Unemployment leads to some interesting time-spending activities. This week was the first week since I moved to Austin that my roommate and I both found ourselves without full-time work. Upon finding out that neither he nor I had read any of the Harry Potter books or seen any of the movies while the rest of the world seems to use muggle as part of their everyday vernacular by this point, we decided it was time to catch up with the rest of pop culture as quickly as possible by watching every Harry Potter movie released on DVD so far. In a row. All 749 minutes (that’s almost 12 and a half hours) of movie straight through, only stopping in between for pee breaks, making food, and doing laundry (hey, I had to do something productive).
I’m not quite sure why I hadn’t previously gotten into Harry Potter by this point. I think I was born a little too late to be part of the series’ initial kid and tween audience, then I dismissed the rest of the series as fanboy camp for kids even as the appeal of HP started to transcend age and reading level all around me. I’ve never been a stranger to fanboy excitement over these types of franchises (I grew up an unapologetic Star Wars geek), but for whatever reason I evaded J.K. Rowling’s influence that seemed to permeate every aspect of culture outside my manufactured bubble. But as somebody who writes a weekly column that purports itself to be an authority on examining popular culture through cinematic expression, I no longer had any excuse to inexplicably evade the fantastical realm of Rowling adaptations.
So for this week’s Culture Warrior, I’m taking a break from my typical overwritten, pedantic essay style in favor of an overwritten, pedantic diary chronicling the details of my Harry Potter marathon, random musings on the series as a cultural product, and possibly an account of my momentary lapse into madness as I began to overdose on Harry Potter…
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (Chris Columbus, 2001)
I anticipated that the first two movies would be the hardest to get through, as I’m no fan of Chris Columbus, but mostly because I heard the first two movies (and books) are more kid-friendly until the content becomes a bit darker and more plot-driven by the time The Prisoner of Azkaban rolls along. Largely I felt my fears were confirmed, though the first movie adeptly and articulately introduces the world of the story, the characters, and the stakes involved. But it very much feels like the introductory narrative to a much bigger franchise in every way, including having the movie’s “villain” be a totally inconsequential character (Professor Quirrell).
I’m convinced I would’ve loved these movies and books as a kid. Sorcerer’s Stone reminds me a great deal of Spielberg’s Hook (1991), a movie that was allegedly a failure in its day but one that holds great value within my childhood memories. John Williams’s score, the Halloween dinner scene at Hogwarts, and the presence of Maggie Smith all echo Hook for me (the dinner scene being reminiscent of the fantasy feast and food fight in Hook). I remember this movie coming out several weeks before The Fellowship of the Ring my junior year in high school, and I saw neither in theaters. I was probably turned off from the idea of seeing such lengthy movies based on fanboy literature that I wasn’t familiar with (the following year I became a fan of the LOTR films, but still remained uninitiated into the world of Harry Potter). Also, Draco totally looks like a fascist with his dark clothes and slicked-back blonde hair.
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (Chris Columbus, 2002)
Now the social themes are introduced, Rowling clearly aiming to teach children lessons in tolerance. The fact that Draco is a total racist through his use of the pejorative term “mugblood” and urges for a “pure” race of wizard only makes him seem all the more fascistic. Also, along with Rowling’s theme of tolerating difference, I’m unavoidably watching the series from the hindsight that Dumbledore was outed as gay by his creator after the publication of Deathly Hollows two years ago. I’ve never really thought of wizards as anything but asexual, but I guess it’s not so uncommon after colliding Ian McKellen’s celebrity persona and open sexuality with his role as Gandalf.
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (Alfonso Cuarón, 2004)
As I anticipated, I totally got into this movie. Part of me wishes Alfonso Cuarón directed the whole series. I then begin to imagine if the Y tu mamá también director had handled the series from the beginning on his own terms, casting Gael García Bernal as Harry, Diego Luna as Ron, and Maribel Verdú as Hermione. This would, of course, entail more creative liberties than your typical departures from the source material, including having a three-way sex scene culminating the film for the age-appropriate cast…though I imagine this would’ve made the film inaccessible to some of its core audience.
