For all their focus on magic, the Harry Potter movies are awfully literal. For all the whimsy and dreams the books might inspire, the film franchise again and again limits imaginative possibilities. In part, this is a function of movies: they make the ethereal material. But it’s also a peculiarity of these movies, that they are so beholden to readers that they must refer to too many characters and plot points, that they must deliver quantity, usually at the expense of quality.
The last film in the series, Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows Part 2, does more of that, in the process again making too literal what is, in the abstract, a fairly knotty idea. This is built into the plot premise of both Deathly Hallows movies, that Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and his best friends Hermione (Emma Watson) and Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) are tracking down and destroying horcruxes, the various objects in which Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) has stashed pieces of his soul, the better to keep himself alive.
Leading to the inevitable last showdown with Voldemort, Harry’s education — as a wizard and a boy — has always been hard, beginning with the murder of his parents when he was an infant. The moment that left him with his signature scar figures hugely here again. As before, this film’s return to that primal scene reveals yet a bit more crucial information: this version indicates that Snape (Alan Rickman) is not quite the venal sort he has so long appeared, but is instead tragic and damaged, much like Harry himself.
Harry’s relationship to Voldemort has been ever vexed, a sort of paradox that defines them both. If they are good and evil, they are also much alike, leaders of followers who will do their bidding, even when such bidding isn’t always clear. Harry has yet to resolve his role. If he wants to save Hogwarts, the idea (along with wizardry and magic and goodness), and also to save his friends (individual embodiments of the idea), he has repeatedly witnessed these same friends sacrificing themselves in order to save him, the chosen one. What to do, what to do!? As friends and mentors — beginning with his mom and dad — have for years died to keep him alive, now Harry confronts a logical problem, whether to destroy himself to save the good magic, even as the bad magic triumphs in his demise.
As dilemmas go, it’s pretty deep. It helps that Harry has actually grown up some over the course of the movies (a flashback to the olden days at Hogwarts shows how strikingly young he was when this business started). And it helps that this movie — amid the loud and special-effected battles featuring stone soldiers, ogres, and wild-haired warriors — offers a bit of downtime, quiet conversations when Harry and company weigh options.
Some of these have to do with action, to break into a bank vault belonging to Bellatrix Lestrange (Helena Bonham Carter), to seek out the noseless one rather than wait to be found. And some are more concerned with understanding. In questioning the wand-maker Ollivander (John Hurt), Harry arrives at a revelation. “You talk about wands as if they have feelings, as if they can think,” he observes, and the old man nods, respectful even as he is instructive: “The wand chooses the wizard, Mr. Potter.” As Harry wants to get hold of the Elder Wand, currently in Voldemort’s possession, this bit of wisdom is surely significant.
It’s a bit that informs Harry’s self-conception as a wizard. If earlier incarnations of Harry delighted in defying death, in riding brooms and casting spells and chatting up ghosts, this one contemplates death more specifically– or as this film has it, “The boy who lived, come to die.” It’s not that growing up means he loses his sense of wonder, though he does, a little. It means that he has to let this thing go, and also, that everyone who’s been along for this ride, say, fans who dress up for conventions or movie premieres, will also be moving on, ideally.
It’s a hard sell, no doubt. This because the franchise has sold itself so incessantly, for so long (the books, the first one published in 1997, have sold over 450 million copies; the movies, beginning in 2001, have made more than $6.3 billion, the highest-grossing movie series ever). The end can’t help but be disappointing, and the wrapping up — tying up loose ends, pairing off protagonists and killing off those deserving such fates — is a cumbersome undertaking, burdened as well with providing 3D thrills (the swooping and projecting images that currently typify the technology) and cursory appearances by minor characters, for instance, the Malfoys (their allegiances as shifting as always), Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane), Ginny Weasley (Bonnie Wright), and Minerva McGonagall (Maggie Smith). This checking off process crowds the last scenes with brief close-ups, none very important and most taking up time until Harry comes on screen again.
These moments — save for the big fat showdown with Voldemort, where they wield their wands like light sabers — generally have him thinking about death, not just his own, but also others’. If this is a usual effect of growing up, it’s also, for Harry Potter, integral to his paradoxical self. This is made plainest in his increasingly intense mind-melding with Voldemort. Now, as he recovers from an episode, reeling and looking pale, Harry tells Hermione and Ron, “There is something weak within him, more like he’s wounded.” Harry concludes, “If anything, he’s more dangerous.”
Well, yes. And yes, Harry is reminded of this repeatedly, by Ollivander and Snape, by Ron and Hermione, and by deliciously grumpy Aberforth Dumbledore (Ciarán Hinds) and his enduringly elusive brother Albus (Michael Gambon), returned from the dead for one more brief instruction. Here again, the film lapses into imagery that is too literal. As they walk in a white-on-white, afterlifey version of King’s Cross, they ponder what’s happened and lo! find some especially yucky evidence of Voldemort’s pathology, a raw, red, fetus-like creature, curled up and set apart, like it’s been aborted.
It’s a grisly image, less bracing and also more visceral than all the huffing and puffing Hogwarts battle scenes. And if this creepy thing doesn’t quite explain what’s been going on with Harry all these many years, it does underline the difficulty of converting ideas into literal representations.