Harry Potter is a heptalogy of novels by J.K. Rowling about a young boy who finds out he's a wizard and has to save the world. The series has a consistent theme of "accepting death" and "finding the power of love", but that's about the only consistent thing about it. The books get longer and longer as the series progresses and the author throws more and more pointless subplots into the mix. The tone of the books varies widely from lighthearted to angsty (the latter being especially prevalent in Order of the Phoenix, which has entire pages of caps lock). This isn't necessarily a bad thing, however -- variance can be a boon to a series, after all, especially one that covers the 11-17 age range of Harry. It makes sense that the books would grow progressively longer and darker as the series wears on, but even so, it does get rather tiring after a while. The story isn't complicated enough to warrant four books of build-up before the antagonist arrives. There's a lot of material here, but most of it seems superfluous.
It's certainly not a bad series of books, but it is greatly overrated. As a series of children's books it does an incredible job. The books' increasing lengths only help to ease children into reading them, and the characters are genuinely likeable. I loved every page of these books when I was ten. But as an adult series, it's a lot less incredible. Still good, but not as good as it's made out to be by some people.
What I really want to write about, however, is the series of film adaptations. Released over the span of a decade from 2001 to 2011, the Harry Potter film series is one of the largest Hollywood undertakings ever conceived. They even use the same actors for the main characters throughout the entire series, allowing them to start as child actors in the first movie and slowly age over the course of the movies. That's pretty damn impressive from a business standpoint and an artistic standpoint.
But as is inevitable for something as huge as Harry Potter, there were some difficulties. Different directors graced the movies, bringing distinct styles that didn't always mesh with other directors'; different things were cut from each film, often causing the continuity to go haywire; and of course, differing filmmaking trends across the decade caused the series to just... change.
Despite these things, the movies are pretty highly-rated by most critics. So are the movies actually good? How do they hold up now that they've all been released? I'll break them down individually.
Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone
Released in 2001, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (or Sorcerer's Stone in the United States) is the first film in the series. I saw it when I was ten, and I was psyched as I entered the theatre. Two and a half hours later, I left feeling vastly disappointed. I was sad that they left so much material from the book out of the movie! That was when I was ten, though; looking back, this is actually a great film. The biggest thing to hold it back is that it didn't leave enough material from the book out of the movie.
The director, Chris Columbus, has been criticized for making Harry's introduction too "kid-friendly", something that can't really be denied. The film has an underlying optimism as we see it through the eyes of an eleven-year-old boy, and this stops it from becoming truly frightening even when the tone does grow more serious during the third act. You never feel like Harry is in genuine danger because the film reinforces an attitude that says, "The good guys win." When Harry faces Quirrel in front of the Mirror of Erised, you can't expect him to die. There's no tension.
The director made a very faithful adaptation of the novel, but that's a bad thing in this instance; when put on the screen, it ends up being more faithful to the word than the actual meaning. The book contains the same problem I outlined above, but it's more forgivable because it was marketed as a children's book. (That isn't really an excuse, but it's an explanation.) The film was a fresh start, and it could have changed things to make the beginning more in tune with the later installments -- and try to aim it at a more intelligent audience. It could have been much more powerful if it could have preserved Harry's naivety while giving a more adult perspective on it. That's the difference between a children's movie and a family movie.
The best example of this that I can think of is the character of Ed Wood in Tim Burton's biopic about him. It's not exactly the same thing, but Wood's character is similar to what I think could be applied here. Wood is blind to how bad his movies are, while the other characters talk behind his back about how terrible a filmmaker he is. We see him crack a few times during the movie, just enough to see that those people are right and get us to believe that his films are awful, but also know that he wants very much to be a filmmaker. After he meets with Orson Welles, Wood is encouraged to try his best to make a great movie despite accepting that his previous attempts have been terrible.
This characterization could have been applied to Harry, though it would take more effort. Most people who watch Ed Wood are already familiar with the real Wood's work, so they're ready to believe that he's really a bad filmmaker. You're working from scratch with Harry, so it would probably be harder to get this message across. Still, I think it would have worked. Harry doesn't think he's in any danger, but other characters do, and the audience needs to know that they're right. This is a hard idea to explain, but I hope you get what I mean. There was a huge missed opportunity in this movie that would have made it much, much better.