Cuarón’s continuously dynamic (and sometimes experimental) yet elegant camerawork is lively and engaging, celebrating the fantastical elements of the series while still making them accessible and camp-free. This feels like the first Harry Potter movie that isn’t just for kids. Also, this is where the film really shows off its cast of truly great British actors, at one point having Gary Oldman, Alan Rickman, David Thewlis, and Timothy Spall occupy the same scene. Loving it. It felt like the film could’ve easily lost track with the introduction of werewolves and time-travel (elements that I imagine are not as risky on the page, where these things are articulated in the imagination of the reader rather than manifested by a director), and while the time travel logic doesn’t really make sense, even in movie terms (a la Star Trek), Cuarón makes it work. My guess is that this movie gave him the capital and clout necessary to make the ambitious Children of Men two years later. Also, while I mourn the late great Richard Harris, the switch to the far livelier (pun definitely unintended) Michael Gambon as Dumbledore is a massive improvement. And the sequence where Harry rides the Hippogriff Buckbeak reminded me of Falcor in NeverEnding Story (1984).
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (Mike Newell, 2005)
Just as Cuarón got me into the series, the hopelessly bland Mike fucking Newell had to take me right back out. Though I’ve never read any of the books, Newell makes Goblet of Fire feel incredibly hurried, suggesting some big-time condensing of the source material, and emphasized by the fact that this is the first movie to not begin at Uncle Vernon’s home, where the novel supposedly began. Newell’s direction looks as stale as bread when watching this film immediately after the third—as Cuarón’s continuously moving camera is replaced by Newell’s largely unimaginative static framing. I’m curious as to why they kept changing directors and how they ended up with the ones they did choose. Maybe Newell was on the shortlist because he’s the first Brit to direct the series. I wonder how much sway Rowling has in choosing the directors. My dislike for this movie is only extrapolated by the presence of Robert Pattinson as Cedric, whose face just screams douchebag. Pattinson, of course, would later go on to explore his innate douchebaggery through his franchise-jumping pretty-boy role in Twilight and his vomiting on Salvador Dalí’s legacy—now he’s such a d-bag that it’s surreal!
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (David Yates 2007)
Thanks for Yates for bringing the series back to good form. He seems to be the right choice to direct the series up to its conclusion, and as a TV director he doesn’t carry with him the aesthetic baggage and comparative filmography of Columbus, Cuarón, and Newell. He allows Order of the Phoenix to truly feel like a movie rather than a choppy adaptation of a book and treats the now-growing all-ages audience with deserved intelligent respect. He also returns dynamic camerawork and striking visuals to the series. Lastly, Draco’s alignment with the repressive school regime of Dolores Umbridge is further evidence that he is—you guessed it—a total fascist.
But by this point in my marathon, I’ve pretty much burned out on Harry Potter. Roommate Ryan and I have started speaking in Michael Caine-style cockney English for some reason, and I’m mumbling “Harry Potter” repeatedly with various inflections under my breath. Maybe 10+ straight hours of the same characters are too much for me. After the movie, and the marathon, came to a long-awaited conclusion, I went outside for some much-needed fresh air and put off seeing Half-Blood Prince in theaters opening weekend for fear of overdosing on spells, long running times, and English accents…
The Harry Potter movies are certainly accessible to fans who haven’t read the book. One can easily see the appeal of the story and characters across media simply by watching these films. But, unlike LOTR, which seems by comparison to have an almost separate fan base between the books and films, I doubt that there’s a large culture of Harry Potter fans who enjoy the movies alone. While the movies are huge, I feel that the majority of their audience consists of fans of the book series, and the films are more a supplement to a fan culture that is centralized in the books—also enabled by the fact that, unlike LOTR, the Harry Potter books and films were released very close together. In this respect, my 12-hour experiment failed. By marathoning these films, I did get a taste for their appeal, but it’s apparent that one really needs to expose themselves to the books to really understand why fans find the subject matter so magnetic and to gauge their influence on popular culture. Books, I have argued before, are more often treated with greater respect than their adaptations, especially books as beloved as this series.
I had a discussion with a friend afterward in which I informed her that I had now “caught up with pop culture,” to which she, a Potter fan, responded that I had more or less caught up with “nerd culture.” However, I think that these days what was formerly nerd culture is legitimate pop culture. In a summer where Star Trek has become cool and the biggest movie of the year is based on an 80s cartoon, Harry Potter isn’t met with a marginalized fanbase but rather is celebrated by a sizeable (and, I believe, growing) mainstream audience—it’s one of those rare franchises where it seems everybody is a fan. And now I’m happy to have finally, to some extent, been inducted into the world of J.K. Rowling.
Culture Warrior is our weekly walk on the wild side with actual film school graduate Landon Palmer. To read more from Landon, you can follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/landon_speak