Featured Post


If you're a student looking for syllabi, click the "Academic Home Page" link on your right, and start there.

Friday, November 19, 2010

What I Saw in Deathly Hallows, Part 1

In one sentence: this movie gives us, quite successfully, the first half of an adaptation of the story which Deathly Hallows, the novel, wasn't quite willing to be.

(From here on out, Harry Potter-obsessive geekery rules. You've been warned.)

I had my Gryffindor scarf, I had my popcorn and soda, and I was settled into my chair all of four rows back from the screen. I was reading to enjoy myself--and I did, far more than I expected to way back when I first heard that they were going to be splitting the adaptation into two movies. My fear back then was that the push to expand the final book's film treatment into something like five hours, spread out over two movies, was driven by a desire to film every bit of the book, to not leave anything out...and of all the books, DH is one of the last you would want to take such an approach to. There was a similar dynamic at work with the adaption of the most cumbersome and unfocused of the Harry Potter books: Order of the Phoenix. With a good screenwriter in place, that book was honed down into a smart, solid, entirely self-contained and self-sustaining bit of genre filmmaking; it's really the best film of the lot, so far (this one included). But with this final set of adaptations, Steve Kloves, the screenwriter for every other one of the films, would be back on board, and on the basis of his track record, I just couldn't see how going big with the final novel would really add anything, at least not cinematically speaking. I just anticipated a fun time, but a fun time watching a whole bunch of pedestrian filming of handsome scenes, one after another. Two films would just be twice as much of the same.

I wasn't entirely wrong: truth is, there is a lot of by the numbers filmmaking in this adaptation. But there was something more to. You see, to my mind, thinking big when you're adapting a story to the screen requires approaching the story in a "big" way too--it means going comprehensive, going epic. And that means developing a cinematic language, a way of moving the characters around and putting words into their mouths, that will pull things together in a big way. And Deathly Hallows, the novel, ultimately doesn't provide that language; it is, as I said in my review of the book, "a children's story after all." That's not a criticism; that's just what Rowling chose to write. And yet...there are so many hints in that novel, hints of things grand and deep and mature and complicated, conveyed through violence, sexual tension, moral confusion, that point in the direction of telling a "big" story, not just the story of The Boy Who Lived. And, to my amazement, Kloves and director David Yates, and all the other people who worked on this adaptation, not the least the trio of actors at the center of it, actually grabbed a hold of some of it. This movie works far better than I expected, on the basis of the previous six adaptations, any possible "Deathly Hallows, Part 1" to possibly work. The reason for that is, to put it plainly, for better or worse, the movie isn't really telling the story in that novel. It's gone bigger. It's telling the story which that novel didn't turn out to be.

In my review of the book, I was pretty clear on how surprised I was at the story which DH told. As I reflected upon it, I realized that I'd talked myself into believing, over the years, that the tale Rowling was telling was far more epic, more psychological, more mythological than it actually turned out to be: namely, a giant, 5000+ page "penny dreadful," a work of "boys' literature," as Alan Jacobs put it in the single best review of DH and the whole HP phenomenon. (Now included in Alan's newest book; buy it!) But in conversations with him (see the comments following my review), even Alan admits that the books "do all sorts of things that children's books just don't do," and that as a result, perhaps Rowling's work is "sui generis." I'm strongly persuaded by Alan's thoughts...about the books, particularly DH, as we finally received them. But over the past few years, in re-reading and thinking about the books more and more, I've come up with an additional explanation: that the books, and DH in particular, really were sending us in that "epic," "psychological," "mythological" direction, a direction in which really would end with our young heroes entirely on their own, confronting violence and sex and betrayal and longing and self-discovery and heroism as adults. But Rowling, when it came to it, just didn't want to write that book, and so pulled back.

I think the "Deathly Hallows" themselves are the tip-off here. By the end of Half-Blood Prince (with Dumbledore, Harry's last remaining father figure, dead and gone), Rowling had truly written her characters and her plot to a point which simply demanded that Harry, Ron, and Hermione progress fully into adulthood; that they confront each other, their enemies, their allies, their feelings, and the search for the Horcruxes as ultimately independent actors, and fail or succeed as such. Just about everyone agreed with that feeling as we digested HBP. Who knows how or when Rowling herself reneged on (or, to be more charitable, revised) that point? I doubt we'll ever know; maybe she herself isn't conscious of it. But I think Rowling, looking at what she wanted to accomplish by the end of DH, simply didn't want to get to that predetermined end-point through the sort of drama, passion, horror, and sacrifice that her characters seemed ready for. So she had to come up with some new twist, something to slow things down, something that would bring out on the pages the sort of growing up and puzzling and dealing with temptation and doubts that she still really wanted. Enter stage left: the Deathly Hallows. Legendary magic which we'd never heard of before, whose mechanics were never really clear, whose operating principles made a hash of most of what we'd learned about wand lore thus far in the series. It's all a rather convoluted way for Rowling to continue along with Harry's bildungsroman--even though it, in many ways, had actually, whether Rowling meant for it to be so or not, come to an end with HBP. But it worked; it enabled her to write the story she was comfortable writing.

