It is a slightly melancholy sensation realizing that Harry Potter will soon be well and truly finished. The movies will have enjoyed a solid decade of success when the second part of the finale debuts next year, and including the books, which began in 1997, Harry Potter has become such a part of our pop culture for the last decade that it will be odd when the last reel of the final movie concludes. But we are not quite there yet, and the biggest battles and final revelations are yet to come.
In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1, the end has begun, and Harry and his friends find themselves in a desperate situation with their allies on the run and their enemies everywhere. Of all the Harry Potter movies, this is by far the darkest and most intense, and director David Yates does a good job of setting the tone and beginning events that will be concluded next year when the second part of the finale is released.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 does exactly what it sets out to do. It stays closer to the source material than any of the previous movies, with the possible exception of the first two books, which had less to adapt, and it shows us that the franchise we have watched for years has grown up. It also does exactly what it needs to in order to set up the next movie, which is really the point of Part 1 in the first place.
The beginning of the end
The Harry Potter books have been read by nearly 72 billion people, roughly, so many of you already know the story in great detail. For those that never got into that whole “reading” fad, the final Harry Potter story begins almost immediately where Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince ended.
A few weeks have passed since the death of Dumbledore, and the wizarding world is under siege. Attacks are common, and Harry is the number one target for Voldemort and his Death Eaters, who are moving openly against their enemies. As Harry’s 17th birthday approaches– 17 being the age when a wizard comes of age– the magic that has protected him at his Aunt and Uncle’s house is about to end. Harry knows that dark times are ahead, as do Hermione and Ron, who join a group of Harry’s friends that have volunteered to help move him to safety as they plan their next moves against Voldemort.
Almost immediately, the group is attacked, and from that moment on in the movie, a sense of dread and constant anticipation carries through, as the characters are continually being hunted, attacked and even betrayed. The death toll quickly begins to rise, and Harry, Ron and Hermione decide that they are a risk to everyone around them, and that destroying the horcruxes that Dumbledore tutored Harry on in the previous film are the only way to stop Voldemort once and for all. So the trio go on the run, constantly teetering between isolation and desperation while struggling to determine what their next move should be.
Through the help of a book left to Hermione by Dumbledore, the trio hear about the Deathly Hallows, three powerful and legendary items that, when combined, are said to give the holder power over death and immense power. And it is power Voldemort wants to finish off Harry once and for all.
As the film ends, the world seems to be lining up against Harry and his friends, but a spark of hope remains. As the credits role, you will inevitably be left wanting more, which is the point. The first movie is a necessary means to free up the second movie in order to deliver a truly action packed finale that will wow you. In order to correctly do that while still staying true to the books, certain things needed to be included, then resolved in order to progress.
When it comes to the final book, one of the biggest criticisms was that the first half was littered with buildup and exposition before anything major happened. Basically, they spent several hundred pages in the woods while arguing with each other. By contrast, the second half of the book was action packed, filled with skirmishes, dragons, magical bank robberies, and a massive final battle. The sins of the first half of the book were quickly redeemed when the story picked up, and once it did, it felt like it was almost a different book altogether. The tone changes from desperate to optimistic, and the hunted become the fighters, striking at Voldemort through subterfuge. For the movie though, to get to all the good stuff, you first needed to wade through the slower things. Thankfully Yates and the cast find a balance that makes turns the film into a dark character study that ratchets up the anticipation. On its own, Deathly Hallows Part 1 is a good film, but it is also a vehicle designed specifically to set the stage for the next, and final film.
Yates and screenwriter Steve Cloves manage to take what the book gives them and amp up the action scenes while focusing heavily on the characters and their struggles. It might seem odd to have a movie set in a world of magic turn into a character study, but after following the characters and the actors that play them for ten years, it works. It also helps to emphasize the maturity of the series. The tone has darkened, and the story is much more adult. If you have only seen the first film then try to watch this one, it would be like watching two separate movies that just happen to have characters with the same names. But having been there for each step along the way, the finale becomes the logical progression of a longer journey.
Because of its reliance on the source material that was always meant to be read as part of a longer single entry, there are moments that drag, and the desolation the characters feel veers dangerously towards boredom in a few rare moments. Thankfully these moments are few and far between. The climax of the film is taken right from the book, but it is given more weight to help give the audience a satisfying ending. The emotional impact of the consequences of that climax are surprisingly moving, and the final shot gives an ominous feeling that will be resolved in the next film.
Viewed on its own, the movie won’t satisfy everyone, but seen as what it is—the first of two parts—it does exactly what it sets out to do, and does it well.
