“Words are our most inexhaustible source of magic.”
In true mainstream media fashion, the last installment of Hollywood’s adaptation of the Harry Potter books is being heralded as the end, an apocryphal event of such magnitude that we must bid Harry, Ron and Hermione a tearful adieu. Nevermind that J.K. Rowlings’ final book in the series was actually published years ago. Or that there is always the possibility of prequels (ask George Lucas about that one), next generation sequels or, if it’s truly the classic it’s billed as, adaptations by generations yet to come. After all, how many times has cinema returned to the Peter Pan, Jane Eyre and Alice In Wonderland literary well?
Everything is marketing these days — aesthetics, entertainment, politics, the economy — and in this era of relentless ad pitches and corporate messaging, the true achievement of the Harry Potter films has been that its creators never screwed the thing up. When you consider the ever-diminishing imagination on display in the Narnia movies, the mopey banality of the Twilight series, the complete failure of The Golden Compass and Lemony Snicket’s a Series of Unfortunate Events, or Star Wars’ cash-rich but idea-poor prequels, there’s an elaborate template for how to crash a serialized epic. Against all odds, the Potter flicks have managed to maintain a fairly high quality of craftsmanship. And given their push-me-pull-you fealty to the books, the movies are surprisingly adept at honoring Rowling’s readers while entertaining the unconverted.
But if we’re honest about it, even at their peak, the Potter flicks don’t come close to representing the high-water mark for their genre. The adaptations are always competent, frequently entertaining, and occasionally ambitious (Alfonso Cuaron’s Prisoner of Azkhaban is particularly stylish) but they are hardly the stuff of timeless classics. That turf still remains the exclusive domain of Rowling’s novels. For all their flaws (and there are a few) the books deserve their phenom status for the obsessively immersive world they create and the way they have inspired an entire generation to discover the joys of reading. One can only hope that that influence remains equally strong in decades to come.
If the movies excel at anything, it’s streamlining Rowling’s tonally chaotic plotting into a mostly coherent arc. Which makes Deathly Hallows: Part 2 a bit of an exception, as it delivers a thunderous but far-from moving finish. After a brief, low-key opening, Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and his best friends Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) set off to destroy the last of Voldemort’s (Ralph Fiennes) Horcruxes — enchanted objects with pieces of the Dark Lord’s soul — in order to make him mortally vulnerable. This tosses the trio into the film’s best CGI sequence — the goblin- and dragon-guarded Gringotts Wizarding Bank. After that, it’s a trip back to Hogwarts for negotiations with a ghost, Severus Snape’s (the fabulous Alan Rickman) final fate, and a pyrotechnic battle that pits old friends against the armies of he-who-must-not-be-named.
As the movie dashes headlong for the exit, it remains engaging and exciting throughout, but misses the emotional and narrative pauses that deepened its recent predecessors. Deathly Hallows: Part 2 is essentially a two-hour third act with an extended curtain call for its many side players. Even as Harry and Voldemort discover that they are linked in ways they don’t fully grasp, their story never really builds its revelations toward a satisfying dramatic climax.
And all that action and confrontation expose the limits of director David Yates’ talent. While his four-film series tenure revealed him to be adept at mood, composition, and character development, the epic clash of magical armies that level Hogworts Castle prove to be beyond his range. Harry’s final wand-off with Voldemort is grave and violent and, ultimately, a little underwhelming — partly because of Rowling’s narrative choices (the outcome relies more on her schematic rules of magic than Harry’s abilities) and partly because Yates never delivers the emotional knockout punch you hope for.
Unlike Peter Jackson’s final chapter in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Deathly Hallows: Part 2 (the film)never fully comes into its own, never finds the kind of grace and majesty that lingers long after the end credits roll. Despite everything — the eight films, the four directors, the two Dumbledores, the more than $1 billion price tag — you still feel like you need to read the books to fully appreciate Harry Potter on a personal level.
Still, in the final analysis, what makes “the boy who lived” so special is Rowling’s core theme of loss of innocence. Both the books and the movies — which benefit from having a cast that grows up before our eyes — poignantly chart the painful transition from childhood to adulthood, and the dawning awareness of personal mortality. From childhood wonder to teenage angst and self-doubt, Harry’s identity is forged as much through the loyalty of his family and friends as it is through his great personal losses. As we all age, we all begin to understand that the world is filled with great sadness, fear and tragedy. Harry Potter understands that to confront those realities with a heart that is open to love and friendship is truly an adventure worth having.