Sunday, 26 June 2011

Remember Potter? A Saga Overview

The past ten years have been a tumultuous rollercoaster ride for the Potter franchise - we’re not talking box office figures here, which are pretty much certified high, but instead the ability of each film to hold its own as a piece of cinematic art. Some managed it; others did not. The penultimate chapter, I’m happy to say, did.

With the saga’s climax, Deathly Hallows: Part II, due for imminent release in cinemas, I revisited the first half of the screen adaptation of the closing J.K. Rowling novel; not simply to jog my memory, but also as a reminder of just how far the series, and indeed its pivotal cast has come since the bespectacled boy first appeared on the silver screen in 2001. While that might give the impression the series has only improved, the previous link will hopefully go some way to dismissing such an assumption - for the Harry Potter saga has indeed been a mixed bag.

Starting with Philosopher’s Stone (or Sorcerer’s depending on which side of the pond you’re sitting) an entire decade ago, the series began positively. An all-round achievement by cast and crew, and much the faithful adaptation, the only criticisms might come in the slightly wooden acting of some of the kids; but they were only young. There was time yet to improve. Otherwise a heart-warming, family-friendly tale, spiced with a hint of danger and demise, the first film bore well with fans and critics alike.

Then, just a year later, the first sequel was upon us: Chamber of Secrets. Harry’s second outing, and one that even, in some ways, began the trend of the series’ spiral into ‘darker’ and ‘grittier’ themes, director Chris Columbus again excelled. While, in this reviewer’s opinion, the source material was weaker than the first venture, the adaptation was even closer than before, and the wonderful acting talents of Alan Rickman, Maggie Smith and co. were improved further still by the addition of Kenneth Branagh as bumbling fraud Gilderoy Lockhart.

Perhaps one of the peaks of the series, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban hit cinemas two years later. Another gritty turn for the series, but by now the kids were starting to mature a bit too - and further stellar contributions to the adult cast (Gary Oldman and Timothy Spall most notably) were to be applauded. A new cast member volunteered his efforts this time round; Alfonso Cuarón, replacing Chris Columbus in the director’s chair, made good with what was arguably also one of the best Potter books - certainly, the third film received the highest critical acclaim of the series (despite attaining the lowest box office ratings of the seven thus far). A triumph for the saga, the heights of Azkaban would not be matched for six more years.

For the next two instalments, Goblet of Fire and Order of the Phoenix, while not in any way atrocious films, were under-par for the series. Things got a bit grittier, a bit darker, and inevitably, a few people were bumped off. The big bad, Voldemort, finally had a body to play him (an admittedly brilliant turn by Ralph Fiennes), and the kids got a bit angsty as the teenage years came into full effect. But the main problem with this pair was how far they drove from the source material. Such was the length of the books that this was unavoidable, lest they were split in the manner of the final chapter, but to gloss over the entire first quarter of the novel in five minutes of film (Goblet of Fire being the guilty party here) and even exclude an entire character (Ludo Bagman - again, Goblet of Fire) seemed criminal. As films, they were decent; as adaptations, they suffered. Phoenix was the greater of the two; more majesty in its visuals and scripting, more elegance in its acting and directing, and generally a touch more… magic. But still the Potter series had not begun to seek the highs it attained back in ’04.

The torrid sixth instalment, Half-Blood Prince, represented an all-time low for the saga. Harry Potter had turned into a badly directed olive rom-com, and much that had been wrong with past films was only amplified here. Again, see my full review for further analysis of this; suffice instead to say that, well - there is no more to be said. A pitiful excuse for a film, much less a Harry Potter film, Half-Blood Prince seemingly sought to destroy all the acclaim the series had won through a myriad of poor acting, scripting and general cinematography. Director David Yates had a lot to answer for.

It’s satisfying to say, then, that Deathly Hallows: Part I does indeed manage to rectify some of Yates’ failings. Here we witness moments of ‘movie magic’ that dare to aspire to the heights of Azkaban some six years earlier; from the wonderfully matured Rupert Grint as best friend Ron Weasley to the astounding improvement of Daniel Radcliffe - whom one might now consider a ‘serious actor’, defying all notions of the previous six films - the acting talent excelled. Combined with the closest adaptation to the book (and rightly so, considering the split) since number three, vastly improved visuals and colours, and a script so tight it might as well be a hardback rewrite of the original source, Deathly Hallows: Part I sits proudly alongside Azkaban; a shining example of the Harry Potter saga at the top of its game. And with Part II right around the corner, let’s hope the series can finish even higher.


Post a Comment