May 31, 2011
The brilliance is the simple concept – a boarding school of magic. This carries most of the first six episodes. The last book is probably the weakest, as a book, in that the strength is the school, and most of the seventh book takes us on the run outside school; Rowling’s weaknesses as a writer come through.
Book v film – the first three
1. Philosophers Stone
Introduces the world. When I first read it, it seemed a well done version of one of those stories; tight, clever, funny, but not obviously superior. The film was an adequate adaptation. Limited due to the age of the characters and the story, but fun to revisit on knowing the ending; many character introductions become a lot neater.
2. Chamber of Secrets
Even despite that intolerable fucking elf this is easily the best, and certainly the most enjoyable, of the movies. Features the most satisfying arc, the best plotting, the best emotional resonance, the best archetypal structuring. Pitch perfect. Takes the world and expands it.
Features a fabulous turn from Kenneth Branagh. And hell, any movie that features a magical duel between Alan Rickman and Kenneth Branagh that is played for laughs has already won.
The book seemed fine. Some interesting slight deviations; in general I prefer the film.
3. Prisoner of Azkhaban
The movie brings a massive change in tone – the look and feel, the camera angles and palette, are totally different from the first two. The movie really didn’t work for me, especially 2nd time through. Just off; basically, it isn’t fun. Which is a shame, because the content is really good.
Interestingly, this is the one I had been told was better, but by people who I know who like film, but not fantasy, and didn’t “get” the rest of the series. I suspect they were blinded by their affinity for film: a great cast (Thewlis! Oldman!) and a different director of greater repute; despite this, it just misses in important ways, particularly the feel.
I read the book after watching the film a second time.
On the strength of this book, now I can see why the series took off. It is a genuinely good read, tight, interesting, unexpected. And also that it is a shame that no-one was willing to edit Rowling from this point on, as the books grow ever vaster.
Azkhaban is really tight, and cleverly plotted. The film is in fact a bad adaptation – it shrink, simplifies, and distorts in ways that are wrong. In the film, the time travel plot is expanded and dragged out; the whys of things are occluded, character’s motivations vanish and become incoherent, revelations are not revealed. The book is also, critically, way more fun. The tone is in keeping with the rest of the series, but the adaptation loses the fun.
Book v film – the next three
And this is where everything shifts. Harry Potter became a phenomenon, and Rowling stopped being edited.
I watched movies 4, 5, and 6 in the space of a few days, skim reading each book after watching the film.
The filmic contractions of the books are generally clever, and many of my favourite moments in the later films are not in the books. They shrink lengthy revelations into pacier delivery, generally by creating excellent character moments. However, the latter movies also suffer from this concatenation in adaptation, as much colour and depth is removed. Fantasy is about immersion in the world, and the details are crucial to this. Also, the minor characters suffer.
(Taking a side-trip into weirdness: Alan Moore (and others) talk about the imagination as an actually existing fourth-dimensional ideaspace – in a sense these forms exist in a real way in another place. Something I found fascinating was how easy it was to interact with the forms, the characters, and the world, in my imagination, after coming upon it when it was an entrenched phenomenon – ie a massively shared area of ideaspace; this was in direct contrast to the experience of writing at the time, which was charting a new area of ideaspace on my own. The difference was palpable.)
Anyway. The books become bloated, losing their previously excellent tight plotting. Things become very drawn out, there are some self-indulgent side plots which are usually (rightly) culled from the later films; though they do turn out to matter a bit to character development. Some truly massive chunks of exposition, and they generally get a bit turgid at times. Though, granted, this is without reading them properly.
The films effectively become the edits that the books never received, but in a different medium, so they don’t sit quite right as films; though the weirdness of structure in a way makes them more interesting than a more rigidly filmic formula. Still, lots of fun.
4. Goblet of Fire
The cast expands, almost unmanageably. Probably the most altered from book to film, since the book was so bloated. Lots of fun stuff from the book omitted in the film. Utimately if you really get into it, you will probably want to read all the character bits, important details and elements of coherence scattered through the books. Weirdly structured, remains quite a lot of fun, though.
5. Order of the Phoenix
Definitely one of the most fun/successful episodes. Features the best villain of the piece, the absolutely intolerable Umbridge. The supporting cast gets its longest moment in the sun.
Have only skimmed the book; suspect it will be pretty good.
6. Half Blood Prince
One of the least satisfying episodes. Partly due to the overall downer tone. But really the only interesting stuff is the character interactions and romances. All the horcrux and Voldemort history stuff is just astoundingly dragged out, even in the film. Effectively the exposition episode of the cycle.
Have only browsed the book.
So in general, if you haven’t jumped aboard, you can get away with just watching the movies, unless you get right into it, in which case you may as well read the books. They are easy reading. Except the last one. But we will get to that