I’m dispensing of the introductory paragraph for this one (hopefully Aryamaan won’t notice), because I really couldn’t bear to have to dumb the plot down to two or three lines, and I’m sort of assuming everyone knows exactly what I’m talking about anyways.
It is entirely reasonable to suggest that I have never loved any narrative medium, nor as has any narrative medium had an influence over my life, as much as the Harry Potter books. I know that some iteration of those feelings will be echoed by many of the people reading this; mine was one of many, many minds that was raised and moulded by this story. If I trace back my life, and look for the key moments that have defined my relatively short 18-odd years, I can say, with little hesitation, that the moment I first picked up the first book, just 6 years in, was the most influential decision I ever made. That, in its briefest form, is what those books are to me.
Considering that weight that the story carries for me, the film adaptations were naturally a very important part of my childhood as well. That said, upon re-watching the films alongside the books for the God-knows-how-many times now, I’ve reached the same conclusion that I came to many years ago: the movies exist for the purpose of providing some amount of schema and visual/sonic context for the books.
Plot-wise, it’s difficult for the films to do much more than detract from the foundations of the books. With the exception of the last film, where the reinterpretation of the Battle of Hogwarts pretty damn cool in its own right, the divergences from the books and their plots are almost blanket-ly detrimental. There are countless examples of those divergences and exclusions that make the plot problematic in the films, to the extent that I’m actually not a hundred percent sure how someone who’s only seen the film would follow along properly. There was never, for example, a Grindylow in Lupin’s office in the 3rd film, so it’s gotta be a little strange for that to be Lupin’s test for Harry in Hallows Pt. 1. But those are the nitty gritty, the kind of blanks that are easy enough to fill in subliminally. The real problems crop up when, in the third film ( actually arguably one of the best films of the series, we’ll get to that later), they never actually reveal the connection between Remus, Pettigrew, Sirius and James and the Marauders, which is, like, kinda frickin essential to the plot. I had to reveal that to my brother, who, after having seen the films like a million times with me but never having read the books, was completely oblivious to why Harry’s Patronus was a stag. I’m also not a thousand percent certain why someone who never read the books would’ve been that torn up about Dobby; he’s in almost all the book after the second (except for the third), but is never seen after the second film until Hallows Pt. 2. The worst one is the way they treat the exploration of Voldemort’s character in the sixth film, which is traded up the river so easily and quickly for the sake of pubescent hormone-raging in that film.
There are countless further examples, but, on a more universally pervasive level, the real problem with the films is exposition. Full concepts and rules in Harry Potter lore are given one line of explanation, and then never referred to again. It works for someone whose read the books, because he/she already knows the rules. Someone like my mom, on the other hand, still doesn’t really understand what the hell that whole prophecy was about. On the subject of the prophecy, it’s a goddamned shame that the chapter of the Order of the Phoenix after Sirius dies, in Dumbledore’s office, when Dumbledore talks about the humanity of feeling pain and the value that pain has, was basically left out of the film entirely. One of the most important extracts of writing in my entire life. But I digress (as I knew I would, and am frankly impressed with myself that I haven’t done more of). The largest issue with the films ends up being a completely insufficient time for exposition. In fairness to them, it’s a film medium, and so time is absolutely of the essence. It’s unrealistic to expect them to encapsulate everything, but that argument gets a little weaker when they add a whole thing to the first task of the Triwizard, and cut Ludo Bagman entirely from the movie (not to mention the exclusion of Bill Weasley till the seventh film, and Charlie Weasley never seemed to exist). I get that they need to sell tickets, but they accentuate the visually exciting more than is strictly necessary in my opinion, and a lot of that comes at the expense of plot and development that is definitely present in the source material, but they choose not to explore in the films.
And so, it would have to be said that, as standalone narrative pieces, I don’t see how the films could hold water. But, for me at least, the films don’t serve that purpose. What the films do well, extraordinarily well, I should say, is manage to be so visually strong and convincing that they provide me with an anchor for when I read the books.
Firstly, the Harry Potter films stand as the single greatest casting achievement of all time. Almost every single character, down to Seamus Finnigan, is cast perfectly. I’ve played this game with many people in the past, and the only real example of a miscast in the whole frickin series of 8 films, including what must be hundreds of main and supporting characters, is Bonnie Wright as Ginny Weasley, and even that only becomes a thing in the last three films, when she starts needing to have chemistry with Daniel Radcliffe (absolutely no disrespect to Ms. Wright, she does a good job with it, I only mean to say that Ginny’s character strikes as the largest discrepancy between the character in the books vs. films). Examples I used to consider on that list but no longer do include Quirrell and Fudge, right up until I realized that’s ridiculous, they’re both good, especially Fudge. And that’s an unprecedentedly low rate of miscast; I haven’t taken into account the perfection of other pieces of casting, from the Big Three to Professor Sprout to Sirius to Lupin to the Malfoys to…goddammit every single character’s casting is perfection. I’d strongly encourage anyone whom has an argument for someone being poorly cast to reach out to me, I’d almost love to be convinced that they made at least some mistakes, as of right now, I can’t find any. I used to think Michael Gambon’s Dumbledore was perfect. The more I think about it, he lacks some of the gentleness and collectedness of his character, but which is made up for by the image of Richard Harris, leading a sort of combination of the two to form in my head when I read the books.
