Wednesday, July 25, 2007

You know, I really hate children.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is the first film in its series to surpass the book upon which it is based (Prisoner of Azkaban is the best movie so far, but the book's pretty perfect too). Like Cuaron's film, this newest entry is a real adaptation, made with a unique approach to the material, rather than a slavish recreation of the source material designed to appase hardcore Potterphiles (so often the worst judges of what makes a good movie). Relative newcomer David Yates never folds under what must be the enormous pressure of delivering a film that is also practically a self-contained corporation; Potter 5 is a dark, thematically rich entry in the recently concluded saga of everyone's favorite Limey occultist.

The Harry Potter books have always had meandering plots - this is part of their charm. But with Order of the Phoenix, the narrative asides and protracted internal monologues are repetitive and often maddening (that said, it's my favorite of the books after Azkaban). I feared that Yates and screenwrite Michael Goldenberg would commit the series' all-too-common error of treating film like literature. Thankfully, Order of the Phoenix is surprisingly kinetic; in translating this chapter of Harry's story, which finds the boy wizard assembling an army of his peers to battle Voldemort and clashing with officious, kitten-loving monster Dolores Umbridge, Yates and Goldenberg make very shrewd choices about what to keep and what to cut from the book (the result is occasionally choppy, but only in retrospect). More importantly, Order of the Phoenix demonstrates an innate understanding of how, just as a book can find a thousand words in a single moment, a film can condense a thousand words into a single image. Order of the Phoenix is filled with indelible images, like a character's sudden, surprised disappearance into the abyss, that honor the shivery undertow that will seemingly draw Harry and his friends to an ending that, if happy, won't be easily earned (I'm halfway through Deathly Hallows, so my apologies if everything ends with an ice cream social).

While the climactic battle with Voldemort and his cohorts is splendidly creepy, the most engaging conflict in the film is between Harry and Umbridge. Imelda Staunton is perfect in the role, an insipid, smirking bureaucrat who equates inquiry with insubordination; rarely have I so intensely wanted to kick a fictional character in the teeth. Staunton clearly relishes in her character's hatefulness, and she elevates the rest of the cast - the kids do their best work thus far (I didn't even mind Emma Watson this time around), and it's a delight to watch the always-growing roster of great British thespians play off each other. I remain Michael Gambon's biggest fan, and Gary Oldman reminds even in a brief role why he's one of the greatest actors around. After the generic, smutty CGI-riddled mess that was Goblet of Fire, it's a welcome relief to see a film driven by the characters we've come to know and love.

The most exciting aspect of Order of the Phoenix is the breathtaking production design. Yates and DP Slawomir Idziak demonstrate a remarkable understanding of composition that give locations like the Ministry of Magic, with its seemingly endless tiled corridors, a sense of scale that makes the fantastic completely believable. And the details, like the endless purring in Umbridge's office, have an absurdist quality worthy of Gilliam at his best. Hogwarts once again feels like a real, lived-in place, and the entirety of the film is a treat for the imagination. And hough Order of the Phoenix ends with intimations of darkness, it also winds up on a note that honors its youngest, most faithful audience members for the persistence of their dreams.


Allen Lulu said...

I usually agree with all of your reviews and observations and just casually lurk, but in this case, I think you are way way off the mark.
I happened to see the movie with 4 teenagers. 2 had read the books and were fans, the other two only like the movies. All four of them walked out scratching their heads and commenting on how there seemed like there might be a good four hour movie out there that makes sense, but they seemed to edit it down and just take the highlights.
I tend to agree with this.
Order is my favorite of the 6 (Deathly is now my favorite as it is as good a closer to a saga as we are ever likely to get.
It is also the most ambitious. There is a reason for this. By the time a reader has come to this book, assuming they were with Rowling from the age of, say, 12, they are ready to handle a denser book with more complicated themes. The brilliance of her novels is that they take the reader on an journey not only of story, but also of readership and education. You should learn to be a better reader by the time you are a teen and the books encourage that, if read in order.
OotP is a political novel, rich with themes of totalitarianism and conservativism. It continues the motif of racism and, dare I say, genocide.
Assuming you have read DH, I will still not offer any spoilers except to say that Rowling has made a tremendous case against conservative, monotheistic governments and, in a sense, takes on Hitler and the master race. Voldemort as been growing as a Hitlerian foe for the entire saga
And those themes come to fore in Order. And the film, sorry, movie, left them flat.
It is hardly memorable the way you describe. None of us can remember what happened in the flick. And yet, the film really resonated.
The joy, however, is that the films are ephemeral. They will cease to be of any relevance shortly. Perhaps they will be remade in 30 years. But the books will remain in print for probably the next 100 years or so.
It may sound trite but I think this is an epic on a scale akin to Tolkien or Doyle. In fact, more so.
if you have read the Deathly Hallows, perhaps you will agree. And, if you don't, that's okay, too.
But, I think you got it wrong here. And I think that is born out by the return of Steve Kloves to the next movie. even Warner's knew they screwed the pooch on this one.

