The seventh installment of the Potter saga is also the toughest to get through. It is also the film that has the least developed thematic material, unless you want to consider “camping for months on end is annoying when filmed.” Partly this has to do with the fact that this film is really only half of a story, being the first part of the book to Deathly Hallows. Partly it has to do with the fact that Harry, Ron and Hermione really do spend half the book wandering in the woods. It is literally Harry’s dark night of the soul. They fail (pretty much) to find any Horcruxes. They fail to keep out of Ministry hands. They fail to know anything about Dumbledore’s mission for them – beyond hunting Horcruxes they really don’t have any idea what they’re doing. The trio splits up. Harry’s one real lead – going to Godric’s Hollow – is a total failure.
And then there is the lack of theme in the film. If there is a camping trip with a deeper meaning or reason behind it, this is far more palatable than a two-and-a-half hour film that is literally just a camping trip. In the book this section was rife with Harry’s internal conflict. Does he pursue Horcruxes or Hallows? This is the entire question this part of the book revolves around. And it really is true. Harry only makes the decision to hunt Horcruxes and ignore the Hallows at Shell Cottage, which is where the second film (Part Two) starts. Thus, Part One needed to bring the Hallows into sharp relief and make that the central struggle. It did not, and therefore it became a tangled narrative mess. Harry’s delays at going after Horcruxes now becomes a matter of incompetance rather than indecision and deep internal confusion. The film completely strips out as much of this inner journey as it can. Gone are the dark secrets of Dumbledore. Gone is the choice between Hallows and Horcruxes. Gone is Harry’s internal transformation of faith.
The film, in fact, makes the conscious decision to delay finding out about the Hallows until the very end. Even if the narrative needed some re-structuring to get the Hallows quest in at the mid point of the film, I would have supported it because Harry’s internal transformation is way more important. There is so much dramatic tension that could have been squeezed out of it. Imagine for a moment a film that became a struggle between Harry and Voldemort, with the question of who will get to the Elder Wand first as the central issue, and then Harry intentionally choosing not to search for it. As it is, the fact that Voldemort gains the Wand first is only bad in the sense that he got to it. But one where Harry had to choose whether or not to race him to Dumbledore’s grave is something totally different.
As it stands, therefore, the film is perhaps the flattest, in terms of thematic material. It is difficult to watch because it really is mostly just wandering purposely around in the woods. Strangest of all, perhaps, the film makes odd dramatic choices. As I have mentioned in my reviews of the previous films, a besetting sin of the Potter film adaptations is that they tend to ratchet tension down right at the points when the books ratchet the tension up. There are two moments in this film where that is true.
First, in the fight with Nagini in Godric’s Hollow, the book has this amazing, brilliant moment when Voldemort shows up and his and Harry’s minds actually merge and Harry sees the death of his parents through Voldemort’s eyes. Harry and Hermione turn up on Christmas Eve, and right as they burst through the window, just as Voldemort arrives and their minds merge, it turns from Christmas Eve to Christmas Day. Voldemort screams as they escape, and the Church bells begin to ring and toll, heralding the day of Christ’s birth. The Serpent screams as the Christ-child is born. Not even in the film.
Second, at Malfoy Mannor. In the book we have Wormtail’s sacrifice that allows Harry to escape, which is a stirring moment. In the film he is used to comical effect. I’m not really sure if he even dies here. I have a memory of seeing him in Part Two. Regardless, this is another narrative thread that would have taken four seconds to tie up that the film refused to do. And, also at Malfoy Mannor, the Death Eaters really do call Voldemort, who arrives (again) right as Harry escapes. That this could have made everything so much more intense seems not to have affected the filmmakers in the slightest.
So while I still enjoyed it as part of the Potter canon, I was also disappointed with this performance of the Potter books. I look forward to the inevitable Potter film reboot in thirty years or so to improve upon the deeper thematic level of things in the films. It really was the weakest adaptation yet.
Rating: *** and 1/2 out of *****