From “Mr. and Mrs. Dursley of number four Privet Drive,” to ten years and seven books later with “All was well,” the Harry Potter series has given children, adults and muggles all over the world the soaring journey of a lifetime. Then, years after the first book hit the world with the force of a literary meteorite, Harry Potter came to the world of film.
It’s another version of the beloved story, and it doesn’t even begin with the same sentence. “I should have known that you would be here, Professor Mcgonagall,” is how the series began for a whole legion of loyal Harry Potter fans. Eight movies later, it ended with “Ready?” and two different sets of Harry Potter lore were wholly available to the public.
Why is it then that fans of the books have such mixed feelings about the films? Some love them, some hate them, but at the end of the day they must be held apart to truly love either of them.
That’s the thing, they are two different stories at this point. When you change the medium that something is presented in, you are forced to change everything about it. Anything that doesn’t adhere to the rules of that medium is subject to harsh criticism.
Saying that Harry Potter film series is awful because it’s nothing like the book series is like saying that Stephen Spielberg’s upcoming Lincoln movie is going to suck because it’s going to be different from a famous painting of Abraham Lincoln. It’s a medium shift. If it doesn’t change, the adaptation will suffer.
This isn’t, by the way, something that a group of old elders got together and decided on a long time ago and chiseled onto some stone tablets. Movies, by their own nature, are forced to be a certain way because of what they are.
It isn’t as easy as “oh they didn’t want to have the curse rebound off of Harry and kill Voldemort because it isn’t Hollywood enough,” or “It would have been SO EASY to just throw in, like, ten more minutes of Snape into every movie.”
Trust me, more Snape is what everyone wants, but books (ranging anywhere from 320-870 pages) have that luxury. Films don’t.
It’s not a flaw in the film-making of the Harry Potter series (okay, in some cases it is), it’s a flaw of film-making in a general. From the standpoint of a screenwriter, including every single character and giving them enough screen-time to merit the full arcs they are given in the book would turn the thing into a full blown character study instead of a heroic journey.
This especially proves to be challenging when a group of producers decides to adapt a series of films before it’s even finished. How were they to know which characters would be integral? How did they know which moments to lovingly craft and which ones to ditch?
Yes, sometimes Rowling stepped in to lead them in the right direction (DON’T YOU DARE CUT KREACHER), but on more than one occasion we watched as once important characters slipped into the wallpaper once the film-makers realized that their characters weren’t absolutely necessary to the story.
Let’s play a game. It’s called “Who the hell is holding Harry in this clip from Order of the Phoenix.”
If you answered “Percy during his git phase,” then congratulations, you read the books.
All the character development that he receives in the Order of the Phoenix movie (Remember, in the books Percy straight up turns his back on his entire family in Order to further his career) is condensed to Harry’s extended gaze.
Nearly Headless Nick (played by the horrifically underused John Cleese) bailed after the first few installments, Dobby disappeared after Chamber of Secrets only to reappear in Deathly Hallows-Part 1 to work up sympathy from the audience and to remind us of who he was right before he died.
In the film series, you can almost guess who’s going to die by keeping track of who is suddenly getting all sorts of attention (See: Sirius Black). To be honest, given exactly how many characters exist in the Harry Potter series (772 names mentioned and 200 characters that can be deemed “important”), it’s a wonder that the film-makers were able to manage them this well.
Think about it, even in the last film (which only covers 259 pages, the least out of any in the entire series) we found ourselves wanting more of EVERY SINGLE CHARACTER.
Where was Tonks? Why didn’t we spend more time with Aberforth? Why didn’t the character who was holding Harry in the video above (a character who my cousin [who has only seen the movies] was unable to identify) come back for his spectacular return?
Frankly, it’s because it would have just been an Easter Egg scene for the fans of the book. While this isn’t a bad thing (I particularly loved Dumbledore’s “It’s a very long name” joke in Prisoner of Azkaban in light of the discovery of his full name in the similarly timed release of the Order of the Phoenix novel), it harms the logic of a film in general if you assume that your audience has read the books. It becomes an inside joke, and while inside jokes are funny their specialty is leaving people out. This is something that no good film wants to do.
