Retrospective: Harry Potter – Part 1

Upon the release of the eighth and final Harry Potter film on home video, and the 10th anniversary of the very first film, it seems only natural to look back at the entire Harry Potter saga, through its cinematic triumphs and missteps. Yes, its a little more than obvious as to how much the actors have grown up over the past decade, and the intricacies of the narrative have been investigated by more knowledgeable individuals, so instead, this retrospective will be a little more focused on the strengths and weaknesses of each individual film as a work of cinema.

Let me also be perfectly clear about my stance on the adaptation of the series as a whole. Though they are both forms of artistic expression, literature and cinema are entirely different beasts. An adaptation of any work of literature to celluloid should (in my opinion) NEVER be a carbon copy of its source. Instead, it should be exactly what the word adaptation implies, adjusting itself to accordingly fit its new environment. Literature tells stories through words. Cinema tells stories through images. The only major aspects of literature that should be required to carry over in cinema are the general narrative structure and themes. As long as the film remains true enough to the intentions of the literary source, that is all that matters. Therefore, in the case of Harry Potter, I admit that I could nitpick here and there about a few details from the books that should have been in the films, but that is not the point. Sure there were a few changes made, and major excisions as well, but the themes and primary narrative from which the books’ strength derived remains in each of the films. So, let’s get started.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

Ah, the origin story: the most obligatory first step to creating your own successful film franchise! Let’s establish some exposition! Relationships! Conflict! It seems to be all too easy to criticize the first Harry Potter film in hindsight, considering the formidable steps forward the franchise has taken ever since. However, when one actually takes into account the entire Potter saga as a whole, it is quite remarkable how much this film got right. First and foremost is the casting. Though they don’t really settle into their characters until the third film, Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, and Emma Watson were the keys to making the entire franchise work, and of course, they do. Yes, perhaps their line deliveries fall a bit flat at times, and essentially function as “child actor” performances, but they are all nonetheless likable enough to carry the film. Of course, the rest of the casting could not have been much better, from Alan Rickman to Maggie Smith, from the late Richard Harris to Robbie Coltrane, the Potter films would become known for gathering the cream of the crop of British acting talent, and the first film certainly establishes that.

As to the remaining elements of the film, the production design is one of the constants that would remain a visual key throughout the saga, and the design of damn near everything is terrific. The visual design of the Potter films has always been exceptional, and it seems to have been taken a bit for granted as the films have continued. Could one imagine the Great Hall of Hogwarts looking differently? Or the Hogwarts express? Or the visualization of many of the great creatures? Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone lays the foundation for so much of the saga, and there is so much it gets absolutely right. I haven’t even touched on John Williams’ now classic score, giving us the primary themes of the entire saga. On a more interesting note, the cinematography of the first film is actually quite impressive at times, perhaps not in the movement of the camera, but certainly in the lighting setups. Director Chris Columbus cited the early black and white films of David Lean, such as Great Expectations, as an inspiration for the visual style of the film, and it shows. During the film’s ominous scenes, the contrast of light and shadow in many of the shots is quite impressive.

Here’s an example.

Given that the Potter series would become darker in tone for each successive film, it seems too easy to write off the first couple films as being too kids oriented. However, that is exactly the intention. Given the overall arc of Rowling’s saga, the first and second films are especially meant to appeal to children. The protagonist, after all, is eleven years of age when he sets off on his journey, so why should it not appeal primarily to children of the same age? Frankly, the warmth and light heartedness is exactly what the franchise needs to start out with, especially considering the darker corners it turns by the time it reaches its midpoint.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

Though it may be harsh to judge an entire series only two films in, it has become more clear over time that the least amount of growth from one episode to the next occurred with Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. That is not to say that the film is a poor one (none of the Potter films are), simply that there is little to visually distinguish Chamber of Secrets from its predecessor or from any of the films that would follow it. Perhaps since the first film had a winning formula on multiple accounts, Chris Columbus and crew felt it might be safe to stick to a similar formula.  The Quidditch matches, for instance, are pretty identical in the build up of tension, both through cinematography and editorial.  Then again, perhaps this similarity in visual style is because Chamber of Secrets as differs very little from Sorcerer’s Stone in narrative structure. Within the film, Harry essentially undergoes a similar character arc as he did in Sorcerer’s Stone.

Granted, the film as a whole is certainly superior to its predecessor in many obvious respects: the performances from the children are certainly more confident, and there is a greater presence of menace conveyed through cinematography and sound design. The film’s greatest assets come from the two new characters. Though he has little impact on the dramatic structure of the entire series, Gilderoy Lockhart has always been one of Rowling’s most playful characters, and few actors could have portrayed him with such glee as Kenneth Branagh. Of course, it is by no means a realistic performance, but Branagh gives his narcissist such levity, that every scene with him only benefits from his presence. The other key character is Dobby, as voiced by Toby Jones. In retrospect, the visual effects in creating Dobby are slightly dated even in comparison to two other CGI creatures from 2002: Yoda of Star Wars and Gollum of The Lord of the Rings. Nevertheless, though Dobby appeared to be more of a nuisance at first, knowing his ultimate fate makes his presence more welcome to the film’s proceedings.

Though the first two films of the Harry Potter film saga tend to get the most criticism in comparison to the leaps and bounds the series would make later on, it is vitally important to realize that as primarily expositional films, how much these first films got absolutely right: the casting of the central characters and the adult supporting players around them, the magnificent score by John Williams which would lay the groundwork for future composers to riff off of, and, of course, the meticulous production design that became one of the major keys to realizing the world of fantasy in its entirety.


~ by romancinema on November 17, 2011.

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