Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Tuesday Talkback - Harry Potter and the Role of Adaptations

I've noticed a curious thing about reactions to the Harry Potter films. Fans who read the books seem to assume that moviegoers who haven't read the books must be complete idiots. I've cruised online for reactions to the movie, and while the reaction to this film (and the films in the series in general) trend pretty positive, it's the biggest fans who seem to complain the loudest about plot points that go unexplained.


- "They didn't explain why Harry lived!" (Yes, they did. It might not have gone on for pages and pages, but it was pretty clear what was going on.)

- "The Supporting Characters didn't get big fight/death scenes!" (Not really a problem... in the Star Wars movies do we need to focus extensively on each Rebel pilot before they get killed?)

- "They didn't explain how Voldemort was really killed!" (I think it's depicted pretty clearly in the movie without an explanation. Show, don't tell.)

Or to take it back to earlier films:

- "They never explained who made the Hogwarts Map!" (because it's not important to the plot.)

I've noticed this with Star Trek fans too. People complained that "Abrams movie doesn't make any sense unless you buy the comic books that explain the backstory." Hilariously, people who made this argument that the film sucked on those grounds were almost always the viewers who bought the comics. I personally knew many causal viewers who didn't even know the comics existed and had no trouble following the story.

Yet those who complain about such "plot holes" do so with an air of "I only know this because I read the books! Those if you didn't read the books you'd be lost!"

No, if you didn't read the books, you wouldn't know what you were missing and thus, you wouldn't care. Either that, or you assume the general audience is brain dead and needs everything spoonfed to them.

But what this comes down to is the superfan's inability to judge a film adaptation on its own terms. Any criticism that begins "In the book they..." is largely an invalid one. These aren't the books. It's called film adaptation, not film translation. "Adaptation" means "change." Minor plot points that were essential to the books are not going to be as high a priority as in a film.

The movies really took off when they learned to embrace Harry's journey as the spine of the series and to discard anything that wasn't germaine to that. That meant that a lot of third bananas might have lost some character beats, but that indulgence is something the books can afford.

I've only read the first five books, and I think one of the better adaptations was Order of the Phoenix specifically because it jettisoned a lot of the bloated passages of the novel and got to the heart of the story. That book was one instance where Rowling probably could have used a firmer editor because the pacing of a few points tested my tolerance greatly through the first 2/3 of the novel. In contrast, the film was much more engaging and might even be one of my favorites of the series.

But what do you think about this? Those of you who've only seen the films, did you feel major points went unexplained? Those of you who love the books, what do you hate the most about the movies? Are you able to enjoy the films and the books as separate entities or do you spend the entire viewing experience checking off what was and wasn't represented from the novels?

Do you worry about what a viewer who hasn't read the books would make of a scene or missing plot point? And how much credit do you give them to infer details they aren't directly told?


  1. I was discussing this with a friend last night. We both love the books and the films. (We're the kind of Potter fans who read each book as soon as it was out and have read each of them countless times since.)

    Personally, I think Deathly Hallows Part Two was done brilliantly... but I was a little disappointed by the fact that Teddy Lupin was not mentioned at all until after the scene his existence adds tragedy to...

    And as far as 'they didn't explain this and that' claims go - I'd argue the opposite. I felt the film explained some things that in the books are merely implied.

  2. I do my best to judge the films seperately. All my Potter geek friends hate film 6 for leaving out scenes that are key in the books and adding in the almost infamous Burrow scene that never happened in the books. Film 6 is my second favorite in the series.

    I still hate Order of the Phoenix. It just went too fast and left too many things open. I can't imagine anyone seeing that film and not being left with a bunch of questions.

  3. I don't think of the movies as adaptations, so much as imaginings of the book.

    HP is a unique property because it's the only one where the book and the movie form two sides of the experience. It should be noted that nothing in the movies happened without Jo Rowlings' explicit approval.

    By the time the 6th and 7th books came along, the movie personae of Harry, Ron and Hermione were so deeply ingrained in the culture, that when one read the books, it was almost impossible not to imagine Dan, Rupert and Emma as the characters. And Jo herself admitted that those later books had in fact been influenced by the movies.

    My only minor gripe with the movies is that the first two didn't have the same art design as the ones that followed. It would have been nice to have had that consistent quasi-gothic look.

  4. i think some people see the films and the books as a part of the same experience. that's why they constantly compare things. it was the same for the lord of the rings series, too. fans were constantly making such comparisons.

    i personally try to evaluate them as two different entities, and i only compare them with the quality of the "entertainment" they provide. for example, even though i enjoyed the hitchiker's guide to galaxy movie, i felt like the book far better than the movie, not necessarily because they included this and excluded that, but simply because it wasn't as fun as i expected.

    i totaly believe that a movie has its own language, and the more you try to make the book and the film parallel, the more you ruin the film.

