Now that I’ve covered the arrival at Shell Cottage and Voldemort taking the Elder Wand in my re-read blogging, it’s time to review Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1!
For all my reviews of the Harry Potter films, I’ve been giving them scores as films in general, as in how they appeal to me as a movie-goer – and as adaptations, which is more about how they appeal to me as a Harry Potter fan. But just what makes a good adaptation? For me, how faithful the film is to the source material is only part of it, though still very important. A written story is likely to have some parts that won’t be as effective in a visual medium, and the adaptation process allows the opportunity to bring new creative choices to the table, creating a unique experience. So for me, a good adaptation provides the same big picture as the source material (though the details can vary if necessary); makes the story run smoothly, consistently and comprehensibly in a more limited time frame; and any changes that are made tend to have a positive or neutral impact, rather than making no sense, or detracting from the original story’s themes.
Each of the Harry Potter films has its share of good and bad decisions made by the filmmakers. Of all the ones I’ve watched so far, I’ve scored Philosopher’s Stone and Chamber of Secrets lowest in terms of adaptational quality, even though both are generally very faithful to their sources. The main problem these films have is that in trying to include as much as possible, they drag some parts out unnecessarily, while rushing through others so that they don’t make sense or can’t be fully appreciated. Deathly Hallows Part 1, despite being very different from the two Columbus-directed films stylistically, suffers from similar problems.
Was the decision to split Deathly Hallows into two films just a ploy to get more money out of fans? The book Harry Potter: Page to Screen by Bob McCabe states that the filmmakers really thought it was the best creative decision, and the studio told them to do what they thought was best. On the other hand, when the Twilight and Hunger Games franchises played copycat and split their final chapters into two films as well, it does seem more likely that profit was the primary motivation; in my opinion at least, the stories of Breaking Dawn and Mockingjay could definitely each have been covered in one film. The concept may have had its day, however, having backfired on the Divergent series: the first part of the final instalment, Allegiant, performed so poorly at the box office that the second part may now be released on television.
Maybe it technically would have been possible to make one film out of Deathly Hallows – but would it have been better than, or as good as, the two films that we got? A lot would have to be cut, but then, that’s what happened with the other films. What is certain is that Deathly Hallows Part 1, at nearly 2.5 hours, could have been shorter than it actually is. Some scenes, such as Harry searching Umbridge’s office, and the Snatchers passing the campsite, could surely have been cut altogether; and the “camping trip” segment as a whole moves at a very slow pace.
There are a couple of changes from the book that aren’t bad decisions: Hedwig being killed while attempting to defend Harry works better on film than her sudden death while still in her cage would have. So too does the trio going straight from meeting Xenophilius to getting caught by Snatchers, rather than another long camping segment. But as usual, most of the changes and cuts aren’t so good.
Very little time is taken to explore the Deathly Hallows themselves. Hermione doesn’t bother urging Harry to treat Kreacher better, presumably because there is no such thing as S.P.E.W. in the films. In Malfoy Manor, Wormtail is merely Stunned by Harry and Ron instead of being strangled by his own hand – yet, like Barty Crouch Jr, he will never appear again anyway. The Taboo on Voldemort’s name is not explained, though it is at least hinted at, given that the Death Eaters suddenly appear when Xenophilius says “Voldemort.” Nor is there an explanation of the Potterwatch-style broadcasts on the radio, which appear to be standard programming, something the Death Eaters surely wouldn’t allow. Also, some of the best lines in the book (e.g. “Stuff like that always sounds cooler than it really was”) disappointingly get left out.
One of the major problems isn’t actually this film’s fault: it has to suddenly introduce a lot of elements that were left out of the previous films. Thus, this may be the film where people who haven’t read the books are going to be most bewildered. The shard of Sirius’s mirror – essential to escaping from Malfoy Manor – is given no explanation whatsoever for its existence. Bill Weasley and Mundungus Fletcher, who have not appeared in any previous films, have to be introduced in a rush when they turn up. Lupin refers to Harry seeing a Grindylow in his office at Hogwarts, when there was no such scene in the Prisoner of Azkaban film. Ron refers to Harry staying at the Burrow for “the wedding”, before any mention that Bill and Fleur are even engaged. Godric’s Hollow, Grindelwald and Gregorovitch are mentioned as if the audience should already understand their relevance.
Then there’s Dobby, who appears in five out of seven books, but is making his first appearance in the films since Chamber of Secrets: in fact, Dobby tells Ron that it’s nice to see him again, at a point when Ron and Dobby have never met face-to-face before onscreen! (Kreacher, it is worth noting, would have been cut from Order of the Phoenix, had JK Rowling not specifically instructed the filmmakers to include him.) At least the film doesn’t have Dobby simply appearing out of nowhere in Malfoy Manor, taking time to remind the audience of his existence earlier on; but given that we haven’t seen Dobby building a relationship with Harry and assisting him over several years like in the books, his death at the end doesn’t feel quite as meaningful.
But what about the good stuff? There are certainly individual elements which come across excellently. The actors handle scenes involving Polyjuice Potion really well: first Daniel Radcliffe having to mimic the gestures of six different characters other than Harry, then David O’Hara, Steffan Rhodri and Sophie Thompson pretending to be Harry, Ron and Hermione respectively at the Ministry. A few scenes that weren’t in the book succeed in adding extra depth: the opening sequence that builds things up; Harry trying to leave the Burrow alone and being stopped by Ron; and Harry and Hermione taking a moment to forget their troubles by dancing to Nick Cave.
The destruction of the locket, and Hermione getting tortured by Bellatrix, are both adapted very effectively; but the standout in that regard is the Tale of the Three Brothers sequence. With its surreal puppet-show-like style, unlike anything we’ve seen before, and the haunting narration by Emma Watson, it’s actually one of the best scenes in the whole film series. As with the book, there’s a unique feel to the film given that it’s not taking place at Hogwarts; and the cut-off point is probably the best one there could have been, with Malfoy Manor serving as the climax, and Voldemort claiming the Elder Wand as the cliffhanger.
Out of all the Harry Potter films, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 comes closest to being boring, confusingly rushing some elements of the source material and taking too much time over others. Admittedly, the original story is partly to blame: some parts are hard to translate well to film; and since Harry’s internal thoughts are so important to this particular story, the film struggles to make us engage with him in quite the same way. Regardless, there’s no doubt that this is the weakest film in the series.
Rating as a film: 3/5.
Rating as an adaptation: 3/5.