The Harry Potter Cycle – a review – part three



[this is the first one with substantive spoilers]


Final one: HP and the Deathly Hallows


Watched part one on the big screen. Had been hoping for 3D but it would have been overkill. The episodic nature is accentuated here, as we have half a story, essentially the setup for the finale. On the run, hunting horcruxes, Voldemort ascendant. Cool, but bring on part two.

The book:

Damn this book was a slog. Really noticeable, in that I had skimmed books 4-6 the day after watching them, and they were fine. This was work, despite being keen to get to the end.

The reliance on the formal structure of the school is revealed in the weakness of the final book. When they go on the run, away from Hogwarts, the narrative loses structure and becomes deeply turgid. The writing doesn’t carry it. The darker content adds to the drag factor. While this also corresponds with the darkest hour, it is sort of narratively necessary, but yeah, a long dragging. Here we feel the absence of editorial input.

The last 150 pages, the return to Hogwarts, and finale proper, are tonnes of fun however, and in general it ends well. It will be fun in 3D.

And now we reach spoilerville, since everything interesting I have to say about the last one is to do with the ending.



The Harry Potter Cycle – a review – part two

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.

Holy shit.

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

The Harry Potter Cycle – a review – part one

(I am going to split this review into three parts, since, somewhat alarmingly, it keeps getting longer.)

In part 1, I will start with a grab-bag of general/meta comments, then an authorial analysis of it as a fantasy; in part 2 I will go through the episodes comparing and contrasting the books and films; in part 3 I will discuss the last episode, and end on some spoilerific comments. Parts 1 and 2 will be largely free from substantive spoilers.

In general I will be talking about the movies as much as the books, since I watched the movies first, and read the books to catch up, and very much the cycle as a whole, hence the title. (My process: read first book when it became a phenom, watched first film, ignored it for most of a decade. Watched films 2 – 6, skimmed books 4-6 after watching the films for detail that was omitted, watched 7a, read book 7. Started rewatching the films, read book 3.)

General meta grab-bag of comments

On the whole, somewhat surprisingly after having ignored it so totally, I approve.

The books are aimed at young people, so it is a mark of something that I could find it as absorbing as I did, exposed to it in my early thirties. Certainly kidult stuff is not my metier; overall I was probably looking for something darker.

In general though, the Harry Potter cycle is really fun. Like, really fun. It took a while to get into it. Watching the films was the right move for me, as I would not have read the books. The first did not grab me enough. But by about the fourth film I was digging the characters and engaging with the world in the specific way I do with fantasy, entering into it imaginatively, though albeit due to my frustration with it.

Harry Potter works best as a whole. I would argue it needs to be understood as a whole, constructed out of seven uneven parts. Rowling apparently spent 5 years plotting before writing; this is readily apparent by the end. Things and people are also excellently named, another sign of gestation.

The strength of the overall structure means the cycle is less successful as individual parts. They are best seen as episodes in a cycle rather than individual works. The early episodes are also a lot better when you know where it is going; in hindsight, early interactions are telling and funny. This is why I am covering it in one go, rather than separately.

It is probably the Star Wars of its generation, both in the scale of its success, the way it is loved, and in the way that lots of Star Wars is kind of naff when you think about it honestly, but it is forgiven because the overall arc is awesome (eg Harry is as gormless as Luke.) And I can only imagine how much more awesome it would have been to be a young teen growing up with those books.

Watching the kids grow into decent actors is fun, particularly Hermione/Emma (Emma Watson has an incredible natural smile that Hermione rarely gets to use) and Harry/Daniel. Ron/Rupert much less so, though there are some very fun moments later on. Luna is a delight. And Neville’s arc is excellent, and reveals really inspired casting at a young age. Watching the old hands settle into their roles is pretty excellent. There is certainly something to be said for having an unlimited budget and the ability to cast all of England’s best actors. Alan Rickman is inspired, and Maggie Smith gets better and better. Helena Bonham Carter chews the scenery most wonderfully. Kenneth Branagh’s turn is devastating. Emma Thompson is unrecognisable. Coltrane’s Hagrid gets annoying; the series outgrows him.


Fantasy relies on the world; in a sense, the world is the main character. (Good fantasy often takes a bigger creative investment than other genres – eg Tolkien creating languages, Erikson/Esslemont spending 10 years creating the world.) The world of fantasy is not given; by definition, it is not the real world. Every deviation from that real world must be explained. This takes up space, and can come at the cost of revealing character, and the ease of delivering the story. When the world is given, you can focus on style more easily.

Harry Potter works because of two pieces of formal structural brilliance, after which I am tempted to say it essentially could not fail. (Not in the sense of guaranteed massive success, rather that of being really good.)

First, setting it in a boarding school, which is essentially a genre of its own, and second, by pacing a coming of age tale over seven years. By stapling the arc to things so well known, enough of the world is given for the fantasy to be overlaid – a school of magic, but held together by being school, and the familiar coming of age rites – so we sacrifice none of the character or emotional depth.

The school angle grounds everything that follows in something familiar. We don’t get this from the Muggle world – the Dursleys are so shockingly unreal and awful that nothing is real there. Hogwarts is excellent, especially the castle of the movies. Weaker by far is the rest of the world – for example, the Ministry, and what little else we see of the wizarding world.

(School is the last common experience we have in many ways – jobs have similarities but greater differences; relationships and marriages are similar patterns but devilishly divergent and unique; raising children is the next commonality, but even that, I suspect, is limited to the infant years, beyond which the complexity of a family will win out over the panic of dealing with immediate demands. We can identify with the process.)

Overlaid on this is an old-fashioned good vs evil motif, with the sins of the fathers to be excavated and reconciled. Harry is an exemplary selfless hero. Voldemort is alright as a villain. Like most monsters he works best when unseen, as potential. When revealed, he is a little one dimensionally evil. He could be smarter. Giving him 30 page expository chunks doesn’t help.

The characters are the other main strength, expanding the world. Harry suffers as most heroes do from a near-terminal lack of interestingness – he is perfect and pure and interesting things happen to him, and he drives them from his selfless heroic nature, but he himself is not especially interesting, since he must always act as the hero must act. He has no flaw to make him human, just challenges to overcome. This is where the coming of age angle steps in – the growing pains and awkwardness of adolescence provide travails we can identify with, as does again the school structure.

(Interesting to compare Buffy here – in Buffy, the strength and interest resides in the supporting cast. The true hero goes through shit but has to decide as the hero must decide. Yet compare Sunnydale High and Hogwarts – there is no comparison. Sunnydale barely registers on memory, it is a backdrop; Hogwarts feels real.)

(Next: book v films)