Potter strikes again

This article is reposted from an article I wrote for The Technique (official site, Wikipedia article), published on July 20, 2007. (html, pdf). Summary: If you don’t own Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (Widescreen Edition) on DVD by this point, you should remedy that ASAP.

The superstitious call it serendipity, the business elite call it synergy, but to Harry Potter fans around the world, the near-concurrent releases of the fifth cinematic installment and the final literary installment in the fantasy series make for what may possibly be the best two weeks ever.

It seems that the only thing that could top the current success of the fifth Harry Potter movie is the release of the final novel in the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows, due out at the stroke of midnight tonight. Scholastic, Inc., the U.S. publisher for the Harry Potter series, reports that the 784-page volume will have an “unprecedented” 12.1 million-book first printing, and booksellers Barnes & Noble and Amazon.com have stated that Hollows is the most pre-ordered book of all time. But as we await these last few hours with bated breath to discover the fate of Harry Potter and the rest of the wizardry world, let’s talk about the movie.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix opened in theaters last Wednesday to a response that launched the film into the record books. It knocked Spiderman 2 out of the top spot for the highest-grossing Wednesday release ever, netting $44.2 million on release day. Phoenix’s 2,311 midnight screenings in the U.S. and Canada placed the film in the No. 2 slot behind Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End for highest one-night earnings ever. But was it any good?

There are many ways to approach a movie: high-brow critics tend to dislike movies that college students think of as their favorites, and highly-praised films tend to earn the extraordinarily high rating of “crap” from many actual people. The Harry Potter series of movies presents another challenge: the movie is entirely different to people who have read the corresponding book. True, the overarching plot is almost identical, but there are enough differences to affect the review rating of a film-whether you judge it in tomatoes, points, stars or thumbs. While many differences between the author’s written words and the actors’ spoken ones may be forgiven in other series, Harry Potter fans are not as forgiving; there’s even a Wikipedia article entitled, “Differences between book and film versions of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.”

The latest installment follows and extends the darker path pioneered by the two previous movies. While this parallels the mood set within the books themselves, little time is given to lighter or more positive things that serve to counterbalance the darker ones, unless they are instrumental to the plot. A couple of examples include the missing ubiquity of Quidditch and Fred and George’s prankster masterpieces. Cho and Harry’s kiss was probably meant to be a more positive moment to break up the dark tone of the film, but there was significantly less focus on the development of the relationship and the buildup of tension between the pair in the movie than in the book. This could be attributed to the ease of filming a long, wet kiss over the script writing or filming of more detailed character development, but as a result, the scene fails to have the impact that the screenwriters likely intended, and to a viewer who may not have read the book, it doesn’t make a lot of sense.

These deviations are understandable to some extent-scriptwriters and filmmakers only have so much time in which to tell a story, especially one as long as the later Harry Potter novels-but numerous omissions cause annoying continuity gaps and potential fan disappointments that are unseen in film series that are written specifically for the big screen rather than adapted from popular novels.

Taking the scriptwriter’s limitations into account, Order of the Phoenix was an excellent film. The tried and true actors and support staff, along with a new writer and a new director, have taken the series forward well, with the above reservations. Despite the lack of complexity in character dialogue or development in some scenes, most of the acting is pulled off rather well.

Especially of interest were the visually intense fight scenes, particularly at the movie’s climax. I was somewhat disappointed that the statues in the fountain were not involved in the movie’s version of that fight, as that part of the finale in the book was difficult to visualize and might have made an excellent addition to the climax. However, judging by the relatively poor rendering of Hagrid’s giant half-brother earlier in the film, I’m almost glad that it wasn’t tried. The focus at the climax stays on the few characters participating, a respectable decision given the difficulty of creating a complex yet coherent fight scene.

Overall, the film is well-made, and the writers, director and cast deliver a quality product given the constraints that come along with compressing a 700-plus page book into a two-and-a-half-hour movie. However, compared to its literary counterpart, which is arguably the best in the series to date, the film adaptation of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix fails to measure up to its predecessors. It is certainly worth a watch (or two, or even 10) for fans of the novels, but prepare for the nitpicking and niggling voice in the back of your head to get a real workout the first time through.

Andrew Guyton

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