History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

26 November 2010

Harry Potter and the Paradoxes of Adaptation

First, a question, for any of you who might have also already seen Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part I -- and who know your British landscapes better than I do.

Where were those wonderful location shots taken?

What were the regions the filmmakers sampled: now high and dramatic (was it the Lake District? Scotland?); now infinitely flat with moody, lowering skies (I took it to be the East Anglia I imagined for Almost a Gentleman, but I'm probably dead wrong.)

In any event, there was none of that all-too-recognizable teacozy greenery checkered by hedgerows you're likely to encounter in one or another televised Jane Austen redo. As Harry, Ron, and Hermione go on the lam from the Ministry of Magic and in pursuit of the horcruxes, the camera plunges them into bleak dark gray nights of the soul when it's not leaving them unprotected and vulnerable to the sky's glare. As though the land were conspiring with the miserable, horny adolescence they're trying to work through, under the worst of conditions. Like those earlier miserable, horny (if much less heroic) English adolescents, the romantic poets.

I felt those landscape shots (and they're long; and slow) to be nothing less than a wryly patriotic statement on the part of the filmmakers. Yes well, we could have given you what you've come to expect from quaintsy screen Britain, but we've got rather an embarrassment of riches here, you see -- quite as we find ourselves burdened with a surfeit of acting talent (Alan Rickman, Ralph Fiennes, Imelda Staunton, and more and more). And so we shall be using what we've got sparingly and as we like, thank you very much.

To which I could only gasp, thank you. Yes, I loved it -- my inner art snob and passionate romantic sides going limp and dreamy in tandem at the rate of twenty-four frames a second. Even as I wondered how (and even if) a movie that would be utterly incomprehensible to anyone who didn't know the Harry Potter books could possibly even be called good.

Perhaps viewers who don't know the Potter books are too small a market segment to be taken into account. Which is a shame, because I wanted to share this, as I want to share all the art and entertainment I love, with the non-Potter-reading husband I met a very long time ago in a 17th century poetry seminar, where we shared Donne's Good-Morrow poem as my Mary and Kit do in The Slightest Provocation.

It was Michael who taught me how to love meditative, austere film in the first place. So though he could appreciate the look of it, it was no fun for him trying to figure out who was who and what was what. I didn't know either some of the time, but I knew it probably didn't matter if you weren't sure if you'd ever encountered Mundungus Fletcher before. (You didn't in any of the movies, according to the ever-alert Potter Uber-nerds at Mugglenet.com; you might, as I did, vaguely remember him from the books; and as I did as well, you'd probably figure what the hell, it's one of the great minor-character fictional names of all time, relax and enjoy it.)

But then, I'm a devoted and strongly opinionated Potter reader. Unlike my teenage niece and nephew, I can't keep the horcruxes straight, but I don't think you have to. In fact, I don't think you should bother.

Caution: there are spoilers next (though a reader's spoiler might be an unread movie-goer's salvation).

What I do know (or better, could hardly help knowing by the end of Book 5), was that Snape had always been in love with Harry's mother, that he'd been a fraught and confused (hell, tortured) double agent for most if not all of the time of the books, that he was already a goner -- and that of course he had to kill Dumbledore, because in J.K. Rowling's good and decent world of magic, the worst thing you can do is allow a child to commit a sin that will poison the rest of his life -- as would have happened to Draco Malfoy if he'd killed Dumbledore as Voldemort wanted him to (that was the point of Voldemort wanting Draco to kill Dumbledore, for pity's sake).

And even through all the confused plot comings and goings in Deathly Hallows Part I, a very hot-looking Alan Rickman (with good hair, for once in the film series) managed to communicate all that understanding, even to my befuddled husband, through a very few closeups of the pain in his eyes.

What I also know is that there's no point trying to unravel the mysteries of Voldemort's evil, as the Mugglenet folks try to do. Unlike Blake's Milton, J.K. Rowling is not of the devil's party. Voldemart brings out the worst -- the most banally bad, vain, craven, trivial, self-serving -- in his followers. He isn't interesting or captivating in himself. And the one of his followers who does mesmerize us with horror and dismay is the terrifyingly perky, conformist, officious, racist (and brilliantly named) Dolores Umbridge. As inhabited by Imelda Staunton, a little of her pink-clad presence goes a very long way. And the quick moment when Harry finds some Nazi-style Muggle-baiting pulp fiction squirreled away in her desk drawer for her private delectation, is, I hope, a young person's brilliant and scarifying visceral introduction to the banality of evil.

Other moments I loved included the brilliant and not at all obvious decision to portray Ron's fevered, jealous fantasy of Harry and Hermione kissing in a hyped-up video-game-art style. A seventeen-year-old boy's version of the erotic (simultaneously overcooked and sanitized at the same time, like some novel cover art I could mention, but won't).

But perhaps my favorite moment of all came and went far too quickly, quite early in the film, when, in order to protect her Muggle parents against Voldemort and his followers, Hermione performs the Obliviate Charm on them, erasing all their memories that they ever had a daughter. As the camera pans around the Grangers' middle-class living room, Hermione's image fades from every photograph on wall, mantel, table-top. Little girl Hermione, baby Hermione... all painfully, shockingly gone, from the pictures, from her parents' minds and memories. And of course these must be real little girl and baby pictures of the actress, Emma Watson -- who we ourselves have watched grow up on screen from the age of nine.