Allen Lulu said...

and when I say film resonated, I, of course, mean the book

John said...

On one hand, I enjoyed this movie quite a bit and on my own blog, I have addressed the pitfalls of adapting such works to the screen and questioned if it is necessary. Given the parameters they have to work with, I think these folks delivered the best movie possible and if you plan on enjoying them at all, you have to buy into the conceit that the plots of the books are going to be shredded.

At times, I speculate that part of the reason Harry Potter fans go and see the films is for sport - to just see what they've done to the book and analyze it for weeks after.

I have a couple friends who have never read the book and saw the movie and loved it, totally got into it.

That is what it is.

So, I agree with you, Andrew, I do think it's a tight, fun movie that I liked a hell of a lot.

But, of course, when I compare it to the book - I've only read that and the one before (currently working on Half Blood Prince) and for an 800 page book, I wasn't bored by a moment of it and wouldn't take a red pen to it at all, unlike Goblet of Fire - it does come up wanting.

In small details. One of the joys of the book is that so much time is spent with the adult characters and it functions as that moment of clarity where a kid is allowed to sit at the adult table at family functions and suddenly you see your family as part of a history, with a past, where the adults have passion and pain and pleasures. There is so much time spent on the adults in that book and the movie does suffer by not taking advantage of this rich tapestry that Rowling has woven. Only Snape gets his due in the movie.

The Hitlerian stuff is explored futher, as well, in segments that involve giants and centaur subplots.

In the end, I have to agree wholeheartedly with Allen's summation - this is an epic of Lord of the Rings grandeur that is being whittled down to a fun adventure. I think he is entirely correct in his summation of the general tone of the adaptations. They're Reader's Digest times 100 versions of the books!

I do have to remind Allen, though, that a lot of Lord of the Rings fans were outraged by the movie adaptations. I never read the books - or rather, I tried and found them dull - and I was pleased with the way the movies retained the epic quality, retained the complications, while still making the story move a little better and focusing on the actual characters. But I also realize that part of the reason I loved Return of the King is that I've only seen the full version on the DVD special edition and not the chopped up theatrical version. Actually, when I read about the things that were missing from the theatrical version, I was appalled - forget literary adaptation, I couldn't understand how the damn movie made sense on its own in regard to the previous two.

But, as always, I'm sure there were people out there who loved the theatrical version when they saw it. And so, as with so many things, it's all a matter of degrees.

I look at it like the mathematical principle of dimensions - if you are in the 3rd, you can't see the extra dimensions, you can't even perceive what they are like, so you can't miss them and they feel fine to you. However, in the higher dimensions, 3 of them looks awfully limiting no matter how much a 3rd dimensional being swears it's really great. There's no reason for the 3rd dimensional being dislike his dimensions, so he doesn't.

Allen Lulu said...

The kid's table.....brilliant.
There is a huge difference between Lord and Potter, tonaly and, I think, in accessability (sp). The reason I made the comaprison is Sherlock Holmes and The Ring Saga are the most popular sagas of the last 100 years that come to mind when I think of popular epics.
Rowling's books are unique. They accomplish many many things while never hammering one over the head. It's too exciting a list for me to waste in a comment section (albeit a comment section on one of my favorite blogs...;))
There is a singular joy in reading the first books, by the by: When you finally get to Hallows you will, hopefully see what I see (and what other friends of mine and I have been talking about recently): JK Rowling had it all pretty much planned from the beginning. She knew where this was heading. Unlike, say, Lucas, who was always flying by the seat of his "I'm your father, she's your sister, you have micro creatures in you" pants.
The ending to this saga is made even that much more intense and exciting when you have been there from the beginning.
H&H are at a perfect age to read these things, you know.....

John said...

Jana read the first three books to them and it was fine, but the fourth horrified them after the death of whathisface. The best it can be described is that they didn't trust Rowling to protect them from disturbing things and now they want nothing to do with them. Not that all childrens' literature needs to be made fluffy, but not all kids are the same and some of them can't handle intense darkness, although our culture is in a place where people are convinced all children can.

No big deal. As you can imagine, my kids read from a pretty rich library without Harry Potter being involved. They love Philip Pullman and he's the best children's writer working today - an eloquent craftsman in all the ways Rowlling is not - so I can't complain.

Andrew Bemis said...

