERS.

By Matt Zoller Seitz
My daughter Hannah is a ninth-grader, and my favorite person to see movies with. Sometimes we'll see a film and instant message each other about it later, or tape ourselves talking and do a transcript, then post the result here as we did on Cinderella and Fantasia. This latest conversation is on the final Harry Potter film, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2. I was really looking forward to seeing this movie with Hannah, not just because it's the final installment in a franchise that's been around nearly as long as she has, but also because Hannah has read all the books and I've read exactly none, which makes her an ideal explainer.

MATT: So here's what I was thinking going into Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2. I was 8 years old when the original Star Wars came out in 1977 — the movie that your generation calls Episode IV: A New Hope. The time span between that film and the conclusion of the original Star Wars trilogy, Return of the Jedi, was six years. That carried me from fourth grade through freshman year of high school. Those movies dominated my imagination during that six-year period, and were almost as much a part of my life as any person I actually knew. Do the Harry Potter films seem like a comparably big deal to you? Has there been anything during your childhood — a movie series or a book series or a combination — that seemed like as big a deal as the Harry Potter phenomenon? To me, it looks as though everything else would be a distant second.

HANNAH: The Hunger Games, Percy Jackson…those are the only two I can think of. And they are nowhere near as big as Harry Potter. But they're both fantasy saga-type things.

MATT: Do you see these movies as movies first and foremost, or as movies based on books?

HANNAH: Movies based on books, definitely. After the first three movies, it's really hard to follow the plot unless you've read the books. Seeing the movies after reading the books is just the icing on top of the cake.

MATT: I have seen all of the Harry Potter films, but I've only read the first 40 pages of the first novel. I remember watching the first movie when it came out and not liking it because it felt too much like an illustration of a book rather than a freestanding movie, and thinking, "I should get on track with this series of books, otherwise I won't be able to judge the films as adaptations." But then the second movie came out a year later, and I didn't like that one either, and I decided that I wouldn't read the books after all, because a film has to have a life apart from the book, no matter how good or poor it is as an adaptation. In the end I feel like their track record as movies is mixed. I think a couple of the films are terrific, a couple are bad, the rest are pretty good. But I should also confess that I have trouble keeping the story straight over the entire saga. I am tempted to give the films the benefit of the doubt and say it's all my fault. But I follow much more complicated stories on long-form TV series and in movie franchises such as The Lord of the Rings, so maybe the filmmakers are at least partly to blame. I don't know. That's a tough call, honestly. There were definitely moments in this The Deathly Hallows, Part 2 where I was thinking, "Who is that guy?" and "What the heck is going on?" Not too many, but a few.

HANNAH: I agree when you say that a movie has to take a different life apart from the book. But if you really enjoyed the movies and want to truly respect the invention of the insanely imaginative world that is Harry Potter, the books should be read. I think the key thing to have when you're creating a culturally defining saga/franchise is the ability to create a world unlike our own, and create parallels to what we know in our lives, such as education, career, government, etc. Along with that, I think that it's also key to place human traits in the characters living there, so that it's easy to lose yourself in the universe. The books have all that. I think that the thousands of pages of the Harry Potter books trump the movie adaptations, since the films tend to leave out a lot of the parts that make the books interesting.

MATT: Oh, I definitely agree, and that's true for almost any film adaptation of a book. A book has a subtlety, a delicacy, that most movies can't match. Plus a book just feels more personal, because you're creating images in your mind as you read. It's as if you're the director, and you have an unlimited budget and unlimited running time. There's just no comparison. But I feel like the movies were only partly successful — for this viewer — at capturing the essence of the books. I only read The Hobbit and part of The Fellowship of the Ring, yet I was tremendously involved with, and excited by, the Lord of the Rings films. And I never read Mario Puzo's The Godfather until right before the third movie came out, yet I didn't feel I'd been cheated as an audience member. These were substantial experiences that were equal to, but different from, the books they were based on. The Harry Potter books, though…I don't know. I always felt there was something missing from the movies, that that there was something incomplete or slightly flat about them. There were only two Potter films that I thought were really terrific as cinema, the third and fifth ones. The sixth had its moments. But the rest only grabbed me in fits and starts. A scene here, an action sequence there, a bit of acting that moved me. For the most part I felt like I was seeing a transcription of something that was absolutely beloved in its original form — and that the incredible intensity of the love that people felt for the source was kind of carrying over into the movies, and sort of filling them out, or giving them an extra kick. There were definitely times when I felt my attention beginning to wander a bit during one of the movies, and then suddenly the crowd would laugh or applaud as one, because they had obviously read the books and were feeling a great rush of emotion, and I felt it, too, although the rush was secondhand, or once removed.