When it comes down to it, if we spend the majority of the film worrying about who was kept in and who was left out, we’re not leaving room for the most important part: J.K. Rowling’s story.
I mean think about it, what environments set up the character development in the Harry Potter books?
It’s classes, detentions, random time spent in the common room, random time meandering around the Hogwarts grounds, Quidditch matches and sudden random acts of horrendous importance that keep the Harry Potter books churning.
From a film standpoint, keeping a steady roster of over 200 important characters over the span of eight films and having most of their exposure be contained in the same dozen or so locations is just not possible without turning it into…well…a television show.
ALTHOUGH THAT TOO WOULD BE AMAZING
What were the film-makers really supposed to do? We’ve seen classes in session done very well in some of the films, (Prisoner of Azkaban being an excellent example), but in order for things to not seem repetitive the films are limited to only a few classroom scenes per film. Otherwise it would feel less like a Harry Potter movie and more like a day at school.
As a matter of a fact, with the exception of the first film, it’s usually a Defense Against the Dark Arts class that we sit in on, isn’t it? It’s probably because a class that teaches defense against the dark arts has the most relevance in a movie where the main action is the protagonist defending himself from the dark arts.
Classes also prove to be useful when there are specific things that we need to know about in order for the plot to move forward (The Unforgiveable Curses in Goblet of Fire, or the Felix Filicis potion in Half Blood Prince), or if there’s a new teacher that we need an introduction too. It’s especially useful if you can do both of these things in the same scene.
The funny thing is, if anyone happened to miss Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire they missed the entire classroom scene above where the three most important curses in the mythos of Harry Potter are introduced. In the very next film, Sirius is killed by Avada Kadavra, and if you happened to miss Professor Moody’s lecture on the Unforgiveable curses, you might have not understood what had happened.
The scene however, brings up another point. Did it bother anyone else that the Imperius Curse, a spell that has the utmost importance in the septology, was basically turned into a simple forced movement spell in the scene above?
The redesign of the spell in Deathly Hallow-Part 2 turned it into a gassy catnip, which I suppose works better visually, but it still doesn’t pack the punch that the book was able to provide. The scariest aspect of the Imperius Curse was that it invaded your mind and made you WANT to do the things the caster was making you do.
In the book, the spider was bending to Professor Moody’s will, not struggling against it. How though, was something like that supposed to be put on film? I suppose if they had included a scene where Harry fights against Professor Moody’s will like he does in the book, it would have been made more clear.
However, this was Goblet of Fire. We didn’t have time because there were dragons to fight and kidnapping plots to not explain.
In this particular case, an explanation would have been nice, but in a book you can drop in a chapter that is JUST Barty Crouch Jr. revealing all. Because film is a different medium, it becomes difficult to explain something as twisted and complex as the life and times of Barty Crouch Jr. after the climax has already peaked.
In the case of Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince, the entire novel is a balancing act. In light of Voldemort’s return and the subsequent crapping out of Fudge’s political career, the school still soldiers on and we find balance in the fact that the school is operating as usual.
I mean hell, they are resilient enough to still host a Quidditch tournament while students were receiving owls from loved ones about the rise of the greatest evil their world has ever known. That’s strength. That’s also the power of what a book can do.
In a book, the power of the text lies in your ability to know what people are thinking. Actions aren’t just seen, they are exhumed. That’s the biggest difference between a film and a novel. In a novel, if someone is sitting in their house alone at night the novel will choose to focus on the inner monologue.
Julie sat in the middle of the room, the stuffed friends of her youth surrounding her as the storm raged outside.
There’s nothing there, she thought. That’s the wind howling it can’t be-
Then something unimaginable broke her train of thought. A knock pounded at the door. The rain pattered on the window panes around her as she stared at the handle.
I just imagined that knock, thought Julie, there’s no way that it could-
The doorknob began to turn. She tightened the stranglehold on Wilfred, her old stuffed rabbit.
Suddenly she was struck by a thought.
Maybe it’s mom. Mom has the key!
She looked up from her huddle of cuddly animals hopefully. The door burst open and a massive shadowy figure with a hook for a hand stepped into her home.
