I cannot adequately explain my decades-long aversion to Harry Potter.
Perhaps it’s because when J.K. Rowling’s books first came out, I was less interested in the whimsy of wizards, more consumed by the crippling anxiety of high school. Maybe it’s because I never gelled with the fantasy genre as a whole: J.R.R. Tolkien mystified, and Frank Herbert frustrated – odder still as I was otherwise the perfect pimply portrait of an adolescent geek. Was it all just too British? (That doesn’t make sense either, as I fancy a Doctor Who episode now and again, and also dropping the verb “fancy” into casual conversation.)
For whatever reason, Rowling’s novels bypassed me. And so when the cinematic adaptations started rolling out in the early aughts, I let those slip through my fingers, too. Nothing more than silly kids' movies, I shouted to no one in particular, and I was a burgeoning cineaste! Good riddance from this Muggle! Also: I possessed an extreme loathing of the word “Muggle” and most of what I heard of Rowling’s cutesy-wootsy lexicon. The word “Hufflepuff” makes me grit my teeth to this day.
But now it’s been 17 years since the first Harry Potter film was released, and the season’s most anticipated new movie is this weekend’s Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald – a sequel to a prequel to an eight-part megafranchise, whose story makes absolutely no sense unless you’ve seen the 21½ hours of content that came before.
After years of using one excuse or another to avoid watching and reviewing the films, now it was finally time to put my childish thoughts away, and remedy a gaping cultural blind spot. And to preface any owl-delivered hate mail: Yes, I stuck only to the films. To boil boil toil and trouble it down (first and last magic pun, I promise): Cinematic adaptations should work as standalone works of art; my job at The Globe and Mail is focused on film; and damn, have you seen how long those books are?
I’ll get to Rowling’s own, original words eventually (ideally with my now-four-year-old son), but given that The Crimes of Grindelwald isn’t based on any literary property, why not consume the movies from a purely cinematic perspective, and see if my personal aversion was justified, or simply “riddikulus”?
Going into my approximately 1,300-minute adventure (eight Harry Potter movies, plus the first Fantastic Beasts), I was greeted with a range of reactions. Mostly, disgust (“You haven’t seen them???” many friends asked, some a Demiguise hair’s away from slapping me), jealousy, excitement and a few words of warning. Basically: Survive the first two films, and you’ll be fine.
Many late nights later, I can say that everyone – even those who felt the urge to physically hurt me – was right.
The first two movies, 2001′s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone and 2002′s Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, are perfectly fine children’s films, and interminable for anyone over the age of nine. Director Christopher Columbus (Home Alone, Mrs. Doubtfire) offers a steady hand when it comes to delivering a simple, A-to-B narrative, and there’s nothing wrong with his literal kids-glove approach – children need expensive, shiny entertainment just as much as anyone, arguably more so.
But watching Columbus’s efforts today, it’s astounding that they formed the spine of an eight-film, multibillion-dollar franchise. The rules and realities of Potter’s world are introduced haphazardly (I still don’t understand quidditch, and I don’t care to find out), the visual effects are atrocious (revisit the Philosopher’s Stone scene where Harry battles a troll, if you dare) and the central good-versus-evil conflict driving the narrative feels rehashed and repetitive, and given little dramatic weight or tension by Columbus and series screenwriter Steve Kloves. If Rowling’s work is that life-altering, any sense of transcendent inspiration was lost during the hobbled leap from page to screen.
Where Columbus’s films do succeed – and this can only be due to a combination of nose-to-the-grindstone open-call labour and pure dumb luck – is the casting. Daniel Radcliffe (Harry), Emma Watson (Hermione) and Rupert Grint (Ron) are not the most astounding child actors ever to be discovered, but from their first appearances in Philosopher’s Stone, they charm and endear. It helps that Columbus, and subsequent directors, surrounded the trio with every great British character actor ever born (we’ll never know how many dump trucks full of cash must’ve been commissioned over the years to retain their services). But there’s something magical (agh! sorry!) about how these three children found their way to the set.
It’s their casting that pushed me to keep going – more than any curiosity about plot, or a desire to explore the visual nooks and crannies of the on-screen world. I only wanted to see how these kids would grow up and mature – at Hogwarts, sure, but in the real world, too.
That, and I was repeatedly reminded that the third instalment, The Prisoner of Azkaban (there’s no way I’m typing out “Harry Potter and…” 100 times over here), was the series’s high point. Or that it at least marked a turning point. Oh, and that Azkaban was directed by one of the finest filmmakers working today, Alfonso Cuaron (Y Tu Mama Tambien). The math added up, so I pressed on.
I don’t want to call my friends liars, but: While Azkaban is leaps and bounds above Columbus’s work, it doesn’t check all the boxes. Cuaron engineers some fantastic visuals, treating the camera with far more reverence than Columbus allowed. And he vividly brings to life (or death) the Dementors, the series’s most chilling element. But the story feels paradoxically stretched and curtailed, with the details surrounding the title character foggy and relying on a third-act reveal that feels unearned. (Oh, and Cuaron needs to cool it with the iris shots. We get it, you’re distancing yourself from Columbus! It’s not hard!)