HANNAH: I know exactly what you mean. When it comes to adapting a 700 page book into two- or two-and-a-half hour movie, you needn't have read the book previously to know that there were parts that were off, or flat, or like something was missing. It's hard to devote yourself to a book and come to love certain scenes, characters, etc., and see them changed, altered, or cut on the big screen. The point of the movies is to bring the book to life, and it always sucks when you can't see the entire book come to life exactly as it should. For that reason I think that the people who make the movies based on great books are really lucky, because they get to share their interpretation with millions of people. I wish that I could have gotten a chance to go to a midnight showing of Harry Potter at some point in my life, but it's slipped past me.

MATT: I know! Sorry! I guess it's a pointless exercise to find anything analogous to the Harry Potter phenomenon. There is nothing else like it — no other examples of a series of books coming out just a few years ahead of a series of films, and having the books and the films be really intimately intertwined from start to finish, so that it's almost as if you are seeing two different versions of the same story unfold in two different media almost, but not quite, simultaneously. The closest thing I can think of is the James Bond series. But there, the books were fairly loose adaptations of tales of a character whose adventures were more or less self-contained. With some exceptions, you could read Bond books or watch Bond movies out-of-sequence, and not feel you were missing anything. And after a certain point — sometime in the '70s — the films based on the Bond books stopped having anything in common with the Ian Fleming novels and short stories except for the titles and the fact that they were about a guy named James Bond. They weren't at all like the Potter books, which have a richness of characterization and are also very densely plotted, with every book linking to every other.

HANNAH: Another thing that makes the Potter movies hard to follow is the constant foreshadowing. I can't think of an example off the top of my head, but there were times in a Potter movie where one character mentioned a person, place, magical object, etc, and another character said, "Gee, I met that guy/went to that place/learned about that object briefly a few years ago! Who knew that information would be helpful now?" It's easy to constantly foreshadow in books when you're the person creating the story, but when you're a filmmaker adapting that story, I can see how you would look at a script and go, "Crap, we should have mentioned this in a previous movie, because now it's a crucial to the plot!"

MATT: Well, I'm glad you mentioned that, because that phenomenon is one of the clunkiest things about the Potter films — their tendency to say, "Here is this really important character who is right at the center of the ongoing narrative and whose fate is of absolutely critical significance," yet this is the first time you've ever heard them mentioned. There was a moment like that in the final movie, actually — the appearance of Dumbledore's brother. Harry says something like — and I'm paraphrasing because this is a rare film where I took no notes, because my pen was defective! — "You're Dumbledore's brother? He never mentioned you to me." And the brother says something that's almost like a self-deprecating joke, like, "Yeah, that sounds like him." The Godfather films and the various seasons of The Sopranos did this, too, as you will eventually see when you watch them. "Hey, Tony Soprano, say hello to your beloved cousin who was like a brother to you growing up." And it's season five, and you never heard a syllable about that guy until now! At least when the movie series or TV show is completely original, the filmmakers have a bit of an excuse. They're flying by the seats of their pants, just kind of making things up and hoping it all fits and make sense with hindsight. But the Potter films were based on pre-existing books, so the clunkiness there seems strange to me.

HANNAH: Are you saying that scripts that have been written directly for the screen have an excuse to spontaneously introduce a new character that's supposedly important?