  5. I've read all the books and personally thought the movies were very well adapted (especially Order of the Pheonix, which wisely cut out Hermione's whole "goblin rights" movement), whereas my girlfriend (who hasn't read any of the books) loved the movies more than anyone I know and never once complained about being lost or confused.

    You're right about adaptations changing what is needed to translate over to the screen. I don't think I could sit through a literal adaptation of the Lord of the Rings (wait...)

  6. I haven't read any of the books, and I've thoroughly enjoyed the films, especially "Prisoner of Azkaban". I don't remember ever being more confused than I was supposed to be.

    I thought the final film was solid, but more than the previous films, I could tell the filmmakers chose to stay true to the book rather than make the most compelling movie. Minor characters barely mentioned in the previous films became heroes, taking out the baddest baddies. Clearly, they played much larger roles in the books. More significant characters that were featured in the movies just died. No big deal. Thus, the movie didn't emotionally impact me the way I had hoped. And the last scene fell flat. Weak dialogue, acting, makeup. But they had to stay true to the book, I suppose. It didn't work for me.

  7. David - I've only read the books once, but I could have sworn the whole "elf rights" subplot was in Goblet of Fire. I remember borrowing that book from a friend of mine in college and upon returning it to her, was asked what I thought.

    I said, "I really liked it, but that whole house elves thing---"

    "That better be FUCKING IMPORTANT for all the time they spent on it!" she interrupted.

    I couldn't disagree with her at all. Of course, when we got to the movie and all traces had been cut, I couldn't decide to be happy that the filmmakers spared us the preachiness, or angry that this clearly meant that that subplot was not at all necessary in the grand scheme of the saga.

    I do have to admit that the one place where I think the movies bowing to the books doesn't work is with the romantic pairings. The film versions of Harry and Hermione have so much more chemistry with each other than with their respective partners.

  8. One possible problem with the Harry Potter series is that, the movies were started to made before the books were finished. So the producers weren't probbaly sure where to focus on exactly.

  9. Jedilost- Not quite accurate. Rowling was involved with the producers from the start and was always there to guide them as to what parts would be crucial later on. I recall reading that during production of Chamber of Secrets, she warned them not to cut Dobby from the script, saying, "If you do, you'll be tied in knots when you get to the seventh one."

  10. Lisa, that flat final scene we both didn't like was not in the book.

    BSR: I contend that Potter 7.2 was the film equivalent of Earnest Byner - awesome, and then fumbling at the goal line. The movie did a great job of compressing a lot of material and moving the plot along up until a specific point I will name in a moment. From the trio's Gringott's adventure to their return to Hogwarts to the battle itself to Snape's penseive scene, I was completely engrossed and the adaptation worked.

    And then it all went wrong.

    SPOILERS here.


    A critical part of what made the finale work in the books was that nobody knew Harry was alive until the big reveal. As Voldemort & Co. approached Hogwarts and the chained Hagrid laid Harry's body down on the ground, the "all is lost" sense of the end of Act 2 is perfectly executed. Then, Neville (whose arc was from doormat to leader) kills Nagini and all chaos breaks loose... at which point Harry whips on the cloak and disappears into the battle. At this point the good guys know they are fighting a losing battle but are determined to take out as many Death Eaters as possible in the process. They still think Harry is dead.

    Voldemort & co. press the battle into the school and there are deeds and deaths galore, but importantly, we are shown that people can get out of Voldy's curses now, for no known reason. He can't seem to kill anyone, though he doesn't notice this because he's busy enjoying the pride that goeth before a fall.

    Then, just as Voldemort is at the epicenter of the battle and the good guys are at their weakest, Harry uncloaks and appears, and it's the reveal of the entire series. It's a HUGE reveal. Rowling played it perfectly in the book, and it's a crying tragedy that it wasn't replicated in the movie. Harry faces Voldemort without fear, which makes Voldemort more afraid than ever.

    Harry offers Voldemort a chance to redeem himself, however slightly, and calmly explains why the Elder Wand isn't working for him. It's perfectly done, and so much more dramatic than the movie denouement of Harry just plot-dumping it to his friends after the battle. The reader just then realizes the implications of what Harry is saying, and then: Voldy casts the killing curse, and Harry disarms him and the curse rebounds, finally killing the villain. The good guys erupt into deafening celebration. The bad guys bolt. Harry, master of all three Hallows, stands triumphant.

    Now THAT is how you end that story.

    In the movie, the Hogwarts folks knew Harry was alive after he scrambled away from the showdown. And then their final duel took place out on the front porch where nobody else was watching. We know why, too: Movie economics. Cheaper and easier just to have Radcliffe and Fiennes on call and in front of the green screens for a week than to surround their epic duel with an audience. During that initial "pursuit" between the two, Harry starts to explain what's happening to Voldemort, but they don't resolve the thread. They just do a lightning-bolt tug-of-war and this time Harry wins, for no reason we know about, but is dumped on us later. All that buildup and only a semi-effective release.