And now we have "Deathly Hallows, Part 1," the movie...and it isn't telling this sort of story. Perhaps that will change; perhaps in Part 2 Kloves and Yates will take us straight back to Rowling's text. I wouldn't mind that; I'd be happy with it. But this film, as inconsistent and plodding as it sometimes is, is actually occasionally telling the story under, or behind, the story which DH ended up giving us. In the corners of DH's text you can see the rudiments of that adult adventure story: hysterical witches and wizards, raging about their missing children; members of the Order of the Phoenix, falling apart through distrust and terror; Harry and Hermione alone in a tent for weeks, for heaven's sake. Surely this is a dark, creepy, disturbing story, a story of desperation, temptation, and doubt. Well, the movie tells that story. Not entirely, and not entirely well. But some of the invented scenes really drive it home. Harry, threatening to run off on his own, filled with fear and guilt over the damage and death he is bringing upon his friends? Doesn't happen in the novel--but it's far truer to the story on DH's pages than what Rowling actually has Harry say and do while he stays at the Burrow, waiting for Bill and Fleur's wedding. The same thing can be said for Ron wanting to kill the Dolohov in the cafe after Hermione stupefies him (which is a tremendous scene, by the way; Rupert Grint absolutely steps up)--not in the book, but very true to what is going on all around them in that same book. And the same thing can definitely be said for Harry and Hermione dancing in the tent one lonely night after Ron has abandoned them. They are desperate teen-agers, confused and scared; how could they not be vaguely tempted to fall into some kind of intimacy with each other, if only to ease their pain? Not in the book, but if Rowling hadn't decided to tell a story where Harry's pondering over the Hallows preternaturally takes up pretty much their entire waking hours, maybe it would have been.

Sure, maybe I think this way because I've filled my mind over the years with all sorts of ways in which to expand, elaborate upon, and explore Rowling's world; maybe I've just continued to distract myself from the core simplicity and morality of Rowling's tale as Alan, among others, has identified it. Maybe as I result I'm looking at an adventurous film adaptation, and doing something similar to what Alexandra DuPont, probably the best writer of all the reviewers on Ain't It Cool News, once admitted to be her feelings about the cult film "Buckaroo Banzai": for her, delighting so much in the ideas and possibilities of the story which the film told, in the end the movie itself became "a partially successful adaptation of its own novelization." I don't want it to be the case that my appreciation of what Rowling could have written, and what other fan authors have written in response to what she left unsaid, actually overshadows what she put on the page. But then, it's not as though these ideas came out of nowhere: blame Yates and Kloves. If DH is, at its core, a fantastic but straightforward morality tale--and it is certainly that--then there's very little chance such a tale would be well served by turning it into two movies. Better to stick with one (and hope that Kloves improves as an adapter!). But they, I think, saw the epic possibilities in DH as well, and they put together a movie which occasionally really delivers on that, with marvelous and haunting landscapes which our heroes trudge through, followed by the frightening monotone of a radio broadcast, listing the names of the dead in the struggle against Voldemort. They put romance, sexual tension, bitterness, and a couple of moments of horrific violence on the screen. They've put a lot of stuff which doesn't work on the screen as well (is there any reason why Wormtail is in the film at all? I mean, seriously, why?), but they definitely did more than just say "were going to film it all!" No, they obviously decided to film it "big": big emotions, big terrors, big temptations, big tragedies. Rowling herself is telling people that she loves the movie. Maybe she has to say that. Or then again, maybe she, while watching these actors play loving, failing, and striving young adults on the screen, is seeing in "Deathly Hallows, Part 1" the story which she didn't write, but could have, as well.


Wm Morris said...

This is an excellent piece of criticism, Russell.

Cynthia L. said...

Another scene that was added (sort of) in the movie is when Hermione erases her parents' memories of her. In the book we don't see it, she only tells that she had done it. Watson delivers in that scene.

