Overstuffed vs. Undernourished

ron-small.jpgHow’s this for controversial: Harry Potter book 5, clocking in at a massive 900 pages, about 3 or 4 times longer than the first book, is too long and overstuffed, while the movie adaptation, clocking in at just over two hours, is way too short and leaves out all the good stuff. Wait a minute, did I say controversial? I meant contradictory.

Structurally, it’s as if each had no choice – Rowling was at the first height of Potter mania, and could easily throw off the evil, evil shackles of an editor. If the masses love Harry Potter, of course they would love EVEN MORE Harry Potter. It’s obvious. For the movie version, filming the book page by page is not going to happen; at about a minute per page, if it were filmed completely that would work out to roughly 15 hours! Plus, Hollywood always knows best, so it doesn’t matter if important bits and bobs of plot and character development get cut. All material must be squeezed into an identical product container, the unit known as “half an evening of multiplex entertainment”.

Sarcasm aside, that is one point in Rowling’s favour: there are large subplots that could easily have been cut, but the bulk of this book is actually character material. For example, we see what has happened to Gilderoy Lockhart, the hapless Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher whose mind got blasted at the end of book 2 (and was memorably played by Kenneth Branagh in the movie version). More pertinently: Dobby the house elf, also introduced in book 2, gets a nice role in the book, and is completely absent in the fifth movie. Dobby is grateful to Harry for past kindness and the kindness he shows in return goes a long way to prove Rowling’s series-long point: Harry and Voldemort might be equals in magical strength (for technical reasons explained in this book, something Harry is not pleased about), but Harry’s advantage is that he is kind and has always treated those around him that way. Boil it down, The Fifth Element-style: The true power of the universe is love!! But there’s no scene here where Bruce Willis and Milla Jovovich kiss and then love emanates everywhere. Rowling slowly builds up a cadre of loyal support for Harry across many books. That’s why it’s too bad that, for example, Ron gets short shrift in the movie version of The Order of the Phoenix, although not as harshly as Dobby – in the book, he joins the Quidditch team and proves himself, while in the movie, he’s a key friend and not much else.

ron-big.jpgThe movie is particularly bad in showing the meaning of the ending: there’s a big fight, some crystal balls are stored in a big room, they all break. Huh? I confess that I saw the movie before I had read the book, and I had no clue what the big build-up was all about. Rowling has to sit down with Dumbledore and Harry at the end of the book to explain everything, unfortunately, but it’s worth it, since the conclusion of book 5 actually ties up some loose threads from earlier books and leaves us in a good state for an amped-up confrontation with Voldemort in the next two volumes.

Interestingly, in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, we see a lot more of London and other real world locations. I’ve always been a bit wary of the relationship between magic and muggle reality in the Rowling series. The Harry Potter books don’t feel like an urban fantasy, a subgenre with its own rules and traditions but basically one which does not shy away from real world issues like racism or homelessness. Not that magical creatures necessarily concern themselves with normal people’s problems in this subgenre, but they are not ignored either. That said, neither is Harry Potter a world apart; it’s not a world that has never heard of us (like most fantasy), and it’s not a world where one of us visits but there is no other connection (like Narnia). Rowling has created quite an odd beast here. I had read the first Harry Potter book many years ago, and when I came back to it in my current attempt to tackle the entire series, I noticed a moment where Harry asks about this precise issue. He’s told that the magical community likes to keep separate; this sets up the story as taking place in a weird limbo, with the real world as a source of harmless British flavour and not much else. If anything, it’s going in the other direction, magic causing problems for muggles. I’ve just finished the first chapter of the sixth book, The Half-Blood Prince, and it introduces the new state of affairs – Voldemort and his followers are creating so much havoc that it’s definitely spilling over into the muggle world – with the Minister for Magic giving a briefing to the regular Prime Minister. The PM doesn’t have a chance to ask for help with unemployment or environmental sustainability (to be facetious)… it’s all “Voldemort is back and he’s killing Muggles.”

I realize that I’m a little late to the party on this one – the new wave of book buzz is Twilight or something – but my excuse is that the movies are still coming out, and I’d like to get a jump on books six and seven before Hollywood gets a hold of them. I’m also glad that I made it past book four, my candidate so far for worst book of the series. I guess it was a matter of becoming accustomed to the darker, grown-up Harry as opposed to the carefree book one version. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is a transition book, because clearly Voldemort is not going to get offed until late in book seven, but it’s a remarkably effective one. The movie version is a hodge-podge of fleeting glimpses and amputated character moments. Yes, the book is far too long, but in this particular case, I’d prefer the overstuffed approach.


A little while I ago, I pretty much swore off this whole book-movie comparison thing (in a piece about Prince Caspian). I guess I couldn’t help myself! Any thoughts on the previous HP movies? What do you think will happen with the next movie?

2 replies »

  1. I thought the third movie was the best: it bridged the book/movie divide the most gracefully, and began to show the characters emerging from the OMG! Magic School! cocoon.
    I thought the fifth book was the nadir of the lot – as you said, grossly overstuffed. But when I re-read it, I realized that in my irritation I’d overlooked some key developmental scenes, so some of the problem was my attitude.


  2. I think for me the key is to realize that this is Harry’s plunge into adulthood. There’s a lot he has to catch up on. Doesn’t necessarily excuse a 900 page book when the series started with 250 page books, but all the same.
    I also liked the third movie; for me, it was the first glimpse of the kids actually growing up, and handled well for all that. If you watch a bit of the fifth movie now, and then go back to the cuddly little kids at the beginning of the first movie, it’s a visual shock. They’ve come a long way!


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