David Heyman produces Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Alan Rickman, Matthew Lewis, Robbie Coltrane, Bonnie Wright, Tom Felton and Warwick Davis in these children’s fantasy adaptations of JK Rowling’s bestselling book series where an orphan boy who everyone expects world saving deeds from starts to attend a wizard and witching school full of secrets, mysteries and conspiracies.
Let’s start by saying I was never a fan.
My first brush with Harry Potter was just as the fledgling childrens’ book series was becoming a publishing phenomenon. I was working behind the counter in Waterstones as the second book was released and the unusually brisk sales and the adult branded covers were an outlier. Anything that got kids reading was undeniably a positive but as far as I could tell… this particular swathe of parents and sprog ONLY bought and read Harry Potter books. Also… extra graft… innit! When I graduated uni a few years later, most women I dated devoured each new entry despite being adults themselves. It is fair to say I looked down my nose at a series that had become a just add water cultural touchstone with people only a few years younger than me. Like remembering Live Aid, the Challenger Explosion and a certain Grange Hill theme music it felt like one of the defining divides between late Generation X and early Millennials. Roald Dahl, Choose Your Own Adventure and Terry Pratchett for my childhood… JK Rowling, JK Rowling and JK Rowling for everyone born afterwards. Of course, my older sister loves them, so that theory doesn’t really hold polyjuice potion.
I tried with the first few films but they felt plummy, plotless, populated by poor child acting and hammy luvvie performers. They struggled to hold the interest or excite the uninitiated. They were as far as I could tell slavish adaptations of the books, made for fans who didn’t realise the tropes and imagery had been recycled and babyfied from better sources. That they were making the same money, commanding the same budgets and taking up the same level of media attention as say the Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy was baffling. Those films took a fantasy landmark and streamlined the lore, world building and literary story craft into a living, breathing adventure where the less cinematic addendums were excised or blended together to make a truly universal movie experience. Equally comic book icons like Batman, Spider-Man and the X-Men had taken four to five decades of constant publication and unwavering sales to finally be converted into big screen events. Hollywood had zero qualms about treating these beloved properties as anything other than a design rich jumping off point. The movies took a more smash and grab attitude to their most adaptable elements – ignoring or bastardising whatever felt like it wouldn’t work in a two hour film for a casual audience member.
Meanwhile a mere four years old, still half finished kids book series was being treated as a sacrosanct bible where fealty over brevity was the order of the day. Hell, the closest film equivalent to the Harry Potter series were the Star Wars prequels. Immature, dense, inaccessible to the newcomer with their stale and clunky lack of movie storytelling flow. Up their own in arse in piling mythology upon mythology. Unpronounceable names and bureaucratic plotlines that bog the simple escapism of duels, monsters and mysticism down. Cul-de-sacs of advance genealogy and endless blurts of terminology heavy exegesis. The difference was Star Wars fans knew and acknowledged these prequel entries weren’t really up to snuff. The early Harry Potter films were universally coronated by the faithful and critics alike as tentpole release perfection. The box office steadily grew. The characters, symbols and young stars became mainstays of early 21st century culture. Despite occasionally catching a half finished sequel in a hotel room once or twice I was out in the cold.
Natalie and I held our noses, dived in and watched the whole saga over the last fortnight. Here’s my cold take…
… And The Philosopher’s Stone (2001)
Chris Columbus directs Richard Harris, Maggie Smith and Ian Hart in HP’s first year at Hogwarts where he meets his mates, is bloody well brilliant at everything he tries his hand to and (eventually) turns a teacher with a nasty growth on his head to dust.
Twenty years on and this hasn’t improved. I certainly haven’t mellowed towards it. Just a trudging walking tour of magical thing after magical thing after magical thing after magical thing with no real sense of peril or narrative propulsion. There aren’t really action set pieces to speak of… just iffy CGI FX sequences where the children gaze in wonder. Why establish the moving stone staircases and never have a chase on them, for example? The three main kids are bland and wooden. The more fascinating characters (Snape, Dumbledore) float around enigmatically at the sidelines with no real bearing on the preceding. It isn’t particularly memorable or rousing stuff. The production design is exemplary and John William’s score certainly adds a persuasive air of charm and mischief that is lacking in the kinetics. I do question following the character who is naturally brilliant at everything and everyone expects messiah like achievements from. He doesn’t really have to work for any of his powers does he? At least everyone treated Luke Skywalker like the whiny little blowhard he was to start with…
… And The Chamber of Secrets (2002)
Chris Columbus directs Kenneth Branagh, Jason Issacs and Shirley Henderson in this detective mystery where HP and his sidekicks try to figure out who is behind a series of petrifying attacks on the population of Hogwarts and exactly where the titular Chamber is.