I love what you've said here about the mind naturally wanting to fill in the possibilities of what could have been for the series. I think that really crystallizes for me why I enjoy it so much--and why my husband doesn't. He thinks it is flat, without the epic qualities he loves in, e.g., Lord of the Rings. I point to this and that, and he says, "but it's not there!" We keep having this conversation, not really understanding each other's point of view, and think your analysis here accounts for it.

I've recently become fascinated with the idea of fan fiction, about Harry Potter and Buffy in particular. Those are both things I really enjoy but am left longing for more--watching scenes and thinking, I would have loved to see it go here or there. But I've been shy to get out into the fanfic scene, and when I try to poke in my toe I am overwhelmed with gazillions of choices and give up. Do you have any recommendations??

Russell Arben Fox said...

William, my thanks; your opinion is one I really respect.

Cynthia, I'm glad the review was helpful to you! I'm curious about what you say, though; does your husband find the books "flat," or the films, or both? For me, as a fan, I wasn't drawn into the HP stories because they were epic; I was drawn in because of the characters, because of the whimsy, the fantasy, the humor and mystery and thrills. They weren't--and aren't epic; not at all. Except that with Half-Blood Prince, the second-to-last book, I became convinced that Harry, Ron, and Hermione had been vaulted into something epic. As I mentioned in the post, the argument over what I expected from, or what I should have expected from, Deathly Hallows really has affected how I view the whole series. Which I suppose makes it unsurprising that I only got into fan fiction post-DH; it was only after it was all done, and I was processing what wasn't there (and whether it should have been or not), that I started searching for others doing the same sort of processing.

You're right that there are gazillions of choices; supposedly (though I have no idea how one would measure this), the HP fan-fic world is the largest fandom there is. (I'm sure Buffy is up there, though.) I can only recommend the stuff that started me out: The Sugar Quill is an excellent archive of quality of HP stories; really one of the best around, and fairly easy to search through. Checkmated is also good, though that one is more specifically Ron and Hermione focused. And then there are lots of even larger sites: Fan Fiction (which has literally everything, but is just about impossible to search through), Fiction Alley, The Quidditch Pitch, The Astronomy Tower, etc. I could recommend authors I particularly like, if you're interested.

Cynthia L. said...

"because of the whimsy, the fantasy, the humor and mystery and thrills."

Yes, yes exactly. For me, starting with the first book, there was the extra bonus of nostalgia of my time at Cambridge (the big dining hall, riding the train, etc, etc)

Yes, my first, and last, attempt and locating fan fiction was at the Fan Fiction site and it was crazy. Please, send me a handful of recommendations to get my feet wet!

Russell Arben Fox said...

Okay, Cynthia (and anyone else), here are two very different sorts of HP fan-fic stories, both of which are, I think, tremendous examples of what can be done with these characters and this world:

Roger and Lisa: A Romance, by St. Margarets. The best single long-form (almost novella-length) HP story I've ever read. It's slightly AU--that means "alternative universe," in that it doesn't follow the canon of books perfectly--but only because it was written before DH was published; if you think about it, it can be very easily made to fit with what we know about how the story "really" ends. Anyway, it's the story of two very minor HP characters--Roger Davies and Lisa Turpin--and how they meet and fall in love as adults. It's character-driven, but the author really brings all sorts of hints about the larger HP world fully to life.

Sepia, by RedSioda. A tremendous short story, nominally telling the story of Hermione, years and years later, carefully constructing a history of her life with Harry Potter during the years 1991-1998, but actually telling a story about how memory and time affect what we get out of that same history. Beautifully written, with delightful characterizations throughout. Catch all the hidden jokes throughout (the family names, etc.).

Okay, one more: Vault 419, by SnorkackCatcher. A totally bonkers fic that is absolutely canon-compliant, involving vampires, unicorn-Viagra, and more. It's hilarious, and nuts, and it includes just about all of the main characters, involved in a bizarre escapade, a year after the end of the war.

All three of these authors--St. Margarets, RedSioda, and SnorkackCatcher--are great authors; Google their stuff, and you won't be disappointed.

Cynthia L. said...

Just reporting back that I'm really enjoying Lisa and Roger! My only complaint is that with the cool weather we've been having, I've wanted to curl up by the fire with a print copy, and I've been forced to curl up by the fire with my Blackberry, which just isn't the same. Great recommendation though!

Russell Arben Fox said...

Glad you're liking it, Cynthia. I sent you a link to some more, if you don't have anything else to do this holiday weekend! I've heard that some people prefer to print them out and bind them, especially for some of the longer fics (which sometimes have fan art attached to them), but I've never done that.

Hector said...


Try this one here.