The movie versus the book
The movie follows the plot of the book fairly well, and quickly introduces characters and plotlines that the books had introduced much earlier. Characters like Bill Weasley and Mundungus Fletcher, who played a part in the previous books but were excluded from the movies, are introduced with a brief greeting and from then on, the story follows the book fairly well with a few minor exceptions that don’t detract from the narrative.
One of the biggest flaws in the previous Harry Potter films was the decision to leave out so much of the content that may not have directly contributed to the plot at hand, but added color to the world. On paper that is an understandable sacrifice — after all, the later books were all several hundred pages and each spanned the course of at least nine months. Unfortunately, many of the cuts that were made in the movies were the details that gave the books their soul.
The plot of Harry Potter was always good, but it was the world Harry lived in that endeared the series to fans. Of course the movies have all been box-office behemoths, but I doubt I am alone in feeling a tinge of disappointment in the seeing some of the less vital but more interesting parts cut in the name of speeding up the movie. And then there was the utterly bewildering decision to cut the action-packed finale from the book out of the previous movie altogether, but that is another story.
By splitting the finale into two films, Warner Bros. has allowed the movie to play out more in line with the book. There are still a few moments missing that fans of the book might regret not seeing, like the resolution between Harry and his cousin and one-time tormentor Dudley. Sure, it wasn’t in any way important to the plot, but it was those moments which gave the books their heart. With a handful of exceptions, Deathly Hallow Part 1 stays closer to the original book than any of the previous movies. A few moments don’t make the cut, but nothing that you will really regret is missing.
The kids are all grown up
It has been an interesting transformation from slightly awkward, but endearing, child actors, to full-fledged movie stars for the three principle actors in the films. You could always see that they were trying their hardest, but it was a difficult load to ask of any child to recreate a world that has not realistic setting to compare it two. Over the years we have seen Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson grow into the roles of Harry, Ron and Hermione, but also to grow in the art of acting.
Radcliffe has already begun to carve a post-Potter career for himself, and whether he succeeds in shaking the type casting stigmata remains to be seen, but he will have plenty of opportunities over the next few years. Emma Watson has claimed that she may give up acting and see what school offers her, but roles will be waiting for her if and when she returns to the screen. Of the three, the one that always seemed to struggle a bit was Grint. And of the three, it is Grint that shows the most depth in Deathly Hallows Part 1. It wasn’t entirely his fault; until the later books, the character of Ron was always a foil to Harry. He was a sidekick. Hermione was the brains, but Ron was the goof that got into trouble, while offering Harry an outlet to experience the magical world and be part of an idealized family.
In the last film, he began to stand on his own, and in terms of character arcs, Grint has the most meat to work with in this movie. Of the three, Ron has the most to lose, as his family is constantly in danger, and Grint actually manages to impress, as Ron gives way to a darkness and grows increasingly more erratic. There is a reason for this in the plot, but it wouldn’t have worked as well without Grint selling it, which he does. All three do their jobs, and do it well, which bodes extremely well for the emotionally charged Part 2.
Yates’ strength as a director is in building around the characters — maybe to a fault. In the previous film, Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince, Yates and Cloves made the utterly bewildering decision to cut the entire climax of the book, an action-packed battle in the halls of Hogwarts that redeemed an interesting, but otherwise slow book. Instead he chose to try to build on the death of Dumbledore. That worked to a degree, but also made the film feel like it was missing something. In Harry Potter and The Order of the Phoenix, he likewise cuts the final action sequence down and focuses on the battle of wills between Voldemort and Harry. That makes sense on paper, but it also missed some great chances in terms of the visual offerings.
Deathly Hallows Part 1 plays exactly to Yates’ strengths. It is about the characters, and that is his forte. How well he pulls of the second, far more action packed Part 2 is more of a question.
Deathly Hallows Part 1 is a film that knows what it wants to do. It is not the entrée, it is the appetizer and the soup or salad before the real feast begins. There are certain plot elements that needed to be addressed, and it was a gamble to take the buildup of a novel and save the majority of the action for the next film, but it is one that works.
If this were a stand alone entry into the Harry Potter franchise it would have been an unsatisfying one. But as part one of two, it serves it purpose in building the tension, dealing with the exposition, and reconnecting the audience with the characters that we have watched grow, and are now forced to see suffer.
The plot drags at times, but there is enough action to keep you interested. The film looks dark and bleak, which is intentional, and it helps to break from the previous Potter films to really hammer home the point that everything has changed. It is a world at war, one where casualties are going to happen, and things won’t always work out.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 is one of the strongest of the franchise, and it is Yates’ best work on the series to date. It is hard to fully know how good it is until we are able to see the work as a whole, which unfortunately won’t be until July 15, 2011. But what we have is a worth entry into the franchise, and one that will keep us eagerly anticipating the final days of Harry Potter.