That doesn't make it a bad movie by any means. Columbus made a great film that, in my opinion, is every bit as strong as the novel it's based on. My only qualm is that it could have been stronger.
(By the way, the American poster for this film was painted by Drew Struzan, the same guy who did the Star Wars and Indiana Jones posters. I'm really disappointed that Warner Bros didn't hire him to make posters for all the Harry Potter films. He's a true Hollywood legend. Now... back to the review.)
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
Chamber of Secrets was my favourite book when I was younger, so I was even more excited to see this movie than I had been about the first one. I was a bit smarter by the time this came out and understood more that films are a different medium from books. This time I didn't expect an exact 1:1 translation to the screen, and I enjoyed the movie much more. I feel pretty much the same about the movie nowadays.
It's funny how Philosopher's Stone suffered for being too heavy on the book, while Chamber of Secrets is even more faithful to the material and doesn't fall into the same problems nearly as much. As people close to Harry are being petrified by the basilisk, Harry takes the situation much more seriously than he seemed to in the first movie. Since Columbus's movies are all 100% from Harry's view, this works out to almost the same thing as I suggested for the first movie. Harry is still pretty cool-headed about the whole ordeal, but he's not completely brainless like he was the first time around. This is good character development. Harry is less naive now.
The real show-stopper here is the climax, which is way better than the first movie. Christian Coulson does a great job as Tom Riddle, really capturing the spirit of Voldemort's younger self. He makes for a much more threatening villain than Quirrel did, especially due to the gigantic basilisk he has at his command. Unfortunately Coulson doesn't return to portray Riddle in later films, which is a real shame. I would have liked to see him do a less insane take on Voldemort in Half-Blood Prince.
I don't have many things to complain about for Chamber of Secrets. It's a solid film. It still could have used a bit of my suggestion from the first movie, but it's much less glaring this time. The only real problem is that it looks very different from the other movies (in terms of cinematography), but you can't blame Columbus for that.
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
Directed by Alfonso Cuarón, the third installment in the Harry Potter series saw a huge shift in the direction of the series, which I found pretty unsettling. Cuarón clearly takes a different approach to the series than Columbus did, emphasizing the fantastic visuals and art direction over the more bland environments of the first two films. This is to the film's credit, of course: the art direction in Prisoner of Azkaban is incredible. The dementors are amazing, the hypogriffs are amazing, the willow is amazing, and... the general theme I'm working here is "amazing". This is a beautiful movie. Unfortunately, visuals alone can't carry a film.
Cuarón does a great job with immersion and atmosphere, but he leaves out far too many integral plot details. Harry Potter fans like to whine about every tiny little cut that the film adaptations make, which has always gotten on my nerves, but this is one huge exception. There's too much story cut out of this movie, and I really can't think of a reason why. The source material for this one was a bit longer than Chamber, but the movie is a bit shorter. Adding these details back in could have made the film the same length at most, and probably still a bit shorter. Why the cuts?
The detail I'm talking about primarily is Lupin's talk with Harry to explain what the Marauder's Map is and why it exists. This is completely omitted from the movie, which makes the Marauder's Map come across as an inexplicable plot device -- powers as the plot demands. The relationship between Harry and Lupin in general is downplayed too much as far as I'm concerned, but this scene is the most jarring. It didn't need to be cut! WHY?!
Another sore spot in the film is Radcliffe's crying scene in Hogsmeade. I like Radcliffe, but he did a really bad job on this scene. It's... pretty embarrassing. I won't linger on it though, since he was a child actor and these were his first films. To his credit, he does a way better job at crying in subsequent movies, so don't worry about it. Cut Daniel a break.
Other than the story cuts, this movie is pretty good. I like how it kind of glosses over the Shrieking Shack scene to focus its "climax music" on Harry's encounter with the dementors by the lake. It makes the whole Shack scene into a false climax, which is pretty clever actually. Cuarón did a good job, but I was glad to see him go. The story is a little bit more important to me than the visuals, and I really hoped that a director would come along who could mix the brilliant art and story into one perfect Potter movie. I hoped, but then...
