The Harry Potter movies aren’t really movies. They’re the world’s most expensive book illustrations. Much like biblical films, they stand in the shadow of the revered texts they dramatize, and all complaints about tortured or nonsensical plot twists can be dismissed with the command, “Read the books. They explain that.”
It’s true. J.K. Rowling is nothing if not a master of lengthy exposition. But the twists and turns of her final book also bear considerable emotional weight, which is why so many fans and critics have greeted Deathly Hallows: Part 2 as an epic achievement. For viewers who love the characters like old friends — even the supporting players — seeing them rise from a half-ruined Hogwarts to confront the seemingly victorious dark lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) is on par with watching courageous Brits weather the Blitz. Who would not cheer when the once-mocked wizarding student Neville Longbottom (Matthew Lewis) rises to the occasion with a speech worthy of Shakespeare’s Henry V? Who wouldn’t weep to see beloved students and professors among the casualties?
Unlike most literary adapters, screenwriter Steve Kloves doesn’t have to work to make ticket buyers care about this story. The assumption seems to be that, if some viewers have no interest in things Potter, the dazzling special effects of the magical battle sequences will keep them in line.
And that may be. Like the films that preceded it, Deathly Hallows: Part 2 is a class act. It has a huge cast of recognizable British actors, with not a single one phoning it in. (Alan Rickman finally gets to spread his wings this time around, while Ciarán Hinds and Kelly Macdonald join the roster.) It has its own special look and sooty sets that bring steampunk whimsy into the mainstream. It has rousing lines, exciting confrontations and kisses that happen at inappropriate times in inappropriate places. But it also has flubs that sap some of the biggest plot developments of their meaning.
Take the realization of Harry’s supposed destiny to destroy Voldemort. When we finally learn the form that destruction must take, the revelation is chilling to both us and Harry. Daniel Radcliffe brings his character into adulthood with style, but the film glosses over the resolution of the crisis, making it seem more miraculous than logical. Read the book.
Or take the intertwined quest narratives at work as Harry and his friends seek the Horcruxes (objects containing pieces of Voldemort’s soul) while gathering information about a death-defying trio of talismans called the Deathly Hallows. No writer in his or her right mind would load an original script with this many MacGuffins. Want to know how the Hallows subplot offers closure to Harry’s fraught relationship with his late mentor Professor Dumbledore (Michael Gambon)? Read the book.
True, none of these scenes of complex backstory and exposition would have proved particularly cinematic. But a few well-placed lines might have helped Potter neophytes interpret what they’re seeing. Unlike martial arts and swordplay, magical conflict on film just looks like two people shooting fireworks at each other; it’s baffling unless, to use gaming terminology, you know whose wand can inflict how many damage points. That info is ... in the book.
While it’s nice to see Fiennes on screen more often, nothing can change the fact that Voldemort isn’t the world’s most original villain. Rowling made up for the more derivative aspects of her creation with thoughtful moments like the one where a chastened Dumbledore suggests to Harry that “perhaps those who are best suited to power are those who have never sought it.” The movie illustrates your basic apocalyptic Good vs. Evil clash just fine. But when it comes to the all-important nuances — read the book.