And satisfaction feels like a distant memory… Understanding why the Harry Potter films are terrible

I did it.

It’s such an ambiguous phrase.  It can express pride or achievement.  Ever thought about climbing that ridiculously huge mountain?  I did it.  Guess who built that gazebo?  I did it.  You saw the painting of Monkey Jesus?  I did it.

On the other hand, it can be an admission of guilt.  Somebody ate all of your rhubarb and apple pies?  I did it.  Your house is on fire and your children are gone?  I did it.  You saw the painting of Monkey Jesus?  I did it.

My use of the phase today oscillates between the two meanings.  I did it.  I sat through (with excellent company, might I add) all of the Harry Potter movies over the space of three days.

Just as I think that if more people read the Bible, there’d be fewer Christians; if more people watched the Harry Potter movies back-to-back, there’d be fewer fans of Harry Potter.

Watching the films this way reframes the story of Harry Potter’s years at Hogwarts and his final battle with Voldemort.  We are watching the development of characters not only across the individual school year, but through their coming of age.

But it’s exactly this reframing which highlights the problems and flaws with the series.  If you read one of the books, if you watch one of the films, the lasting memory (if the film is successful) is of the parts that you liked.  In effect, your brain does the editing for you.  All the confusing, poorly lit guff is forgotten, and you are left with an experience of enjoyment.

If you’re a fan, that is.  There is nothing in these films for people who are not rabid fans of the franchise.

When the next film in the series becomes part of the sequence of films, the cracks in the woodwork are hard to ignore.  Harry Potter has learnt to look to his friends for support because friendship and love is what distinguishes him from his enemy, Voldemort.  Roll the credits.  Whoops.  Ignore all the lessons we learnt in the previous film; Harry Potter is being a petulant adolescent and must learn to look to his friends for support because friendship and love is what distinguishes him from his enemy, Voldemort.

Upon reaching the credits, all of the characters undergo a hard reset ready for the opening of the next film, no wiser and no more developed than where they commenced the last.

This applies equally to supporting characters, particularly Dumbledore.  Come the end of the film, Harry and Dumbledore have developed a special bond built on trust and respect.  Come the start of the next film, Dumbledore refuses to tell Harry anything — often to the callous extreme of point blank refusing to communicate at all.

Worse still is the underlying message of the film: people are means to ends.

German philosopher, Immanuel Kant, argued that the only moral engagement with other rational beings was to treat them as ends in themselves.  They had unique aspirations, beliefs, and desires, and we had an obligation not to interfere with those rational desires.  We therefore were not allowed to manipulate people — through force, through lying, &c. — into achieving our own goals, even if we believe it’s in their own good.

Watched back-to-back, the parts of the story about Dumbledore using Harry as a means, rather than as an end, are emphasised.  Harry wants to meet a girl; Harry has his belongings removed to the Weasley’s by Dumbledore.  Harry wants to ask Dumbledore for guidance and advice; Dumbledore refuses to engage.  Harry wants to help in the fight against Voldemort; Dumbledore doesn’t inform him that he will need to die in order to weaken Voldemort.

And so on and so forth.  It becomes increasingly difficult to like Dumbledore as a character when he hard resets into distant bastard mode.  ‘Why do you like him so much, Harry?  The guy is clearly a douchecanoe.’

Harry’s relationship with Dumbledore mirrors his relationship with his parents.  Distant, unknowable characters, Harry fantasises their attributes and qualities, then screams at anybody who disrupts his ignorant fantasising.  Snape calls Harry’s father an arrogant jack-hole, Harry throws a tantrum.  Dumbledore’s brother calls Dumbledore out on his immorality, Harry throws a tantrum.

As a sequence of films, the wrong parts of the story resonate and it becomes difficult to understand the motivations of the characters.  When each film stands alone, the wizarding world seems amazing and fantastic.  Come the final two films, the audience is shocked to see this Narnian paradise inverted and perverted.  But when watched as a sequence, the wizarding world is the domain of socially inept Peter Pans: people too self absorbed to explain anything (how the train station works, how the portkeys work, how the flue network works, &c., &c.) or take note of anybody else.