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
...Mike Newell signed on for the fourth movie. And I don't like it. The only good thing I can say about Goblet of Fire as a whole is that it doesn't screw up the story. The story points are hit with precision, if not grace. Very few characters get any real development, and the entire movie jumps around at lightning speed. It gives me motion sickness.
The art direction is still pretty good, though it's hurt by the atrocious pacing. Many of the sets are creative and beautiful, but most of it isn't on screen long enough for you to appreciate it like you could with Cuarón's work. There are a few exceptions: the ball in particular stands out as memorable, and the entire graveyard scene with Voldemort is chilling. If the whole movie could have been as well-paced as these scenes, it would have been much better off -- however, the movie is two hours and forty minutes long. That's pretty damn long... but it should have been longer.
In my opinion, Goblet of Fire is the last novel in the series to truly feel edited. Very little of the material in the first four books is unnecessary, which is surprising given the length of Goblet of Fire. After this book, the series started to include more and more subplots that I found unimportant to the core story and background. Trimming the last three books liberally would be required -- and welcome -- but the first four just needed to be left alone. Undoubtedly they needed to be changed in some ways, but not to the extent of the later films. Goblet of Fire should have been obscenely long -- it really needed to be. As it is, the lightning pace renders the film boring. Pretty-looking, but boring.
The real icing on the cake is the director's horrendous fumbling of Dumbledore's character. When this movie came out, I heard a lot of insults towards Michael Gambon, with people assuming that it was his fault that Dumbledore was a total moron in this film. Gambon's excellent performance in every other Potter movie proves it, though: Newell can't direct Dumbledore to save his life. None of the other characters were that bad, but then again, it's hard to tell most of the time because the movie cuts so damn much.
I know I'm going a little heavy on the criticism here, but I really dislike this movie. It's a stain on the series. The movies could have recovered from their inconsistent direction if there had been a director in charge who could have mixed Azkaban's art with Chamber's story -- the first three films could have just been Harry growing up. It would have been a bit silly still, but no more bad than the books were at the beginning. This movie ruined that.
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
Thankfully, Newell didn't return to direct another Potter movie. The new director, David Yates, is officially my hero. This film is awesome! It mixes Cuarón's art direction with Columbus's general story direction, with some of Newell's "chill factor" (the only thing he really contributed). Yates also knows when to cut and when to add -- Order of the Phoenix is a long book that drags frequently, but the movie is far from it. It moves at a healthy pace similar to Azkaban's, but doesn't make all the huge cuts that Cuarón did. It tells the story and the background details that give the story context. The only problem I have with the story is how downplayed Kreacher is -- he was actually going to be cut entirely before Rowling stepped in and stated that he had to be included. Kreacher does appear, but only very briefly; given his large role in the last two books, I think he should have had more screentime. That's a minor gripe, though.
The best thing about Yates's direction is that he doesn't try to distance himself from the directors that preceded him. He includes many of the little quirks that each director brought to the series, which helps to tie them together. It's still obvious that the directors keep changing, but Yates's efforts help to alleviate some of that. He makes an admirable attempt to fix the mistakes made so far, without making many of his own. (If you don't know what I'm talking about, just think of the different scene transitions that each director did. Columbus's soft cuts, Newell's hard cuts, and Cuarón's fancy transitions are all present in this movie. Filmmaking is a visual medium, and details like these are more important than they seem.)
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
I had high expectations for this movie after the previous one, and I'm happy to say that it not only met those expectations, it actually exceeded them. With Half-Blood Prince, David Yates proved once again that he is the man. It's as good to the story as it is to the eyes, adapting the core story elements of its novel into a form more suitable for a visual medium. It feels like a perfect continuation from Order of the Phoenix, which is to be expected given the director, but also, incredibly, manages to come across as the logical maturation of Prisoner of Azkaban.
I complained that Alfonso Cuarón cut too much story from Azkaban to make way for its visuals, but this film makes me reflect on his job more fondly. Something about the vague mystery of Malfoy in this film makes me remember the vague mystery of Sirius Black in that one. It also helps that this film contains several crying scenes, the Marauder's Map, and a false climax -- all things that Prisoner of Azkaban had. And since the first two films transition with relative grace into the third one, this almost makes all of the movies transition into each other. Newell's horrendous attempt at Goblet of Fire and the bland art direction from Columbus are the only things holding the Potter series back from seeming, in my eyes, thematically consistent.
