‘Harry Potter’ is meant for marathons

[17 July 2009]

By Robert W. Butler

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

I’ve had no luck thinking of a precedent for the wildly successful “Harry Potter” films.

Has there been another series of eight motion pictures following the same characters over a decade — characters played by the same actors from film to film?

Well, of course there’s Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy and before that George Lucas’ “Star Wars” saga. But neither offered the unexpectedly moving spectacle of watching child actors mature into adults. We’ve seen something similar with long-running TV series (“The Wonder Years,” “Malcolm in the Middle”), but not in a big-budget motion picture.

Every seven years since 1963 documentarist Michael Apted has turned his camera on the same diverse group of British schoolchildren as they mature into middle age and beyond. But his “Seven Up” series is fact, not fiction.

No, I believe the “Potter” franchise is unique in cinema history.

As a parent I marvel at the way these films — the most recent, “Half-Blood Prince” opened Wednesday — allow us to eavesdrop on the physical, emotional and intellectual growth of its characters ... and the actors who portray them. In a weird way it’s almost as if Harry/Daniel, Ron/Rupert and Hermione/Emma are our own kids, and we’re watching their lives unfold through photos and home movies. Classroom triumphs, sporting events, first kisses ... take away all the f/x and hocus pocus and it’s still a stirring saga of personal development.

How prescient of the films’ producers to sign virtually all of the performers to contracts guaranteeing they’d be around for the whole series. The only time they’ve been forced to recast a major character was when Richard Harris, the original Dumbledore, died. The role was assumed — beautifully — by Michael Gambon.

The “Lord of the Rings” and “Potter” films prove conclusively that a movie doesn’t have to have a conventional beginning, middle and end — providing they can be viewed as part of a much greater continuum.

My main beef with individual “Potter” entries is that they lack structure. Taken as a one-shot enterprise, they feel sketchy and incomplete. But put them all together — and rest assured that for decades to come fans will be watching them in chronological order in marathon viewing sessions — and you have an entirely different animal.

Whether any other literary effort will spawn this sort of cinematic doppelganger remains to be seen. Lord knows Hollywood has been trying, bringing to the screen effects-heavy versions of popular children’s literature.

The hope, obviously, is to establish a franchise to rival the financial success of “Harry Potter.” But most of these movies have flopped.

“Harry Potter” and “Rings” have changed the way we approach literature on film. No longer does a story have to be compressed so that it can be consumed at one sitting. In fact, the public has a huge appetite for long, complex stories that play out over many hours.

British TV has had numerous triumphs with its faithful adaptations of literary classics. Harry himself, Daniel Radcliffe, played young David Copperfield in a three-hour, 1999 TV version of Dickens’ novel. And the 1995 five-hour BBC production of “Pride and Prejudice” has become a home video perennial.

But would any of these have worked if they’d been released as feature films? I doubt it.

A production like “Lonesome Dove” could stretch over several nights on television. But I doubt that audiences would pay to see four separate “Lonesome Dove” films down at the megaplex, especially if they had to wait a year between entries.

The problem is that it takes a monster hit like the Potter series to make a feature film series feasible.

Still, long-form storytelling is flourishing. Over the Christmas holidays the Butlers watched the entire five seasons of HBO’s “The Wire” on DVD. It was way better than watching one episode a week, with long months separating seasons.

Heck, it was better than almost any movie I’ve seen in ages.

If you’re going to film epic literature — Dickens, Tolstoy, Hugo, J.R.R. Tolkien, J.K. Rowling — you can’t cut corners. You must take the time to embrace the depth of these artists’ visions.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/article/108383-harry-potter-is-meant-for-marathons/