WARNING: This article contains SPOILERS: major plot points and details that may ruin the story for you if you haven't seen the movies or read the books for yourself! If you've never seen the Harry Potter films, I advise you not read this article.
As a child, I was always one of the unlucky few whose parents forbade him from taking part in the bespectacled wizard’s adventures; not because of any ludicrous opposition to the series’ apparent witchcraft (I say “ludicrous” because the series comes nowhere close to any true-to-life black magic dabbling), but because my parents assumed it was a bit too intense and scary for me. (And, in retrospect, they were probably right.) At thirteen, I went on a school band trip to Universal Studios Orlando, where I explored the then-new Harry Potter-themed section of the park. I was amazed with the world I had entered—yet I sadly had no knowledge of its source material! Over the course of the next seven years, even with a couple of failed attempts to do so, I never got around to exploring the series.
Finally, upon my arrival home for spring break of my sophomore year of college, my I discovered the series available through HBO Go (albeit in pan-and-scan). I hopped right in and, over the course of the vacation, eventually made it all the way through Harry’s story.
Now before I continue, there’s a matter I want to address. I know you bibliophiles are already set to bombard me with hate comments along the lines of “You didn’t read the books first!” Besides Sorcerer’s Stone, no, I did not—I’ll not argue against that fact. But as I mentioned in my first VLOG a couple months ago, books and movies are separate art forms, even if one is based on another. Harry Potter (in one of its many impacts on the industry) started the annoying trend of the companionship of commercial books and movies: every hot, new commercial book for young adults released these days enjoys a couple years of shelf life before it becomes a film that audiences consider to be its companion, meaning you can’t have one without the other. This trend puts the wrong idea in people’s heads: that the book and film are essentially the same piece of art, presenting the same experience. But I, as you all know, do not subscribe to this school of thought. Second of all, what truly bothered me when people would attack me with these meaningless accusations as a child was how they assumed a sort of arrogance with reading the book. In other words, they implied that if one had only seen the movie (or, heaven forbid, preferred it), one wasn’t as smart as them. They also failed to consider that some people (like me) actually enjoy movies along with books, appreciating them just as well, if not more so. So kids, if you’re a budding cinephile or prefer movies to books, don’t let people bully you over that fact. Enjoy what makes you happiest. So, with those troublesome matters out of the way, I’m moving on.
To say that I was impressed by the film series is a hideous understatement. After years of befuddlement at people’s obsession over it, I finally see the appeal. The series has a certain allure unlike anything else. It isn’t special in the same way as other great movie series or great works of literature, children’s or otherwise. It is, instead, a new breed of “special”— one that touched my heart in a fashion that no other piece of media or art has yet.
When it comes to appeal, the film series has three major star qualities. The first is J.K. Rowling’s impeccable writing. As I also discussed in my “Turning Books into Movies” VLOG, the author of a book, upon which a movie is based, is not the film’s auteur; that title goes instead to the film’s director. However, even so, Rowling’s style still shines through in the films. Based on what of the novels I have read, the films seem to mirror them one-to-one via a remarkably faithful utilization of the “translation method.” Rowling’s writing is also well-suited for cinema, as the plot moves forward via action and dialogue. Plus, they are chock full of the Lawrence Kasdan-esque humor, which sparkles onscreen and lives on for decades. But Rowling’s writing stands out best when viewed from far away: her characters, her world, and the story she ultimately tells are both charming as hell and purely inventive. Every character we meet is fascinating, and Rowling’s names for them are even better. And with what she’s crafted, who wouldn’t want to study magic in the wondrous world of Hogwarts?
Which brings us to the series’ second star quality: the visuals of the films. The series is, needless to say, an absolute feast for the eyes. Expertly crafted sets and costumes accompanied by some of the greatest in special effects perfectly realize Rowling’s world. Sadly though, some of the cinematic imagery often fails to live up the creativity in Rowling’s source material. Several moments in the series had me thinking, “That looks like [insert movie title here].” But nonetheless, a series like Harry Potter couldn’t be realized onscreen without stellar production design, and that which appears in the films (thanks to Stuart Craig) simply could not be better. Like Rowling’s work, it harkens back to the fairy tales and mythology that inspired the series, and it introduces new imagery that can now only be attributed to the series. And best of all, characters and settings appear just as we imagined them ourselves.