MATT: Oh, no. not in a single, stand-alone film. But in a series, yes, if the scripts are all original, and not based on pre-existing material. It's just a fact that sometimes the makers of a sequel have to figure out a way to extend a story that seemed to end in a satisfying way at the end of the original film. The public says, "What happens next?" and the filmmaker has to come up with something. That leads them to invent new characters or situations that were never mentioned in the original film. The Star Wars films are an example of that. You really have to stretch to find foreshadowing of Darth Vader being Luke's father in the original 1977 movie. I think that was because the filmmaker, George Lucas, originally wrote Star Wars as an entire series, or a very long film, then had to eliminate a lot of the more novelistic flourishes. When the 1977 film became a hit and the studio wanted sequels, he had to re-integrate a lot of the things he'd cut, and create stuff that wasn't there previously in any form. And that led to some narrative awkwardness.

HANNAH: OK, that makes sense. But I'm talking about seven books that are released about a year-and-a-half apart from each other. The makers of the first Harry Potter movie only had the first two or three books to work with, as far as foreshadowing goes. Sometimes in Harry Potter, the foreshadowing is subtle, and the time between when something is foreshadowed and when it happens is short. With the movies being three books behind, it may have gotten hard to take every move of foreshadowing into account.

MATT: Fair enough. OK, since you have read all the books and I've read only a tiny part of the first one, I want you to play expert witness and explain some things that I found confusing, OK?

HANNAH: Yes sir, fire away. I am prepared with my geeky answers.

MATT: I am confused about the ownership of the wand that Harry uses to kill Voldemort. Can you walk me through that?

HANNAH: Do you mean the Elder Wand? Because that's the one Voldemort used, not Harry.

MATT: I'm talking about the wand that Harry used to kill Voldemort, which I guess was not actually Voldemort's wand? Voldemort took it from Snape, right? What was the line of succession before that? And what are the rules, exactly, governing the possession of wands and how it affects one's ability to do magic?

HANNAH: The wands in Harry Potter are pretty complicated, and even I'm not crystal-clear on how it works. Voldemort is a part of Harry. When Harry got his wand in his first year, rather than him picking out a wand, a wand chose him. The wand had a twin that chose Voldemort when he first got a wand when he started at Hogwarts. So there were two identical wands, one possessed by Voldemort and one possessed by Harry. When Voldemort tried to kill Harry in his fourth year, it didn't work because their wands were the same. So Voldemort set off to find a new wand. Dumbledore possessed the Elder Wand. The night that Dumbledore died in the sixth year, Draco Malfoy disarmed Dumbledore and took the Elder Wand against Dumbledore's will. Shortly after, Snape killed Dumbledore. Dumbledore was buried with the Elder Wand. But, little did anyone know, Draco Malfoy was truly the owner of the Elder Wand. Whoever takes the wand from the owner against his will is the new owner. Voldemort takes the Elder Wand from Dumbledore's tomb. When the wand doesn't work for him, he assumes it's because it belongs to Snape, because Snape killed Dumbledore, the previous owner. So Voldemort kills Snape. But Voldemort still is not the master of the Elder Wand. Meanwhile, in the showdown at Malfoy Manor at the end of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part One, Harry disarms Malfoy and takes the wand Draco received when he started Hogwarts (made of Hawthorn). But since Harry took a wand from Malfoy against his will, that makes Harry the master of the Elder Wand. Harry uses Malfoy's wand for a while because his original wand broke. When Harry is fighting Voldemort, he uses Malfoy's Hawthorn wand to kill Voldemort, who is using the Elder Wand, despite the fact that Harry is the true master. Sorry, that took awhile. But I wanted to give a thorough explanation. Now my brain hurts. Harry Potter can be quite confusing. Any more questions?

MATT: That was amazing, and I'm not sure it helped. It kind of reminds me of when a friend asked me to explain the relationship between the Corleone family, the Rosato brothers, Clemenza, Hyman Roth and Frankie Five Angels in The Godfather, Part II. When I got to the end, even I was confused.

HANNAH: Maybe my explanation will make sense if you read it over 20 more times. But I wouldn't count on it.
MATT: I'm also not sure what to make of the whole Snape evolution. So he's a good guy pretending to be a bad guy pretending to be a good guy? Was he ever really working for Voldemort? Or was he always a triple agent working for the forces of good?

HANNAH: Oh, Snape. I liked how the scene in the movie where we dove into Snape's dying memories was sort of eerie and dreamlike, but the way it was set up was kind of confusing and unclear, so it was hard to get all your questions answered.

