Saturday, July 16, 2011

Harry Potter and the Failed Finale

The Harry Potter movie series ended this weekend with a resounding thud, but you may not have heard it. You may have been there in the theater cheering and clapping and crying and under the assumption that you’d just seen a great movie and a very satisfying ending to the franchise. I propose that you’ve been cleverly bamboozled.

Let’s start with the basics. This movie wasn’t bad. On many levels it was even good. One thing it did particularly well was use a number of touchstones from the books that, often with just a single shot, (instead of a well-played scene) stirred great emotions. There were quite a few times when a well-placed image caused the waterworks to start for people around me in the theater. However, it wasn’t so much the movie they were crying at as it was the memory of a scene in the books. It’s a clever ploy, but it’s entirely dependant upon the book. I’m guessing that people who have never read the books came away with a much different experience than those who did. Of course, you’ll say that anyone who didn’t read the books isn’t a real Potterphile and that’s why they didn’t get as emotional as you may have, but in fact—the movie didn’t inspire the emotion, the memory of the emotion the book stirred was simply referenced to bring it back to the forefront of your mind.

You could almost excuse the director for this tactic if he was trying to cram the very robust book into a single movie, but he took two movies up telling the final story and his failure to nail the emotional scenes leaves this series with a very empty ending.


Another sour note, and this one quite literally, was the musical score of the final movie which failed miserably, and as much could have been predicted when it was announced that legendary composer John Williams wasn’t going to return for the final installment. Williams, of course, composed the famous Harry Potter theme and did the score for the first three Potter movies. He’s also responsible for a few other little ditties you may have heard such as the theme music and scores for movies like Star Wars, Jurassic Park, Jaws, Indiana Jones, E.T., and Superman. Do you know what all of those movies—and their sequels have in common? You left the theater with those songs in your head and feeling magical because of it.

Since Williams stopped doing the scores for the Potter movies, that hasn’t been true of those films and certainly wasn’t true of the final chapter. In fact, the main theme, the music written by Williams for the original movies, the song that IMMEDIATELY comes to mind when you think of Harry Potter and even plays in your mind as you read the books now was entirely absent until the actors were off screen and the movie had faded to black. It certainly wasn’t on my mind after I’d left the theater.

It will be argued, of course, that the movies took on a darker, more ominous tone than was apparent in the first three movies and that the original themes did not fit. This couldn’t be further from the truth of course. Over the years, Williams has proven to be a genius at adapting his own, light and grand themes into dark and permeating ones. Through the use of different instruments, different parts of his orchestra and different accompaniment to his base tune, he could have stapled the theme all over this movie, as he did with the various themes in Star Wars.

Want proof that the musical scoring has been screwed up since Williams left? I’ll make it simple. Can you hum the Darth Vader theme? How about the Voldemort theme? The former is the most famous bad-guy music in the world. The latter does not exist because Voldemort doesn’t become an actual character until after Williams stopped doing the composing for the movies.

One final point on the music is this one: When I read the book, I remember being most moved by the scene where Harry makes the long march to confront his fate at the hands of Voldemort accompanied by all those he’s lost. It was an emotional and heartrending scene. I remember thinking that the music during the march could literally make or break the movie version. I knew it had to be a version of the famous Harry Potter theme. I knew it needed to start timid and afraid and it needed to work its way up as Harry gained courage from those with him and by the end of his trek, it had to be at it’s crescendo and I imagined this amazing brass baseline staccato with a powerful snare drumline making the theme into an actual march. I knew that if they got the music in that scene right they’d nail the movie.

Of course, that never became realized in the movie. In fact, that fantastic scene was truncated and the music didn’t play much part in it at all. What a shame and a waste.


If you’re making a book into a movie, there are certain things that need to be changed and they can’t be helped. It’s the reason why people almost always say that the book is better than the movie. So, it’s reasonable and understandable that certain parts of the book needed to be changed in order to bring it to the big screen. The most egregious changes were the ones that didn’t need to be made at all. The above-mentioned scene where Harry marches into the woods to meet his fate is cut down to a quick pow-wow and a, “okay, I’m here” scene. That one of the most powerful chapters in the final book was cut to shreds even though the director had two movies to get it all in is an absolute shame. That scene was THE tear jerker scene in the book. It’s the perfect example of the director just showing a quick glimpse of something that readers know means much more. So, did the lovers of the book get choked up at that scene? Probably. Was it because of the movie? No.

Even more inexplicable were some of the changes that seem to have been made for the change’s sake alone. For the entire series we’ve seen that memories, extracted by wand and put into a vial are what you pour into a Pensieve allowing others to see your memories. All the sudden, for no reason, and without any explanation, the scene is changed so that Harry collects Snape’s tears to use in the pensieve? Why? Why change it? Was that supposed to make it more emotional for us? Was that designed to jerk a few tears? All it did for me was confuse things and make me wonder why a book with so many emotional scenes for a director to choose from was changed so that some of the most touching scenes were skipped over with unemotional scenes changed to stir sentiment up in the audience.


This movie franchise captured our hearts and minds in a way similar to the books. Seeing Diagon Alley brought to life for the first time was amazing. Getting to see Quidditch actually being played was truly very cool. The early movies in this series gave a depth to the books and forever associated certain images in our minds. You know it was done well because as we went back to books as they were released our own perceptions of those places and things had been forever changed—and not in a bad way. Books are all about imagination and the reader’s interaction with author to jointly create the scenes and characters. Movies steal that from us. They say THIS is what the characters look like. THIS is what this place looks like. The participation of the viewer is much less than that of the reader. However, so brilliantly were the early movies cast, imagined and shot that very few people I’ve ever encountered have challenged them.

I’m happy with my image of the three main characters being that of the actors who play them. I’m happy with my image of Hogwarts being the one shown in the movies. Any and every detail they might have gotten wrong could have been a major issue for the readers of the books, but they did such a fantastic job in the early movies in imagining the world and staying true to what J.K. Rowling had written that it seemed to almost magically fit into all of our own imaginings.

Then things took a turn for the worse. John Williams absence can’t be understated, but more than that, as the movies took on the books increasingly darkening subject matter they lost the sense of magic that propelled us in the beginning. The humorous moments in the final installment were so out of place that they seemed entirely forced when they came. The final three movies (from the final two books) failed miserably. And somehow, they still managed to be well received. I think it’s more the fact that they could have been so much more than they were than that they were bad. I think it’s more that they took short cuts and relied on their audience knowing the books in order to bring on emotion and feeling than doing it in the movie itself that most disappoints.

There was wild applause at the end of the movie in the theater where I saw it. Quite a few people walked out with tears in their eyes. I’m willing to bet they had all read the books. And the people who walked out looking slightly confused were the ones who didn’t read them. Every review I’ve read has been positive. Every opinion I’ve heard has been good. I’ve read a lot of Facebook status messages talking about people who had a good two hour cry after the movie, but I’ll be surprised, upon further reflection, and down the road if this ending is so universally liked. I think the cheap tricks used to stir emotion won’t hold up to multiple viewings. I think the lack of that magical feeling will be missed and when people look down at their box set of DVDs of the whole movie franchise, I bet it’s the early movies they tend to pick out to watch, not the later ones and rarely, if ever, the finale.

With all of this said, I didn’t dislike the movie. I didn’t hate it. The problem was that I didn’t love it and after years of being a fan, years of going to see the movies, years of following along online I felt I was entitled to an ending that I could love and I think the director, David Yeats and the producers failed to deliver that to me. And I suspect, when the smoke clears and you see through the clever misdirection, you’ll come to find that this movie was a bit more empty than you first thought it was too.