    I'm usually a guy who argues AGAINST the terminal nerd whine "But they changed it!" I spent most of Lord of the Rings arguing that very point (Except the spoilage of the reveal of Frodo's mithril shirt, the adaptation was overall quite good, I thought). An adaptation is exactly that and it has to distill. It has to show what the pages would have told. Potter 5, Order of the Phoenix, did very well at this, focusing on Harry's story and discarding the rest. But this time, for Potter 7.2, they flat out blew it and fumbled the ball with the game on the line... just like Earnest Byner.

  11. I haven't seen 6 or 7 yet. However I think the majority of them are good - but 4 cut out way too much. Snape played a MUCH bigger role in the book and in the series as a whole, he was basically a major lead character. However in 4 they cut him down to just one lousy line.

    (Besides the fact that Alan Rickman, no matter if people want to admit it or not, IS a sex symbol to a LOT of women and teenage girls. I've met more 16 year old girls who want lose their virginity to Rickman then Justin Beiber. So really, they should have left more Snape scenes in just to get money from those females with crushes on him.)

    I do agree with the folks who say in 2 where they cut the scene with Hagrid and Harry talking while Hagrid carries a dead chicken made the following scene where Hagrid bursts into Dumbledor's office claiming that Harry couldn't have done anything make no sense. Bad editing.

    You can't fit it all, but I still hate it when they do things like change the entire ending or a characters' gender. (As you well know per my arguments about the horrible changes in Hannibal. And don't even get me started on The Phantom Of The Opera and it's numerous adaptations - Christine is described by Leroux as having honey blonde hair, blue eyes, and being nearsighted! Yet 99% of the time she's got brown hair, brown eyes, and perfect freaking vision! You'd think they'd at least keep the near sightedness as Leroux used that to explain part of why she was so innocent and naive even as an adult. She honestly thought she could see fairies because far away lights and shapes didn't appear sharply to her.) I think they should stick as close to the book as humanly possible. I'm not going to whine because Harry's eyes are suppose to be green, that wasn't something they could help. Or parring down really long scenes. But don't cut out stuff that is important to the development of the story or the motivations of the characters. That's like trying to trim the fat off a steak and cutting away almost down to the bone.

  12. I completely agree with your assessment of Order of the Phoenix. It was my least favorite (of the last 5) books, and it was the LONGEST of the entire series, BECAUSE her editors didn't reign it in. (Funny too, that the film is actually the shortest of the franchise). I remember thinking in the book, when Dolores Umbridge is finally exiled from Hogwarts, that is where the true narrative ending is, at least in the pacing of the book. AND YET, the book STILL has 100 pages left after that! Which are the most most exciting pages, theoretically. But by that point I was so sick of the thing, that I read those pages with a lack of passion.

    The MOVIE however, managed to trim the fat with liposuction. Making that final Ministry of Magic showdown absolutely thrilling. The pacing felt right because it led to THAT point, the genuine climax, not the false one. I also feel the film made the action more exciting then as written on the page.

    In general, regarding the whole series, I've always appreciated more on second viewing, where I'm not judging it against the books. I tend to enjoy it once I know how they changed it.

    I also think though, and "Game of Thrones" has made this theory ring true, that series books make much better TV Adaptations than Movie Adaptations. They have very similar natures. Where Movies only have time for streamlined plots, both Novels and TV have more time to focus on nuance. Think about HP, and how each book is like a season of television, structured in a way that each book is a school year. I also now can't IMAGINE now what type of film would come from "Game of Thrones". The show proves that the television format is a fantastic way to FAITHFULLY adapt a book.

  13. I just watched Deathly Hallows One in preparation for Part Two, since I haven't read the books or seen most of the films. I was so disappointed by all the plot holes that I decided to skip Part Two.

    But maybe I'm mistaken. Potter fans, please tell me if I'm missing something.

    1) Hermione can teleport, and she uses this power to rescue Harry from several attacks. So why doesn't she always use it to rescue him? Why did Madeye organize such as elaborate plan to move Harry with decoys, if Harry could be teleported to safety? Why do Harry, Ron and Hermione run through the woods instead of teleporting?

    2) Why doesn't Harry have this power himself, since he is "the chosen one" with presumably greater powers?

    3) When Ron is mortally wounded, Hermione whips up some magic to save him. When Dobby the elf is mortally wounded, Hermione does nothing while he dies. What? Does she not like elves?

    4) When Harry and others are imprisoned in a dungeon, Dobby teleports in to the rescue. Dramatic-writing teachers call this deus ex machina (and give you an F). How did Dobby know when and where to show up? He declares that he will "always be there" to help Harry. Really? Where was he during all the previous attacks?

