Order of the Phoenix Redux
Why, J.K., Oh Why?
The fifth Harry Potter movie seems to be missing the carefully exercised protection and fervor of the she-bear who successfully contracted her first four books into skillful screen adaptations of her novels. I suppose it is unfair to point the finger at J.K. Rowling, and that is not my intent at all. But something disappointing has happened with Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix and I think I might get the most honest answers from the author, herself. Before all of the rabid Potter fans rise up and begin looking for their tar and feathers, allow me to explain for I am not the only Potter lover who feels socked in the stomach with this latest offering.
The main question that needs to be asked of Warner Brothers and J.K. Rowling is, “Have you grown tired of the race to produce an A+ feature film for all seven books?” If the answer is truthfully, “yes,” please stop the pre-production on movie six and forget movie seven altogether. This is a solid case where “anything worth doing is worth doing poorly” does NOT apply! The fault does not lie in the writing of Rowling—she continues to astound with her obvious talent and ability to write fiction that engages all ages. The fault likes squarely with decisions made regarding adaptation into screenplay and the selection of a worthy director.
First, the screenwriter. How hard did Steve Kloves argue in favor of a break from adapting Potter books, and who thought it was a great idea to proceed without him? It has been confirmed that Kloves is back for movies six and seven; so why was book five tanked? In all the land of movie screenwriters, was there no one with the same credentials and the talent to carry the ball while the star quarterback sat out? Michael Goldenberg: the man is a playwright who has only written one movie screenplay on his own (1996: Bed of Roses), and that was a romantic comedy. He was involved with the 2003 production of Peter Pan, but if P. J. Hogan took top billing for that one and the movie only grossed eleven million on its debut weekend in the states, how does that put Michael Goldenberg in the same league as Kloves? Before all of those who think that Kloves has not been good for Harry Potter begin protesting, let me explain why this thinking is wrong.
Whether you like or dislike Kloves’ adaptations of Rowling’s books, you must agree that the consistency, fluency, and unity he maintained through the first four movies was exceptionally well executed. Adaptation of any book to a screenplay has to be a very difficult job. Many times I have said, “The book is much better than the movie.” This is very true also with the Harry Potter books because J.K. Rowling is such a gifted writer and also because the books in the series just keep getting longer and longer. The ideal, of course, would be to put the entire book on the screen and take a week to see it (if you aren’t snorting, you should be!), but there is no studio imaginable that would or could budget such a project—the idea is farcical in the extreme. So, screenwriters, writers, and directors work together to bring the best essence of the story to life on the screen.
As with all writers, Kloves has his own voice and favorite character—Hermione, in this case—and will take license with the material in a way that makes the most sense to him. The brilliance of giving Hermione some of the best lines in the books and making her a focal point of the actor’s ensemble is that she is a leader and Harry and Ron are not. (In a book, there is time to develop this characteristic. In a movie, time is an enemy that must be manipulated.) By making Hermione the flame to which the rest of the cast is drawn, Harry and Ron are strengthened into implementers—doers, if you will—who accomplish the movement of the plot and successfully achieve hero status for Harry who is, after all, the main character. Goldenberg should have done his homework much better and studied the first four movies. He must have known that he was only a relief pitcher, but instead was allowed to think he was a starter. He destroyed the predefined chemistry of the characters by practically writing out Ron altogether, diminishing the impact of Hermione until almost too late into the movie, and burying the Order of the
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is a chopped up mess! But allow me to be clearer. I have a suspicion that David Yates felt pressured (most likely by himself) into somehow getting every character into the movie whether the scene made sense or not. Because of this, the movie gives glimpses of characters who have become much beloved but are now treated as poor relations whom it is hoped will be happy with a scrap of recognition—a nod of the head. Major characters are turned into cameos and background characters like the Weasley twins, Fred and George, are given more screen time almost than Harry himself. Rupert Grint (Ron Weasley) is reduced to close ups of slack-jawed, puppy-eyed sadness—way too many times. Completely gone are wonderfully comic foils like Nearly Headless Nick who would have provided quick continuity and a wonderful reunion with previous visits to Hogwarts.
Yates has become known for using the hand-held camera, but the first four movies were not filmed this way; so this technique brings another break in continuity and makes for a sometimes bumpy ride—so much tight framing that I felt several times as if I couldn’t grasp the big picture.
Transitions from one scene or location to the next are not well edited and the movie comes across as a long series of vignettes rather than a carefully- and seamlessly-woven story. Every now and then throughout the movie, Yates throws in a long pan of looming mountains, dark waters, and brooding skies. The problem is that the timing and insertion are so mishandled that it’s as if a commercial break for a travel agency has been inserted and the mood and symbolism intended are not invoked. (One thing Yates does get right, however, is the deepening darkness that is pervading the wizard world as Lord Voldemort becomes stronger and his and Harry’s final conflict draws nearer. There… I said something nice!)
David Yates is already working on the sixth Potter movie. My only hope is that he will study the first four and learn something about the magic with which Chris Columbus, Alfonso Cuaron, and Mike Newell endowed their works. He has had a high bar set and big boots to fill, but he should have been honest with himself about being prepared to take on a blockbuster when his experience has been in television stories focused on police mysteries and explorations of societal manners and place.
I would not be so facile as to say that adapting seven novels into seven movies and getting it right is a piece of cake. But, then, I know my limitations and would never have taken on the project. However, Warner Brothers and J.K. Rowling decided that they could get the job done and proved it with four fine movies in a row. While it is a shame that the middle has collapsed, the cake may still be saved and savored if movies six and seven return to the love and attention to detail given to the first four. Please… may it be so!