The quasi-documentary quality of the Potter films -- watching its three young stars go from childhood to young adulthood is part of the strange metatextual appeal of the series, and something best done on film. Time passes on film and in photographs. Children grow up. Adults grow older -- and if we have kids in our lives, they don't let us forget that.

Which dovetailed nicely with my experience seeing the movie -- metatextual again. My friend Ellie got the tickets -- for her, our friend Fran, me and Michael, and Fran's daughter Hannah, a lovely young journalist, who (I will proudly tell you) recently had 3 front-page stories on The Contra Costa Times.

Fandango recorded us as 4 seniors and 1 adult. "Hannah's our adult," we laughed. And sighed, and marveled, even as I'm sure that each of us reviewed our happy memories of little-girl Hannah and baby Hannah, happily coexisting with the beautiful presence of Our Adult Hannah. As J.K. Rowling and the writers and director of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows have created a paradoxical visual fiction of time and memory.

My thanks to all of them.

Any other thoughts on the Potter books? The movies? And (don't forget) the locations.



Blogger Louisa Cornell said...

I haven't seen the movie yet and your post made me want to see it even more!! The thing I loved in the last book was that the depth of Snapes's feelings for Harry's mother is revealed. And his true character is also revealed - tortured, flawed, and desperately romantic.

3:14 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Ditto on the post making me want to see the movie even more! I confess I haven't read the Harry Potter books. I keep waiting for enough time to devour all of them and for a writer with deadlines, that doesn't seem to happen. But I've seen and enjoyed most of the movies (I missed the last one), and I feel like I have a pretty good sense of the overall plot arc between that and talking to readers. The latest one looks fabulous from the previews!

3:28 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...


Your story about buying the tickets reminds me of when I'd go to the movies with my parents in my twenties and my dad would say "two seniors and a normal." :-).

3:36 PM  
Blogger Jane George said...

What I was most impressed with in the film was the pacing. And I was touched when the 3 enter the Ministry of Magic as clueless "adults." The filmmakers nailed that feeling of adolescence.

3:41 PM  
Blogger LadyScribbler said...

I have to admit to not having read all the books, though, as a teacher, I did read the first aloud with a class of enrapt sixth graders. I share your eloquently expressed feelings about the film. I thought it was an extraordinary cinematic accomplishment and, on a visceral level, I was impressed, stunned, and almost proud in a parental sort of way to see how these young actors have grown into compelling screen presences.

4:04 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Nice to feel the shared sentiment, and I laughed at your Dad's comment, Tracy.

I absolutely agree with your take on the pacing, Jane. When we discussed it afterwards, we felt it wasn't exactly slow or fast, but... adolescent.

And I'm also proud and parental, LadyScribbler. I know just what you mean.

4:48 PM  
Blogger Miranda Neville said...

I went to see this yesterday. I thought it by far the best of the films, which have suffered from over reverence for the original. (Novel and film are different media and require adjustments. It's why the best literary adaptations are mini series where the pacing of the original can be followed). The decor of the Ministry of Magic - Third Reich crossed with Ayn Rand - was brilliant. Good question about the bleak, rocky landscape: Wales perhaps?

5:51 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Hmmm, Wales...

Also, I think I very much agree with you that "the best literary adaptations are mini series..." Hadn't thought of it that way, but it does seem that the TV series, when good, has an interesting resemblance to the novel, as in The Wire.

11:36 PM  
Blogger Erastes said...

According to wiki:

The crew also shot on location, with Swinley Forest and Freshwater West as two of the main outdoor filming areas, along with the village of Lavenham in Suffolk[28] and the streets of the city of London.

I think they did the best they could--it was very impressive visually but the core material is so poor and so full of mistakes etc that it's like making a silk purse out of a sows ear. It was a bit of a sows purse.

6:49 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Thanks so much for that info, Erastes. I did check wikipedia, but not carefully enough, I guess.

I assume by "poor and full of mistakes" you mean "not consistent with the original text"? If so, I agree fully, and find that I care very little.

I think my original point was that even in the text as a whole, the logic of character outstrips the logic of the quest plot. As in, for a major example, it doesn't matter to me which, if any, horcruxes Voldemort split his soul into, because Voldemort's evil isn't very interesting to me. The events of finding or not finding or destroying the horcruxes are ways for the young-people-sorting-themselves-out plot to find its arc.

8:28 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

For similar points re the books, much more wisely and thoroughly told, see also http://www.salon.com/books/review/2007/07/20/harry

8:59 AM  
Blogger Isobel Carr said...

Haven't got to see it yet (too damn busy!), but I'm seriously hoping the "endless time in the tent" of the novel has been curtailed and reduced. I really like the books, but from 4 on, they REALLY needed some serious editing and pruning IMO.

10:47 AM  
Blogger Miranda Neville said...

I hear you on the tent trip, Isobel. It was still long .

12:00 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

I think I liked the tent trip better in the movie than in the book. They add a lovely sequence that's not in the book (I'm not going to add any spoilers) that's very touching and memorable. And I'm kinda sappy about the ongoing tent joke... you know, how small it is from the outside, but... (what can I say?)

2:51 PM  

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