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Deathly Hallows

December 24, 2011

Deathly Hallows American dust-jacketWayne writes: Christina and I spent the Thanksgiving holidays doing all of the things one traditionally does at that festive time: inventorying books, sorting files, writing Tolkien addenda and corrigenda, answering e-mail queries. . . . That’s not traditional at your house? How strange! We also watched on DVD the final Harry Potter films, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, parts one and two.

Both of us have been Potter fans from the beginning. We have all of the books, in both British and American editions – the American copies are better designed and illustrated, the earlier British texts are un-Americanized – and we still recall our experience of seeing the first of the films, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (with its proper British title, if you please) in the big cinema at Leicester Square in London. Never before had I seen so many children in a movie audience sitting absolutely quiet, their eyes fixed on the screen, for the whole of two hours. We liked that film very much, and also the next in the series, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. In part – in addition to the quality of acting, set design, music, and so forth – we enjoyed them because they stayed reasonably close to the letter and spirit of J.K. Rowling’s books, which was a comfort at that time (2001–2), when Peter Jackson was playing fast and loose with our beloved Lord of the Rings.

We were disappointed with the third film, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, whose director, auteur Alfonso Cuarón, tried to leave his personal stamp as much as possible, and in which there were (relative to the earlier films) changes in costuming and set design we felt jarring. Films four and five – Goblet of Fire and Order of the Phoenix – worked well enough, we thought, despite changes and excisions, while the sixth, Half-blood Prince, felt more rushed and compressed though it was true enough to its source. The later books in the series of course are much longer, which made them impossible to adapt within a normal running time without cutting or condensing.

Immediately after Thanksgiving, we received the Autumn 2011 number of Mallorn, the journal of The Tolkien Society, which includes an article about the final Harry Potter films – the two-part Deathly Hallows – by Mallorn editor Henry Gee. Deathly Hallows, Gee thinks, ‘simply couldn’t be treated to the same process of radical condensation’ used in previous films, but had to be spread over two. This, he adds,

is just as well, as the film gives space for the plot to breathe, and brings life to a book which, one senses as one approaches the end, is running out of puff. Scenes in the book that really ought to have great emotional power – the battle at Hogwarts, for example – tend to come over as a rather rushed football commentary, when Rowling really ought to have taken a breath and approached the ending in suitably elegiac mood. No such problems for the film, however, where the scale of the devastation wrought by the final battle – the loss – comes over with suitable impact.

We strongly disagree with this judgement. The book Deathly Hallows is hardly ‘running out of puff’ at the end, but remains exciting and engaging. It has its elegiac moments, but they’re in their proper places, before and after the fighting. And I’m at a loss to think how the battle at Hogwarts, with the deaths of beloved characters, could be seen as lacking in ‘emotional power’ as written. After watching Deathly Hallows, in fact, Christina and I both needed to re-read the book to counteract what we felt were serious inadequacies in the screenplay.

Part of the appeal of Rowling’s stories is their wealth of detail, especially in the interplay of the main characters with each other and with the many secondary characters populating the books’ wizarding and Muggle worlds. Films, of course, can convey such a quality, in dialogue or in the smallest glance – playing to the strengths of a visual medium – and when done well, can enlarge upon a text while being true to it. Most of the earlier Harry Potter films accomplished this to an admirable degree. In Deathly Hallows, though, even extended over two parts, too much of the richness of the book is lost on screen, some of it discarded or changed no doubt for the sake of running time or cost, but also, I feel sure – especially in the second part, which was released in 3D – so that there would be more room for visual effects.

If we had not first read the book, we would have been utterly lost in film-Deathly Hallows at several points. Without foreknowledge, it would have been impossible to follow, for instance, the passing of mastery of the Elder Wand (an explanation is clumsily tacked on after the battle) and the complicated matter of Hallows and Horcruxes. But even small details are muddled, such as where our heroes go after they escape from Malfoy Manor: to the uninitiated, it can’t be at all clear that the house by the sea is Bill and Fleur’s Shell Cottage. We were interested to see that information which would have served to clarify the story is conveyed in some of the deleted scenes on the DVD. These would have been better left in. Other scenes, such as the farewell of Harry and Dudley which is so poignant in the book, were shot but also deleted. Of course, Ultimate Edition DVDs are promised, so one can hope for a longer and more coherent cut.

