Baseball Crank
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July 16, 2007
POP CULTURE: Harry Potter and the Grumpy Old Dude

It being my son's brithday last Thursday, we took the kids (sans baby) out to see Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. On the whole, it was yet again an enjoyable film, as the first four were. But a good many of the scenes felt rushed - they didn't just trim out scenes to squeeze an 870-page book into a single movie, they also simplified the scenes that were left, taking out many of the delicious ironies, clever plot twists and one-liners that make Rowling's books more than just fun kiddie stories. I swear, if they made a movie version of Gilligan's Island today the first thing the studio would do is tell the director that the plot needed to be simplified and there were too many characters. The film ran something like 2 hours and 20 minutes, and while a 3-hour movie is always a hard sell, especially for kids, you could easily have added 20 minutes to the film and lost nothing in terms of pacing. Remember, the bulk of the kids in the audience have plowed through multiple 700+ page books, they will have the patience.

Of course, the book is always better. And I'm not unsympathetic to the problem of condensing a book of that length. More after the fold - I'm writing for the audience of people who know the books here, so spoilers will follow if you don't.

One of the problems with movies made from book serieses is that they tend to cut things that are essential to the plot of the series but not of the particular book, and this one is no exception - why did Harry have to hear the prophecy in the Ministry in front of his friends rather than from Dumbledore? You'll recall that the Goblet of Fire movie cut the crucial scene that sets up Order of the Phoenix: Cornelius Fudge's stubborn refusal to believe that Voldemort is back. I always suspected that the decision to cut that scene was partly driven by a refusal to face the contemporary political parallels in a scene where the hawks who warned of the Voldemort threat were obviously right - notwithstanding the fact that JK Rowling wrote the scene before September 11 and all that.

Order of the Phoenix, of course, is the most political of all the Potter books - not political in the sense of an allegory of today's headlines, but political in the sense that it deals with issues of government, and in fact the Ministry of Magic provides a cornucopia of governmental malfeasance and incompetence:

*Mulishly denying the existence of an external, terroristic threat.

*Misusing the judicial process to bring trumped-up criminal charges against its critics (having already staged an attack one of those critics).

*Micromanaging education by decrees of the national government.

*Censoring the press while putting out propaganda.

*Cracking down on individuals' right to defend themselves just when they are most in need.

*Blatant racism.

*Influence peddling (Lucius Malfoy).

*Foolishly entrusting prison security to enemies.

*Excessive surveillance of communications.

*Sanctioning torture of students and abusive interrogation (the use of Veritaserum).

*Appallingly poor security around what ought to be closely guarded secrets.

Something for everyone! In that context, the film doesn't cover everything - we especially miss the revelation that Umbridge set the dementors on Harry, as well as the background of Umbridge's racism - but it does nicely canvass the oppressiveness of the Ministry and its accompanying fecklessness with regard to the Death Eater threat.

The scene I missed the most, of the ones that were cut, was the hospital scene - granted, the return of Gilderoy Lockhart didn't advance the plot and would have required them to bring back Kenneth Branagh, but the scene in the film where Neville talks about his parents is a poor substitute for showing them. I also missed the whole dynamic of the faculty passive-aggressively undermining Umbridge by making her do things they claimed to be unsure of their authority to do (like chasing down stray fireworks).

I actually thought that the most theatrical scenes in the book were the ones that translated least well, like Dumbledore's duel with Voldemort. The scene that probably suffered the most from haste was the scene where Dumbledore leaves Hogwarts - a tremendously skillful tableu in Rowling's hands, with Dumbledore at turns mirthful and shrewd in improvising Harry's acquittal and conspiring with Kingsley, to say nothing of how Hermione's jinx on the "Dumbledore's Army" list played out. But that brings us to the larger flaw that could utterly sink the sixth film if not repaired: Michael Gambon is an awful Dumbledore, taking a vividly drawn character and reducing him to just another grumpy, gruff old guy who can do some magic. All the things that make Dumbledore so impressive on the page - including those aspects that Richard Harris brought so ably to life in the first two films - are missing here: the sense of commanding power, the wry and mischievous humor, the serene confidence, the Fred Rogers level of gentleness. In the books, Dumbledore doesn't struggle like a man in a tug-o-war when fighting Voldemort, he does things with a flick of the wand. The ultimate Dumbledore scene in the series is when he's cornered at the top of the astronomy tower in the sixth book - weakened, disarmed, surrounded by enemies threatening him with death - and is speaking with them pleasantly, and one of them sneers that they have no time for his jokes, to which he replies, "Jokes? No, these are manners." Can you picture Gambon pulling that scene off? I can't. He needs to be replaced.

