Harry Potter and the Deathly Split

Note: This was originally posted on the following pop culture blog, to which I am a contributor: 


Welcome, readers, to my inaugural post for Pop Cultural Capital.  Before we begin, introductions are in order—or, to borrow a quote from a certain thawed British spy, “Allow myself to introduce . . . myself.”  My name is Mike.  No, not that Mike, a different one.  I tend to go by Michael professionally, so to avoid confusion with the moderator of this blog, you can call me Michael.  When Mike (the other one) invited me to contribute to this blog, I wasn’t sure what my debut would be.  I thought about opening with some sort of list ranking my favorite films (as Mike can tell you, I’m quite fond of creating lists to rank different elements of pop culture; we’ve had many such discussions over the years—and I think we both saw a frightening amount of ourselves in the main character of High Fidelity).  But lists are easy, so I figured I would save that for a time when I can’t think of anything else to write.

Instead, I decided to begin my first contribution with a question that came to mind after seeing Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1: should a work of fiction written as a single volume be split into two films for the purposes of including as much of the source material as possible?  This seems to be a growing trend in the film industry (Tolkien’s The Hobbit is getting the same treatment).  Some have argued that the decision to split the final Harry Potter (HP) book into two films was nothing more than a cynical cash grab by the studio.  While there is definitely some truth to this, let’s assume for the purpose of this piece that the filmmakers’ intentions were completely noble—to be as faithful as possible to the novel on which the films are based.

This raises another question: how important is it for a film to be completely faithful to its source material?  After all, the most critically acclaimed film in the HP series was Prisoner of Azkaban, which took several liberties with the novel, while the longest book in the series, Order of the Phoenix, was turned into the shortest film but still worked quite well in spite of all the source material that was excised.

Purists absolutely hate when a movie doesn’t follow a book to the letter.  Admittedly, I, too, have been annoyed on occasion when my favorite parts of books were not included in the film versions.  However, I recognize that movies are a different medium and have limitations that books don’t.  One prime example that comes to mind is Stanley Kubrick’s polarizing film version of Stephen King’s The Shining. On one side are fans of the novel who loathed Kubrick’s adaptation because of how badly it bastardized the original story.  On the opposite side are those of us who were able to look past the film’s glaring omissions and outright changes to appreciate it as one of the greatest horror movies ever made.  Years later, the fans who wanted a more faithful adaptation of The Shining got their wish when King endorsed a miniseries version that virtually followed the novel verbatim.  This version, however, paled in comparison to Kubrick’s masterpiece, proving that a faithful adaptation does not guarantee great cinema.

Does this mean that filmmakers should disregard the contents of the novel they are adapting?  Of course not.  The history of cinema is littered with the carcasses of awful films based on books (many of them, as it happens, from King’s oeuvre).  The trick is to find a happy balance between doing the book justice and making a compelling film—just because something works on the page does not mean it will translate to film.  Peter Jackson, for example, was smart enough to jettison the Tom Bombadil character from his film adaptation of The Fellowship of the Ring.

Which brings me back to the latest HP flick.  I saw a good 30 minutes in Part 1 that probably could have been cut with no major loss to the story, particularly during the slow moving “camping” section of the film.  They also could have saved time by cutting the wedding scene (there was no point in introducing Bill Weasley at this stage of the series when he was completely omitted from the previous films).  This does not mean that it is a bad film (it’s well made and acted), but overall, as the first half of a single story, it is by necessity all buildup with no payoff (it basically plays as a 2.5-hour setup for the forthcoming Part II).  When paired with the final film, Part 1 will look much better, but as a standalone film, it doesn’t quite work.  Rather than ending with a compelling cliffhanger, the film basically just stops, as if you had closed a book after completing a chapter (with the knowledge that you can’t pick it up again for eight months).

“Who cares?” many HP fans say, “they’re not meant to be viewed as two separate films,” to which I would reply, “all the more reason why it should have been released as a single film.”  If all extraneous material had been excised from the novel, it’s certainly possible that The Deathly Hallows could have been presented as one long film clocking in at less than four hours, rather than an artificially split two-parter that will probably exceed five hours in combined length.

This brings us back to my original question: should a work of fiction written as a single volume be split into two films?  While splitting The Deathly Hallows did not quite work, this does not mean that it can’t be done.  I believe that a story structured with natural breaks (as in some King novels) might be adaptable to multiple films.  There’s also the option of altering a story’s structure, as Quentin Tarantino did with Kill Bill, which was originally scripted as one film but ultimately split into two volumes at the urging of the studio.  Tarantino’s talent for telling a story out of chronological order enabled each film to work both individually and as part of a whole.  Granted, Kill Bill was not a novel, but the concept is similar.

So, have I really provided a definitive answer to either of my questions?  No, but I hope you found the topic interesting nonetheless.  Anyway, I fear this post is getting rather long and in danger of devolving into a ramble (or perhaps I already crossed that line several paragraphs ago), so I’m going to end it here.  I suppose I should have taken my own advice and edited out some unnecessary material, or maybe [gulp] I should have split this post into two parts!

In closing, I’d like to thank Mike and Paul for inviting me to contribute to this cool blog, and hopefully, if I haven’t bored you to death by this point, you’ll stick around to read my future posts.  Until then, may the force be with you (sorry, I couldn’t discuss pop culture for this long without making at least one Star Wars reference).

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