Unfortunately, nothing short of a reshoot could save the conclusion of the second part. It was there that we were glad that, for one reason or another, we had not seen Deathly Hallows in the cinema, where we would have had to hold our tongues, but had waited for the DVD and could spout off as we liked in our sitting room. We understand – as is often said – that films are different from books, and not everything in a book can be included in a film (at least, not always; some films have come close). But films must have an internal logic, no less than books, and a film which uses a book as its source must either follow its internal logic or create a new one – there can be no half-measures. Also, it seems reasonable to think that when an author hands a screenwriter powerful, dramatic scenes on a platter, they would be welcomed and retained more or less as given. Why, then, in the film, when Voldemort needs to keep Nagini close to him, and says in dialogue that this is crucial (as it is in the book), is the snake not near him at the end but chasing Ron and Hermione? (The answer to this and other questions is undoubtedly that it made for good 3D effects.) Why remove the very dramatic moment when Neville kills Nagini in defiance of the dark lord, right in front of Voldemort and all of Neville’s friends, instead setting this deed apart from the main action with only Ron and Hermione to witness it? Why condense to such a remarkable degree the action-packed battle of Hogwarts, showing little of it relative to the book, though one would have thought it perfect for translating into film? Why make the final duel between Harry and Voldemort into a movie-cliché wizards’ battle, with the foes swooping through the castle until they meet not before the assembled combatants but in a deserted courtyard? Harry wins, but no one sees him do it: there is no climactic emotional release from his friends. And without their important final conversation, only a test of brute magical strength, no moral distinction between Harry and the dark lord is made at the end, which Rowling does so beautifully in her book.

So – to say no more – we were disappointed, at these and other points. As always, though, the acting was very good. Throughout the series, it has been wonderful to see great British actors playing even lesser roles, which for some in Deathly Hallows, such as Jim Broadbent and Emma Thompson, amounted to cameos. The art direction was also first-rate, and many scenes were visually very impressive. We were especially struck by how perfectly Helena Bonham Carter adopted Emma Watson’s mannerisms when she played Watson’s character Hermione disguised as Carter’s Bellatrix Lestrange.

Image: The American dust-jacket of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, wraparound art by Mary GrandPré. This was the only book in the series for which, when we bought the British edition, we selected the version with the elegant ‘adult’ dust-jacket, that is, with art an adult wouldn’t find embarrassing if seen to be reading the book. We thought the jacket art for the ‘children’s’ version too messy (see comparisons here).

  1. December 25, 2011 10:51 am

    Indeed, if one has not read the book, it would have been really confusing.

  2. John Vawter permalink
    December 25, 2011 11:00 am

    Did you two write your reactions to the Peter Jackson LOTR films? I would love to read them.

    • December 28, 2011 6:22 pm

      John, if you do a web search for ‘Wayne Hammond’ (Wayne tended to reply to queries sent to us about the films at the time of their release) together with keywords such as ‘Jackson’ and ‘films’ and ‘Lord of the Rings’, you’ll find some comments, as well as a great deal of hurtful name-calling in reply. Briefly, we find the Jackson films poor as adaptations, faithful only on a basic level of plot, failures especially where they diminish Tolkien’s characters (notably Frodo and Aragorn) or turn them into insulting caricatures (Pippin, Merry, Gimli, Denethor), and where the filmmakers sacrifice the richness of Tolkien’s work for the sake of violence, cheap humour, and cheaper thrills. The films hold together best where they stay close to what Tolkien wrote (and thought through very carefully), and least well where they diverge (e.g. it may look cool for the Rohirrim to charge downhill into a mass of Orc-spears, but it’s nonsensical). Many fans, we know, enjoy the films very much, and we make no criticism of them just because we disagree. But because The Lord of the Rings has been such an important book in our lives (we met because of our mutual interest in Tolkien), we’ve had a particularly strong response to what was done to it in the films.

      • John Vawter permalink
        December 31, 2011 2:06 am

        Thanks so much for the reply! My opinion of the films was similarly negative, deeming them failures both as adaptations and films. I appreciate the review in brief, since I have no desire to read the nasty replies you received – I avoid Tolkien fansites and messageboards for just that reason.

  3. Josh Long permalink
    December 30, 2011 3:06 pm

    I was wondering what your thoughts were on the recently released Hobbit trailer.

    • January 15, 2012 9:06 am

      As a trailer, it’s well crafted, but so were the trailers for The Fellowship of the Ring which gave us false hope that the Lord of the Rings films might honour their source. We suspect that The Hobbit will be another instance of close attention paid to details of clothing and weaponry and special effects and a screenplay which takes remarkable and unnecessary liberties with its source, no doubt with extended scenes of violence (in Tolkien’s book much is achieved through cleverness rather than force of arms) – but we shouldn’t pre-judge, even when Bilbo is shown, (overly long) contract in hand, running across country in Hobbiton rather than taking the road, and wearing a backpack though Tolkien’s Bilbo left home without so much as a pocket handkerchief. In any case, Martin Freeman (Bilbo) is a good actor and will do his best with whatever he’s given.

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