Once, I was a purist. I preferred movie adaptations to remain as loyal to their source material as possible. Nowadays, I feel more relaxed about this: an adaptation should stay true to the spirit of its source, and retain the general framework, but it should also be free to rework things a little when appropriate, to translate the story more effectively into the visual medium and make the film a unique entity in itself – perhaps even to make improvements on things that were lacking in the source.
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets doesn’t do this very well. The script reads like the screenwriter just copied out the book into script format, cut out the least important bits like the Deathday Party, and left it at that. This makes for a film that feels rather longer than it has to be at almost three hours, and that doesn’t feel especially imaginative in terms of structure. When we get a few amusing lines inserted that weren’t in the book – Neville sighing “Why is it always me?” after being hung from a chandelier by pixies; Draco saying to Harry-Goyle, “Reading (glasses)? I didn’t know you could read”; and Ron moaning, “Why spiders? Why couldn’t we follow the butterflies?” – it actually feels refreshing.
There are some good decisions – like drawing out the action scenes (e.g. the Quidditch match) a little – but the unimaginative, minimum-effort screenwriting has some detrimental effects. One of the worst is the treatment of Ginny. Despite playing an important role in the mystery and the climax, Ginny only makes a few very brief appearances – and has just two lines – before we get to the Chamber: after yelling at Ron, Mrs Weasley’s Howler strangely starts talking normally to Ginny to remind us that she’s around. Indeed, Ginny has such a minimal presence in the film that it’s hard to feel terribly invested when her life is in danger at the end. Meanwhile, I don’t recall Justin Finch-Fletchley’s name ever being mentioned before he turns up Petrified in a corridor.
As with the first film, some clumsy editing creates situations that make no sense. The Weasleys, upon losing Harry in Diagon Alley, do not look for him but go straight to see Lockhart at the bookshop. Dumbledore knows that Mrs Norris has been Petrified without even touching her. Hagrid bursting into Dumbledore’s office to defend Harry becomes purposeless. And Ginny somehow knows that Harry has Riddle’s diary without actually seeing him with it. Character nuances are generally neglected, and sometimes they behave oddly: upon learning that his good friend Hagrid apparently opened the Chamber of Secrets and was responsible for the death of a girl, Harry’s reaction is “Whoa!”
There is some reworking of the source material, however, in the portrayal of Ron and Hermione – namely, showing off how wonderful Hermione is while turning Ron into a complete dolt. Having grown up in the wizarding world, Ron is supposed to know things about that culture that Harry and Hermione don’t, but here, that role is negated. Hermione doesn’t need Ron to tell her what ‘Mudblood’ means, and she’s also the one who explains about Parselmouths and how even wizards don’t consider hearing voices to be a good sign. To show how wise she is, she even gets a line that was originally Dumbledore’s from the first book. As well as losing out in this way, Ron is generally treated as inept, with his worst moment coming in the Forest. In the book, Ron is clearly well out of his comfort zone but presses on regardless, determined to do anything that might help Hermione. In the film, he whimpers and whines and even asks “Can we go back now?” This is also Ron’s worst film for pulling silly, dignity-destroying faces – whether he’s facing Mandrakes, giant spiders, a Howler, or a train coming up behind him.
Stylistically, this film is almost identical to the first one, and the special effects and set designs are the best thing about it – one notable exception being the very fake-looking Hedwig who widens her eyes at the sight of the incoming Hogwarts Express. There’s a lot of detail put into every environment, and I like how wonky a lot of them look, fitting the randomness of the wizarding world. A good example of the effort put in is the statue that Harry and Ron hide behind when tempting Crabbe and Goyle with drugged cakes: it appears to be of the architect of Hogwarts, holding a model of the castle and surrounded by the animals who symbolise the four houses. It’s an original creation for the film, and it fits in perfectly.
Unfortunately, not as much effort is put into the direction of the actors. Most of the adult actors are trying: Kenneth Branagh captures Gilderoy Lockhart’s preening narcissism perfectly, while Jason Isaacs as Lucius Malfoy and Christian Coulson as Tom Riddle are also very good new additions. But the younger actors don’t convey much emotion a lot of the time: they’re just reciting their lines. There’s very little sense of panic and distress at the Chamber of Secrets being open; even the reactions of Richard Harris’s Dumbledore are extremely bland.
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets may have been based on one of the weaker books, but it makes itself even weaker as an adaptation through lack of effort and passion in a number of areas. It is still reasonably entertaining as a film in general, but it could have been much better. Its incredibly corny ending, where Hagrid’s return is celebrated with hugs and applause, also marks the ending of Chris Columbus’s time directing these movies: a different style was on its way, but would it be an improvement?
Rating as a film: 3.5/5.
Rating as an adaptation: 2.5/5.
I actually caught this on cable the other day and found it very entertaining. I see all your points but agree it still works as ‘reasonably entertaining’. I would watch this over 7 pt 1 any day. At least it isn’t boring.
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Oh, I agree – it’s certainly better than 7 part 1, and indeed better than a lot of other movies out there.
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Good review, very insightful and erudite and well-reasoned, although I don’t quite agree with your conclusions — Chamber of Secrets is one of my favourite of the Harry Potter films. I tend to prefer the earlier films over the later: I adore the films of Philosopher’s Stone, Chamber of Secrets, Prisoner of Azkaban and Goblet of Fire, but the final four are kind of ‘meh’ for me.
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That’s fair enough – different styles appeal to different people. Glad you liked the review.
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