A location by location retread of the first film but at least here every element of the formula is improved upon. When we go to Diagon Alley to pick up school supplies this time, we meet our two potential antagonists; a resplendently sinister Issacs and smugly useless Branagh. The more vivacious personality stays the course for the series. Then we get a flying car chase… not a lot of danger but at least we spend our prescription journey to Hogwarts doing something rather than chatting about sweets. After a few classes that suggest the solutions to third act problems, we are ducking around the hallways at night, amateur sleuthing and occasionally half overhearing backstory that might come into play in future entries. There are genuinely risky encounters with a giant spider and a giant snake. The final boss proves to be a ripplingly prolonged battle. It feels as edgy as a pre-teens’ product should be and while a noteworthy improvement on the staid and purposeless first chapter, never quite breaks free from its mainstream family friendly trappings. For example, the central trio obliterate the rules so often and so blatantly you do have to wonder if they took a shit in Dumbledore’s thinking cap would they even then get expelled? Richard Harris is either failing in health or really couldn’t give a shit here. Allegedly Daniel Radcliffe used to pretend he needed to run his lines just to give the old lush a chance to learn his.
… And The Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)
Alfonso Cuarón directs David Thewlis, Gary Oldman and Michael Gambon in this sequel where Dementors are tracking an escapee from Azkaban prison, HP is not sure whether it is the fugitive Sirius Black or a werewolf who wants to kill him this school year!?
They are never going to win Oscars but the kids are a bit more natural and have established a workable chemistry together by this point. Cuarón mutes the palette and dresses them in contemporary clothing. His real strength is he seems to understand the importance of letting the other classmates have little moments where they feel more than background props to cheer Harry, Hermione and Ron on. There’s a genuinely strange and silly prologue involving a ghostly night bus… not sure the shrunken head Rasta hanging from the rear view mirror has aged well as a joke though. The soul sucking grim reaper drones who lurk around Hogwarts are a high value threat. Oldman and Thewlis are welcome additions but they do suffer being pushed aside for a horrendous sequence where we rush through a flashback involving unmet characters and Potter’s parents killing. We get new information about this pivotal backstory but nowhere near all the facts. It comes left of field, at a point when our attention is primed for a different face off and never is fully explored again. This becomes the curse of the series. A flashback to unestablished characters, set before the main story’s timeline, that is so brief, jittery and uninvolving you just coast over the information communicated. In the book, it probably is its own chapter, here it comes across as fumbling and distracting, stunting the main thrust. The final act brings time travel into play but then doesn’t really have any larks with the concept. It is a magical fix all to this particular adventure so we just have to sit there and watch it play out with no additional excitement. I guess if you were a ten year old and it was your first experience of the time travel trope it is a gentle introduction to the concept but for a generation raised on Back to the Future or Bill & Ted, this is overly basic. One gripe… why is Julie Christie in a role where we never get an establishing shot of her face? She is pretty much a glorified background extra here, not a classy cameo or a one line walk-on, and it is a baffling inclusion.
… The Goblet Of Fire (2005)
Mike Newell directs Brendan Gleeson, Robert Pattinson and Ralph Fiennes in HP’s fourth year where he finds himself out of his element when his name is put forward for a deadly wizarding tournament.
Ever since the second one, the films have been gradually improving, but it is baby steps forward every year. This one jumps the rails by streamlining as much of the action as possible around a series of danger packed trials. It often feels like a movie in its own right rather than a mere entry in a continuing franchise. Maybe it has the benefit of having less to establish after three exposition and lore rich predecessors. The fanbase grumble online that the tome like book has been boiled down to less than three hours of incidents. I don’t know… 157 minutes still seems pretty excessive for family film set in one location. Three new elements rear their heads with mixed results. 1) HP goes through a bout of unpopularity… this air of suffering and outsider status carries on throughout the series. 2) The kids start becoming attracted to each other. The introduction of older kids from other more glamorous and virile schools plus a magic prom trigger the hormones. It is not as loved up as the sixth story where everyone is snogging everyone but the soapy element definitely adds a bit of personality to the subplots. 3) The long threatened, half glimpsed Voldemort is resurrected and proves himself to be a proper bad ‘un. Fiennes relishes being a lethal villain, just a shame that Radcliffe doesn’t quite have the chops to carry the emotional loss his carnage causes.
… The Order of The Phoenix (2007)
David Yates directs Imelda Staunton, Evanna Lynch and Helena Bonham Carter in this adventure where Hogwarts is taken over by the Ministry of Magic after nobody believes HP & Dumbledore that Voldemort is back… so our three heroes start an underground rebellion.
Whoah! We’re halfway there!… The only one of the movies I’d probably rewatch out of choice and on its own. Lo and behold it is the least beloved of the franchise among the fanbase. Contrary old me. Clearly what I want from a movie and what Harry Potter heads want from a movie don’t really tally up. Staunton is a chilling villain as the fascist government usurper to Dumbledore. The students are cruelly punished (something I would have applauded three films earlier) and the rights of the individual oppressed. She’s got an air of Enoch Powell, Thatcher or Priti Patel about her and it is winning. Don’t worry though muggles, it is not all political allegory, Harry trains a child soldier army in a stirring extended series of montages. The genuinely delightful Luna Lovegood is introduced – showing the pubescent mainstays up with her eye-catching quirkiness. The more human Neville Longbottom and Ron’s sister Ginny become prominent components of the core team. Yates has some breezy visual tricks up his sleeve to move the larger story forward without wasting too much time. There’s a lot more nip and far fewer exposition dumps. And once the kids overturn the pearl set despot in charge of Hogwarts, we are rewarded with an intense finale where the goodies break into a warehouse full of artefeacts and death eaters. Nothing will be the same again! Oldman and Thewlis are palling around together, all cosy like. We know what’s going down there!