And faces are not the only visual aspect they’ve aced in these films. The visuals of settings, to Hogwarts and the grounds, to the Ministry, to the Burrow, to…once again, pretty much every single location. They imbibe them with the right kind of magic, a magic that gives the reader a reference when the time for that most wonderful reread comes around. Not only taking into account locations, it’s a mighty thing to realize that these films have given me an image of what magic looks like. The other great triumph is a musical one. Beginning with John Williams in the first two films and ending with Alexandre Desplat in the last two, the music across the length and breadth of this franchise is spectacular; exciting when it needed to be, and breath-taking when that was what was called for. The quality extends far beyond Hedwig’s theme, the tune most would probably identify with the series. Watch the films again and pay attention to the sheer weight that the scores of these films carry, how they lift the scenes into a place that justifies them, makes them worthy of the magic they portray. It is a testament to the quality of the artists working on these films that Hogwarts is, in my mind, to some extent, what they’ve shown it be, and that it’s difficult to read scenes from the book without the image in my mind being scored by the music I know to be appropriate to it from the films.
I should touch, briefly, on the ups and downs in quality the films go through over the decade it took to make them all. The first two are, arguably, in the running for the least good of the series. Their tone is childish, an inevitability given the age of the characters, especially given what would follow in the story, but nonetheless rendering them somewhat lower on the totem pole of the series. They’re far from bad films, but their standing is not unlike those of their book counterparts: they serve a developmental function to facilitate what comes later. Really enjoyable for the nostalgia and the innocence, but not amazing compared to what comes later. The Prisoner of Azkaban, despite being a film I’ve cited here for lack of accuracy more than, I think, the others, is arguably the best of the films, directed by the one and only Alfonso Cuaron to take its place as one of the most faithful (in its broad strokes, its only real crime is the Marauder’s omission). One of the best films, and, debatably, one of the best books. But this is a film site, so let’s not go there.
The fourth film is probably the second-least faithful to the books, and is probably on the weaker side of the films overall. It’s a little slow and generally doesn’t exactly smash the bits it needs to smash. If not for the strength of the resurrection scene, this would be regarded as a much poorer film. The fifth is pretty great. It’s the shortest of the films, despite being based on the longest book, but still manages to be pretty damn faithful to it (although the exclusion of that Harry-Dumbledore scene post Sirius’ death is just not okay), thanks perhaps in large part to the casting of the incredible Imelda Staunton as Dolores Umbridge. The sixth film is a little tragic, because it’s probably the best book, but arguably the worst film. It just completely misses the point, giving the lion’s share of importance to teen romance and diluting the importance of Voldemort’s character study and completely disregarding the politics of Scrimgeour’s visit to the Burrow, etc. To make matters worse, Harry and Ginny have sub-zero chemistry, making for a lot of awkward silences rather than heartfelt romance. Some of it is comedic, and it’s inarguably the funniest of the films, but, considering the quality of the sixth book, it’s more than a little bit sad to see it so reduced. Hallows Pt. 1 is a film that I appreciate now as I’ve grown older and can acknowledge development as essential to a plot that anyone cares about. It doesn’t blow anything out of the water, and maybe slightly underwhelms compared to the first half of the book, but it’s far from bad. It’s hard to deny, on the other hand, that Hallows Pt. 2 is the best of the films. It’s an interesting thing, because the 8th film deviates quite a bit from the books. But, unlike some of the other deviations in previous films, the vast majority of the changes work really well, and justify themselves as a reimagined Battle of Hogwarts. The thing this film misses the most is something it couldn’t realistically have had: Harry’s internal monologues during the scenes at Shell Cottage with Ollivander and Griphook, and after seeing Snape’s memories in the pensive (as well as what followed, including a justification as to why he wouldn’t have met Ron and Hermione afterwards. It makes sense that they’d have done it in the film, because without Harry reasoning with himself as a justification, it would’ve seemed heartless for him not to have said goodbye). Aside from that more or less inevitable drawback, however, the last film is as fitting a finale as any, with some of the best music, visuals, and original additions to the literary foundations as compared to any of the other films.
It’s difficult to talk about all you want to talk about in a franchise review. 8 films is a grand undertaking, and there’s so much more to chew on than what I could possibly do here. I think what’s above is an attempt at a much more general review of the franchise as a whole (hence the name), without having the opportunity to get into too many specifics. What I do want to end on is just a note of thanks to the creators and everyone involved with these films on every level. They had their drawbacks, and, as I said, I don’t really see how the films stand without the books, but that’s not what these films are for me. In a world where bad to unwatchable film adaptations of beloved book series are nearly as common as film adaptations of beloved book series, it is an incredible thing that these filmmakers have done to provide such an anchor for the books. Casting aside decisions about plot points and continuity, the Harry Potter films made an intangible contribution to the way I experience the books, embodying fully the magic, wonder, and sense of poetic beauty that could only exist in my mind before I saw them. For irreversibly benefiting the way I imagine the most meaningful and important story that has affected my life, I have nothing but immense gratitude for everyone involved with these films, and they will continue to be an essential part of my favourite thing in the world.
– Aman Datta