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Sunday, December 04, 2005

Musing Pictures: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

Although I saw this film in its opening weekend, it has taken me a while to figure out what I want to write about it.

The "Harry Potter" films, so far, have served me well as examples of what to do and what not to do when adapting from a book.

The first two films of the series, in sticking so closely to the structure of Rowling's story, were long, drawn-out, and ultimately, quite slow. They were certainly enormous fun to look at (I remember being particularly tickled by the moving staircases and the animate paintings), but even the special effects did not quite lift those films beyond being simiply allright (which, considering the strengths of the books off of which they were based, is far worse than those films should have been).

Those first two films, directed by Chris Columbus, whose 1990s successes, including "Home Alone" and "Mrs. Doubtfire" are noteworthy achievements, did do one thing quite well: They prepared the stage marvellously for the two films that followed.

Alfonso Cuaron, who boldly deviated from Rowling's written word, could not have gotten away with such machinations of plot had Columbus not satisfied the world's fans first by sticking so closely to the narrative. Once fans saw what a close adaptation would be, they were more willing to accept the work of a director like Cuaron (who is certainly not "standard fare" when it comes to family entertainment).

And that brings us to Harry Potter IV, directed by Mike Newell, yet another unexpected helmer, who is known for films like "Donnie Brasco" and "Four Weddings and a Funeral". Here, it is clear, he had flexibility. The success, both popular and academic, of Harry Potter III gave Newell a great deal of leeway in terms of his adaptation of the book to the screen.

Frankly, I do not remember the book enough to know the differences, but I am sure that there are many. Part of my certainty lies in the pacing of the film itself.

A book is generally paced in small segments -- usually chapters -- each of which has its own mini-climax, and its own mini-resolution (which is often no resolution at all other than a convenient place to stop reading for the night). The first two Harry Potter films maintained a great deal of this pacing as a side-effect to staying so true to the books' narrative flow. Movies, though, aren't things that we see in short bits, the way we tend to read books. On the contrary, it is fairly rare that we don't see a movie straight through (and when we see a movie on TV, the commercials really do feel like interruptions, rather than coherent breaks).

What Cuaron did with the third Harry Potter film, and what Newell was wise to continue doing with the fourth, involved a re-working of the plot to eliminate the heavy down-beat of a chapter's end. Rather than telling the story in mini-chapters, each fragment of the tale wove cleanly in to the next, so the film's momentum never fell.

And who is David Yates?

The director of the next Harry Potter film, due in theaters in 2007, seems to have done a handful of TV movies and miniseries, including one called "Sex Traffic", of all things... and a few theatrical short-films... and just about nothing else. Now, I'm Really curious...

-AzS

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