‘Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 1’: Wait for it

November 18, 2010

I’m a fan of the Harry Potter books and have enjoyed the Harry Potter movies, particularly since Chris Columbus gave up the reins after the first two. What started out as a series of benign magical fantasies for children has come to more closely resemble the works of J.K. Rowling on which they’re base – epic (if fanciful) struggles between good and evil, played out against a backdrop of wizardry and witchcraft.


When Rowling announced that the seventh book in the series would be the last, she faced an unenviable task: She had to find a way to bring together all the themes, characters and tropes she had created into one final life-and-death showdown between the evil Lord Voldemort and the adolescent Chosen One, Harry Potter. The resulting book, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,” was a satisfying summing up, full of adventure, backstory, twists and revelations.


But it also suffered from what felt, for the first time in one of Rowling’s books, like padding. As the forces of darkness rise, and the Deatheaters seek Harry’s death, Harry and his pals Hermione Granger and Ron Weasley must escape and hide, while Harry figures out how to find and destroy the remaining horcruxes – talismanic objects into which bits of Voldemort’s soul have been implanted, so that he might never completely die.


So, for roughly 200 pages, Rowling had Harry, Ron and Hermione holing up in an invisible tent in the deep woods or on the barren plains. They mostly sat around and talked. They’d get an idea, carry it out – and then return to the tent and talk and sit some more.


And that is the problem with David Yates’ “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 1.” For roughly 40 minutes in the middle of the film, this trio sits in a tent and quibbles. Period. Essentially we watch them wait for something to happen. Isn’t that supposed to be the part that’s left out of the movie?


But you see the words “Part 1” in the title and know that Yates and writer Steve Kloves are determined to bring as much of Rowling’s 900-plus-page doorstopper of a book to the screen as possible – in two parts.


In attempting to do so, however, they’ve fallen prey to the same trap Rowling did: how to move past the waiting and get to the story telling. Yes, there are revelations and bits of action during the trio’s tented exile. But there’s also an awful lot of nothing that could have been condensed, streamlined, distilled – I’m looking for a nice word to say that they needed to trim this sucker down. And one way would have been to condense this all into one final three-hour blow-out of a movie – even three and a half hours, if it takes “Lord of the Rings” length to get the story told.


Instead, the franchise holders have decided to maximize the amount of book they can deliver – and the amount of box-office they can rake in – by making almost five hours of movie. This installment runs two-and-a-half hours; undoubtedly, the conclusion (due next summer) will be about the same, or perhaps longer.


It needn’t have ended this way. Somehow the “Potter” movie team has managed to contain each of the previous books in a single film. And while “Deathly Hallows” is longer than the others, it’s only a couple of hundred pages (tent time!) longer than the previous installment, “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.” And that book didn’t require two movies.


OK, so I’ve gone on long enough about the length of this one and how slow it is in the middle. But really, what else is there to say about a “Harry Potter” movie at this point? The technology has advanced so far since the first one that the special effects are state of the art. The acting remains consistently strong. The young actors, who have grown into these roles over the course of the past 10 years, are obviously on familiar ground. And the rest of the cast consists of the cream of British acting; about the only ones who hasn’t popped up over the years are Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen.


As for the story, well, why bother trying to explain it at this point? It’s like trying to explain “Lost” to someone who missed the first two seasons. Suffice to say that, after six films, the evil Voldemort has reconstituted himself and his evil cohort and taken control of the magic world. He’s out to kill Harry Potter and his followers. And they’re trying to stop him. If you haven’t been following along, that’s about as succinct as it gets.


And if you have, you don’t need me to bring you up to date. This remains a highly evolved morality tale, in which the lesson continues to be taught that good and evil are a choice, that we all have both in our makeup and that the impulse to give in to anger or frustration or hatred is one that’s difficult to resist.


Don’t worry. “HP7,” as the posters have it, eventually finds something to do with itself and builds to exciting encounters and face-offs. It’s just that, by the time we reach them, the “To Be Continued” title comes up on the screen and the movie is over. As a result, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 1” is a mammoth act of magic interruptus.


Here’s one final marketing idea for a series that has been one of the most lavishly marketed of all time: Once “HP7 – Part 2” runs the course of all its platforms (theatrical, pay-per-view, DVD, TV), Warner Bros. should release both films on YouTube, along with some rudimentary editing software – and hold a contest for everyday moviegoers: See who can best reduce the overlong segments of the two-part film into one coherent final movie. Then put that one out in theaters and all the other platforms.


And include it in the inevitable completist’s box set of all the “Harry Potter” films when that becomes a stocking stuffer of the future.


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