The excellent Harry Potter series saw its final movie adaptation this past summmer in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows II. On its own merits, it was a fine movie, if not an altogether satisfying finale for the characters we’ve come to know and love for the past 10 years. But, as an adaptation, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows II was wretched.
I was so upset after watching the movie that I started writing this review directly afterwards. I then needed to reread the book in order to corroborate many of the details I wanted to discuss, not to mention washing the bad taste of the movie out of my mouth.1 The reread was so satisfying that the review was forgotten until now.
I fully understand that books and movies are different media with different storytelling strengths and weaknesses. Movies’ time constraints require often painful edits and changes to the source material. I think that in this case, however, the adaptation could have been considerably more faithful to the source material and have produced an even better movie. (What follows is of course heavily laden with spoilers.)
1. Harry Spills the Beans
One of the most emotional sequences in the book is Harry coming to grips with the fact that he is a Horcrux and must let Voldemort kill him in order to defeat Voldemort. It’s one of Rowling’s finer pieces of writing as we accompany Harry on his journey of self-sacrifice for his friends.
Part of this lyrical passage is Harry’s decision to use his invisibility cloak to prevent his friends from dissuading him from giving himself up. That would just make it harder for him. But in the movie, Harry does tell them, robbing this sequence of so much potency.
To be fair, filming Harry’s interior journey would be hard. Maybe it could be done, maybe not. This is the scene I have the most grace for in terms of film adaptation. Still, it galled me to see one of my favourite passages fall so flat on screen.
2. Snape’s Patchy Story
The redemption of Severus Snape is another high point of this novel. His tragic story of love for Lily Potter, inadvertent betrayal of her, and subsequent anguished dedication to protecting her son and aiding Dumbledore is one of many moments in the novel that had me tearing up.
The movie, however, only might have provoked tears of anger at the short shrift they gave to Snape’s story. My wife, who has not read the books but has watched every movie to date, did not even understand from this sequnce that Snape had been in love with Lily Potter. To not make clear the central fact of Snape’s entire story is to treat his character with contempt. Pathetic.
3. Boss Fight Porn
The book’s final showdown between Harry and Voldemort is amazing, not least because Harry defeats Voldemort without firing a shot after a great expository taunt. The only real action in this finalé is amoungst the secondary characters2, as Harry’s death cast a protective spell similar to that which his mother had laid upon him when she died for him, leaving all at Hogwarts likewise protected from Voldemort.
But this would have robbed the filmmakers of a Big Boss Fight™, and we, uh, need one of those. So we get a ridiculous battle that looks cool but is ultimately a big waste of time that could have been better spent on all the deficiencies I’m outlining. This was the final movie guys, it’s not like you need to stoke the series’ engine any more. Couldn’t you have eased up on the cliché?
4. Why’s Harry Alive?
Like Snape’s love for Lily, the reason Harry is still alive after being hit with Voldemort’s killing curse is not made clear in the movie. For what might be the most important plot point in the whole damn series, this sure gets short shrift in the movie. The relevant passage from the Harry’s conversation with Dumbledore in the book:
“I let him kill me,” said Harry. “Didn’t I?”
“You did,” said Dumbledore nodding. “Go on!”
“So the part of his soul that was in me … has it gone?”
“Oh yes! said Dumbledore. “Yes, he destroyed it. Your soul is whole, and completely your own, Harry.”
“But if Voldemort used the killing curse,” Harry started again, “and nobody died for me this time — how can I be alive?”
“I think you know,” said Dumbledore. “Think back. Remember what he did, in his ignorance, in his greed and his cruelty.”
“He took my blood.” said Harry.
“Precisely!” said Dumbledore. “He took your blood and rebuilt his living body with it! Your blood in his veins, Harry, Lily’s protection inside both of you! He tethered you to life while he lives!”
…”He took your blood believing it would strengthen him. He took into his body a tiny part of the enchantment your mother laid upon you when she died for you. His body keeps her sacrifice alive, and while that enchantment survives, so do you and so does Voldemort’s last hope for himself.”
…”Without meaning to, as you now know, Lord Voldemort doubled the bond between you when he returned to a human form. A part of his soul was still attached to yours, and, thinking to strengthen himself, he took a part of your mother’s sacrifice into himself. If he could only have understood the precise and terrible power of that sacrifice, he would not, perhaps, have dared to touch your blood…. But then, if he had been able to understand, he could not be Lord Voldemort, and might never have murdered at all.”
This scene is probably the major denouement for the book, and Rowling handles it well. The book’s themes of the power of love and the foolishness of evil come together brilliantly. As with Gollum in the Lord of the Rings, evil undoes itself and love wins because evil cannot, in the end, understand love in the slightest.
But the movie treats this crucial scene with frustrating flippancy, not even mentioning Lily’s protective charm nor Voldemort’s hubris. Without those, I don’t even remember what hackneyed explanation they attempted to give for Harry’s survival, but I know that the group I saw the movie with–none of whom had read the books–were very confused as we left the theatre, leading me into a rant about all the critical stuff the movie missed, later leading me to (eventually) write this critique.
No adaptation can perfectly mimic its source material. I get that, and mention that my first gripe is just a gripe. But the others I mention are infuriating. If the movie had ditched the unnecessary final fight scene and had instead focused more on Snape’s story and the deep significance of how Harry survived, the movie could have been more than a blockbuster. It could have been a great story.