Any critique of the films' story or characters is undoubtedly met with: “But you should really read the books!” Yes, probably! But if the films only succeed in concert with Rowling’s prose, are they good films, or adequate ancillary material? Why spend hundreds of millions of dollars and literal decades of people’s lives to merely produce the visual equivalent of audiobooks? I didn’t want to be a cynic (not this time at least), but my Potter experiment was looking grim.
But then The Goblet of Fire provided the plot twist I was so desperately craving – and illuminated just how unprecedented an artistic feat the Potter films are.
Stepping in for the one-and-done Cuaron (who would follow Azkaban with his masterpiece Children of Men), director Mike Newell brings a burst of energy and a strong, substantive sense of darkness to the fourth film. There’s nothing radical about Newell’s approach – his style is simply one of extreme confidence and competence, which elevates all the material that surrounds it, from a sharper and more mature plot to increasingly layered characterizations. Four films in, and far from being sick of these kids, I was hopelessly, devotedly attached.
It helps immensely that The Goblet of Fire is first and foremost a classic “hero’s quest,” with Harry’s growth as a person and wizard neatly mirrored via the physical and mental challenges he faces in the film’s central “Triwizard Tournament” (a deathly Olympics-like event that makes me question the sanity of any parent who sends their kid off to Hogwarts in the first place).
As Harry is egged on here by a new mentor (Brendan Gleeson’s delightfully cranky Mad-Eye Moody), challenged by new foes (this marks the first appearance of Ralph Fiennes as “Dark Lord” Voldemort) and surrounded by the eternally confounding hormonal swirl that is adolescence, the cinematic series coalesces into something gripping, wicked, thrilling and fierce. By the time Harry confronts his greatest enemy for the first real time, and wins the tournament at a terrible cost, the possibilities of the film franchise seem limitless. Finally, Rowling’s (presumably) careful world-building, the producers' expert casting, the grimmer thrust of the narrative and the advancement in visual effects combine to create a work worthy of obsession.
More crucially, the films hit a sweet spot of maturity. Of age. From The Goblet of Fire on, the series clicks because time is on its side. With apologies to Boyhood, there’s never been a project of this scope that’s gambled on its central performers growing into compelling, complex, movie-star-worthy leads alongside their audience. Radcliffe, Watson and Grint turn out to be magnetic presences, growing into their characters and stories with as much investment and passion as moviegoers.
After The Goblet of Fire, it would take a miscalculation of epic proportions to derail the franchise, so producers stick with the tried-and-true formula perfected by Newell: From the fifth film until the last, director David Yates and screenwriter Kloves (who takes a brief respite on The Order of the Phoenix, with Michael Goldenberg stepping in for that one and only entry) streamline Rowling’s work to within an inch of its life; execute set-pieces with just the right amount of aesthetic flair; ensure there’s proper care with the leading trio of actors; stuff the rest of the cast with the most intimidating British performers in modern history (how I’ve not spent the past 1,000 words writing solely about Alan Rickman and Maggie Smith is beyond me); and trust that the natural progression of time will make the audiences' hearts grow fonder.
It may sound like a franchise on autopilot, but when the system works – when the films produced are so vividly realized and wildly captivating – there’s little reason to look down upon such a manufactured process.
By the time Yates delivers the final part of The Deathly Hallows, the full weight of the Potter films becomes crushingly real. The eight productions do not just create a world of magic and wonder, but chronicle actual, whole, physical lives – theirs and yours. The Harry Potter films are here for your journey as much as they are for those of Harry, Ron and Hermione. They don’t dare you to not cry – they encourage it, openly and fully, because you’ve been here just as long as they have.
The series also provides definitive closure – or, it once promised such finality, and then reneged. Rowling’s books ended and so must these films, was the thinking. The final poster for The Deathly Hallows – Part II even displayed just three simple words: “It All Ends.” Contrasted against ever-expanding and never-ending franchises such as the Marvel Cinematic Universe or whatever is going on with Star Wars, that must have provided some semblance of emotional relief for Potter devotees. And while the final few minutes of the final Potter film are, to put it delicately, extremely weird (blame the half-rate wizards in Warner Bros.'s old-age makeup department), there is a vast emotional damn that’s cracked wide open when the end credits roll.
Which is why I spent most of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them oscillating between casual boredom and uncontrollable fury. The spinoff-cum-prequel is so crass in its inception and dull in its execution that I wished for someone to cast an “obliviate” spell and erase my own memory of its proceedings. But the pic, somehow directed by Yates, made US$800-million worldwide, so now we have The Crimes of Grindelwald and likely three more films to come, if Warner Bros. gets its desired box-office results.
The blunt obviousness of such a franchise extension is grating, but not surprising. There’s no pretending that the original eight Harry Potter films were made purely for artistic concerns. But as everyone collected their paycheques, the films became something remarkable, and something that isn’t likely to be repeated any time soon, no matter how many Fantastic Beasts Rowling and Co. pull out of their sorting hat.
I can now admit that I was wrong to avoid Harry Potter for so long – and I only wish I could have grown up alongside him.
It’s a story for the ages, in every sense possible.