Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
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.
*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?
(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.