One of the most enjoyable things about the Harry Potter books is that the stories grow up along with the protagonist. When readers were first introduced to Harry, it was a peek into a different world, one with a whimsy reminiscent of Roald Dahl’s children’s books. But author J. K. Rowling wisely expanded that world, making it darker and more complex than most readers would have expected.
And now, six years after Harry escaped from the cupboard under the stairs and learned he was a wizard, things are much different. Dark wizard Voldemort is back and his Death Eaters are in power. The stakes have always been high for Harry – from book one he’s been fighting for his life – but now both the magical and muggle world are threatened.
The film adaptations of the Harry Potter books have been a variable lot. Never terrible, but occasionally great. Early films were visually pleasant but too static. Later films have tried to compress too many events into too little running time. Only the third film, Alfonso Cuaron’s Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, has captured the feel of the books: the everyday absurdities of a magical world, and the closeness this secretive world can forge between friends.
The first part of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows comes close to an ideal adaptation, second only to Azkaban. Partly this is because the story has room to breathe. Some derided the decision to split the Deathly Hallows story into two parts as a cash grab, but the expansion serves the story well (in fact, it’s a shame that Order of the Phoenix and Half Blood Prince weren’t given similar treatment). Partly it may be because director David Yates and screenwriter Steve Kloves can’t rely on time-tested storytelling shortcuts. That’s because the characters (and us along with them) are in uncharted territory. Harry, Ron, and Hermione aren’t returning to Hogwarts but are instead setting out on their own to find Horcruxes, the objects containing fragments of Voldemort’s soul, for only when those are all destroyed can Voldemort be killed. They’re on their own in every way, with no parents or teachers to help, no guidance, no handy backstory in the Pensieve. Any contact with friends or family will only put more people in danger, and the Ministry of Magic has declared Harry to be “Undesirable Number One” and put his face on wanted posters.
Fortunately, the moviemakers are up to the task of showing us this imperiled world, from the now-terrifying, Orwellian Ministry of Magic to the bleak winter landscapes the three heroes wander as refugees. For the most part the screenplay deftly handles the events and exposition, the highlight of which is a strangely beautiful animated sequence of a fairy tale that will prove significant.
The actors are up to the job as well. Whatever flaws the first film may have had, no one can deny the casting of the three leads was a success. They not only look the part and have grown exponentially as actors, but their years of working together have given them the chemistry of long friendship. This is crucial to the film, for if we did not believe in the friendship of Harry, Ron, and Hermione, we would not have faith in their quest nor feel dread when it seems that bond will be broken.
Kudos have to go to the supporting cast as well. Though this is the three kids’ show, the adult actors make the most of their brief appearances. Jason Isaacs is particularly good as Lucius Malfoy, whose polished, icy superiority is gone. Now Malfoy is a broken, almost pitiable man who’s learned the hard way that having Voldemort set up shop in his home isn’t as much fun as he thought it would be. Likewise the ever-awesome Alan Rickman as Professor Snape makes the most of his little screen time. Those who’ve read the book know that all the other actors will get more screen time in Part Two, and I for one can’t wait.
No adaptation is perfect, and this one has some flaws – tonal shifts that don’t quite work, or moments of emotion or realization that could be drawn out a little bit more for maximum effect. But it’s one of the best of the series, and my biggest complaint is that we have to wait months for the last installment.
It’s been a great journey, and so far the end installment is worth waiting for.