Forgive the hastily thrown together story. In a narrative like this though, it’s clear that we follow Julie’s train of thought through the events. First we have fear, then we have hope. In a screenplay, her emotions would be impossible to follow so we would instead focus on the images.
INT. JULIE’S HOME- NIGHT
JULIE SHIVERS as she sits clutching her STUFFED ANIMALS. The POUNDING RAIN PATTERS on the WINDOW. Julie has her EYES CLOSED as she ROCKS BACK AND FORTH.
Suddenly there is a BOOMING KNOCK at the door. Julie OPENS HER EYES suddenly and turns her head toward the door. Her voice BREAKS with fear.
CLOSE ON THE DOORKNOB as it begins to TURN. JULIE SCREAMS as the lightning CRACKS OUTSIDE. The door BURSTS open and A SHADOWY FIGURE with a HOOK for a hand steps into the house.
You see, because Julie’s inner monologue has been cut in favor of enhanced visuals it wouldn’t make sense to include that tiny fragment of hope. Some directors will choose to have some type of voice-over narration when adapting a book specifically so that they can do stuff like this.
In the case of Harry Potter, a voice-over narration would have seemed even more out of place (unless I’m completely wrong and it would have made the series legendary). Anyway, without a voiceover telling you what Julie is thinking, a look of hope would come across as out of place in the face of all of these scary elements.
Compare that to…say… Molly Weasley’s creepy smile after she kills Bellatrix Lestrange.
Yes, we know that Molly is happy that she finally killed the bitch (especially since in the movie universe, Bellatrix and Greyback destroyed The Burrow), but her son JUST DIED.
In a book, you might be able to say something like “and as Bellatrix burst into ashes, Molly smiled knowing that Fred would have gotten a real kick out of it,” but in the movie (unless Fred explicitly mentioned earlier in the film that he would find an exploding Bellatrix to be HYSTERICAL) it sticks a wrench into the entire emotional buildup.
You see where I’m going with this? In a film, if something doesn’t fit into the visual narrative it must be cut. If not, we end up having moments where viewers (especially those that have not read the books) are very confused about what’s going on.
Of course, problems, inaccuracies and massive gaps in logic still exist in the film series.
Where did Harry’s Looking Glass come from? Did anyone ever explain why we found Mr.Crouch dead in the woods? Who were the marauders? WHERE THE **** DID HARRY’S LOOKING GLASS COME FROM?
When you’re adapting a series of books that is keeping hundreds of balls in the air for the majority of the series, it might be easy to lose track of certain things. The screenwriters very well may have explained every loose end in their screenplays, but if the editor and director decide that such scenes effect the flow of the movie, these important pieces of information sometimes get left on the cutting room floor.
Then, even if an essential piece of information is kept in the film, it ends up sounding like a trip to the screenwriting convenience store. In the books, J.K. Rowling could just copy and paste a Daily Prophet article or a page out of Magick Moste Evile to explain to the audience what’s going on. When you try to do it in a film, it becomes nearly impossible (unless they hire Aaron Sorkin to write the screenplay) for something like that to not sound like exposition.
I mean, think of all of the phrases that you’ve heard in the Harry Potter films that JUST function as exposition. Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone is one of the only possible exceptions to this rule since Harry is obviously new to the wizarding world, but even still, there are better ways to introduce an idea than by awkwardly working it into a sentence.
From Sorceror’s Stone:
Hagrid: And I suppose a great big muggle like yourself is goin’ to stop him, are yeh?
Hagrid: Nonmagic folk. This boy’s had his name down ever since he were born!
You see, something like this can work in a book where you are looking at the words side by side. Muggle. Non-magic folk. Gotcha.
The book even afforded a few more words to get the full message across. Whereas the film devoted LITERALLY one second and two words to the introduction of an integral plotpoint, the book says this: “It’s what we call non-magic folk like them. An’ it’s your bad luck you grew up in a family o’ the biggest Muggles I ever laid eyes on.”
Aside from adding this to my collection of evidence that Hagrid was straight up HAMMERED when he went to get Harry from the hut on the rock, it also:
A) Explains what Muggles are.
