Monday, March 17, 2008

Adapting Harry Potter

Yes, it's another HP post. What can I say? I'm a nerd.

So, as anybody whose obsessive about this stuff (what, obsessive, me?) has heard by now, The Powers That Be are going to split the film adaptation of The Deathly Hallows into two movies. Fan reaction, from what I can tell, has been mostly positive. And why not? It's more Daniel Radcliffe as Harry Potter! More Emma Watson as Hermione Granger! More (hearts flutter, palms grow sweaty) Alan Rickman as Severus Snape! Well, put me down for a dissenting vote. The movies have, generally speaking, gotten better over the years--though there continue to be low points and high points spread unevenly throughout--and while the folks behind this franchise (for a variety of reasons) don't have the comprehensive drive of a Peter Jackson moving them forward, a somewhat consistent cinematic language and fantasy vision has nonetheless emerged. I sincerely doubt turning DH into two films will serve that accomplishment very well. Why?

1. I simply don't believe the reasons for the split being given. Sure, DH is the final book, with lots of loose ends to tie up. And yes, there are some fairly extensive subplots and side notes which are both essential to the books plot and completely exclusive to DH (the whole Dumbledore-Grindelward thing, for example); finding the space to fit them into the film is surely important. But is there really so much going on that it resists a concise adaptation? You're going film Bill and Fleur's wedding (even though, thus far, we've no indication that either of them will even appear in the sixth movie, which presumably ought to be setting up their whole relationship)? You're going film all of the Trio camping, all of the events at Shell Cottage, all of the encounter with Xenophilius Lovegood? I'll believe it when I see it.

2. Which leads to an additional concern: if they really do film it all--if they really do give us a combined five (or more?) hours of DH adaptation--then I can't imagine the results will be good. I imagine a replay of what made the first movie such a slog: a mess of hasty exposition and clipped, context-less scenes as they scrambled to fit in everything. Maybe I should give them the benefit of the doubt, or at least wait to see what the film adaptation of The Half-Blood Prince brings us this winter, with the final team of David Yates (director) and Steve Kloves (screenwriter) working together. (My wife has long insisted that the real problem with adaptation has been the screenwriter; I know Kloves has written and shot some good films, but so much of his work on the HP films has just come off as obvious and insistent, whereas a different screenwriter shaped, under Yates's direction, Order of the Phoenix--the longest and most cumbersome of the HP novels--into the leanest and most effective movie to date.) But I'm not confident. Going for two movies, striving to "fit it all in," is going to require some thinking outside the box, and we haven't seen much of that so far.

3. What sort of outside the box thinking am I talking about? Look at it this way: as many of us discovered somewhat surprisingly by the end of DH, Rowling really was writing a children's book
(or, as Alan Jacobs's put it in the single best review of DH I read, "boys' literature," a "penny dreadful"). The puts certain constraints upon adaptation--going for the "shoot everything" approach, however, puts different expectations in place. If the goal is really to catch each and every detail of DH on film (which, again, I doubt is what will happen or is even a good idea), then what you need to do is think expansively, think epic-style...and that means reshaping the books so that we have a multiplicity of viewpoints and concurrent events. The books do this, sometimes, but mostly Rowling managed to make everything significant--including exposition--happen in Harry's real-time (he reads something, he overhears something, etc.). The films have actually been pretty faithful to this, though often clumsily (it may be true to Hermione's know-it-all character, but giving Emma Watson constant exposition and explanation duties has mainly resulted in her having to perfect sighing and raising her eyebrows, rather than really delve into her character). If you want to break away from the one-film limit, then Yates, Kloves & Co. really should be looking at ways to break away from all that as well...and that means, fill in the gaps, give all the co-stars and secondary characters something to do! Write and film Ron's angry departure from Harry and Hermione, his escape from the Snatchers, and his return to his friends from his point of view. (C'mon, you just know Rupert Grint has the action-hero chops to handle it.) Moreover, definitely shoot Ron and Hermione's escapades in the Chamber of Secrets (what do you mean, Rowling didn't write exactly what happened? well then, make something up!). How about Neville, Luna and Ginny--and others?--trying to keep hope alive at Hogwarts, recruiting for Dumbledore's Army, trying to steal the Sword of Gryffindor? Or Dean on the run? Or Remus's return to and reunion with Tonks? I really think this kind of comprehensive attitude towards the story--rather than a niggling, "this time we won't have to leave anything on the cutting room floor!" approach--is the only approach that would make splitting the story in two worth it. Otherwise, we Potter geeks may just end up with the promise of something more than another fun, affecting film waved before our eyes, before it collapses in a mess.

I think I'll forward this post to Warner Brothers. No doubt, they'll be so bowled over by my reasoning that they'll take my every criticism and suggestion to heart.


Anonymous said...

Its a great idea! They should split the thing into two parts, and then discard the first one.

-Adam Greenwood

Russell Arben Fox said...

So, what Adam? Just start the movie somewhere around Ron's return and encounter with the Horcrux, and roll from there? But...but...but what about poor Scrimgeour?!

Actually, now that I think about, you have a point.

Pauli said...

I thought they should have split the 4th movie into 2 parts. They had to cut too much stuff out. Replacing Dobby with Neville was painful to me....

Russell Arben Fox said...

I think, Pauli, that in one of the interviews his given over the past week or so, Kloves says that he and some others were seriously thinking about dividing the fourth book into two movies...don't know why they decided against it in the end. I think the resulting movie was, all things considered, pretty decent, though it completely fell apart in the end; the power of the confrontation between Barty Crouch, Jr. and Dumbledore was completely lost.

Anonymous said...

I think you are on the right track with POV, but I also think you missed the obvious devices and back stories to introduce this. Snape's story is almost a movie in of itself, it could anchor the second movie nicely whereas the first movie would primarily be Dumbledore's story. I'm assuming they'll use the Pensieve for these but there could be equivalents. Some logical dividing points would either be the destruction of the locket or Harry choosing not to go for the wand.