Harry, Frodo, and the Force
Ads for three new science fiction films appeared the same week in 1951 in Philadelphia newspapers, and though I didn’t realize it at the time, it was the first golden age of fantasy cinema (I regard SF as a subcategory of fantasy). That is perhaps unfair to prior film classics such as Metropolis, Nosferatu, or Things to Come, and one might well regard the horrific output of Val Lewton as a Golden Age in itself, but I merely cite personal opinion. For me, the first golden age began in 1951 with the release of The Day the Earth Stood Still and climaxed with Forbidden Planet in 1956. (FYI, the other two movie ads along with “Day” were for The Thing from Another World and When Worlds Collide.)
One might reasonably argue that Stanley Kubrick initiated a second golden age in 1968 with 2001, but that cornerstone event strikes me as a one of a kind experience that interacts more with itself than any of its imitators, including its estimable non-Kubrick sequel, 2010 (1984), a film whose ending Leonard Maltin criticizes as “much too literal,” which is a bit unfair, since it’s exactly the way Arthur C. Clarke wrote it. Kubrick paid him less respect in that regard. The only other film one might mention in tandem with 2001 is Kubrick’s own A Clockwork Orange (1971). Other than sharing bleak visions of the future, they have little in common, but each is a one-of-a-kind masterpiece.
No, in this Nth Dimension, the second golden age of fantasy movies began in 1977 with Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind and George Lucas’s Star Wars, now subtitled Episode Four: A New Hope, and happily the age is still happening. Perhaps to call such an extended period of superior fantasy cinema a golden age is too limiting; it has become a veritable Renaissance.
Ups and downs there have been. The nadir as far as I’m concerned is the Matrix series, though there are probably worse movies (I was warned away from Van Helsing), but right now I’m more interested in discussing three of the most financially and artistically successful series.
Peter Jackson’s brilliant trilogy, Lord of the Rings, has its flaws, of course, but the worst mistake in The Return of the King – removing Christopher Lee’s final scene as Saruman – is rectified in the extended DVD version where it appears in its proper place (by film logic, that is: the sequence actually is placed near the end of Tolkien’s novel). The extended DVDs of all three movies are so much better than the theatrical releases that they always ought to be shown extended from now on. Yes, this means more than three hours of viewing, but the DVDs have one advantage over the theatre versions: intermissions!
The second series to reach its conclusion is Star Wars. I saw and was reasonably impressed with Episode Three: Revenge of the Sith, though I did notice a few contradictions with the plot of the later trilogy. Now I’ve heard a lot of negative criticism about Episode One: The Phantom Empire, but I rather liked it; Episode Two: Attack of the Clones, on the other hand, I thought the weakest of the series. But
I experienced the two trilogies differently when I watched the six DVDs consecutively. I still like The Phantom Menace, and was surprised how much better Attack of the Clones plays in sequence. This is so partly because seeing it in order makes the senatorial politics less difficult to follow; “Clones” also blends seamlessly into “Revenge” in a fashion similar to the close connection between the fifth and sixth episodes.
But proceeding directly to “A New Hope” leads one to a minor “doesn’t feel right” moment when Ben Kenobi gives Luke a light saber and tells him that his father wanted him to have it. When? By the time Luke and Leia were born, Anakin was wholly subsumed in Darth Vader and was at war with Obi-Wan. And much later, in Episode Six: The Return of the Jedi, Leia tells Luke that their mother was always very sad. But their mother died giving birth to the twins. Didn’t anyone ever tell Leia she was an adopted daughter?
As a collector, I’m sorry I didn’t hold on to earlier VHS versions of the films. In his efforts to conform his plot line, George Lucas changes a moment in Episode Five: The Empire Strikes Back. Darth is commanded to receive a holographic communication from the Emperor. In the original film, the estimable British actor Clive Revill plays Palpatine, but the latest DVD substitutes Ian McDiarmid’s face, though Revill is still credited with the voice-over. And at the close of “Return,” when Luke sees the spirits of Obi-Wan, Yoda and his father observing the Ewoks’s celebration, instead of Sebastian Shaw, the actor who plays Anakin’s death scene, Hayden Christensen from “Clones” and “Sith” reappears. Startling, though I thought it was justifiable.
The big question, though, is why did Lucas make the films in the order he chose? Watching them sequentially reveals the answer. That scene near the end of “Empire” when Darth tells Luke who his father is loses its power. Viewed in episode order, new Star Wars fans will never know the electrifying impact of that revelation, and even if they watch the movies in the order they were released, new dialogue added blows the secret en passant in “Empire.”
After all the fuss and deliberation about the initial trilogy, and even acknowledging that there is much to enjoy, I stand by the opinion I voiced some twenty years ago: for anyone who saw the films when first released, Episodes one through three are entertaining, but ultimately anticlimactic. Lucas would have done better to go on to the seventh, eighth and ninth Star Wars that he claims he never intends to film.
Anyone want to bet?
