Saturday, February 27, 2010

The Trouble With Harry - some thoughts on adaptation after watching Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Adapting something like the Harry Potter novels is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, it's a high-profile job and box office is guaranteed. On the other hand, the huge and rabid fan following of the books makes it all but impossible to truly adapt the source material to the movie format. Instead, you're forced to translate the story as literally as possible. And with the Harry Potter books, that translation isn't easy at all.

J.K. Rowling uses a fairly rigid formula in most of the series (the exceptions being books 5 and 7). The events take place over one school year, which is a very long time frame for a movie. Moreover, this also means that plotwise, the action is often quite sparse, as whatever problem confronts Harry and his pals can only be laid to rest after several months. In a novel, skillfully told, that doesn't have to be a problem. But in a film, the lack of definite forward momentum presents a real obstacle to good storytelling, especially in adventure-type genres.

So when it comes to Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, the weakest novel in the series by far (though more on this later), the limitations of this type of approach take centre stage. I'm assuming you've seen the film or read the book, so I'll spoil 'episode VI'. I'll try to avoid spoilage of book 7 though be warned that it might not be completely possible.

There are only three important events in the narrative: Snape is revealed to be a traitor in league with the Dark Lord, Harry and Dumbledore discover the secret of Voldemort's Power, and Snape kills Dumbledore as the latter is attacked by the Death Eaters. The rest of the book and film are filled with incidents, some of which are amusing, some of which amount to very little. Romance rears its ugly head, and just as with Lord of the Rings, the author's choices about who pairs off with whom are debatable at best. Moreover, the treatment of love is especially child-like and immature in both episodes VI and VII, especially if you keep in mind we're dealing with 16 to 17 year-olds now. And when translated to the screen, these uninvolving romances fall even flatter than they did in the novel. Bizarrely, one scene (not in the book) in the opening sequence of the film shows Harry being hit on by a lovely waitress, and showing every intention of taking up her not-so-subtle invitation. To have him revert to the romantic awareness level of an 8-year old is even less plausible because of that scene.

Now, as I mentioned, there are only three important events in the story, and one of these, Snape's treachery, is revealed straightway. The second and third major events both take place in act III. So here you are faced with two acts in which the storyline barely moves forward. Worse - for a very long time, the audience doesn't even know what the dramatic goals of the story are. We know the Death Eaters are planning to assassinate Dumbledore, but that plotline is kept very much in the background until the end. Harry, Hermione and Ron aren't allowed to discover anything except for 'there are mysterious going-ons going on'. Only neart the end of act two/beginning of act III is Harry given a clear mission by Dumbledore, which leads to the discovery of Voldemort's secret (he's split his soul into seven pieces and is immortal unless all of these shards are destroyed).

The problem here is that there's no reason (logically or dramatically) why Harry didn't get that mission in act 1. It would have made no difference for him - but the film would have been barely 40 minutes long. So the need to stay true to the original plotting of the narrative results in a fundamentally, even fatally flawed film.

This is made even more obvious by some scenes which end too soon, others which go on for too long and still others which seem to be pointless. Much of this is a question of choices made in the editing suite, not in the script per se - but it's obvious the weakness of the central narrative line affected the entire production.

The film version does solve one of the biggest flaws of the book, though. In the nove, Dumbledore tells Harry early on that he's not going to keep secrets from him anymore, from now on he'll be treated like an adult and told everything that's going on. Well and good, but Dumbledore straightaway keeps secrets from Harry all through the novel and this leads directly to his death. Dumbledore becomes as stupid as the Jedi in the Star Wars-prequel trilogy. In the film, this early scene is simply cut, so Dumbledore doesn't lose the respect of the audience. In fact, it's suggested that he's got a master plan which we and Harry aren't completely privy to.

And to be fair, the weaknesses in the novel (the aformentioned Dumbledorian stupidity, Snape's reveal which turns the character into a cliché) are all set-ups for book VII. In fact, book VII places the events of book VI in a completely different light, and 'fixes' everything. However, this invalidates book VI even more as an independent entity, of course.

At least the adaptation of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows won't be facing the same problem. The big challenge will be to find room for all the major events, even taking into account that the book will be turned into two movies. I'm really wondering how they're going to put the 150+-page climax on the screen...