WARNING: THERE BE SPOILERS
It’s difficult to offer a review of a Harry Potter movie without first providing a preface stating one’s biases. Are you a Harry Potter fan? If you aren’t, why are you going to bother seeing (the first part of) the last instalment now? Why are you even bothering to read a review? Perhaps you plan on making a game of it by bringing your binoculars and your “Who’s-Who-of-British-Film-and-Television” spotters guide.
If you are a fan, you will see this film regardless of what I have to say about it. With that said, you will love it. Being a fan myself, I find it difficult to imagine what it could be like watching these films without the plethora of knowledge about the wizarding world firmly ingrained in several wrinkles of my grey matter.
A quick google search reveals many Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part One (or DH1 for the sake of brevity in this otherwise long-winded post) reviews, almost all of which are penned by non-fans. Within them run similar veins of criticism, which I can’t be bothered to summarize here. Rather than try to judge this flick as a film in and of itself, I feel compelled to look at how it fares as an adaptation.
In adaptations, what can possibly be gained by a faithful retread of the book? Is it simply to view the literal workings of the novel, verbatim? That ultimately cannot succeed, as it fails in matching the varied subjective imaginations of each individual reader, while simultaneously boring the non-readers. It’s like seeing the man behind the curtain. When you go back and watch the early Harry Potter films, you can see that this is what seems so bland and flat about them.
With the third film, The Prisoner of Azkaban, we see Alfonso Cuaron succeed remarkably in creating a master film and master adaption. Why? The Holy Triumvirate of any compelling adaptation: Tone. Theme. Character. It’s not about plot points, it’s about the feel, the ideas and the characterizations.
David Yates succeeds in bringing these forth, which I can only imagine is why he’s managed to stick around as director after joining the franchise for instalment number five. In The Order of the Phoenix, it was the delightfully disturbing non-canonical presence of Voldemort at the train station, and later within Harry’s own body, that really hammers home the Triumvirate. Adaptation Win.
In DH1, details regarding backstory and random MacGuffins are unapologetically left unexplained, because if you don’t know everything about them by now, there is far too much bogging things down already. For instance, do we really need it spelt out how Beauxbatons champion from the fourth flick, Fleur Delacour, ended up marrying a Weasley? Not… really. For those uninitiated, just go with it. The wedding is beautiful. Everyone is happy and together, until all becomes ruin in a fiery torment of the inevitable.
Fear not, the necessary talking points are there. All important plot points, all important character tics, all delightfully important story notes. But they are met with style and grace. For instance, The Tale of the Three Brothers, as read by Hermione, is intensely integral, but boringly expositional. Solution? A beautiful and haunting animated illustration, with gorgeous, wispy shadow puppets.
Any glossed-over divergences in adaptation are irrelevant when considering the important moments and feelings. The dark tone is of so much more than impending evil: desperation, frustration, confusion, anger, and all the other twelve steps of grief. This tone has married itself so well with the three main characters, who are far more fully realized here than they’ve ever been.
It is definitely with characterization, tone and theme in mind that Yates and writer Steve Kloves have created an instalment of the franchise that both takes us away from everything familiar in the wizarding world while managing to let every familiar place and face show up One. Last. Time. It feels like a “Harry Potter: This is Your Life,” but in a good way. All warm and fuzzy-like, while also blood-curdlingly terrifying. Early deaths in the films (as in the book) are shocking and barely feel real. We seem as in denial as the characters. This can’t be the end. And no one is safe when the owl bites it.
Like the book, what makes DH1 so appealing is one remarkable difference: they are not children anymore. Gone is the familiar structure of Harry’s school year at Hogwarts. Gone is Hogwarts all together. And gone, we are so sadly reminded, is Albus Dumbledore. We feel, just as Harry feels, that the security blanket is gone.
This is a road movie. We get to visit one gorgeous set piece after another. We get to witness one episodic adventure after another. It’s a coming-of-age genre, and this, more than any of the previous films, is a coming-of-age story. Lacking the structure of school and parent-figures, Harry, Ron and Hermione must come into their own, find their own way. The journey is frustrating and desperate at times, just as it can be.
They are finally adults. As scary as that is on its own (and as scary as it is to imagine that the cute little moppets these kids once were are now haggard grown-ups with stubble and “issues”) Yates keeps this theme firmly at the centre of the film. It’s subtle, but present. A good example is an added scene (only referred to in the books) where Hermione, in order to protect her Muggle parents from Voldemort, erases all memories they have of her, their only daughter.
This poignant beginning marks the primary importance Yates and Kloves have given to the characters. It’s the relationships between the three, Harry, Ron and Hermione, that forms the core of the entire Potter world, books and film.
Finally, Harry is more than The Boy Who Lived. His personality is at last defined by more than his position as the other side of Voldemort’s coin. As true of the archetype, it is only now, when his wise mentor (Dumbledore) is gone, that the classic hero (Harry) can finally come into his own. But he’s not a perfect hero. Like any seventeen-year-old, Harry is flawed and confused. Yates subtly showcases the complexities of Harry at this point in his life, from his apprehensive kiss with Ginny, to his nobility-masking-insecurity as he attempts to run away from the Weasley’s house. Despite all feints otherwise, we see how scared Harry really is, and how desperately he just wants to be somewhere safe and simple.
Ron, as ever, is still playing second fiddle to The Boy Who Lived. This, as always, manifests itself in his jealousy of Harry. This film, however, takes it deeper. Ron’s feelings are far more pained and multi-faceted, combining his feelings towards Hermione, his love of his family, his fear of death, his uncertainty in growing up. As shocking as it might be, it’s quite appropritate that what he imagines Harry and Hermione to be up to when the horcrux torments his souls is certainly quite adult.
In the films, Hermione as a character has always been more complex and nuanced than the boys (or perhaps she’s just the best actor), and here we see the deeper facets of her confusion and frustration. We firmly believe at all times that she’s dealing with her feelings for Ron, as well as her fears about Voldemort, as well as her assuredly rampaging emotions at having effectively rendered herself an orphan. An added scene of Harry persuading Hermione to dance to Nick Cave after Ron has left them reflects well their precarious positions on the edge of adulthood, including all their conflicts, uncertainties and desires in a simultaneously sweet and sad moment.
It is a perfectly fitting beginning to the end.