The rest of the cast does a good job here, though. Among the child actors, Emma Watson has always had the Hermione character nailed, and Daniel Radcliffe has managed to grow as an actor with the increasing demands of what started off as a fairly easy role in the first two films. Rupert Grint is no longer the disaster he was in the second film, having traded in comic mugging for an average-guy slightly sullen teen look (of course, Ron's importance to the series is his normalcy, his Sam Gamgee to Harry's suffering, conflicted Frodo). The other kids have held their roles well. Imelda Staunton did a much better Umbridge than I expected from the previews, and that was critical to the film. With the passage of years and the harsh lighting, most of the adult actors looked rather the worse for wear, but Alan Rickman, Maggie Smith and Robbie Coltrane remain perfect for their characters.

One thing I liked in the flying scenes was the emphasis on the modernity of London; in the books you get that this is set today, but most of the scenes of the Muggle world are more rural or suburban rather than juxtaposing broom-flying wizards with an urban skyline at night.

One last odd choice: the movie rather strongly suggested that Harry's real romantic connection should have been with Luna, who is shown as the only one who understands him, rather than Cho, to whom his attraction is unexplained and inexplicable. (The scene at the end with Luna tacking up posters requesting her lost possessions back ran long enough that I don't know why they left out the book's poignant line where she indicates that they do this to her every year).

UPDATE: Forgot to mention this - I don't necessarily agree with Chris Lynch that Grawp looks enough like a left-wing caricature of George W. Bush to suspect intentional dumping of contemporary politics into the film, but I can see where he's coming from; Grawp looks mostly like Alfred E. Newman.

As I said, the story is inherently and unaviodably small-p political, but that kind of politics holds up well for generations of readers; efforts to inject more specific references to today's debates and personalities is exactly what causes things to get dated. For example, the Muggle Prime Minister in the first chapter of Boox Six is certainly at least a little Tony Blair-ish, but the scene works perfectly well if you have no idea who Blair is.

SECOND UPDATE: Gambon in his own words:

Empire: Are you kind of easing into the role a bit more now you have done one film as Dumbledore?

Gambon: I just play him as myself, I don't ease myself into any role really. I stick a beard on and play me. Every part I play is just a variant of my own personality. No real character actor, of course, just me.

Empire: Have you still not read any of the books?

Gambon: Well, I don't see any point. I've got the scripts. People who have read the books get miserable because of all the bits that have been cut out. So I just read the script. That's the best way.

(H/t Jeff Emanuel for the link)

THIRD UPDATE: Here is a provactive idea, though I'm sure there are better choices: Sean Connery as Dumbledore for the sixth film? He wouldn't capture Dumbledore's gentle side but at least he could be twinkly and mischievous, serene and yet powerful. Plus, of course, he's Scottish.

Richard Harris is still a tough act to follow.

Posted by Baseball Crank at 7:28 AM | Pop Culture | Comments (14) | TrackBack (0)
Comments

We're not seeing the movie until Friday, right before book seven comes out. It looks like it's par for the course as far the films go - enjoyable, but lacking. (Azkaban was probably the best in the series as far as movies go.)

I wonder how much input Rowling has into these movies. Obviously they are not going to include everything that happens in the course of 800+ page books, but they seem to excluding the most crucial aspects. From what I understand, they excised the most significant bit of dialogue between Volde - err, he who must not be named and Dumbledore. It's one thing to snip out the Quidditch matches, another to gloss over dialogue crucial to understanding the whole series.

BTW, my wife and I both commented over the weekend while watching Goblet of Fire how the new Dumbledore is starting to grow on us. But I do think he lacks something, and you do a good job explaining just what's off about him. On the other hand, my wife has a decidedly more critical take on the child actors, especially Radcliffe, who she thinks relies to much on his lips and mouth. I do think the teeth grinding method does get overplayed.

Posted by: paul zummo at July 16, 2007 1:56 PM

"I wonder how much input Rowling has into these movies."

I understand from other sources that Rowlings prevented the director from cutting a scene or two that would have caused them trouble when they went to film the 7th book. And the director had asked her about Sirius Black's family for the scene in the tapestry room and got back a complete family tree. I suspect that Rowlings is watching overthings even if she's not on the set every day.

As to the movie itself, I found the editing pretty choppy and seemed to lack the spark some of the earlier ones did. Frankly, I miss Alfonso CuarĂ³n.

Posted by: Strick at July 16, 2007 4:25 PM

Complete Agreement Crank. Order of the Phoenix could, and should, have been at least a half hour longer to capture all the detail in what was the longest, and darkest, book of the series. The Harry Potter saga is in many ways the modern equivalent of the Lords of the Rings saga. The people behind those movies understood their audence and realized that the audience wanted and had no problem watching 3 hour movies that delivered. Sadly, that lesson has been lost on the producers of the Order of the Phoenix.

Posted by: dch at July 16, 2007 7:44 PM

Complete Agreement Crank. Order of the Phoenix could, and should, have been at least a half hour longer to capture all the detail in what was the longest, and darkest, book of the series. The Harry Potter saga is in many ways the modern equivalent of the Lords of the Rings saga. The people behind those movies understood their audence and realized that the audience wanted and had no problem watching 3 hour movies that delivered. Sadly, that lesson has been lost on the producers of the Order of the Phoenix.