B) Explains what Muggles are in relation to Wizards.
C) Gives an example of what muggles are.
In a movie, something a little more pronounced than an awkward shoe-in is needed, especially when muggles are something you plan on talking about for the next seven movies.
Hagrid does this again in Chamber of Secrets:
Hagrid: Take me to where? Not Azkaban prison!
You see, adding the word “prison” at the end makes the whole thing seem fake. It makes it seem like it was worded that way so that the audience could understand what Azkaban was. In a room with Lucius Malfoy and Albus Dumbledore, Hagrid said what was basically the equivalent of “Take me to where? Not Disneyland Amusement Park!”
Want an example of how to successfully impart the fear that Azkaban has to offer? Skip to 2:10.
Right? He didn’t even use the word “prison” and we still got the idea. Sure, the movie is called The Prisoner of Azkaban, but that’s besides the point.
Now there is just one more thing to discuss.
Not only does the medium that a work of art is presented in effect the work of art itself, but the medium that a work of art chooses explicitly designs how you experience the material.
Like we mentioned above, when you’re reading a book, the book is giving you a VIP pass into the protagonists mind. You have a direct connection with them, similar to the one that Harry shares with Voldemort. That’s right, now when you read the Harry Potter books, you’re gonna freak yourself out by thinking that you’re Voldemort because you can read Harry’s thoughts.
Not only that, but you are forced to interpret the characters yourself. Aside from the charming illustrations by Mary GrandPré, the descriptions provided by J.K. Rowling were all you had. YOU make the choices about the details that are never mentioned, or maybe you change the ones that have been mentioned anyway. It doesn’t matter. The book is a script and your imagination is the stage.
In a film, all of these choices are made for you. It’s a big “User Terms Agreement” put forward by Warner Brothers, and by giving them money and watching the movie you’re hitting “agree” (or at least “proceed with cautious trepidation”).
Whatever Dumbledore you had imagined (for whatever reason, mine was a balding Asian monk regardless of what the book told me) was replaced by Richard Harris. Then he was replaced by Michael Gambon. Anyone who’s anyone in British cinema (with a few notable exceptions) seems to have made an appearance in Harry Potter, and so the characters that we’ve pictured in our minds for over a decade have become a reality.
This is a vast departure from the realm of books, so to expect a film to be able to capture all of that magic (for lack of a better word) that you’ve created in your head is to expect a production crew to not only read your mind, but the collective minds of every Harry Potter fan in the world. They’re going off the same source material that we are, and they had the task of living up to the imaginations of over a billion people worldwide.
Some forget that it’s not like they had the luxury of time to produce these things. They were on a tight schedule, producing eight films in just under ten years (completing five of them before the series was even completed) and somehow getting them out before Daniel Radcliffe was old enough to play Dumbledore. They had child protection laws to work around, actors to keep interested and, most important of all, fans that were as rabid as Remus Lupin during a full moon.
To attempt to adapt the relatively quiet and introspective Harry Potter series to film (as opposed to a much more visual property like Lord of the Rings) was a gargantuan feat, and somehow they managed to keep it (mostly) together.
They became popcorn films, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The books were able to delve to levels that only books are truly able to do, and the movies, while being very well done in their own right, explored the feasibility of transferring Harry’s journey to the silver screen.
It all comes down to the idea that certain stories simply work best in certain mediums, and a transfer to a different medium will require certain changes that might anger fans. The tricky part is that every story is different. There’s no way of knowing how suitable something would be for film until you at least give it a try.
I mean, imagine if someone tried to adapt The Giver to the screen. it wouldn’t work because of the limitations of the medium. Peter Jackson was able to adapt The Lord of the Rings series of books into the Lord of the Rings film series that millions of fans worldwide fell in love with, but I would argue that Lord of the Rings works better as a film series just because of the story that’s being told.
There have been flaws in the film-making and flaws in the entire notion of adapting it, but Harry Potter still proves to be an example of how powerful literature can be and how loyal a readership can be to the books that they love. All things considered, the conversion of Harry Potter into a workable film series seems to have been a complete success.
I can’t wait to compare it to the remake.