Harry Potter and the Blah-Di-Blah-Blah


So Harry Potter, the latest one. Making a lot of money. Yep. How many more to go? Ten? Oh, only two? Well, good, that means they'll finish up before the kids turn 30.

I'm not into the Harry Potter phenomenon. I have friends who are fans. I also have friends who are foes, who find it a source of intense bitterness that Diana Wynne Jones -- a vastly superior writer, they tell me, within the same genre of young adult fantasy fiction -- has never had a fraction of the recognition or reward spewed at J.K. Rowling.

But I've got no investment one way or another beyond liking genre stuff, plus a vague interest in seeing what supposedly creative types do when they have all the money and attention in the world, when they're in Fat City. The film Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is a good example of what often results: a bland, safe bet, plush and comfy, taking no chances and pleasantly vegetative to watch.

It's old news that, when directing the third film, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004), Alfonso Cuaron came up with the bright idea that these films ought to look good, at least. Previous director Chris Columbus hadn't thought of that. He'd been too busy documenting every time Dumbledore blew his nose, in deference to the fans' obsession that he omit nothing of vital importance from the books, in which everything is, of course, vitally important.

Cuaron put the production designers and CGI people to work bringing gorgeous gloom to the series, its rains and mists and rich colors and trails of black smoke. That's done a lot to ease the pain of watching these things. The current director, David Yates, follows Cuaron's lead in dedicating a chunk of the budget to beautiful weather effects. Nice snow scenes!

A much bigger chunk went, as usual, to buying up British actors and not challenging any of them, so they noodle around at their individual crafts, presumably to stave off boredom. Alan Rickman practices his vocal exercises, for example, in the role of Severus Snape. He tests how long he can draw out dramatic pauses, how sonorously he can extend syllables versus how severely he can clip off the final consonant, how nasal he can get if he really tries, which is so extremely nasal it's like that old commercial with the giant stuffed-up nose talking about allergy relief.

Don't misunderstand, I actually like Snape, I look forward to Snape scenes. He's one of the few dark, interesting characters in Rowling's world who gets to stay center stage for any length of time. She's forever shoving the villains and weirdos and monsters to the margins, or converting them, or revealing them to be really good underneath, so we can spend more time with all the virtuous types. (Sirius Black was a potentially great character who could never be wholly "safe," so she killed him off.)

The film directors, sadly, follow her lead. No proper sense of sustained menace. Jeez, people, Dickens laid all this out for you. The villains must be scary, powerful and ascendant for the bulk of the story, squeezing the virtuous into tighter and tighter corners, with everything light turning dark, until the sudden reversal at the very end! As Snape would say, the very ennnnnnd!

The Half-Blood Prince was structured to be suspenseful. It sets up the gathering evil right away: Death Eaters have so broken the bounds that they're even attacking the Muggle world, students are dropping out of Hogwarts, and Snape is involved in some mysterious double-dealings, taking "the vow that can't be broken" to defend and protect the vile Draco, who has been commissioned to do some awful deed, etc.

Clearly we're supposed to retain this impression of impending doom while Harry, Ron and Hermione (Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emily Watson) go through the torments of teen love. But we don't. Draco and Snape lurk around, and Dumbledore gives Harry strange secret assignments, but it's all episodic and unconnected. It seems to have no relation to the mooning around of the goofy, old-fashioned teens with nothing on their minds but their hair. The impression should be, "Hogwarts is under deadly attack, Harry, stop worrying about the prom," but instead it's just A-story, B-story.

But then, maybe I don't have a clear sense of what counts as menacing these days. I read an interview with Michael Gambon, who replaced the late Richard Harris as Dumbledore, and he claimed that whereas Harris was a warm and twinkly wizard headmaster, he plays Dumbledore as formidable, even dangerous. Wow! Totally news to me. I'd have said there was nothing formidable about Gambon's Dumbledore but his fake beard.

I dread the Dumbledore scenes for their sheer length and mildness. He always talks to Harry like a kindly uncle in approximately six-to-eight interminable scenes in every book/film, and kindly uncle talks just aren't the most riveting things in the world. Maybe it's different if your uncle's Jack the Ripper, but not if he's a gentle bearded wizard who snuffles, "Once again I must ask too much of you, Harry."

My grandmother was more formidable than Dumbledore. Ten times more.

Jim Broadbent plays a very middling sort-of villain as Professor Horace Slughorn. He experiments with an impressive range of smarmy, fatuous academic expressions, including one with blank eyes bugged out so far I feared the sockets couldn't hold them. Helena Bonham Carter is more promising as the nasty Bellatrix Lestrange. She looks like rotting fruit, which is very becoming, and she flings herself around with abandon trying to generate some sense of depravity in her few scenes. But really, there's not a lot to do.

Flashbacks to Lord Voldemort's youth as the brilliant Hogwarts student Tom Riddle are sadly minimal. These are the memories Harry is assigned to retrieve from Professor Slughorn because they will give Dumbledore needed intel with which to fight the dark lord. Trouble is, when Harry finally retrieves the key memory, Dumbledore already seems to know all about it, rendering Harry's efforts moot.

I know -- whatever. It's a Harry Potter movie.

But since they do spend so much time on the teen-hormone angle, I have to say that the Harry Potter-Ginny Weasley love story is disastrous in both book and film.

It's eye-wateringly dull, and Harry passes up so many other, better bets -- sweetly eccentric Luna Lovegood (Evanna Lynch), and that beautiful girl who makes a date with him at the coffee shop early on, and almost anybody else he walks by in the halls of Hogwarts -- that you really have to wonder about Rowling's fixation on the drab and virtuous.

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