MATT: That part definitely felt rushed and confusing to this non-Potter reader.

HANNAH: Snape knew he was a wizard since he was born. He was a half-blood. His mother was a witch and his father was a muggle. He was very poor, and his parents fought a lot. He lived near Lily, Harry's future mother, and her muggle parents and her muggle sister, Petunia. He recognized that Lily was a witch and filled her in about the wizarding world when they were growing up. He fell in love with her. But when they got to Hogwarts, Lily was sorted into Gryffindor, and Snape was sorted into Slytherin. They remained friends through their earlier school years. Even in his beginning years at Hogwarts, Snape detested Harry's future father, James, because James used to bully Snape and was rather arrogant, and also because Snape knew James had a crush on Lily. Snape was worried about Lily eventually falling for James. But Snape and Lily drifted apart as Snape befriended his fellow Slytherins who were interested in the dark arts and becoming Death Eaters. When they left school, Lily got together with James and married him, and Snape went off to become a death eater. And yet Snape was still in love with Lily. When the prophecy was told, Snape knew that Voldemort (at this point, his master) would set off to kill baby Harry and anyone that got in his way, such as James and Lily, Harry's parents. Snape begged Voldemort to spare Lily, but Voldemort ignored him and killed her anyway. Dumbledore told Snape that he had been foolish instilling his trust in Voldemort, and that the best way to pledge his love for Lily would be to protect her son. Snape agreed, but begged Dumbledore not to tell. Dumbledore said "Fine. I will hide the best of you." When Harry started Hogwarts, despite the fact that Snape was protecting him, he couldn't stand to be around Harry because he was reminded so much of James, who he hated. Snape went on to be a triple agent as Voldemort rose to power. Then in the sixth year, Dumbledore was cursed by a ring that was made into a Horcrux by Voldemort. He only had a year to live. Dumbledore was aware of a plan that Voldemort had to make Draco Malfoy kill him. But Dumbledore knew Draco wouldn't be able to do it, so he told Snape that when Draco failed, Snape must kill Dumbledore. And he did, at the end of the sixth year. Then he continued to carry out the tasks that Dumbledore asked of him before his death, despite the fact that many of the good characters in the book distrusted him. That took a long time! I hope you understand now. Conclusion: Snape is the awesomest character in Harry Potter. (faints)

MATT: OK, that was truly epic. Now I really regret not having read the books. I missed a lot of the nuances. But even so, I agree with you about Snape. He's my favorite character. Nobody else can come close to his complexity. And Alan Rickman is the acting MVP of the whole series, in my opinion. It is really, really hard to play a character like that and not either give the game away early or mislead the audience in a way that seems unfair in retrospect. In degree of difficulty, that performance is at least a nine. The only thing that could've kicked it up to a 10 is if he'd given the entire performance in Spanish or French or something.

HANNAH: Did I answer your questions with as much enthusiasm and detail as you would if I asked you about a major plot point in the Star Wars movies?

MATT: Oh, absolutely. And this is as good a place as any to admit that while the Potter books and films would not exist without the Star Wars films paving the way, they are clearly superior to Lucas' saga in terms of narrative and character. Maybe the only area where Lucas has the edge is visually: the films are more daring in how they are composed and edited. But that's small consolation considering what a big steaming mess a lot of them are. And like you said, the movies aren't at the heart of the phenomenon, the novels are. And judged purely as a pop culture event, the novels are huge. There's nothing else like them. I think if we look at this in terms of a generation's relationship to a defining piece of popular culture, I think your generation definitely got the better deal.

HANNAH: Yes, I think we did.



Matt Zoller Seitz is the television critic for Salon.com and curator of the blog PressPlay at indieWIRE.