There isn't a lot else that I can say about Half-Blood Prince. As long as you're not one of those fans that wants an exact 1:1 videobook of the novel, you'll love this movie. It's funny, interesting, and emotional, just like a Harry Potter movie should be. It's great to note that Radcliffe has improved immeasurably since his crying scene in Prisoner of Azkaban: he does a perfect job in this one. Michael Gambon does another great job as Dumbledore, proving once again that his performance in the fourth movie is entirely Mike Newell's fault.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
Technically the seventh and final book in the series is actually two movies, but they aren't paced like two separate movies so I'll count them together. I've heard people moan that splitting the final book into two parts was just a marketing ploy, and while I'm sure dollar signs were spinning in some executives' eyes when the idea was greenlit, I still support the decision. In a perfect world, Goblet of Fire could have been split into two parts instead of this movie, but in the absence of a perfect world we'll just have to make do.
Splitting the source material into two films means that the final confrontation against Voldemort and the Death Eaters is allowed to span roughly five hours instead of the usual two and half, and this means that the story can linger and pace itself a little bit better. For a series as massive and epic as Harry Potter, a suitably huge conclusion would be needed to cap it off -- and for the most part, Yates succeeded once again. Part 1 is a leisurely first act that draws you back into the characters and setting quite effectively, with plenty of action creeping into the second act just to keep the viewers on their toes, then Part 2 is for the most part just a super-extended third act. And while my gut instinct for a situation like that would be to criticize Part 2 for stretching out what's traditionally supposed to be punchy and to the point... I can't deny that the enormous climax of Deathly Hallows just works.
That's not to say that the two films are masterpieces. Being made in 2011 amongst the craze of pointless CGI and superhero movies, it seems like the post-production visual effects team decided to be lazy and just reuse some PlayStation 3 graphics instead of doing actual work. For $250 000 000, don't tell me they couldn't have made the effects look better than that. Half of the movie feels like a video game cutscene, Attack of the Clones style. But then, I'm really biased against CGI in general. I've always held up the other Potter films as my example of CGI done well (you either use it sparingly or have enough dough to make it look flawless), but Deathly Hallows hangs a big asterisk over my example, and that just annoys me.
There's also a serious problem with the subplot distribution. For whatever reason, either the screenwriter or the director decided to put all that negative stuff about Dumbledore that was in the book into Part 1 -- but then didn't actually follow up on it satisfactorily in Part 2. Unlike in the book, Deathly Hallows doesn't redeem Dumbledore, and his winking smile to Harry when we do get to see him one last time just sort of makes him look like a prick. What was that about? The majority of the story was done quite well in Deathly Hallows, and it's not like they didn't have enough running time to expound on everything they wanted. The humanization of Dumbledore is pretty important to the series's themes, but if they wanted to cut it so badly, they could have at least cut all of it.
With the Harry Potter series, I can't help but be a little bit sour -- it's so close to being great! David Yates deserves a trophy for his efforts, but no one could ever have undone Goblet of Fire. However, I do think Yates could have incorporated some of that childish optimism from the first two movies into Deathly Hallows, and that would have helped tie up another loose end. The terrible epilogue from the Deathly Hallows book was included in the film anyway, so he could have made it look like Philosopher's Stone, then leave out the cheesy fanfic names to stop it from being too cheesy. That would have worked.
Alas, it just wasn't to be.
I wrote at the beginning of this review that the story of Harry Potter doesn't need four books of build-up before the antagonist arrives, and I wrote later that the material in the first four books seemed more necessary that the last three. This may seem like a contradiction, but it isn't really. Very little of the material prior to Voldemort's return is relevant to the fact that he hasn't returned, meaning that it could just as easily be covered in the last three books. I feel like the series would be much better if the exposition to nonsense ratio was more balanced (i.e., put more nonsense at the beginning and more exposition at the end).
In conclusion, the films aren't any much better than the books, but it's not like the books were bad anyway. The increasing lengths and complexity of story structures make the Harry Potter books a great introduction to novels; the varying directors and moods of the Harry Potter movies make them a great introduction to films. Are they great? Not really. But they're fun. If you haven't watched them yet, you should check them out.