Thus we get the insanity of one of the teachers asking the class for permission slips.  Permission slips are required, it seems, for the children to go to a nearby town.  Permission slips, however, were not required for learning to fly a broomstick (which results in a broken arm), for playing Quidditch (where children are routinely harmed), for entering the Tri-Wizard tournament (where people die), for being used as a prize in the Tri-Wizard tournament (where people die), or for even enrolling in the school in the first place (where children are routinely harmed and where people die).

Finally, the sequence of films demonstrate how poorly constructed the story is.  There are films where, truth be told, nothing really happens.

First film: A young boy discovers he is a wizard exactly the same year a menacing figure from his past tries to obtain a magic MacGuffin which will restore the menacing figure to power.

Second film: Harry must defeat a magical diary which has released a magical creature into the school.

Third film: Harry is told that a person related to his parents’ death has escaped from a magical prison, but Harry instead spends his year worrying about sinister magical creatures which have been invited to the school to look for the person related to his parents’ death.

Fourth film: Harry must win a competition which he didn’t enter because, if he doesn’t, the menacing figure who’s been trying to return won’t return.

Fifth film: Evil bureaucrats take over Harry’s school.

Sixth film: Harry must obtain a memory from his teacher.  People forget that there are psychic teachers and magical truth serums.

Seventh film: Harry must move around a lot.

Eighth film: Harry must confront the menacing figure from his past.

Films four through eight are a trainwreck of storytelling.  The eighth film is extremely busy because the plot has been lollygagging since the end of the third film.  Although most of the problem is with the books (which, on a purely technical level alone, are complete rubbish), it isn’t helped by the films having a different director at the helm each time around.  The mood and pacing changes.  Parts of the story necessary to achieve the climax of the final installment of the saga aren’t highlighted because, after all, nobody’s concerned about the bigger picture.

I’m reminded so much of George Lucas.  The reason the original Star Wars films were so great was that there wasn’t a monopoly on the story’s information.  If Lucas wanted something stupid (like Han Solo being a green-skinned frog monster), the creative team was there to soften the rough edges.  But Rowling refused to let anybody interfere with her story, thus directors were mostly flying blind about how to create a series of films which worked as a coherent whole.

In conclusion, the films are dreadful, the books are dreadful, and anybody who still likes Harry Potter is a dreadful person.

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4 thoughts on “And satisfaction feels like a distant memory… Understanding why the Harry Potter films are terrible

  1. Have to disagree with you here. I never enjoyed the films but I loved the books. Have you read all 7 books? The films were okay they weren’t brilliant, the acting in some parts were pretty bad. And unfortantely I don’t think Daniel Radcliffe was the right person to play Harry. I hope in the future they remake the series with better casting and one director throughout.

  2. Ouch baby…very ouch.

    LMAO at the use of the term “lollygagging”…hilarious.

    I am a fan (and by your logic, a dreadful person) – I do think it’s more about the vibe than the skill of the novels. They are enjoyable on first read but painful on subsequent reading (the flaws that were easily overlooked cos of the aforementioned “vibe” become apparent). A key flaw of both the books and the films (to an extent) is that they leave almost no room for imagination or alternate visions – they are so descriptive that it’s pretty difficult to come up with anything vastly different to what is portrayed in the movies (except I always pictured everyone being hotter!). This means that reading is easy but hardly gives the reader space to explore and imagine themselves.

    Most of what you said is fair though so I shan’t argue with it – only will say that enjoyment has intrinsic value and if these books were around when I was a kid, I am sure I would have loved them (hell, I was loving them in my 20s!).

  3. You are absolutely right. And the novels, after Ms Rowling dispensed with her editor, became truly awful.

    Gawd-knows-how-many-million words of bad narrative enthrall folk with neither critical faculties or imagination.

    Humans. How wonderful.

  4. Pingback: Perfected poem, powerful punch lines… Fantastic Beasts and Two Hours of Total Bullshit | Only The Sangfroid

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