Sunday, July 20, 2008

Harry Potter 5 - Why it doesn't work.

It is rare thing when most of the critics agree about a movie, especially about a summer movie, much less the fifth in a series. Godfather 3 was a disaster after two great previous installments. Episodes 1-3 may very well tarnish the reputation of George Lucas forever. And, after the last installment of the Harry Potter series, one might well enter the theater with great trepidation as the Order of the Phoenix is a tremendously large and complex volume, a darker tome than the previous, and one filled with psychological battles that are the equal of any of those easily depicted in the actual world. For example, it is much easier to depict the Triwizard tests of Goblet of Fire (although they managed to fumble those terrifically) than the feelings of abandonment, rage, and defensiveness that Harry is subjected to in Order. In addition, after the best of the Potter movies in Prisoner of Azkaban, the director of Order is faced with trying to put the series back on a strong footing after the disaster that was Goblet. (Okay, that's a little strong. I rewatched Goblet last night and it turns out that it wasn't the disaster that I thought it was on first viewing, but I still find it to be easily the lesser of the first four movies, and by a considerable amount.)

Back to those critics. Everybody seems to be falling over themselves to praise this movie. I must say, I better understand Plato's view of the "lovers of sights and sounds" as they pranced out of the theater, momentarily having taken leave of their senses by the entertainments of the time. I must say, I cannot agree with the critics from Ebert/Roeper to the New York Times to NPR who have hailed this as the greatest of the Potter movies and a veritable tour de force. Nay, I must relegate it to the dank tarn of Goblet and perhaps lower.
Let us begin with the soundtrack. In Goblet, the soundtrack runs very much amok. The opening track barely resembles the Williams's score of the first three. In Order, the soundtrack is still not up to Williams's bar, but it is not terrible. Colin is my soundtrack wizard, but I can tell that this one will not find itself in his rotation.

So, poison pen in hand (after all, since Rita Skeeter was a no-show in this one, somebody's got to wield it), I disagree with the critics. Here are the points at which this disagreement is held.

1. Beginning with the end. The scene with Dumbledore and Harry in which Dumbledore explains why it was that he has ignored Harry for so long and treated him so shabbily is short and inadequate. When Harry says of the prophecy, "It means that one of us must kill the other," Dumbledore simply says, "Yes." The whole scene takes less than a minute. In the book, Harry is beyond angry - he is devastated. Here, he is put out, but he is not the grief-stricken and enraged young man that he is in the book and has every right to be. Why not? Several reasons come to mind. More importantly, why would people not think this scene was horribly inadequate? Because the Sirius character is not fully developed. The relationship between Sirius and Harry is not fully developed. It is one dimensional. Which brings us to....

2. The fight scene. Excuse me!?! What was that? Because they made the decision to essentially make the scene one of heavy-handed good/evil symbolism with the Deatheaters and the Order swirling around as black and white smoke. It makes the battle difficult to follow. Perhaps this is because they wanted it that way. The battle is a profound one in the book. There is a possibility that Hermione might be dead. When the blast hits her and she gasps a bit and crumples, I can remember feeling an adrenaline shot in my heart. I had heard all the rumors that someone important to Harry would die in Order and for just a moment, it seemed it might be Hermione. That it wasn't was a relief. That the viewer of the movie never had a moment to have such a fear was a disappointment. The battle failed on pretty much every level. Dumbledore was not so much avenging angel, completely in charge of the battle at the end as much as he was an old man incapable of truly matching Voldemort. As I said after Goblet, this is the only wizard that Voldemort ever feared?!? Please. Without Harry, Voldemort couldn't have pulled it off. Which reminds me of a problem in Goblet that resurfaces in Order.

3. Love. In Goblet, Voldemort goes on and on about how it is love that has protected Harry. That's really a revelation that Dumbledore makes and points out that Voldemort can't possibly understand. Even in Order, it is the case that Voldemort can't understand why Harry was able to fight back. Which brings us to the very end of Order. Harry has come to resolution that the only way he can make it is with friends, that friends are what it's all about, and that he has them solidly behind him. This is a way too happy ending. They are about to fight a huge battle, Voldemort is not only back but now we know that death is looming like the sword of Damocles. This is not a happy ending sort of place - it is a foreshadowing place. Order just drops the ball horribly.

4. The story makes no sense. It is a disconnected set of scenes. I found myself, at several points, saying to myself, "Self, it's a good thing you read the book, because you couldn't possibly have followed that transition." With me at the movie were James and Mary. I was quite glad to have them there and to bounce thoughts on them after. As one who hadn't read the books, but one who has quite significant critical skills, it was illuminating to ask how much she caught. Fortunately, quite a lot, but there were questions. And, it was concluded that had one not read the book, it would be a daunting challenge to keep up with the subtleties. For some further thoughts on this, see a blog of a great friend and solid literary critic -

5. This has been hailed as a coming of age story for Harry. It is. Only, why is he so pissed off? Opening as the movie does, it is hard to understand exactly why he is so upset. Especially after Goblet ends with all of the protests of the ways in which Ron, Hermione, and Dumbledore will keep in contact with Harry. However, we do not know that those contacts have gone unfulfilled, that Harry has been all summer without news, without contact; that he's been completely cut off from the only place that gives him solace. Harry is abandoned. Even Dumbledore admits in the very moving scene at the end that he has made a terrific mistake (only, that part's not in the movie) and so, the viewer is left completely outside of the true Harry Potter-verse.

6.The taking of the O.W.L.s is poor. There is just the one, administered by Dolores Umbridge. Problem. In the book, the O.W.L.s are one of the ways in which Umbridge gets her comeuppance and further, they figure rather prominently in the next movie. However, they cannot without further disconnect for the viewer. In the O.W.L.s, another mistake occurs - the departure of the Weasley twins. The devastation that the Weasley's wreak upon Umbridge and her ilk is phenomenal. However, the resistance of the faculty is downplayed entirely. McGonagall is completely absent. However, her snide remarks are each little moments of glee heaped onto the head of Umbridge and Filch. In that same vein, the entire resistance of the faculty is absent. McGonagall backs down in her one encounter with Umbridge and Dumbledore just tells Dolores that Trelawney can continue to live on the quarters. His appointment of Firenze, a march stolen on Umbridge in the book, is absent. So, while Umbridge comes across as truly evil (and the evil of banality and blind loyalty), the faculty, including Dumbledore, are nearly collaborators. This is not the Hogwarts of the book. Indeed, it is not Hogwarts of which Voldemort should have fear.

All in all, the cuts from the book are poorly made and the result is a glorified slide show that can serve as a visual companion to the book, but truly nothing more. It is a magical visual moment (with a couple of notable exceptions) that is poorly conceived, poorly executed, and unfaithful in powerful and irrevocable ways to the book.