He Who Must Not Be Explained: how the Harry Potter films decline to address the non-reader

For my first real post, I thought I’d treat you to a bumper article on a topic no one in my social circles can ever shut up about. Since graduating, I’ve undertaken two projects of monumental importance: getting a job, and re-watching all eight Harry Potter films, in order, with my mother. Not my first or even probably tenth outing with the Warner Bros series (they hate the word franchise), but this time there was a difference: it’s never been so long since I’ve read the books. To my surprise, without the original texts so fresh in my mind, I viewed the films with a new objectivity. Here’s what I discovered.

Disclaimer: this post is riddled with spoilers, from all the books and films.

The case study: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Disclaimer II: I’m starting here because these new thoughts only began rising as I watched Prisoner. Thus I stick by my original assessment of Philosopher’s Stone and Chamber of Secrets as unproblematic, and skip over them.

When I was younger, I considered this both a weird film and a bad adaptation. Well, it is a weird film – I’m now old enough to recognise the style of Alfonso Cuarón (you don’t need to be an expert, you just need to have seen Pan’s Labyrinth), and to appreciate the film’s artistic choices (hairless werewolf, creepy kid whose sole purpose is to talk gloomily about omens, Trelawney’s Galadriel-like, layered prophecy-of-doom voice). This complete break with the aesthetic and tone of the first two films might not have made such a negative impact on my younger self, had it not been accompanied by conscious changes to the Potter film universe. No one could help Richard Harrison dying, but why had Flitwick gone from high-pitched, white-bearded Charms professor to young, side-partinged choirmaster? Why was Hagrid’s hut suddenly halfway down a rugged mountain slope?

These differences, though valid artistically and no longer important enough to bother me, are part of an overall issue: lack of continuity as the films change hands between directors and screenwriters. Not objectionable in itself, but a problem because it seems to have triggered a new, more slapdash approach to grounding the narrative arc. Here’s a spoiler: they stopped making sure that they did, and assumed it would be fine, because everyone had read the book anyway.

Prisoner of Azkaban, weird though it may be, isn’t a bad adaptation of a single book. It falls short on two counts: firstly, as a film overall; secondly, as the #3 in a disconnected sequence of eight. Let’s deal with the second point first. From Prisoner onwards, the Potter films, one by one, build serious plot problems for their successors. The earlier films aren’t necessarily poor themselves for having made omissions, but force the later films to be narratively inferior. For instance, the film Azkaban fails to explain the origins of Harry’s stag Patronus. The revelation of the doe Patronus as Snape’s in Deathly Hallows is vitally important, and its symbolism obvious to those who know the story (James was a stag Animagus, therefore the doe represents Lily, etc). If you don’t know all this, why should it mean anything to you when Snape sends his doe prancing around Dumbledore’s office? Deathly Hallows Part 2 has no choice but to find a clumsy solution to this:

Harry: Professor, my mother’s Patronus was a doe, wasn’t it? It’s the same as Professor Snape’s. It’s curious, don’t you think?

Dumbledore: Actually, if I think about it, it doesn’t seem curious at all.

This is weak dialogue in a generally excellent final film. It makes no sense within its universe – Harry, having already learnt all in the Pensieve, knows exactly what the link between Snape and Lily is, and that Dumbledore knows it too. Presumably, spirit-Dumbledore is even more omniscient than real Dumbledore was, and therefore knows that Harry knows. So why is he bringing it up? The script itself gently points this out in Dumbledore’s reply. Beyond wasting time, these lines weaken the entire scene, one of Rowling’s outstandingly poignant and memorable set-pieces. Dumbledore takes his leave of Harry, and the Potter world, with an exchange completely devoid of meaning. All because, seven years ago, the makers of Prisoner couldn’t be bothered to explain that James was an Animagus.

Maybe we’re getting ahead of ourselves. After all, Prisoner causes itself as many problems as it does the big finale. The assumption that the audience has read the source material isn’t yet a critical hindrance: you understand what is happening, but may not have the background knowledge to understand why it is happening. Let’s go back to the Marauder’s Map. The film never explains who made it, or where it comes from. This leaves serious questions unanswered about how the events at Prisoner’s climax actually take place. How does Lupin suddenly appear in the Shrieking Shack? Why do he and Lupin, unlike Snape and all other wizards, understand and know about the Map?