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While I love Rickman and thought he was great (though I haven't seen the final film or read any of the books), I had him pegged as a secret good guy from the first film because they tried too hard to portray him as sinister but then would toss in little bits when you could tell he was being protective of Harry. I felt the films have sort of worked on a bell curve in terms of quality. The first two didn't do much for me, but the third and fourth seemed to up the quality. The fifth started the slide again because it was the first film where I felt that they were leaving stuff out, but it made up for it by having my favorite performance of the series: Imelda Staunton as Dolores Umbridge. Half-Blood Prince left me puzzled for the most part and I really had no clue what was going during most of Deathly Hallows Part I. On a side note about The Sopranos, A&E shows cut-up reruns constantly during the day that I inevitably catch and it's interesting the continuity they follow and the continuinity they ignored. As you mentioned, Tony B. was never mentioned until Season 5, but Robert Loggia's character of Feech La Manna had been referred to going back to at least season 3 if not earlier. Also, in season 1, Jackie Aprile was referred to as acting boss of the DeMaio crime family whose boss was in prison, though that character was never mentioned again and it suddenly became The Soprano crime family. It's also interesting to note that Gandolfini's accent got better as the show went on. It wasn't as good in season one as it was in seaosn three. They also changed the facts surrounding Christopher's father. In early seasons, Chris mentions stories his father told him and then later, his father got killed when he was an infant.
This was illuminating. (Seen all the movies. Read not a page of the books.) It provides some details that I felt but couldn't explain (which I guess is some kind of credit to the series, that I at least followed the general context). One thing is nagging at me though, and perhaps Hannah would be up for one more explanation?

So basically the dark arts (or whatever) are bad, and everybody knows it and agrees to it. And the Slytherin kids all are into the dark arts. And thus the Slytherin kids are all bad and everybody knows it. So, well, what the hell is up with Hogwarts? Why does it nurture the destined-for-evil wizards too? Is it to keep the good guys in business? That never made sense to me.

(Also: Why is it that Hogwarts seems to be populated by Harry's class alone? And -- spoilers? -- this suggestion is repeated with Harry & Co's kids go off to Hogwarts. Are wizards bred in 20 year intervals or something? Shouldn't we see some tiny kids running around in the big climactic battle?)
One thing I wanted to know, which a friend who read the books told me is covered in the books, is whether Hogwarts taught these kids normal things or if they left the school without the basics of math, geography, etc.
Fantastic job, Matt & Hannah. I finally broke down after the 6th film - the first one in the series I found genuinely unsatisfying - and bought the books. I'm glad I did, because the world Rowling creates is so much richer and more interesting than that of the films. The movies are fine on their own terms, but I think the strain of condensation caught up with them eventually - too much is left out, plot-wise, between the fifth and seventh film, and I understand why people who haven't seen the films struggle to connect the dots. I was disappointed with the final film, but then, I usually am when I've read the book!
@Jason- I have few complaints about the Harry Potter books, but you just named one of them. This was never directly tackled in the book, so I'm just sort of guessing here- Salazar Slytherin was one of the founders of Hogwarts, so perhaps they wanted to respect his contribution to the school by not demolishing his house-? Also, the people who invite students to attend Hogwarts don't know what house the kids will be sorted into when they come into school. Also, I think that having interest in the Dark Arts and all that other bad stuff is just a side effect to the basic traits they would need to possess to be sorted into Slytherin- Ambition, cunning, self-preservation, and resourcefulness. Also, not all the people from Slytherin turn out to be followers of Voldemort. I think Dumbledore once said to Harry, "The world is not split into good people and Death Eaters". That may be one of the ideas behind preserving Slytherin in Hogwarts- when you're sorted into Slytherin it doesn't say in the description "95% chance of becoming a Death Eater". Snape was a Slytherin and you've already heard my explanation about why he's the best character (and in Harry's words, "One of the bravest men I've ever met"). Although Dumbledore did say to Snape once, "I think we sort too soon."

And if you're wondering why in the Battle of Hogwarts there were no small children, it was because they evacuated the younger kids who weren't of age. The kids who were of age had a choice to fight.

@Edward-The kids are sent off to Hogwarts when they're eleven. The muggle-borns are given a typical elementary school education, assuming they had no clue that there were wizard. As far as the self-aware wizards go, I guess they are taught to read, write, do basic math, and that kind of thing at home. I don't think a lot of muggle science applies to them, and they're taught a bit of the History of Magic. I think one of the requirements of attending Hogwarts is knowing the basics and being literate.
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