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And So It Ends: a look back at why Potter matters
on July 16, 2011
When all is said and done - when the eye candy special effects of Quidditch matches and fantastical creatures has been superseded by advances in technology in Hollywood blockbusters yet to come - it is the little moments that this viewer and his wife will return to.
When a friend one time bemoaned the fact that `Half-Blood Prince' gets bogged down in pointless hormonal teen-angst instead of getting on with the story, I smiled... and shook my head.
No, I said, that IS the story and it's what I love about the Harry Potter series: it never loses track of the characters. It never forgets that, when viewed as a whole, these eight movies are a story of growing up, of the transition from childhood to adulthood. Of love and friendship and death. Because without those little funny and touching moments between the characters - if all you want is for the movies to rush from one plot element to another - then all you're left with is plot... and no story. Remember: plot is what happens TO the characters; story is what happens AS A RESULT of the characters.
That's the real gorgeous beauty of these movies, and it's what will bring viewers back repeatedly to their DVD shelves. As Frodo said to Sam in `The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers': "What are we fighting for Sam?" "That's there's still some good in this world," Sam replies, "and that it's worth fighting for."
That's why you need those little indulgent moments, because without them it's just razzle-dazzle special effects and set-pieces. Harry and Ginny's first kiss: they're in the Room of Requirement and Ginny tells Harry to close his eyes while she hides Professor Snape's copy of Advanced Potion Making. And before Harry opens his eyes Ginny leans forward, kisses him and whispers, "That can stay hidden up here too, if you like." That, my fellow Muggles, is pure movie gold. That's what the characters are fighting for. Love. Yes, the PLOT concerns itself with good triumphing over evil, but that only comes to pass as a result of the STORY which is about friendship. Because that is something worth fighting for.
It's why the film adaptation of Philip Pullman's astonishing trilogy, `His Dark Materials', is an utter failure: `The Golden Compass' movie rushes from one plot element to another: and THEN we go here, and THEN we go there. Never slowing down to allow the characters TO BE characters. What are they fighting for? Well, nothing the viewer could care less about...
Ultimately, all of this success comes about because of the brilliant way in which the author J.K. Rowling has constructed her seven-volume storyline. See, `The Chronicles of Narnia' are good - very good - but in the end don't quite fully succeed, and this is because the author, C.S. Lewis, had never envisioned them as a series: `The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe' was originally intended by the writer to be a one off. As thoroughly enjoyable as the three Narnia movies are, there is no through-story like Rowling's Harry-Voldermort. Indeed, over the course of the three Narnia movies even some of the Pevensie children themselves become side characters. And although that was entirely the point - part of the plot - in the end it harms the story. It dilutes what the characters are fighting for. It weakens its forcus.
Look at the Harry Potter series: viewed in hindsight it's not just the story of teenage friendships, for it also presents an astounding portrayal of one man coming to be viewed in the end entirely differently by the viewer. Professor Snape. What an astonishing character arc - and yet Rowling had it all there, right from the beginning: Snape using a counter-curse against Professor Quirrell to save Harry during the first movie's Quidditch match. Wait, isn't Snape the bad guy?! We're made to wonder, right from that first movie all the way through to the revelations of the eighth. `Narnia' has nothing on that. It's clear that Rowling has thought her seven-volume story through like a military operation: the first four books may have come out only a year apart, but the author had begun planning them seven years before the first one was ever published.
And the friendships, that's all there too. Look at the Ron-Hermione moments seeded throughout the entire movie series. Harry and Hermione are just good friends, thus all the unself-conscious hugs she gives him. Yet there is a physical tension - a conscious awareness of each other - between her and Ron. At the end of `Chamber of Secrets' Hermione flings her arms around Harry... but, both of them equally awkward and embarrassed, Ron and Hermione only shake hands. In `Prisoner of Askaban' during Hagrid's first lesson with Harry cautiously approaching Buckbeak, Herminone grabs Ron's hand, before quickly letting go, both of them looking around uncomfortably. All, finally, converging in Hermione's emotional outburst at the end of the Yule Ball in `Goblet of Fire' where (like a soul crying out `Look at me!') she says, "Next time there's a Ball, pluck up the courage to ask me before somebody else does - and not as a last resort!" And in another moment of movie gold, Harry and Hermione comforting each other on the steps in Hogwarts, unable to be with the one they want. "How does it feel, Harry, when you see Dean with Ginny?" After Hermione sends her bird charms crashing into the wall beside Ron and Ron flees, Harry replies, "It feels like this."
It's why `Half-Blood Prince' is one of my favourite instalments: not only is it the calm before the storm of the seventh and eighth movies but it allows the characters' friendships to come to fruition. `Half-Blood Prince' does not become sidetracked, far from it. You need that, because that is the story. It's what I love about it: yes, they're wizards and witches but the film makers never lose sight of the fact that they're also young adults going through the most important transitional period of their lives. These movies aren't about fantastical magical events inconveniently interrupted by mushy teenage moments. Instead they're precisely all about those ordinary, everyday teenage moments, played against the backdrop of incredible events. Those amazing events only occur at all because of who the characters are; it's only natural that the plot should play second to the story of their lives. Because they are what truly matters. Because they, as Sam would put it, "Are worth fighting for."
As if that wasn't enough, as if the story of Harry-Ron-Hermione (and, indeed, Snape) isn't in itself reason enough to revisit this whole series, Rowling has also given us an amazing supporting cast of characters. All too often in a series, all the characters outwith the main group rarely hold a reader's/viewer's attention for long. And yet Rowling has created not one single boring character, and what an amazing supporting cast they are: the Dursley, the Weasleys, the Malfoys, Hagrid, Dobby, Sirius, Bellatrix, Luna Lovegood, Neville Longbottom, and on and on. In fact, one of Rowling's most inspired moves, and certainly a wonderful way of keeping things fresh, was to continuously have a new colourful character each year as the Professor of the Dark Arts. Glideroy Lockhart, Remus Lupin, Mad-Eye Moody, Dolores Umbridge. Not to forget the delightful potions master from `Half-Blood Prince', Horace Slughorn, or the Professor of Divination, Trelawney. Then, too, you have the caretaker Argus Filch, the ghost Nearly Headless Nick. Well, you get the idea. Quidditch, the Ministry of Magic, the Dementors. The richness of the world Rowling has created is so rewarding that I can't ever imagine tiring of it.
Watching these characters - and, indeed, the actors - grow up before us is fascinating. I love the fact the first two movies are kids movies; there's no hint, really, of what lies ahead. Until, of course, you get to `Prisoner of Askaban'. Even the naysayer film critics sat up at that one and said, "Hey, hold on a minute..." From the fifth film onwards these were no longer merely kids' movies. It's what accounts for their immensely broad appeal: children will watch them for the action and special effects, teenagers and adults for the humour and the series' growing depth. Even the opening titles change as the story darkens: from bright gold in the first few movies to chipped and crumbling grey stone.
Viewed as one 1100+ minute über-movie the achievement is nothing short of remarkable.
Thank you, Rowling.
And thank you Warner Bros and the cast and crew for the ten-year visual journey of these marvellous books that you have taken my wife and I on.