There are also gaping holes created, ironically, by the filmmakers’ decision to include source material. Rowling’s genius, in the whole series, lies in the way that seemingly innocuous events and characters find their way into the heart of the plot resolution. What is the point of showing us the apparent sub-plot of Ron losing Scabbers and Crookshanks chasing him, if it doesn’t strengthen the revelation the central reveal of the story (that Scabbers is Pettigrew, and has been trying to escape capture)? Again, the filmmakers expect us to fill in the gaps: the moment of truth in the Shrieking Shack completely fails to revisit these experiences. Though the dilemma of superfluous material isn’t a problem of sense, it is one of artistic tightness and coherence. And I mention it because it’s illustrative: however many times I’d watched this film before, I had never noticed any of this. Why? Because, without me even being conscious of it, my mind, so in tune with Rowling’s books, was supplementing the actual material in front of me. Where does that leave someone who hasn’t read them?

The later films

The ‘real story’ gets going with the events surrounding Voldemort’s return in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. I’ll just give a couple more examples from Films 4-8, to demonstrate how far this exclusion of non-readers goes.

The adaptation of Goblet makes the mistake of considering the Crouch family’s life story so much background noise. Without that background, the plot simply doesn’t work, in a far more serious way than in Prisoner. The film attempts to get around the issue by making it perfectly obvious that ‘Mad-Eye Moody’ is the impostor Crouch Jnr, through the most disturbing tongue-flick in British cinema. I object to this, first of all, because the true identity of Moody is arguably the single most unexpected plot twist of the entire Potter series – the story is simply lesser without it. Also, this ‘solution’ doesn’t work. Without knowing that Crouch Jnr exchanged places with his mother while in Azkaban, it makes no sense that no one knows he is at large. Without knowing that he’s supposed to be dead, the whole intrigue is fundamentally changed. Its central question is not ‘Who is behind the sinister goings-on at Hogwarts?’, but ‘We know from halfway through this that Barty Crouch-as-Moody is responsible – why doesn’t anyone else?’

These missing links in the logical chain don’t have to be as gaping as the Crouch problem. A comparable moment from Deathly Hallows Part 2 is the destruction of a Horcrux by fire in the Room of Requirement. Without giving anyone a line explaining that Malfoy’s cronies used Fiendfyre, the alert non-reader must be asking, ‘But why didn’t this work all the times they tried to set fire to the locket in Part One?’ Granted, this isn’t everyone – but for those who do think it, it’s just a plot hole.

How about another example of an earlier film screwing over a later one? Half-Blood Prince’s omission was so obvious that I noticed it from its cinema premiere: no conversation takes place, in the film, between Dumbledore and Harry, about what they think the Horcruxes are, and how one can destroy them. It’s not crippling for the Deathly Hallows films, largely because there is a genuine emotional plot-point regarding Dumbledore’s failure adequately to prepare Harry. The difference is that it’s largely bitter and selfish on Harry’s part in the book, but entirely justified in the films. Again, I’m less of a purist these days – I can see this not as a violation of Rowling’s characterisation, but as an interesting change: it makes film-Harry a bigger man than book-Harry, overcoming his doubts and anger without needing any particular resolution or reassurance. More importantly, unlike the Patronus-Animagus-love-triangle-King’s-Cross fiasco, here the makers of Deathly Hallows found an elegant, internally consistent solution: enhancing the connection between Harry’s and Voldemort’s minds to help him locate the Horcruxes.

This is an exceptional case, though: in almost every instance, the films, bogged down both by their own and their predecessors’ cutting of narratively critical information, simply can’t deal with telling the story in full. Noticeably from Prisoner of Azkaban and unforgivably from Goblet of Fire, the films simply rely on every cinema-goer also being a fan of the books. Though the success of each film overall depends on both its skill of adaptation and its merit as an independent piece, the ‘non-reader test’ shows a rather different picture. Plenty of films have plot holes, but it’s particularly frustrating when an adaptation of a tightly and cleverly woven story creates them. The verdict? 1) It’s probably best if you read the books before watching the films. 2) The ability of your mind to trick you into unseeing and seeing is extremely powerful.

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