Wednesday, July 22, 2009
Back by popular demand
Looks like I’m missing a lot of weird, wild stuff out there: PUMAs and moral panics and tumultuous behavior in general. Well, I have an excuse. I’m housepainting and writing not one but two reviews of this book. In fact, I have to write the second one by tomorrow. So my discussion of Harry Potter and the Movie Everyone Hated will have to be brief.
Well, maybe everyone didn’t hate it. That’s the impression I got from SEK’s survey of the terrain, but I see that tomemos challenges this in comments. And I agree with Amanda that the whole thing would have worked much better as a television series than as a decade-long string of Major Motion Pictures. But then, back in 2001 when the first film was released, there weren’t a whole lot of brilliant TV series going on. Just The Sopranos, really. The Wire and Mad Men were still years away from production. (That’s the other thing I’m doing with my time: watching season two of Mad Men with Janet at night. Anyone who shows up in comments with spoilers about the last five episodes will be deleted and banned. I’ll attempt a post on the subject when we’re done. You all knew I originally planned to go into advertising instead of applying to graduate programs in English, right?)
But I don’t understand the people who didn’t like Jim Broadbent as Slughorn. Broadbent was nearly a perfect Slughorn: he could have been a bit more arrogant, I suppose, but I think Slughorn’s distinctive combination of pomposity and toadiness (upon which Tom Riddle plays so effectively) came through very well. I think I like the fact that the films have more or less given up on exposition, especially since Half-Blood Prince is itself one very long “As you know, Bob” device. Keep the Pensieves to a minimum, I say. As you know, Harry, Voldemort grew up in this orphanage.... As you know, Harry, Voldemort has a fetish for objects associated with the four Hogwarts founders.... The attitude by this point—it is number six, after all—has to be that if you’re coming to the movie without knowing Snape’s history (or Voldemort’s), you’re on your own.
Two important changes from the book: one, Snape doesn’t confront Harry after Harry slices up Draco with sectumsempra, and doesn’t demand to see Harry’s Potions book. This strikes me as bizarre; it leaves Snape merely tending to Malfoy on a bathroom floor, and leaves the kids to decide to hide the book on their own. Two, Dumbledore doesn’t immobilize Harry before Draco’s arrival on the astronomy tower; Harry restrains himself throughout, or at least until he is stymied by Snape. I’m of two hands about this. On the one hand, it’s not really credible; Harry is, as we have seen with his ill-fated attempt to “save” Sirius in Order of the Phoenix, impetuous and rash when it comes to heroics on behalf of people he loves. And he does despise Draco with a passion. Hard to imagine he’d stand down when it’s just Draco and an unarmed Dumbledore. On the other hand, it underscores Harry’s fierce loyalty to the man: he’s just made him drink a nasty bowl of Voldemort-brand hallucinogenic punch, and now he’s standing mutely by while Draco threatens his surrogate father. Maybe he really has learned a thing or two about trusting Dumbledore’s judgment.
But the whole scene—and the strangely truncated confrontation with Snape that follows—is just muted and muffled. I can’t put my finger on it, but I’ve seen it twice now, and the impression was even stronger the second time: there’s just no climax in this climactic scene. And one important feature of it gets left out: remember when Dumbledore says, “introductions are in order,” and introductions aren’t offered? (No exposition, remember.) Well, we don’t get to meet Alecto and Amycus properly as a result. No loss there! But more to the point, we don’t get that critical moment when Dumbledore admits to being a bit shocked and disgusted that Draco would let a child-eating monster like Fenrir Greyback into Hogwarts, where all his friends live. Draco, you’ll recall (and if you haven’t read the book, remember, you’re on your own), protests that he didn’t know Greyback would be among the invasion party. But in the movie, Draco is working with Greyback from the start.
This seems to me a mistake, because something happens to Draco at that moment, quite apart from his agonizing realization that he doesn’t actually have the evil cojones necessary for killing Dumbledore. Janet pointed this out, so it’s her point: Draco and the Malfoys are deeply invested in their sense of superiority to the Muggle-born and the half-bloods. They think of themselves, with good reason, as the elite of the elite in the wizarding world, and never fail to sneer at the Weasleys’ relative poverty. But the crew that attacks Hogwarts that night isn’t made up of Death Eaters from the country club. They’re either utterly vile (Greyback) or distinctly ill-spoken Cockney-tinged thugs (Alecto and Amycus). This gives pause to the young man whose first encounter with Harry, six years earlier, turned on the question of who hangs out with “the right sort.”
I’m not saying that I wanted to see a twenty-minute confrontation between Dumbledore and the Death Eaters. It’s just that the whole thing is so muted—we don’t even get Dumbledore’s offer to put the Malfoys in a Wizard Protection Program so Voldemort can’t find them. Any explanations for the mutedness and unclimacticalness? I’m eager to hear them.
Two final things. The opening of the movie seems quite effective. The book, after all, was published a mere nine days after al-Qaeda’s 7/7 attack on London, and eerily opens with Cornelius Fudge getting a befuddled Prime Minister up to speed on the Global War on Voldemort. HP’s reflections on terrorism and antiterrorism were evident the moment Stan Shunpike got shipped off to Gitmo, but in the final three novels the tone becomes increasingly ominous, to the point at which, as Rich Puchalsky puts it, “Harry is effectively living in the equivalent of a death squad state, in which people are routinely kidnapped, tortured, and disappeared, and constituted authority is either complicit, corrupt, or at best ineffective.”
And what do we make of the ethics of Snape-Assisted Suicide? This kind of thing is deeply controversial in the disability-rights community, you know.
Ah, one more final final thing. I see in the Intertubes that back in 2005, I wrote, “did you know that there are only two functioning sectors of the American economy now? Housing sales and Harry Potter films. That’s it.” Funny, that. OK, so now we’re down to one.