Have the Harry Potter films shed the books’ shadow?

[13 July 2009]

By Mark Caro

Chicago Tribune (MCT)

The previous Harry Potter movie was a big deal, yes, but it came out less than two weeks before the seventh and final chapter of J.K. Rowling’s phenomenally popular series hit bookshelves everywhere.

That the movie “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” was overshadowed by the book “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” two summers ago was fitting, an almost formal acknowledgment of the film series’ subordinate status to Rowling’s original works.

But “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince,” the film series’ sixth installment, opens Wednesday (at 12:01 a.m.) in a dramatically different landscape. Now that the books’ many million fans know the fates of Harry and Voldemort, the movies can and must stand on their own. So how do they measure up? Are they comparable to the James Bond movies, which long ago eclipsed their literary origins? Or are the Harry Potter films still ultimately to be judged by how expertly they translate what Rowling put on the page?

If you assess the movies solely on box-office terms, they’ve been a smashing success. The five Potter films released so far have grossed more than $1.4 billion in North America and almost $4.5 billion worldwide. In not-adjusted-for-inflation dollars, that figure exceeds the global gross for all six “Star Wars” movies.

Often when a series reaches its sixth entry, it’s struggling to keep the critical and commercial flame lit (“Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country” anyone?), and few last that long. Yet the Potter momentum keeps building as it moves toward the climatic seventh and eighth movies to be devoted to “Deathly Hallows.”

“I had no idea when we were making the first film that it would do as well as it did,” Potter series producer David Heyman said. “It was only when we started making the fourth film (‘Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire’) that I realized we would be doing this all the way to the end.”

Early reviews for “Half-Blood Prince” have been especially strong, but then the critical reception for the entire series has been consistent, with Rotten Tomatoes’ tally of positive reviews ranging from 77 percent (“Order of the Phoenix”) to 89 percent (“Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire,” the 2005 fourth entry).

Consistency may be the films’ greatest hallmark.

When the producers signed three 10-year-old unknowns to play the lead characters in the first two movies, they had no assurances that Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson would be accepted as their Potterworld counterparts and would grow along with the characters as the films tried to keep up with the books’ year-to-year chronology.

“You don’t cast for the future,” Heyman said. “You cast for the present. We thought they would be great for Harry, Ron and Hermione at the time, and we’ve just been very lucky that they’ve grown even more into the parts, that they’ve grown as individuals and actors.”

The stellar adult cast (Alan Rickman, Maggie Smith and other British all-stars) has been near constant as well. The only major casting hiccup has been the replacement of Richard Harris, who died after playing Professor Dumbledore for the first two movies, with the somewhat friskier Michael Gambon.

Steve Kloves has written all but one of the screenplays (“Phoenix”), and the series has had four directors, with British director David Yates taking the reins for “Order of the Phoenix” onward. Their challenge has been different from, say, Peter Jackson in his three-film adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings,” which at the time wasn’t so fresh in so many moviegoers’ minds. A Fandango survey of more than 3,000 moviegoers planning to see “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” indicates that a whopping 85 percent of them have read all seven Potter books.

“The difference between ‘Harry Potter’ and ‘Lord of the Rings’ is that a lot of ‘Harry Potter’ depends on the specific details, what happens when,” said Melissa Anelli, who runs the Leaky Cauldron fan site and authored “Harry, A History.”

“With ‘Lord of the Rings’ it was less dependent on plot points, more dependent on the overall feeling, the characters on their journey.”

So the Potter filmmakers have had to cram many large chunks of increasingly ambitious books into movies that tend to hover around the 21/ 2- hour mark. Yet the filmmaking style has evolved over the series.

Director Chris Columbus’ first two entries were dedicated to satisfying devotees’ desire to see as much of the books on screen as possible.

Director Alfonso Cuaron’s “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” (2004) shifted the series’ focus to Harry’s point of view, sacrificing plot points for a deeper emotional experience.

“I think it was a very wise choice that Alfonso made because it allowed us to make films that were more organic as films,” Heyman said. “You can’t translate a book ultimately, especially as the books expand in length. You have to make choices.”

Nonetheless, Jeffrey Wells, who writes the Hollywood Elsewhere blog, called the movies “Velveeta cinema,” likened them to “imprisonment” and “torture” and said he hasn’t seen one since “Azkaban.”

“Hogwarts, Hogwarts, Hogwarts — it really is like being in ‘The Count of Monte Cristo’ in that cell,” Wells said, complaining about the wizard school setting.

But Ain’t It Cool News Web site founder Harry Knowles, who hasn’t read any of the books, called the films “one of the most remarkable juvenile series in the history of cinema. It’s pretty remarkable to see what they’re trying to do: staying with the same cast and shooting it in essentially real school time. I don’t think there’s anything you could really compare it to.”

Keeping a team together to film eight blockbusters in 11 years (the last is due in summer 2011) certainly is ambitious, and if the results haven’t attained the cinephile stature of “The Lord of the Rings,” they’ve certainly grabbed and maintained the world’s attention. “Harry Potter is a bona fide phenomenon,” Maltin said. “It was that in the literary world, and it’s just as much a phenomenon in the movies, and that is extremely rare.”

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/article/108118-have-the-harry-potter-films-shed-the-books-shadow/