John, what I found most interesting in your post was your assertion that filmmakers are hired to adapt, rather than re-invent the material. First, I find these two things to be much the same when crossing mediums, translation and interpretation going hand-in-hand (see Potters 1, 2 and 4 for multiple examples of how what makes for a crackling read becomes plodding and obvious on celluloid). Second, the use of the word "hired" is intriguing, suggesting a preference for the journeyman filmmaker. As I'm a stubborn auteurist, I'd be much more suspicious of a filmmaker that doesn't offer his/her own interpretation of the material. Prisoner of Azkaban is the best Harry Potter movie because of what Alfonso Cuaron brought to the material, both visually (the sinewy tracking shots anticipating Children of Men) and thematically (the emphasis on the many uncertainties of adolescence both honoring the book and reflecting Cuaron's own preoccupations). For me, there's nothing worse than an impersonal film, no matter how well-crafted it is.

This is not to say that a successful adaptation must radically alter its source - Rosemary's Baby and The Virgin Suicides are two examples of films that are faithful to their sources down to minor set details. In those cases it works, as the books are extremely filmic already and the filmmakers are well-matched to the material. On the other side of the spectrum is a film like The Shining, which takes a good book and alters its DNA so substantially as to change its entire meaning - this can be disastrous, but it's hard for me to complain with a film as perfect as The Shining. The changes and omissions in Order of the Phoenix are more structural and don't really change the story's meaning. I agree with both of you - it's remarkable how the books age with their readers, and the strongest aspect of OotP is the "grownups' table" aspect of it. I feel that comes through in the film, with the emphasis being on Dumbledore's Army and the ways that the kids grow together, united in the psychic scar tissue left by their parents and ancestors. That said, an adaptation emphasizing the Order could have been just as successful. In a sense, I'd be interested to see how those remakes Allen mentions might play in thirty years - you're right, Allen, in saying that the Potter saga is an epic, metatextual endeavor, and I'd like to see which aspects of the books and films resonate most deeply with audiences a couple of generations down the line.

I'm interested in how you make that distinction between films and movies. There's the underlying implication throughout this discussion that a transition from literature to cinema is almost inherently a downgrade - why is that? Is a film really ephemeral, at least any more or less so than a book? And John, I have to take exception to the idea that films cannot be as meditative or interactive an experience as books - it's my personal experience that a great film can live in my imagination with as much persistence as a great novel.

About 500 pages into book 7, and it's a great read. I'm also amused, in light of this conversation, at how decidedly acinematic it is - for the biggest publishing event ever, the book is stunningly intimate. It's the first Potter book I can imagine being directed by, say, Atom Egoyan. I agree that the books are a remarkable achievement; I just can't relate with people that complain about a wonderful film like Azakaban because they moved the frigging Whomping Willow.

Dr. Criddle said...

Woah woah woah. Philip Pullman, a children's author? Exqueeze me?

In any case, I'm pretty intrigued to see this movie.... everyone's been on my case to see the Transformers on one of these afternoons before work, but I think I'll probably blow it off in favor of OotP.

Books vs. movies has always been a source of argument, and will probably be for years. Personally, I think cinema is capable of being every bit as emotionally and subtextually rich as great novels, and bad writing can be just as insufferable as junky popcorn movies. Nowhere is it written that a film adaptation is always a step down - I always cite "Psycho" and "Jaws" as examples of trashy pulp novels which were turned into two of the finest films ever made. Literature and cinema are different animals, just like music, painting, and sculpture, but I'd never call one superior to the other.

Allen Lulu said...

The distinction between film and movies. This is largely subjective, I realize. And, it's a can of worms that is explosive. There are good books that have become better movies: Cutter's Way for example. There are good books that were equally good movies: World According to Garp, for example. Then there is the bastardized great book that become an amazing movie: The Natural.
I think it has a lot to do with timlessness. At least partially. There are not a lot of films that speak to each generation because, well, each gen is exposed to different film stocks, editing styles, cinematography, etc. I have always felt that Michael Phillips's quote sufficed in discussions such as these: (paraphrasing)
Film is the marriage of art and commerce. In the 80's art went home. Movies are commerce. Films are a different animal entirely. Not to say they don't spill over into each other's arena. Raiders is a good example. I think the film was made with a great deal of integrity, or should I say, "desire". Lucaas and Spielberg were making something they really loved. Cut to a few years later and "Young Sherlock Holmes.....well, that's a movie now, isn't it?
And to answer your other question: yes, film is entirely ephemeral. The language of books is the language of communication. Whilst the dialect may change slightly and the prose become less prosaic, books are books. They are as eternal as the language. Film is not. Film is entirely subjective. As I spoke about before, the "language" of a film from the 80's is different than the language of film just a decade before. And so much so that a film that might have carried with it a singular distinction, like, say, Jaws, doesn't move the way an action film would today. It is much slower, the pacing, the dialogue, it is still great, but I have to wonder if, released today, exactly the same way, would it have an impact? Of course not. It is sungularly of a time. Nowadays it would have to move much quicker, there would be 100 shots to tell one emotional thing, it would be a different animal. In that way, I believe, film is ephemeral.
The impact of a movie isn't the same as a novel. There were times in HP&tDH that I would suddenly realize that I WAS just a person sitting in a room reading a book, that I WASN'T actually there. Thats something books do that film doesnt Film and Televsion, while they tell us stories, they are the least active of the passive mediums. You have to do some work in a book. You have to actively engage your brain and read. evn in theater, you have to engage your brain to actively suspend disbelief and create the fourth wall. In movies that is all laid oiut for you. Movies are the lazy man's entertainment. Perhaps I believe that that is another distinction: A movie that engages the audience as a participant (and not because of subtitles) is closer to what I think of when I think of "film". A movie just passes 2 hours and, after you leave, disperses into the ephemera.

