Great Expectations

I have come to this conclusion: there are two different yardsticks by which people measure the Harry Potter movies, and both are wrong.

 You’ve heard the complaints from both sides before. People either rate the movies:

  1. By comparing them to the books they based on, or,
  2. Seeing how they stand up on their own when watched by casual fans.

Now, I understand it understandably seems like either one or the other of these should be the standard by which these films should be judged. Certainly those are the standards by which fans and movie reviewers have been judging them so far. But I disagree. These movies should only be judged on their quality as perceived by their existing fans.

Harry Potter, in case you hadn’t noticed, is a phenomenon. The novels are the best-selling book series of all time, while the movies have grossed over $6 billion worldwide so far. While other fantasy books have been made into movies with, at best, mixed success (Percy Jackson, The Golden Compass, The Spiderwick Chronicles, Lemony Snicket, City of Ember, Inkheart, Bridge to Terabitha, etc.), Warner Brothers was assured of their financial remuneration for this movie long before the script was written. The six movies preceding this one were of varying quality, but all grossed nearly identical numbers. 

Hypothetically, if the filmmakers made a movie that went to either extreme – appealed only to its hardcore fans, or sought only to court those unversed – it’s safe to assume that doing so would dent their box office take only a little. It’s moved into the same rarified air that only The Lord Of The Rings movies did – movies with such a strong fanbase that by the end the filmmakers were only beholden to themselves to decide how faithful/accessible an adaptation they wanted to make.

Reviewers keep talking about how the casual viewer won’t grasp the nuances, or that someone who’d never seen a Harry Potter film before couldn’t jump in and understand all the details. But so what? Why would a viewer who hadn’t read the books or seen any previous films matter to the producers? They don’t need them to come and see the newest movie for the movie to be a success. They’re much more concerned about keeping the fans they have.

Why harangue the filmmakers for failing to court the casual viewer? If someone comes into the theater with no prior knowledge of Hogwarts canon and then doesn’t appreciate the film, how is that anyone's fault but the viewer's? But critics only blame the viewer for failing to appreciate something if it's considered high art. It’s hard for the casual viewer to understand the appeal of the films of Alejandro Iñárritu, or Darren Aronofsky, or Pedro Almodóvar, but I don’t see critics faulting those filmmakers for failing to appeal to casual fans unacquainted with jump cuts and nonlinear storytelling. There's a limited market for that sort of film, but I've never seen a critic fault those movies for seeking to appeal to more than the lowest common denominator.

In 2003, 30 years after the original, Ingmar Bergman made Saraband, a sequel to Scenes From A Marriage starring the same actors. It's a movie impossible to appreciate without having seen the first one, but it was universally praised. No one complained that it was hard for a casual viewer to come in, because they innately understood that appreciation of the film was based on your viewing of the previous one. But that's not a liberty they'll extend to Harry Potter, and I don't see why that's so. Really, why fault the filmmakers for making a movie that doesn't grovel for the uninitiated, but instead seeks to seem richer and deeper to people who have put the time into the series thus far? Wasn't "Lost" a better series because at some point it said "we are what we are, we need to make a TV show that keeps the people watching us happy rather than appeal to those who have rejected us thus far?" (I'm reluctant to bring "Lost" up, as opinions of it are now so varied it naturally muddles up any discussion)

This can't be a new discussion, really. Charles Dickens wrote most of his books as continuous serialized stories in magazines. Do you think his publishers complained that he wasn't writing a "previously, on Great Expectations..." before each section?

The producers have made what I think is the strongest choice they could have made – screenwriter Steve Kloves packed the script from beginning to end with every detail that could be jammed in, then Yates directed the movie with regard to emotion and storytelling rather than plot.

Which is sometimes where diehard Potterphiles lose their way. They become so tied to the books that they can’t handle necessary changes made to improve the film as its own individual creation. They become too tied to the idea that the movies are visual representation of the books. But as Charlie Kaufman can tell you, every movie is an adaptation, and things have to be changed.

I was more skeptical than anyone of the idea of making this last book into two separate movies. It seemed like a cash grab (of course, this is a Hollywood blockbuster, so on some level a cash grab is what they’re paid to try to do). I made the argument time and time again – as long as Book Seven is, not a lot actually happens in it. Harry seems to spend most of his time in the woods, moping. 

But I discovered I enjoyed the unhurried pace of this most recent film. Older films expunged nonstory details in the interest of keeping the plot moving, but a major part of what’s endearing about J.K. Rowling’s books are the way you can run around through all in the nooks and crannies of the book and discover the world on your own. In splitting up the book, it enabled Yates to tap into the emotional depth that comes with spending this much time with the characters. It made me wish all of the movies had taken the same strategy.

More than that, I respected how strong the film was, from beginning to end. Certainly, there were a few storytelling gaffes - Ron’s reappearance is an even more egregious plot hole (and speed bump) in the movie than it is in the book - but I found myself drawn into the mesmerizing web of doubt and intrigue that the movie is. I would make the argument that it’s the most resonant of all the Potter films by far.

Eight months from now, I’ll be first in line for the newest Harry Potter movie. And I won’t be hoping that it keeps all my favorite bits from the book, nor will I fret that I need to reread the books to refresh my memory on the details. I’ll be there hoping for what every Potter fan should be hoping for: a good movie.