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My Week in Movies (6/12–6/18)

June 19, 2011

HARRY POTTER AND THE ORDER OF THE PHOENIX — I mentioned a few weeks ago that my usual preparation for a new Harry Potter film has been to read the books, not to refresh on the films. In retrospect this was probably a mistake. It made me too aware of everything altered or omitted. Even when I tried to mitigate it by re-reading only the books up to, but not including, the upcoming film, the problem is as I alluded to in my GOBLET OF FIRE comments. Each film is a follow-up to the preceding films, not to the preceding books. If an earlier film omitted a certain plotline, that plotline no longer exists in the story universe of the films, and may have a ripple effect on changes that need to be made to later films.

All that to say, my purpose in re-watching the films and not re-reading the books as the eighth and final installment approaches is to immerse myself in the story universe of the films, and judge them on those merits as much as possible. I’ve read the books many times at this point, so the events of the story — particularly in the early books — are as ingrained in my imagination’s memory as those of The Odyssey. I can’t not notice when something’s different. But, by watching the movies in close succession, I’ve been less distracted by the changes, more able to take the films on their own merits.

I’ve long felt that ORDER OF THE PHOENIX, David Yates’ maiden voyage at the helm of the franchise, was a step backwards from the franchise’s upward trend in quality. But as I was surprised last week to find GOBLET a poorer film than I recalled, I was equally surprised to discover PHOENIX to be a much better one. I simply must have been holding the film hostage to the book. Naturally the book superior, but viewing the film as much on its own merits as is possible, the adaptation makes a lot of smart choices to condense storylines into their most important essence. In particular, the work done here to build Harry’s relationship with Sirius — something neglected in the previous film but important for the climax of this one — is very well done. There’s plenty missing, sure, but for the most part if you didn’t know it was there in the book, you wouldn’t feel its absence here.

Something that was handled particularly well was the connection between Harry and Voldemort. Unlike the ridiculous tongue-flicking by Crouch Jr. in GOBLET, we see Voldemort in one of Harry’s visions twisting his neck, as though to get a kink out. Throughout the film, Harry will do the same thing, usually coinciding with a sudden rush of fury or loathing. It’s a much more subtle and successful clue to the mystery.

Characterization is still off for a number of characters, and I mention this because it’s not an aspect of the films that reasonably needed to be changed in the adaptation. Particularly in the cases of Umbridge and Dumbledore — both characters, in the book, are highly composed, engaged in a battle of wits beneath a consistently pleasant (exaggeratedly so, in Umbridge’s case) exterior. Dumbledore is always avuncular, even when informing the Minister for Magic that he does not intend to, “what’s the phrase, ‘come quietly’?” And Umbridge is sickly sweet to mask her poisonous nature.

But here in the film, Dumbledore seems openly exasperated in nearly every scene, and cracks begin to show in Umbridge’s façade from the very first Defense against the Dark Arts lesson. For both of them to be unflappably collected, as originally written, is much more interesting in my opinion.

The other thing that still strikes me as not working is the film’s handling of Sirius’ death. In the book, Sirius is not hit by the killing curse, but by a stunning spell that blasts him through the veil, and that’s what kills him. It happens suddenly, almost too fast for anyone to realize what happened, and leaves Harry (and the reader) in denial about Sirius’ fate for some time. There was no time to say goodbye. Surely, this can’t be how heroes die.

In the film, Sirius is hit with the Avada Kedavra curse, but reacts like he’s been punched in the kidney, gasping for air — despite prior establishment that the curse kills instantly, and knocks its victims off their feet (we see flashbacks of Cedric getting killed several times, so it’s easy to compare them). He then slowly leans back and floats away into the veil.

I think the director must have wanted to make it a more dramatic moment, but the irony is that doing it this way makes it less impactful in the end, because drawing it out gives us a form of closure with the character. It gives the audience time to say goodbye. Maybe, after the way their relationship has been built, a clearer death makes most people feel Harry’s pain more sharply; but I think the sudden shock of Sirius vanishing through the veil — having not been Kedavra’d, having been vibrant and full of fighting spirit up until that very moment, having no right to be dead — would have had a much harder impact, as it does in the book. As it is, I think the moment falls woefully flat — and, unfortunately, as the entire film is built in support of that moment (as the screenwriter himself states in some of the BTS material), it robs the film of the strength it otherwise could have had.

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