… And The Half-Blood Prince (2008)
David Yates directs Jim Broadbent, Julie Walters and Helen McCrory in Harry Potter’s last year at Hogwarts where Draco Malfoy and Snape are conspiring to kill a key player… and succeed.
The only one I can hand on my heart say I’ve watched absolutely none of before this session. Not that I would know. I sat through this only a few days ago and just had to look up the plot, it made so little impact. There’s big doings at the very end but in all honesty you can see the mechanics behind the series’ big twist. To wit, the glorious Rickman feels like he gets more screentime here. In a more cinematically minded series he and Tom Felton’s Draco would get even more focus. Because Rowling’s storytelling style is drip feeding you clues in a torrent of extraneous ephemera, a swathe of the potential drama here is clearly being held back for revelations in the big wrap up. Making this almost as inert and time wasting as the very first entry. All the non-villainous teens are PG teatime macking with each other anyway, so who cares? Do they teach sex education at this vocational faith school? There is a tremendously dark sequence where Harry and Dumbledore find themselves risking their lives in a cave… the series does have some satisfying lurches into pure horror and this set piece is easily the most desolate and nasty.
… And The Deathly Hallows Part 1 (2010)
David Yates directs Clémence Poésy, Domhnall Gleeson and Nick Moran in this penultimate character piece where with the world gone to shit under Voldermort’s rule, the three mates bunk off school and hide out in the woods.
The English countryside as an almost apocalyptic setting. New cinematographer Eduardo Serra bleeds all the colour out the film like rusty radiator consigned to scrap. Interminable water treading in a copse. We do learn only Hermione really knows how to order a coffee in a cafe. Hogwarts hasn’t been preparing these kids for the real world. Apart from that it is a lot of depressed waiting around with the worst actors of the series. Considering the finale of The Half-Blood Prince painstakingly set up a clearly defined quest to round the saga off with, it is insulting to anyone who paid a tenner for a ticket how little time is spent attempting to find and destroy Horcruxes. Instead we are lost in the woods, meeting new pointless characters who spout off another half dozen pointless new names. Jesus wept! I’m not being dim, am I? The finale of a blockbuster series should offer to ramp up the action and begin tying off narrative threads. Instead we endure a two hour plus sad interlude.
… And The Deathly Hallows Part 2 (2011)
David Yates directs Ciarán Hinds, Natalia Tena and Mark Williams in this all out war at Hogwarts as Voldermort and his followers lay siege to the ruins of the magic school.
Are you telling me the goblin bank heist involving a fucking dragon couldn’t have been the finale of the pointless last film? This is almost nearly all action… and as we always suspected Neville Longbottom turns out to be the absolute boy. There are two extended, multi arena battle sequences. They are good solid fantasy carnage. Though Peter Jackson gifted us at least one of these ram-jams an hour in his superior fantasy series and that lasted half the running time of this slog. But I’m grateful the finale is fittingly epic. Has some scale. The storytelling choices are still wonky. I’m sure everyone involved assumed if you paid to watch the previous seven then you must at least be invested in the central trio of now gangly protagonists but I never really got there. Their performances are never more than serviceable and their untouchable status within the machinations make them even duller to watch. Side characters die without us seeing the action. Why not show Hagrid being captured? It is jarring to see him in chains out of nowhere. Still after evil is defeated poor old Daniel Radcliffe has to mumble through a dozen bludgeoning explanatory lines about who a wand belonged to. And then breaks it in two. Old habits, die hard. This unbalanced mode of Easter Eggs over action, hints at future events over focussing on the potent exciting now is a predecessor to the endless Marvel films. At least this reaches a coda. An acceptable ending to a wobbly, often impenetrable film franchise. As a stand alone film Part 8 is gallingly average, found wanting in the light of its superior event movie peers.
A fortnight committing to trying to like HP and I wasn’t converted despite the bright spots in the middle. I doubt the franchise will ever reboot into something watchable until a filmmaker has the freedom to operate outside the yoke of creator Rowling. Sure, this is her literary world but an unshackled director would lop out what doesn’t work on celluloid and find cinematic conceits to convert what is irksome but necessary. Like George Lucas and Star Wars, you won’t get something as gleeful, satisfying and respectful as The Mandalorian out of the Hogwarts world until creatives are allowed to focus on what is a fascinating rather than what is on the page 322 of a 500 plus page novel. Any sensible director with more control would have given Rickman’s Snape a lot more space and focus, instead of him being an eternal red herring for a group of below par child leads.
Check out my wife Natalie’s Point Horror blog https://cornsyrup.co.uk
We also do a podcast together called The Worst Movies We Own. It is available on Spotify or here https://letterboxd.com/bobbycarroll/list/the-worst-movies-we-own-podcast-ranking-and/