You say that film is as interactive as a book. This is entirely untrue as I stated above. It doesn't make them worse than books, but it makes books better than movies.That said, I have easily watched more movies than I have read books.

The example you gave of The Shining intrigues me. Who would watcht he Shining now, in unexpurgated form? Really. On the big screen? Drive across town to pay 14 bucks to see it? Show of hands? Not that many, I am sure. Not enough that it couldn't be remade (it was) and might be again.
The thing about movies is that they CAN be remade over and over to suit the times. Christ, Footloose is being remade. Everything old is new again? Who has ever rewritten a book? Not going to happen or will happen much much less.

There are too many levels to this conversation. I will have to stop here, my movie is about to start.

John said...

Holy crap, Andrew brings up a million good points and Allen makes a million good rebuttals and I am left with . . . total shit to say.

Which is probably good, because I am, at heart, a lazy, glib bastard.

I think after all is said and done, the one thing I find myself walking away with is Allen's assertion of the purpose and success of adaptations being subjective - and of them having multiple purposes and outcomes.

The only way I can really illustrate this is by looking back on what I have thought of literary adaptations on an individual basis.

For instance, "The Grapes of Wrath," which is truly a wonderful movie, but when compared to the book, facile. The movie lets itself fall into the male dominated storyline thing and plants itself firmly in the reality of the situation - the book, on the other hand, dives into the female side (Tom is merely one of the crowd in the book, not the center of the story) and it often pushes back reality for an almost science fiction feel. The movie played to the popular conventions of the time but the novel is timeless and visionary and anything but conventional.

"The Egg and I" is one of the best memoirs I have ever read - it's frank and funny about what it is really like to live a sitcom life, taking over an egg farm in the middle of nowhere. Imagine all the weird hillbilly things that happen and this book surpasses your expectations. The movie, on the other hand, takes the freedom and the fury of the book and puts it into a standard plot, even throwing in an evil seductress, giving a truly enlightening memoir the sheen of a Hollywood romantic comedy of the time.

"The Thin Man" takes a pretty good book and renders it faithfully as near as I can recollect. It does take away some of the coarseness, but replaces it with something else that is special - it makes the characters come alive and presents one of the truest married love stories I have ever seen in a movie. It's acheivement in that area cannot be understated and though storywise it matches the book, in character realization, it surpasses it.

"Planet of the Apes" is a book that I find to be a bit dry and academic. It's such a great set-up and yet Bouelle only has a dry sensibility, he hasn't the audacity to take it where the film goes. Between Serling's script and Heston's performance, the movie is so much better than the book, so much more gripping and iconic, so much more meaningful. Even as an adult, it stabs me in the gut. It will far outlive the book because it deserves to.

I can tell you this about movies vs. books. Books, I take out and glance at a few pages. I pull out ones I don't remember so well and refresh myself. I pull out ones I adore and read a couple paragraphs to remind me what I love about them. I can stick them in my backpack and bring anywhere. I can grab one to bring on the damn toilet. I can randomly open a page and read it and savor the language and I can do it again and again and again. Books are technology in one sense, but they are a simple one, they don't need electricity after their production, they don't need a separate delivery system. They don't exist in "real time" because, with books, time is relative. You can read the same paragraph five times before moving on.

When a movie survives as long as The Odyssey or the Bible, then the power of their stories will be clear. Certainly, there is visual art that has survived a long, long time, but I am not clear it packs the punch of Homer, generally.

All of us will be very dead before it's clear whether movies stand up to that.

Movies also have the deficit of being created by committee. Books are created by the author, with notes by the editor, and maybe some words by the marketing guys. We've all seen movie credits. Some of us have studied film in school. We know it is not a lonely art. Ingmar Bergman was a transcendent genius who I am very thankful for, but I am equally thankful for Sven Nyquist's involvement with him. Bergman was great, but with Sven, he was better. Mark Twain is superior all by his lonesome. And there's a difference you can't ignore.

On the other hand, there is no literary equivalent for "It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World." And that's important too.