[15 November 2010]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
It’s not as big as the Star Wars films—rotten prequels and all. It’s definitely failed to reach the ranks of Peter Jackson’s Oscar winning takes on the fabled JRR Tolkein folklore. It absolutely outpaces the pathetic attempts at turning CS Lewis’ Christian allegories about a Lion, a Witch, and a Wardrobe into a viable franchise, and yet when push comes to cinematic shove, the Harry Potter film series has failed to become the worldwide motion picture phenomenon that made author JK Rowlings a billionaire, book-wise.
Oh sure, each movie has made money—every installment has managed a worldwide gross somewhere between $700 and $975 million—and the boy wizard boasts an entire subsection of a major resort theme park to his name (take that, Luke Skywalker). But whereas Lucas’ lamentable space opera and Jackson jaunt through Middle Earth have inspired legions of life-altered devotees, Potter is a bit more perplexing. Granted, there are still a formidable bunch who’ve turned the elephantine tomes of Hogwarts and its ever-changing clique of characters into a religion, but the faithful aren’t quite as ferocious as those worshiping Dagoba and all far, far away galaxy points in between.
Again, it’s not a matter of money. You can’t sell a nation’s GNP in literature—especially to an eager underage demo—and not expect to reap some ample adaptation rewards. Logic dictates that if everyone who read a Potter novel (or, in most cases, all of them) wanted to see the movie versions of same, the rewards would be ample. All Warner Brothers and Hollywood has to bet on is a small percentage showing up come semi-regular release date and the coinage can’t be contained. While success can be defined in dollar bills, there appears to be levels to said accomplishment. Star Wars has found an equal financial footing, and Lord of the Rings also rules a portion of the all-time Top Ten. But so does Potter, so money might as well be a wash.
But there is a lingering element here, a question that should concern anyone within the House of Gryffindor: of all the facets making up the Harry Potter mythos, why aren’t the movies more revered? Put another, more crass way, why are they considered disposable while something as equally unnecessary as the Star Wars prequels have their ardent supporters? If all you care about is the bottom line, the Potter films have been ATMs. They’ve generated a huge amount of income for all involved. But the first Star Wars found itself nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, while all three of the Rings films uncovered substantial Academy favor. Harry Potter, not so much. As a matter of fact, aside from some technical and artistic merit categories, everyone’s beloved boy sorcerer has never competed for film’s big prize.
So why has Potter failed to go from commercial concern to unbearable cult? Why are there more voices palpitating over Team Edward and Jacob than Clan Harry or Ron?... or better yet, why does it seem to be that way? One imagines the defenders coming out of the wormwood, arguing that such a hypothesis fails to take into consideration Harry Potter’s influence or intricacies or worldwide impact. And what about the conventions, the online fansites, the umpteen takes on Rowling’s icons? If you ask people what their favorite film franchises are, one doesn’t hear a lot of solid vocal Potter support. There are defenders, and there is no denying the considerable cash haul, but beyond that, the nagging “Why?” remains.
It’s not a problem with casting, since no one has ever scoffed at the worth of Daniel Radcliff, Rupert Grint, and/or Emma Watson. At the beginning, when they were fresh and new and oh so young, there was some minor quibblings. But over the course of seven (soon to be eight) movies, they’ve more than proven their point… as have the rest of the ancillary Potter players. Even the death of original Dumbledore, Richard Harris, couldn’t derail the performance aspect of the movies. In fact, with each installment, it looked as if yet another noted UK thesp was stepping in to take on the title and make their children/grandchildren/nieces/nephews/significant others happy.
Even on the screenplay side of things, there has been a consistency that calls into question other pieces of the puzzle. While he’s penned all but one of the adaptations, Steve Kloves has been complimented for finding unique ways to parse through Rowling’s dense novels and extracting the very best beats. Sure, there is a slip in said uniformity since, for some unsung reason, the writer declined to take on Order of the Phoenix, leaves the scribing reigns to Michael Goldenberg. On the up side, the apparent newbie was actually an old Potter stalwart, having worked on screenplays for previously installments, only to have Kloves win the final gig.
That just leaves directors as part of the creative mix, and this is where Harry Potter has problems. Over the course of eight features, there have been four different filmmakers. Chris Columbus helmed Parts 1 and 2. The amazing Alfonso Cuaron dealt with Prisoner of Azkaban while Mike Newell tackled Goblet of Fire. Since Phoenix, David Yates has been in charge, and has brought the franchise into the home stretch. Again, there is a previous precedent with George Lucas and his cosmic comic book battles. He helmed all three prequels, as well as the newly christened Part IV: A New Hope. He then handpicked Irvin Kershner and Richard Marquand to work on Empire and Jedi—and you remember their remarkable career cannon both before and since, right?
The key was a constant vision and voice. Lucas never turned the series into a director’s medium, letting others imprint on his powerful property. Instead, all aesthetic decisions were filtered through his viewpoint—for good and for bad. In the case of Potter, however, the man behind the lens typically ruled the interpretation of said installment. Many love Cuaron’s darker tone and feel, while a few fault Columbus for giving the series a less than serious pres-school start. It would be nice to free associate on what a Harry Potter franchise helmed exclusively by Terry Gilliam, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, or even Steven Spielberg—all directors with clear artistic and creative drive—might have looked like. While they may have not made the movies Ms. Rowling demanded (she holds very tight control over her property), the might have crafted far more memorable entries.
Indeed, this could be the key to Harry Potter’s failure to fully resonate. The books all come from one perspective. The films do not. Even the horrid Twilight efforts seem made by the same person though all three have, so far, been forged by different directors. While there may be other reasons, it seems that the lack of universal approach and appreciation are stymieing the continuing classicism of this series. Not every critic agrees on the value of the franchise, and there are similar snipes about for Lucas and Jackson as well. And maybe it’s just a matter of time—and a decision on the final two films in the series. Of course, all of this could just be the theorizing of an outsider looking in. One senses however that Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings will be talked about long after the nu-media is through with them. For Harry Potter, the outlook is much less clear.