Speaking of characters, they, along with the actors who play them, are the third significant star quality of the films. “Books-first” fans try to deny any allegiance to the series’ onscreen imaginings, but even they fall victim to the affection we feel for the actors. I’m writing, mainly, of Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, and Emma Watson, who portray the three main protagonists of the series. Watching them grow both physically and mentally is absolutely touching, especially considering how they mirror their characters so well. And what makes it even more satisfying is knowing that the trio of thespians didn’t fall victim to the usual corruption that destroys child actors. Instead, we get to see them mature in an endearing way.
But even as I praise the actors, the characters themselves are inarguably brilliant. It’s fun to watch the children grow up and face the same challenges we face in our own adolescence—but in the wizard world! What Rowling brings us are the most endearing group of youngsters we could ever hope to meet. Harry himself exhibits many qualities we see (or would wish to see) in ourselves, making him not only a stellar hero, but also the perfect set of eyes from which to see the story. Ron and Hermione are the best friends we’ve always wanted: loving, funny, and supportive to the end. (They also make the cutest couple in literary history!) And the supporting cast is just as rich as the leads, as each character exudes abundant life, feeling, and originality. (And, as I mentioned before, Rowling’s names for them make her a rival to the great Charles Dickens!) On the whole, the characters marry romanticism and realism perfectly, helping us to not only see the whimsy of the world, but also take it seriously.
Now I will go film by film, exploring the qualities of each. The most notable attribute of the films’ progression is the shifts in style as they go along. This is mainly due to the films having different directors over the course of their production. The series also experienced changes in screenwriters, but seeing as how they’re so heavily reliant on Rowling’s work, it isn’t as noticeable as the carousel of directors. Rowling herself serves, surprisingly, as no more than author (and consultant, I assume) until the final two films, where she serves as producer as well. The rest of the creatives and crew stay generally the same for the entire run.
Next is Chamber of Secrets, also by Columbus, and probably my favorite film in the series. His style doesn’t change much for this film, but we start to get our first looks at the world’s darker side. For instance, the inciting incident involves a seemingly-dead cat and an eerie message written in blood. As the story unfolds, more of Harry’s world does as well. We meet new characters, such as Ginny Weasley, “Moaning” Myrtle Warren, and (most importantly) Lucius Malfoy. Previously-encountered characters (naturally) develop more, and as the Voldemort storyline is still in its rising action, we meet the Dark Lord as he appeared in his past. John Williams’ impeccable soundtrack returns for the film, as does Stuart Craig’s production design. But what I like best about Chamber of Secrets is how it is the most self-contained of all the films: it feels like the only one that would make sense on its own, out of context, and I appreciate that.
I nicknamed Columbus’s contributions to the series the “golden” Potter films, because of the color of their title graphics and their overall warmer color palettes. I will admit that I am partial to Columbus’s style, but what I appreciate the most about his films are their rich visuals. His films offer a much wider color palette than the later ones, and the decisions in cinematography are bolder, I think. But sadly, despite having originally signed to direct every film, it is here where he left the director’s chair behind, in favor of seeing his children grow up (a reason that I can respect greatly).
Goblet of Fire introduces another one-off director, Mike Newell. Newell’s take on the series is the closest to a blend between Columbus’s and Cuaron’s style, at least visually. Our perspective of the wizarding world broadens, as we’re introduced to an international quidditch tournament and two other wizard schools, present at Hogwarts for the “Tri-Wizard Tournament.” This is the first film in which we lose John Williams as composer. The regular “Hedwig’s Theme” music that everyone can hum is still present, but other motifs such as Harry’s Theme and the triumphant “Harry’s Wondrous World” are quite noticeably absent. But nonetheless, we move miles forward in terms of story and character development. The lovable trio encounters their first romantic challenge, as they seek out dates for the “Yule Ball.” That being said, there’s plenty of fun to be had in Goblet of Fire—“Moaning” Myrtle’s reappearance, Harry’s transformation into some sort of fish in the underwater challenge, and the charm that comes from the aforementioned Yule Ball are all plenty amusing. But, this is where things get darker than ever, mainly in the final sequence. The practically innocent Cedric is murdered, and we finally get a true look at the Dark Lord Voldemort in his genuine form. Harry’s return to the arena, weeping with Cedric in his arms, is the first moment in the series that is truly heartbreaking.
