Thursday, November 18, 2010

Harry Potter comments

So as some of you might remember, about a month ago I came to the conclusion that the Harry Potter movies should be viewed as entirely separate from the books. This particular view is not entirely without precedent or merit. All adaptations must be viewed as their own product first and an adaptation second. This is why the Watchmen movie failed in my eyes: It was an extremely good adaptation but it didn't hold together as a movie very well.

Anyway, since I'm going to see the 7th Harry Potter movie this weekend, I figured now would be a time to report on what I thought of what I consider the problem movies, 4, 5 and 6. Before I start, I would like to say that while I like the first 3 MUCH more, I do have some problems with them. In the first one, most of the kids look lost on one level or another. Second one, you physically cannot watch anyone but Kenneth Branaugh when he's on screen (though that's more of a problem with him than with the movie). Third one had some very odd directorial choices (the just awful werewolf design comes to mind) but I feel they all hold together better as movies than 4, 5 and 6.

Oh and I suppose it goes without saying that these all come with a HUGE SPOILER WARNING for all of the Harry Potter books and movies.

Goblet of Fire:

Goblet of Fire is what set all the big problems in motion. Whereas the Harry Potter movies up until that point had opted for the Lord of the Rings approach of taking the stories, characters and themes and tweaking them to fit in the new medium, Goblet began the tradition of taking the Prince Caspian highlight reel approach (IE, show all the famous scenes without much connection), which left a lot of the scenes really disconnected. By way of an example, in one scene Moody turns Malfoy into a ferret after he attacks Harry. In the book this was tied into Moody's larger plot aspect, in the movie it never gets properly explained, other than weird characterization that takes 10 minutes.

Added to that was the simple problem of over simplifying. Look I'm not saying that you need to keep 100 percent to the books, but it was established, in the 3rd movie, that when someone busts out of Azkaban everyone goes APESHIT. At the end of the 4th we're expected to swallow “Oh this dude just busted out. No one noticed.” In the book this was this huge long conspiracy that tied every single plot point up in a nice little package, but in the movie it's dropped off in one line of dialogue that makes no sense, which would be more of an irritation if they'd bothered to conceal it at all.

Of course the cinematography is still nice and the casting is still spot on. A new problem that had been hanging around the edges of the first 3 (especially the second) but begins to show up hard in this one is the recurring problem of taking scenes or spells that were simple and quick in the book and turning them into huge CGI light shows, which probably helps drive the budget up. Look guys, I know you want your movies to be exciting and I know you're using Lord of the Rings as your guide, but I need to break something to you. Your fight scenes are ALWAYS going to boil down to 2 guys waving sticks at each other and shouting faux Latin words. It can be exciting and enjoyable to watch, but it's NOT going to be visually dynamic. Stop trying.

Order of the Phoenix:

Order was, in my opinion, the worst of the bunch. It still had mostly good technical work, fantastic casting and an interesting bit of coreography involving McConagall and Umbridge having an argument, but those were small comforts amid the mess.

The first problem is the highlight reel problem, which not only left a lot of characters with their backstories (and thus their interest) cut off at the knees, but also leaving a lot of subplots hanging around not accomplishing anything. The biggest example of this is the Cho subplot. Yes in the book it was a 30 page digression about mourning and transference and yes it did reveal Cho as painfully one dimensional, but at least it was a full subplot and connected to the plot proper. In the movie it amounted to “Hey, here's Cho. Hey, here's Cho and Harry kissing. Hey, here's Cho betraying them. Off she goes.”

There's also several levels of problems derived from a normally contradictory mix of over-directing and under-directing. Several scenes are clearly over-influenced by directorial vision and then left to dangle which leaves the tone going up and down violently from scene to scene.

The other problems that plagued Goblet are on full display as well, especially the stylistic choice to attempt to turn simple scenes into giant epic battles. This leads to a massive disconnect between ability and performance in the final battle. What, in the book, amounted to a desperate flight by a bunch of undertrained kids pursued by adults, using luck and surprise to their advantage, is turned into an epic war in the movie, which makes the entire result feel incongruous.

This one also highlights a problem that the 7th (and 8th) movies are going to have in spades, caused by the highlight reel technique. Most-to-all of the characters in the books are left cut off from their backstories and humanity, leaving us uncaring when a character gets offed. Because Sirius is so painfully undercharacterized in the movies, we don't care when he dies, a problem that the upcoming movies are going to have with EVERY SINGLE FRAKKING DEATH. Except Hedwig. That's gonna hurt.

This leads to the larger problem that the movies have had since Goblet: That they can't be expected to be cut off from the books because they very clearly expect us to have read the books. They didn't bother to conceal the larger mystery behind Goblet or explain the mystery when it got revealed because they knew we already knew. While most likely true (the books continue to be among the most popular books of all time), it's quite simply an unacceptable stance to take.

Half-Blood Prince

Prince is, on average, the best of the second half, which isn't saying much. It still jacks up scenes to try and be more exciting unnecessarily, cuts out most of the important characterization, leaves more than a few subplots dangling and has some very irritating directorial choices, but it manages to rein in these problems enough to deliver a better product.

Which isn't to say that it doesn't have more than a few problems all of it's own. First and foremost is that number 6 is tasked with setting up the big story and conflict for the 7th one, a task which is seems to consider secondary to it's job to endlessly detail the romantic tension between Ron and Hermione and Harry and Ginny.

There's also a couple of very odd scenes which are at best, mostly unnecessary. And finally, as long as I'm mentioning disconnect, there's a moment where they show Lupin and Tonks as a couple. Now, I'm going to skip over the fact that they didn't get together until the end of the 6th book and simply point out that they haven't had a scene establishing that they were a couple beforehand.

So yeah. Those are my thoughts on the 4th, 5th and 6th Harry Potter movies. I'm going to see the 7th on Saturday, review should be up that day. Oh and I have Poltergeist tonight and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest Sunday, so it should be a good weekend for fans of my reviews.

Anyway, I'm trying to be optimistic. After all, they began to overcome their problems in the 6th one, maybe they can do it again for 7th and 8th. Hell, if they keep getting better, they might be able to take on the best one, IE Prisoner of Azkaban (tend to doubt it). Overall though, I'm keep expectations low, lest I be disappointed. Oh well.

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