Yes, I know, the debate whether film adaptations can live up to the books they are based on has pretty much exhausted itself by now. I’m even not sure why it was started in the first place. Film, obviously, is a very different medium, it has its own language and plays by its own rules. Unless the book itself is very famous, successful or influential I see no reason why one should busy oneself with the senseless comparison of the two. I don’t think one should care whether the film is “faithful” to the book or if it captures the book’s “spirit”. What does it matter if a book’s storyline has been changed or a character has been left out? It doesn’t.
However, when it comes to immensely popular property such as “Harry Potter” the issue of fidelity becomes much more important. This is due to the fact that the “Harry Potter” films couldn’t possibly stand on their own; they are but companions to the books. They were conceived as the extension of the novels and have thus, at least partially, lost the right to be seen independent works of art. This is why I feel I have a right to say that, for the most part, the “Harry Potter” films can’t hold a candle to the books.
Now, I realize that when it comes to comparing the “Harry Potter” books and films I’m extremely biased inasmuch as I’ve discovered and fallen in love with the books first. I came across the “Harry Potter” novels (back then ‘only’ the first four volumes had been published) relatively late, in 2001. The first film was already on its way to the cinemas but I had no idea as to whom or what the books were about. I just thought the golden font of the title, with the letter ‘P’ shaped like a lightning bolt, looked intriguing and when you’re 14, sometimes that’s all it takes. Having never heard of the books before, I didn’t know which volume to start with. Ultimately I grabbed “The Chamber of Secrets” which, of course, was a mistake. I couldn’t even get through the first chapter as I had no idea what was going on. By the time I came across the sentence “What have I told you about saying the ‘m’ word in our house?” I was seriously confused and by the time I read “Harry Potter was a wizard” I’d already given up on the book.
Thankfully, a classmate of mine happened to have a copy of “The Philosopher’s Stone” and was happy to lend it to me upon hearing of my bad luck. From the very first sentence I was hooked. “Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.” It’s a perfect opening sentence which sets the tone for the whole book. It’s fairly simple yet detailed and, unlike the Dursleys themselves, humorous. (Perhaps I should also add that due to having a faulty memory (some might even say I have none but I believe they are somewhat exaggerating) there are perhaps 4 books in total opening sentences of which I know by heart: that of “Mrs. Dalloway”, that of “Anna Karenina”, that of “Master and Margarita” and that of “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone”.)
I read the book in one breath. I reread it in another one. It was exciting and funny and touching and sad and scary and magical all at once. Rowling has created such an incredibly rich and extensive universe. There always seemed to be yet another magical mystery to uncover, a strange wizarding tradition to learn about, a charm to be cast. While like every fantasy novel Rowling’s books feature archetypes and familiar elements like ghosts, flying broomsticks and wizards with pointy hats, they are also full of incredible and completely original details: there are diaries that reply to you when you write in them, clocks that show where the family members are at the moment rather than the time and quills that prevents students from cheating during the written exams. Not to forget the Chocolate Forgs, Portkeys, Pensieves, Vanishing Cabinets, Howlers, Remembralls, Extendable Ears and a Sorting Hat.
But more importantly, although I didn’t realize it at the time, the books are mainly about friendship and that extremely awkward business of growing up. They are about facing difficult challenges, coping with one’s own past and preparing for the future one isn’t yet ready to face. They are about courage, despair and doing what’s right. These are universal motifs and they are the main reason why the books have captivated readers of all ages from all around the world.
Another very strong point of the “Harry Potter” novels is the characters. Although Rowling has often been criticized for having created characters that are more stereotypical rather than complex (especially when it comes to the female characters), I feel that one discovers this mainly upon further analysis of the text as most of them felt quite three-dimensional and real to me while reading. I knew them, understood them, worried about them. And here I come to what I believe is the main problem with the filmic adaptations of “Harry Potter”: we as viewers do not spend nearly enough time with the characters to understand them and their relationships with each other completely. Instead the films focus more on special effects and action scenes whereas the feeling of comradery between the characters, which is one of the things that make the novels so engrossing, has been lost almost completely. I believe The Deathly Hallows Part 1is the first film of the whole series to really focus on the characters and their relationships.
Still the films aren’t quite as bad as I’ve possibly made them sound just now. Even the worst instalments are stellar films at the very least. Visually the movies are exciting. I think no other franchise with the exception of Lord of the Rings has had higher production values or has paid more attention to the details. The set designs are spectacular: none is like the other and yet they all feel like they are part of the same magical world. And the cinematography has never been anything but beautiful: atmospheric, often dark and gloomy but rarely depressing it has been one of the highlights of the franchise. Another highlight is the score. The films’ main theme, or Hedwig’s Theme, is a beautiful and haunting piece by John Williams that became the leitmotif of the series because it is both an introduction to the magical world of “Harry Potter” as well as foreshadowing of the adventures yet to come.
One of my favorite things about the franchise, however, has been watching the actors playing the main characters grow up. They started off as 10 and 11 year old kids with little to no acting abilities but have developed into capable young actors more than capable of holding their own against the supporting cast, which couldn’t be any more brilliant. Alan Rickman, Maggie Smith, Jim Broadbent, Michael Gambon, Helena Bohnam Carter, Ralph Fiennes, David Thewlis, Robbie Coltrane, Gary Oldman – just listing all these actors makes me smile and, to return to my original complaint, makes the fact that the franchise hasn’t really given its many characters enough screen time, all the more disappointing.
Yes, the films get many things right but the filmmakers too often have tried to satisfy every fan of the books by not leaving out any pivotal plot points and storylines. They focused on plot twists and special effects instead of the characters, which often were underserved by the scripts and left behind while the plots rushed on.
It’s been 10 years since I made the acquaintance of “Harry Potter”. I’ve reread the books many times, in 3 different languages. What else was I to do while I waited for the next volume to come out? I scoured Rowling’s website for clues and additional trivia, read fan-fiction and even wrote some myself. (Luckily I’ve never had the courage to publish even parts of it online so that’s at least some embarrassment I’ve spared myself from.) And I’ve watched the films, of course. I like them all, some more than others, and will usually watch any time one of them is on TV. But they’ve never really managed to be something more than just another, secondary part of the “Harry Potter” experience.