Once more, with feeling.
There are a hundred ways the Harry Potter movie franchise could have gone off the rails. Let’s just list a few examples:
- Chris Columbus could have directed all eight movies and not just the first two.
- Jerry Bruckheimer could have been brought in as a producer.
- Jeremy Piven could have been cast as the new Professor of Defense Against the Dark Arts.
- Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and/or Emma Watson could have bailed at any point in the past decade, forcing audiences to deal with character doubles, like when Daphne Reid just showed up as Vivian Banks in the fourth season of “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air” and everyone was like, “What happened to Janet Hubert and why haven’t any of the characters commented on the fact that is not their mother??”
That the movies avoided these pitfalls, or any number of others unmentioned here, is a testament to several things. The biggest (and most obvious) is the source material. But Hollywood has found a way to bungle plenty of great books, so it was more than that too. Ironically, taking liberties with the source material also saved the series — from being slavishly faithful in a paint-by-numbers kind of way to the books. Taking a chance (commercially speaking) on director Alfonso Cuaron for the third film, The Prisoner of Azkaban, was another success. (We agree with Dan Kois’s assessment in Slate that the third movie is the finest in the series. It was also our favorite book.)
When we saw the final movie last weekend, we were both struck by how emotionally fulfilling the final chapter was. It’s a cliche that was also quite true of these films: The characters really did grow up before our eyes. When The Deathly Hallows Part 2 flashes back to earlier moments in the series, you realize what a little pipsqueak Daniel Radcliffe was when he showed up at Hogwarts. Where the early films were full of wonder and a little danger, the last film is appropriately weighty and adult, the tone gray and subdued throughout, a measure of the task Harry, Ron and Hermione must complete: finding and destroying the remaining Horcruxes, and then taking down that noseless menace himself, Voldemort. (Another way this series could have gone awry: Casting anyone less awesome than Ralph Fiennes as the baddie.)
There are battles galore in The Deathly Hallows Part 2, and in staging them director David Yates borrows a little from Star Wars, a lot from The Lord of the Rings. If there’s one thing we didn’t like about the final movie — and this could be true of most films in the series — it’s that in their rush to capture all of the plot, they gave short shrift to some wonderful characters. Snape gets his redemption moment in the most moving part of this film, but what about Draco’s? Why couldn’t the filmmakers — any of them — find more screen time for Fred and George? What about Ginny? She’s on screen for maybe two minutes total and may or may not have said a line. We’ve seen cardboard with more chemistry than what she and Harry muster.
These are nitpicks given all the things the films did right, but they’re also invitations back to the books themselves, where J.K. Rowling gave her characters depth and nuance. She also wrote the books as much for adults as she did for kids. The idea that Harry and Voldemort are inexplicably tied to one another — that for all the good Harry has in him, there’s also a little Voldie in there too — is a profound statement about good and evil, with implications that range across philosophy and theology. But nothing about the books ever felt pedantic or dull. The movies, whatever their shortcomings, delivered on that promise too. When Harry and Voldemort raise their wands against each other one last time, all thoughts and comparisons to the books went out of our heads. We just wanted the good guy to win.