Strong Spoilers. Please note that this discussion will probably only make sense if you are familiar with all the Harry Potter books and films. WARNING: DO NOT READ, if you don’t want to know what happens in the film before seeing it.
My rating: ****
With this action packed and very watchable film, the last of the 1990s blockbuster fantasy franchises draws to a close. Fantasy science fiction viewers are now faced with a bleak landscape of dreary comic book super hero adaptations stretching ahead in seemingly endless vistas. 3D trailers for The Green Lantern and Captain America ran at the sold out 3D Imax session I attended, and although clearly big on spectacular special effects, the clichéd characters, plots and politics induced an overwhelming sense, in this viewer at least, of yawning apathy. Other attempts to create big fantasy franchises in the wake of The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter have all failed. C.S. Lewis’s series The Chronicles of Narnia is simply too dated, too loaded with sectarian overtones and elitist assumptions about social class and race to really bring into a modern sensibility and the attempt to make Philip Pulman’s His Dark Materials trilogy into something, fizzled out after a very ordinary first film, The Golden Compass, and the impossibility of rendering the equally sectarian (but in a deliberately opposed sense to Lewis) subsequent novels palatable to a mainstream audience.
I hasten to add that I have never had more than a lukewarm interest in the Harry Potter films either, regarding them simply as no more than the poor and rather tedious cousins of the books. But this last, all stops pulled out, instalment is a cut above the rest and indeed is actually better in some ways than the book. But this last entry aside, I think in general the books would be better suited to the medium of television, rather than film. A lengthy, and no doubt unfeasibly expensive BBC series might do them better justice.
Of course, the books have their problems too, as has been pointed out at great length by critics, particularly in terms of their very conventional views on social hierarchy and gender and the problematic division between an elite of magical people and a plebeian race of non-magical people (muggles). But for all that, they are compelling and highly readable stories and Rowling creates extraordinarily vivid detail in describing the minutiae of her created world. She also plays with language creation in interesting ways – combining Latin, French and English in some of her neologisms (for example, the pensieve). They are also probably one of the most widely shared cultural texts amongst the under 30s. This is certainly the case with regards to my own (Australian) teacher trainee university students and thus the novels can be used as a literary point of reference in teaching contexts. Very few of these students have not read the books, or at the very least seen the films, and they are widely and enthusiastically loved. That other fantasy franchise with which Harry Potter has often been compared in terms of its popularity, Twilight, is on the other hand almost universally reviled and ridiculed by the student body.
But to return to the last Harry Potter film, the rather clumsily titled Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows part 2. The battle scenes owe much to that benchmark film, The Lord of the Rings of course, and the extraordinary and intricate visuals and special effects are given meaning by the journey of the characters and the plot. But what really made the film for me was a relatively short section which forms a story within the story – namely the story of Severus Snape. Professor Snape, master of potions and eternally aspiring Black Arts teacher, has always been my favourite Harry Potter character. I have long had a bit of a weakness for characters who hide their softer side under a harsh exterior. Snape, for all his authoritarian and sartorial social maladjustments, is finally revealed as a romantic idealist in the final book and film. This secret had been hinted at from the start and the final revelation of his true loyalties and motivation (his undying and unrequited love for Harry Potter’s mother) came as no surprise to me, at least, when I read the final book.
But sadly, I found Rowlings’ treatment of Snape’s backstory to be perfunctory and highly unsatisfactory. The final exposure of his story read more as a series of notes than a properly developed final draft of a novel, but no doubt the narrative problems posed by Snape’s backstory within the Harry Potter format were simply too difficult to solve. Indeed, the character probably deserves a separate novel in his own right and from his own point of view. This is where film comes in. Such narrative conundrums are far easier to deal with when you have people – actors – who can invest proceedings with layers of emotion and complexity. It had been my hope that the film would come up with the goods where the book had singularly failed and I am very happy to say I was not disappointed.
In an all too brief capsule, with a fine performance from Alan Rickman and some beautiful nostalgia inducing visuals evoking the lost hopes of childhood, we find the tale of a classic flawed hero: social exclusion, unrequited love, dalliances with the dark side, noble self-sacrifice and final tragic redemption. The story of the tragic hero is one that remains endlessly resonant in literature and from my own point of view, Severus Snape is perhaps Rowling’s most interesting character. Sadly this story within a story draws to a close all too quickly and we are returned to what another reviewer has described as the rather wooden performance of Daniel Radcliffe.
Interestingly, Dumbledore the ostensible hero and mentor figure of the series, emerges as somewhat tarnished in Rowling’s final book and in the final film, Dumbledore’s brother alludes to the former’s less than creditable past and secretiveness and as Snape’s memories reveal, Dumbledore is quite happy to raise Harry as a lamb for the slaughter, knowing that he would eventually have to be killed. It is a pity that the film, probably for reasons of time, was not able to include the story of Dumbledore and his sister. Due to the omission of some of these plot intricacies, one thing (amongst others) I found lacking in credibility in the film was Harry’s continuing ready trust and admiration for Dumbledore, even after viewing Snape’s memories in the pensieve. Rowling’s narrative intentions here are quite obvious. Those we consider heroes are perhaps less heroic than we think and those we despise as villains might perhaps not be what they seem.
Rowling recently hinted at the possibility that she might consider writing more entries in the Harry Potter saga, but as many hope, she will not be tempted to tamper with the integrity of the existing series. (Although I have to admit I find the idea of Harry and the team at wizarding university an entertaining prospect.) Indeed, her final epilogue which sees the trio all implausibly married to their adolescent crushes would actually seem to close down the possibility for future adventures. Unfortunately (except for Harry’s brief tribute to Snape ‘as the bravest man I have known’), this epilogue was also tagged on to the film. One critic accurately describes its inclusion as ‘unintentionally hilarious’, with the actors we have been used to seeing as children and adolescents suddenly appearing as fond parents. It is certainly true that the incongruity of this scene caused quite a bit of laughter in the cinema session I attended.
Rowling has recently launched an interesting (and clearly no expense spared) online transmedia experiment, titled Pottermore centering on the seven novels and promises to include a lot of material (extra scenes and back story) that was not included in the original novels. A kind of updated, and one would hope more entertaining (!), version of Tolkien’s Silmarillion for Harry Potter fans. My own hope here for the transmedia project would be that we might finally see a more satisfactory written treatment of Snape’s story.