    For me, this movie is like Transformers trash: a series of special effects strung together by writers too lazy or too stupid to invent a logical plot. I can appreciate the spectacle, but it's not enough.

    So what am I missing?

  14. Hermione can teleport while Harry can't because she does more studying and practicing then he does. He can be extremely lazy at times and therefore he'll just never be as strong as her.

    I can't remember why things happened as you said because it's been awhile since I read the books. But I do remember there was a reason.

    And - SPOILER ALERT - Harry's not really chosen, except by Voldermort. There were two children who could, according to the prophecy, bring Moldy-Voldy down. Harry was one, Neville was the other.

  15. @Peter, pretty much all of those questions are explained in the books. All of them take a bit too much space to explain here, except I must just say for question 3 it's mostly that Ron's wounds weren't as serious, whereas Dobby pretty much had a knife going through his heart. While I enjoy both the films and books separately, I don't believe the movie series as a whole makes much sense. My brother, who has only seen the movies, often has questions for me about how certain things happened, or who certain characters are, or why a so-and-so came to the rescue at this time (Dobby arriving made no sense at all in the film). However, his questioning is more out of curiosity rather than anger at his confusion.

    Individually, most of the movies are pretty good adaptations. 1 and 2 were particularly faithful, and then it sort of tapered off. For Prisoner of Azkaban, there was quite a bit of explaining in the Whomping Willow that was cut out. I loved this book and those moments, but those scenes would not have been particularly cinematic. 4 was pretty good, and say what you want about Order of the Phoenix book, but that movie was more empty than it had to be. 6 was alright, though I felt my first serious disappointment with the whole battle at Hogwarts (while Harry and Dumbledore are at the cave) being cut, along with the hospital wing scene. I know I'm bias because my favorite character, Lupin, had a relationship that was forced into one unexpected line instead of the one short, very sweet scene that it could have been. 7 was a pretty good movie, but as Peter suggests, it doesn't quite make sense to a non-reader.

    I have yet to the see the newest film, though I've heard that the announcement of Teddy Lupin's birth was cut. Not entirely a big change (though disappointing to me), but my non-reading friend remarked on it being a "wait...what?" moment when the existence of Teddy was revealed in the forest.

    All in all, I like the movies well enough. But when I really feel like getting back into the Potter scene, I always reread the books instead of watching the movies, because they're ultimately more satisfying.

  16. Okay, I can't help myself. For Peter: 1) The bad guys had infiltrated the Ministry of Magic, meaning they could track Harry if he were teleported out, because he was under seventeen at the time. The woods scene didn't happen that way in the book though. They didn't get a chance to run, and their wands were taken before they could apparate (teleport).

    2) Harry can apparate, but Hermione is often the most quick thinking of the bunch to do so. Also, Harry is the chosen one, but it doesn't give him any extra powers except against Voldemort.

    I've already explained three, and 4) involves Dumbledore's brother, a magical two-way mirror, and lots of other things never put into the movies.

  17. Thanks, JamiSings and Valarie. I'm still unimpressed with the storytelling.

    1) If Harry's 17th birthday was the point when he could teleport without being tracked, then that is a major plot point that should've been clear. Did Harry turn 17 right after the decoys caper? I don't remember it, and Wikipedia doesn't mention it.

    2) If Harry can apparate, why didn't he do so in the dungeon? How much quick thinking was required there?

    3) Dobby's wound may have been more serious than Ron's, but why didn't Hermione even try to help Dobby? Wouldn't the scene be more dramatic if she tried and failed? Not mention more consistent with common sense.

    4) When Harry sees the glowing deer, why doesn't he tell Hermione that he's going after it? She has already saved his behind multiple times. Wouldn't he want her along?

    5) How does Ron know where to find Harry (under ice in empty woods) when Ron returns from his tantrum at the exact moment to save Harry?

    I wanted to like this movie. I wanted to be engrossed and moved by the story. But each deus ex machina knocked me out of the story, and after the fifth one I gave up. I expect more from filmmakers with tens of millions to spend on good writing.

  18. Like I said, the whole movie series as a whole doesn't really make sense and I'm sure you could question it all day (even worse if the seventh movie is the only one you've seen). I know others, however, that have enjoyed the movies on their own, though it's a much less defined story.

    Oh, and Harry's birthday is mentioned in the Deathly Hallows movie, right after they've escaped the attack at the wedding.

    If you're really curious about the answers to your questions here (and many more I'm sure you have), I suggest that you read the books. I assure you, you'll find far fewer plot holes and inconsistencies.

    As for the films, I try to keep in mind that the writers had to prioritize. If they really did throw in all the 'necessary' exposition, the movie would either a) last several hours or b)have to cut out other parts of the story in a way that Harry would probably never make out of his house.