(Judge Dredd Magazine, Rebellion)
So let’s play fantasy Harry Potter. Imagine, if you will, that the seven J.K. Rowling books could each be filmed by a different director with a specialism in fantasy and a rep for quirk. Imagine a dream team. Terry Gilliam, Tim Burton, Guillermo del Toro, a reunion between France’s Jeunet and Caro, a cartoon episode by Hayao Miyazaki, and Neil Jordan in Company of Wolves mode. (Just think what the Irishman could do with Luna Lovegood and a werewolf.)
That’s only six!, you cry. Well, for the seventh Potter director, Peter Jackson… but here’s the rub. The interesting Peter Jackson is the one who went from mad 1980s horror comics (Braindead, Bad Taste) to the sublime quasi-fantasy drama of Heavenly Creatures (1994). This is not the same as the twenty-first century Peter Jackson who gives us ten impersonal hours of The Lord of the Rings, oscillating between epic posturing and lowbrow crowdpleasing. Maybe Jackson will find the balance in The Hobbit, which has more potential for fun. I doubt, though, that the dwarves will break into a Busby Berkley song-and-dance chorus of “Chip the glasses and crack the plates!” – though they do just that in Tolkien’s book.
The finest fantasy-film auteurs aren’t really suited to doing serial fantasies; trilogies, like Lord of the Rings, or septologies stretched to octalogies, like Harry Potter. The “director” films in the fantasy canon are exquisite, distinctive, standalone works: for example, Pan’s Labyrinth, Spirited Away and Edward Scissorhands. (And note that all three of those films are originals – insofar as fairy tales can be original – written or co-written by their directors).
True, Tim Burton made Batman (1989), a franchise film for Warner Bros and the superhero dollar. However, Burton promptly demonstrated what he thought of franchises by gandering into Burton–land to make The Human Penguin and the Pussy Dominatrix, aka Batman Returns. It’s not that imaginative fantasy directors should never tackle epic, multi-film bestsellers. It would be salutary, though, for film students to watch Peter Jackson’s oeuvre and be warned. Before, Heavenly Creatures; after, The Fellowship of the Ring.
In the fantasy Potter series I propose, each director could interpret his chosen book entirely freely, choosing a new Hogwarts cast each time. (Del Toro’s pupils might all be Spanish Catholics; Hayao Miyazaki’s would star a flying anime girl called Sally Potter). The film-makers could also cut and rewrite Rowling at will. From one to the next, their films should be as different from each other as Wizard of Oz from Return to Oz, or Manhunter from Silence of the Lambs. If Gilliam wanted to kill Harry halfway though the saga and turn Neville Longbottom into the hero instead (which is the most glaringly obvious “alternate” possibility in the Potter series, to the point that it’s effectively acknowledged in the last film’s climax), or turn Hogwarts into the wet Brazil dreams of Jonathan Pryce, then that’d all be fine and dandy.
The real Potter pics, of course, aren’t directors’ films. No doubt a small fraction of the packed audiences at Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 (out now), could name David Yates as the director. (He also did the last three Potters, and the superb TV thriller State of Play.) The same audience fraction could probably also identify the three Potter helmers preceding Yates: Chris Columbus, Alfonso Cuarón, and Mike Newell. Columbus is generally perceived as “the crap one” – he made the kiddie entries, Philosopher’s Stone and Chamber of Secrets. Personally, I found Philosopher’s Stone more enjoyable than the same Christmas’s Fellowship of the Ring, with its numbing walk-run-fight structure.
Cuarón’s entry, Prisoner of Azkaban is generally perceived as the best of the series – a reasonable point of view, but the film quality is down less to the Mexican’s fancy scene transitions and Gormenghast decor than it is to the source material (it’s based on Rowling’s best story) and the author’s first nuanced grown-up (Professor Lupin, played beautifully by David Thewelis). The other best Potter film is Yates’ debut, Order of the Phoenix, which lends a propulsive exuberance to its boslshy, “fight the system” story. It also has arguably the best character in the whole series, the tittering tea-cosy sadist Professor Umbridge, played by Imelda Staunton (“hem-hem!”).
Staunton is absent from the final film. Thewliss has only a skeleton role, though he at least has a decent valediction as one of Harry’s five “parents” (count ‘em; four fathers and only one mother). Like all the Harry films since Half-Blood Prince, Deathly Hallows 2 is a messy free-for-all for any actor not named Daniel, Rupert or Emma. The most joltingly arbitrary look-in is the last-minute appearance of Robbie Coltrane as Hagrid, in a weird, “Where did he spring from?” moment.
The film “plays” better than number six or seven for the generic fantasy reason; there’s a bloody big battle holding it together, looking as much like Return of the King as it can do (though there’s a great moment of irreverence when Maggie Smith’s McGonagall summons forth Hogwarts’ stone army, then simpers, “I always wanted to do that!”) Ralph Fiennes, coming to the fore as Voldemort, is good at broadcasting death-threats through the ether to the heroes, like the aliens in umpteen “Base Under Siege” Doctor Who stories, but he never measures up in villainy to Staunton, Alan Rickman or Jason Isaacs.
One of the oddest things about the last Potter film is its exaggeratedly low-key, anti-blockbuster opening, which consists of people talking quietly in a beachside house. It’s as if the franchise was acknowledging that it should have been a TV series after all, with interim, BBC-drama moments that could never fill an IMAX screen. The film’s first half is terribly clumsy, full of fetch-quests and deracinated plotlines, like the whole deadweight hello-and-goodbye business with Dumbledore’s siblings. It’s the second half of the film that has the meaty “Ahas!,” with a hauntingly lovely del Toro-style leafy flashback and that famous epilogue, played as well as fans could hope.
Many of the film’s satisfactions, of course, stem from the fact that we don’t see it as a film, but as the last act in a decade-old roadshow, where the director’s name is far less important than how the main actors have grown. The films’ differences are smoothed over; when Ron and Hermine rush back to the Chamber of Secrets to snatch a quick Brief Encounter snog, the setting looks exactly the same as it did in Columbus’s 2002 effort. For all the directors’ efforts to leave their own stamps on the material, nothing must disrupt the illusion that Deathly Hallows 2 is essentially the same film, the same story, as The Philosopher’s Stone a decade ago. One of the best moments in the Stone film had John Hurt as Harry’s wand-seller, beaming benignly and telling the eleven year-old, “We must expect great things of you, Mister Potter.” The screen Potters are a great phenomenon. They’re just not great fantasy films.
(c) 2018 Rebellion A/S. Reprinted with permission.