Posted by: dch at July 16, 2007 7:44 PM

Finally someone who agrees with me about Gambon. He killed Goblet of Fire for me when he shakes Harry with agitated fear after Potter's name emerges from the Goblet. That's not Dumbledore - I don't know who that is.

I sorely missed McGonagall laying the smackdown on Umbridge, both in her class and during Potter's career discussion. In fact, I missed McGonagall in general. Maggie Smith is a goddess.

Still, I thought this film was a lot of fun (if you haven't seen it in IMAX 3-D, get out there already!), and I'm looking forward to Prince, if only because there should be more scenery for Rickman to chew.

Posted by: grrbear at July 16, 2007 7:50 PM

Crank,

Love your Harry Potter thoughts. I've reread your old Potter takes a few times over the past year or so and you've got some nice insights in the series.

I wanted to chime in quickly on Gambon's portrayal of Dumbledore. Gambon has been awful from day one and his flaws really came through in Order. The most stinging indictment of his work is how the previous two directors have had to hide him. Most fans of the books would argue that the emotional high-water mark of each installment is Harry's chat with Dumbledore at the conclusion of each book. The movies have moved away from these moments inexplicably and to their detriment. I believe that a major factor here is that Gambon isn't capable or unwilling to do the scenes in the way that they must be done.

I do disagree with your suggestion of Sean Connery as a replacement. For some reason, he just doesn't work for me. I do have a pinch hitter in mind: Patrick Stewart. It would of course require a lot of make-up and, even more likely, an absurd wig, but I think that Stewart could hit on all the nuances of the character.

In any event, something needs to be done. In my case, I need to get back to studying for the bar. Keep up the good work on all fronts.

Posted by: The Iconoclast at July 16, 2007 10:05 PM

Thanks, and agreed that they have been hiding Gambon. Yeah, Connery was just a guy who popped in my head who could do at least some of the job better - agreed that Stewart would probably be a better choice.

Posted by: The Crank at July 16, 2007 10:22 PM

I completely agree about Gambon. He has no presence as Dumbledore, no authority. What did it for me (aside from that ridiculous ribbon that he ties around the end of his beard) was the way he introduced the Triwizard Tournament at the beginning of Goblet of Fire. He comes across as a tawdry carnival barker or a second-rate gameshow emcee, rather than the Hogwarts headmaster. At the same time, although I liked Richard Harris better, there were limits to his portrayal as well. Leaving his illness at the end aside, can you picture him dueling Voldemort in the new movie? But he was still far better in the role than Gambon. Your suggestion for the next movie is worth considering - why not Connery?

Posted by: mjb42758 at July 17, 2007 3:18 AM

I love Sean Connery, but I just don't see him in the role. An essential trait of DD is that he is always calm and, moreover, almost genteel. This is why Gambon is so awful. His Dumbledore freaks out...a lot.

Along the same lines, I can't picture Connery playing a soft character. Granted, he'd be plenty intimidating and would probably deliver some fantastic one-liners, but I don't think that is what the character is all about. In hindsight, Connery may have been perfect for Gandalf, who is much coarser character.

I'm not married to Stewart either. At this point, I'd settle for any kindly, old English actor.

Quick aside to Crank: It's obvious that Rowling is trying to import some messages in this series, as you captured in your original post. My question is whether you think there is anything else lurking beneath the surface (ala Tolkien). I'd even go as far to say that Rowling is deep into Inkling territory and that the books are at least as Christian in message as the Lord of the Rings. There are some fantastic sites out there that have adopted this position and I'm curious to know you're take.

Posted by: The Iconoclast at July 17, 2007 9:25 AM

I have been reading this blog on and off for a long time without commenting, but finally finding another soul who thinks that Gambon is terrible has made post a comment of tremendous thanks. I finally feel validated.

I have not seen HP5 yet, but the last two have been nearly ruined for me by his acting (or lack thereof).

Posted by: Moshe at July 17, 2007 9:41 PM

I have been reading this blog on and off for a long time without commenting, but finally finding another soul who thinks that Gambon is terrible has made post a comment of tremendous thanks. I finally feel validated.

I have not seen HP5 yet, but the last two have been nearly ruined for me by his acting (or lack thereof).

Posted by: Moshe at July 17, 2007 9:41 PM

Gambon has been so awful as Dumbledore that I'm actually looking forward to him getting Hans Grubered in Half-Blood Prince.

Posted by: SheaShea at July 18, 2007 10:38 AM

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Posted by: yuscwjf iyahszmf at July 22, 2007 10:26 AM

What about Richard Burton? No, wait, he's dead. Albert Finney? After seeing him do Churchill in "The Gathering Storm", I really think he could bring more twinkle and life to Dumbledore. Gambon was great in Layer Cake. But that comment about how he plays himself makes sense. The character in Layer Cake was a total @$$ and Dumbledore, well, isn't.

Posted by: Linus at July 23, 2007 1:41 AM
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