But before we reach those dark times, we get one last glimmer of esprit in The Half-Blood Prince. In this film, Harry and co. reach the height of adolescence and start to realize both romance and the unfairness of adulthood. The best part of Half-Blood Prince is seeing the young wizards go through their everyday teenage troubles in the not-so-everyday wizard world: a reflection on the series as a whole. Yates doesn’t necessarily deviate from his visual style, but I feel like he gives us some more powerful images in this film. In fact, this film’s shot of Harry and Dumbledore perched on the rock at sea is quite possibly the best shot of the entire series. The soundtrack even makes a comeback: Nicholas Hooper comes closest to matching to John Williams in this film, as he uses many memorable motifs and melodies. But most of all, Half-Blood Prince ranks as my second-favorite film by having the perfect blend of sorrow and joy.
That perfect blend is a quality Deathly Hallows Pt. 1 certainly lacks. Harry’s final adventure, although told in one novel, is told across two films, the first of which is possibly the worst in the series. This final escapade follows the young wizard trio as they depart from Hogwarts to end Voldemort once and for all, by finding and destroying seven “horcruxes” which supposedly contain the dark wizard’s soul. The story Rowling tells is fine, and I’ll get to it later, but the way in which Yates tells it in Pt. 1 is almost atrocious. Death never quite becomes gratuitous across the Deathly Hallows story, but due to the split-up of both films, the majority of the most tragic deaths fill up Pt. 1: Hedwig, Mad-Eye, and Dobby all meet their untimely ends in this film, leaving it utterly depressing. The depressing factor is amplified by the film’s dreary visuals. Color saturation is brought so low that the film may as well be black-and-white, and the quality of production design plummets. Yates’s cinematics even take several wrong turns: over-composed shots are intercut where they don’t belong, many scenes are poorly (or at least confusingly) staged, and he even breaks the 180° rule a couple of times. The most visually interesting scene in the movie is an animated segment, which illustrates the Legend of the Deathly Hallows. However, the animation feels so out-of-place that its beauty is essentially cancelled out by the sense one gets that it doesn’t belong. Yates also seems to resort to many blockbuster clichés in this film (something the other films impressively lack): several shots have the shaky, handheld look that’s “so in style” now, and Yates even resorts to using commercial music, when Harry and Hermione dance to “O Children” by Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds.
But the film isn’t all bad. It’s second to Prisoner of Azkaban in terms of pacing, as its 2½+ hour runtime rushes by. It’s also a grand testament as to how far special effects came over the course of the series. All of the films’ directors craft the films around the special effects and their limitations (which is how they’ve all aged so well), but with Pt. 1, we get special effects that look more real than ever before. But most of all, Deathly Hallows is one of Rowling’s best stories. It almost serves as a celebration of the series as a whole, as characters, settings, and creatures that appeared initially once-per-film return for a satisfying retrospect, more of which follows in Pt. 2…
On the whole, the Harry Potter movie series is nothing remarkably new. Rowling has an exceptional creative ability, but it’s clear that her ultimate story takes many of its pages from Roald Dahl, J. R. R. Tolkein, and other legendary British children’s fantasy writers. And as for the cinematics, while there is plenty of powerful imagery to be seen, much of it is taken from Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and other legendary adventure sagas. And like any post-1960s adventure film, the plot devices, characters, visuals, and many many duels make for, in essence, just another Western. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned in my studies of stories and cinema throughout my twenty years, it’s that the best stories introduce things we’ve never seen before, while visibly harking back to their inspiration. Where would Lord of the Rings be without the many folk tales of old? Where would Star Wars be without early sci-fi serials? Where would Indiana Jones be without the adventure movies of the Golden Age? And that being said, where would Harry Potter be without its many many inspirations?
For me, Harry Potter isn’t special in the same way as other great pieces of art or story. It brings no new ideas into the limelight. It doesn’t make us rethink our way of life. It doesn’t haunt us with any shocking images or story devices. Instead, it achieves a new degree of “special” by way of the intimacy it creates. Plenty of movies and stories have been inspiring to me in the sense that they make me want to go out and make others feel special, but never until Harry Potter has a story actually made me feel special in itself. With love as its primary theme, each film greets you like an old friend and offers an affinity akin to a warm, affectionate hug. I was excited to start a new film each night for that specific reason. And by the end of it all, I almost felt as if I had gained a new family. So treasure this lovely tale while you can, and cherish the themes it celebrates—be they in the films or the novels.