Review: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II

07/16/2011

Last night I spent five hours in a packed theater with high schoolers costumed in black robes, bearing wands and sharpie lightning scars on their foreheads, casting invisible spells at each other and pretending that those spells connected while falling in dramatic slow motion. I’ll thank a merciful God that almost three of those hours were spent watching a movie. It all reminded me how quickly time passes. Nearly all of the kids in the auditorium (one of fifteen showing the film in that particular theater) would have been less than five years old when the first Potter book arrived in 1997. I was probably one of three or four people in the room who had much recollection at all of a world where Harry Potter was just a book series. I remember when the first Potter film came out. I had no interest at the time since I was lost in The Lord of the Rings, but that period of my life seems like eons ago as well. My point is that this series has been going on for a really, really long time, and pretty much anyone under the age of 30 has grown up under its influence.

A majority of the current audience is going for reasons more similar to attending a sporting event to root on their favorite team than to experience a story. They’ll nitpick over what was cut from or added to the books and who got too little screen time in the same way that sports fans complain about referee calls and why the coach sat so and so during a pivotal moment in the fourth. This isn’t the ideal way to experience stories, but recalling the magical nature of my Lord of the Rings days, I understand it. These huge, lengthy series are more opportunities for all of us to come together and markers by which to measure time and growth than they are individual works. And if we’re lucky, and in the case of the Potter series I think we are, they’ll be good stories too. Not great stories like my Lord of the Rings, but the Potter series is entertaining and even powerful in its own way. Many series (ahem, villainize Twilight some more, ahem) have been far less deserving of their rampant popularity than the Potterverse.

As I said in my Hallows Part I review, these recent films have been the best so far. They’ve been allowed the time required to do justice to Rowling’s long, complex narratives, and David Yates has been given a vote of confidence from the studio, managing to stretch his legs within that universe a bit. All the young actors keep getting better, now more than holding their own against the impressive cast of veterans who play their elders. Where once the Potter films felt confused and jumbled, now there is a confidence that sticks with the original material pretty closely but allows for the invention of legitimately hilarious moments like Voldemort hugging Draco Malfoy. Sure, not quite all of the changes work. At a certain point we just need to accept that these stories are best suited to books and that not every moment, when translated, will be a winner. But rather than nitpick over the particulars of the final confrontation, I’d much rather focus on the emotional core of the story which Yates absolutely knocked out of the park.

Like all good stories of Harry Potter’s ilk, there comes the moment where the hero must sacrifice himself and face death. Some stories put their heroes face to face with death in less literal ways, but I’ve noticed that the most powerful finales (thinking back to Toy Story 3 and The Return of the King specifically) require that their heroes quite literally look death in the face and accept it. With Potter, this moment is especially poignant and heartfelt, and perhaps one of the few places where the cinematic medium (which allows us to look into Harry’s eyes and see his hesitation as he faces his Gethsemane) improves upon the books. That moment, before Harry walks into the woods, is absolutely heart-wrenching, not because we doubt for a moment that everything will turn out okay, but because we know how unsure Harry is of that fact. We care about him, not about how the specific order of events will unfold. For a film series that, until recently, had merely been a secondary souvenir of a far greater literary achievement, that’s impressive.

This movie really was Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II. I think once both films can be played back to back without pause, audiences will be surprised at how much they are simply two haves of a coherent whole. The first part was a lot of character development and buildup sans a legitimate climax, and the second part is a lot of climax with hardly any buildup. Not that this should affect those seeing the movie in theaters. At this point, most off the audience has these stories so internalized that we really don’t care about exposition. Just keep moving the stuff forward. We’ll remember things where we have to. But in the end, I don’t think there will be a Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I and a Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II. I think there will be Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, a five hour epic in the true spirit of J.K. Rowling’s sprawling novel. It makes me wonder how amazing this series could have been had every film followed the same procedure. I realize that was never a possibility, but I’m glad that everyone involved insisted they at least get the last film as right as they could.

Back to my screening for a moment. The moment the credits started rolling, nearly everyone in the audience got up and left. Immediately. This part didn’t ring true for me. Back in the Lord of the Rings days, everyone sat in that theater well into the end credits, just trying to soak up every last moment and make it all last. There were a few who remained from what I saw (I was running out to beat the traffic rush myself… I mean, its not The Hobbit people), but most people ditched right away. The world will now move on from Harry Potter. Onto something else. Fads will come and go, and the inconsistent nature of this film series has made it a faint echo of the phenomenon that was the book series (record-setting opening weekends aside), but there is something at the heart of this series that remains true. This will forever be a generation’s first brush with the true nature of story; with the reality that there is potential for good and evil within all of us, and the struggle between them is not so easy to resolve. As Dumbledore said to Harry, “Of course it is happening inside your head, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?” There’s very little that separates Luke Skywalker from Frodo from Harry Potter except the group of people who see a wider world through their eyes for the first time. I was reminded last night that, yes, Harry Potter is a fad that will go away with time, but also for the first time since I finished the book series, that it is a story that, for a select few, is capable of relevance that will outpace the fad by eons.

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One Response to “Review: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II”

  1. I saw both halves today. What you hypothesize is true, they are a coherent and satisfying whole. I will also add that despite knowing the conclusion, my heart was still pounding for the majority of part 2, which is due to nothing other than solid storytelling. Although I will say that I was really annoyed at the lack of any catharsis whatsoever after the climax. Everyone was acted like it was no big deal at what had just happened. It made me admit that I do prefer dancing Ewoks to nothing at all. Also the coda, which I wasn’t completely in love with in the book, was completely goofballs in film form. Everyone in my theater was laughing and I can’t say I blame them. Those are my only complaints about HP7. They saved the best for last.

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