OK, I’ve saved Harry Potter for last because they’re special favorites, both the books and to a lesser extent, the movies. I’ve read the books at least seven times, and even have a jotted record of the number of times the attribution “hissed” is misused, but that’s nitpicking. I’ve seen the first three films numerous times, “Goblet of Fire” once in normal projection mode, once in the high definition version (the best of the methods), and twice in IMAX, but I’m not so much interested about discussing them as I am in taking exception to views of mainstream reviewers – I do not call them critics, few of them have earned that distinction. A critic should possess more than generalized, or even specialized, knowledge of film history, and her or his views must also reflect literary awareness, audience psychology, and contemporaneous insight into sociological context. Even when he or she has these tools available, the critic must be prepared to view and re-view the film, for once is rarely enough, whether the composition being examined is a film, a play (on the page or live), a book, symphony or painting. Opinions formed and expressed after a single exposure are not criticism, they are reviews. Unfortunately, when it comes to genre reviews, the credentials grow thin. Even Leonard Maltin’s otherwise excellent annual movie and video guide frequently misses the boat when it comes to fantasy/SF.
Let’s put it in this slightly overstated way: the reviewers who are mundanes (SF’s version of muggles, in this case, non-aficionados) think the first two Harry Potter films aren’t nearly as good as the third one. Those in the SF/fantasy field think just the opposite. Now one might draw from this the conclusion that the mundanes haven’t read the books, while SF/fantasy folk have, but this is not the case, at least from the evidence I’ve witnessed at several SF convention panels I’ve participated in. Those who know the genre, whether they’ve read the books or not, generally love the first two films, but have serious reservations about the third.
Let’s see why.
Leonard Maltin both praises and criticizes Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001), admitting it begins “with a real sense of wonder and magic,” but ends up bombastic and overlong; to this reiterated catalog in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002) he adds the astonishing new accusation of “uninspired transcription from page to screen.”
Now let me say right here that I do not believe Leonard himself wrote these reviews. I’ve known him a long time; we were both officers and steering committee members of the New York Parent Tent of Sons of the Desert, the international Laurel & Hardy society. Besides being one of the nicest, most amiable souls you’d ever want to meet, Leonard is scrupulously careful and accurate in his film research and writing, and his annual guide is my Bible. But it has also grown to bug-crusher size and, judging from past genre gaffes, it must be members of his staff who write the SF/fantasy reviews. They often miss the point or get things wrong. The first version of their take on Predator complained that the audience never finds out the true nature of the title monster .. I guess they stopped watching during the climactic face-off between the two predators, the alien and Schwarzenegger. I wrote to Leonard about it, and was gratified to see the next annual dropped that sentence.
Now just before rapping the second Harry Potter film for “uninspired” page-screen transcription, its reviewer highlights the “climactic battle with a formidable dragon.” HELLO – dragon? Somehow the reviewer missed the crucial plot element established in the first film and paid off in the second that Harry is a Parselmouth, able to talk to snakes … which directs suspicion to him as the possible heir of Slytherin and therefore as the opener of the Chamber of Secrets. Somehow it eluded the reviewer that the symbol for Slytherin house is a serpent, that the essential clue Hermione finds just before she is paralyzed leads Harry to realize the legendary monster in the Chamber is a basilisk. There are dragons in the first and fourth movies, but nowhere are they in evidence in Chamber, and how anyone can think otherwise casts serious doubts on their reviewing skills. (I wrote Leonard about this, and he assured me it will be corrected in the next edition of the annual).
The charge of uninspired translation from page to screen is unsupportable.
In the first two films. J. K. Rowling maintained a strong author’s veto on the proceedings (permit me here a fellow writer’s three cheers for Jo!) and it shows in every loving moment of Chris Columbus’s direction. The plotting contains the irreducible necessities, the settings are perfect, the casting is more than perfect … according to my friend Beverly Penberthy, producer and costar of the infamous Bloodsucking Pharaohs in Pittsburgh, Alan Rickman (an old friend of Beverly’s), is who Jo Rowling always had in mind when she created Professor Snape. The first two Harry Potter movies are the books come gloriously alive, and while there is no substitute for reading the originals – partly because of the excellent material necessarily condensed or eliminated (especially Sir Nicholas’s Deathday party in Chamber) – those who only see the movies have a very fair idea of the beauties and terrors of the prose originals.
This is not true of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004). At three SF convention panels in different eastern cities, it was the unanimous opinion of panelists and their audiences that director Alfonso Cuarón bungled the job. Not totally; many good things were conceded, but the consensus was that HP # 3 was too heavy-handed in its invocation of the darker elements of the plot. Here, it must be admitted, this opinion derives from knowledge of the book itself. I have often heard from readers that while they enjoyed the first novels, the third one totally “hooked” them on Harry. The main reason is that its sense of fun is infectious. Of course there are the dementors and the threat of Sirius Black, but they are foil to the book’s comedy and adventurousness: the marauder’s map, the byplay with Malfoy by the Screaming Shack, etc. The film misshapes the book with its hovering dementors, ominous clockworks, its wholly gratuitous chorale drawn from
Shakespeare’s Scottish play. But even if one sets aside comparisons based on the book as irrelevant for judging Azkaban’s cinematic merits, the film has its faults. Chief of them is the under-miking of a critical scene between Harry and Mr. Weasley; set in a shadowy inn-corner, the sequence contains important exposition that is virtually inaudible. When I took a friend who never read the book to see it, she was grateful because it was a hearing-impaired screening complete with subtitles. Why have the mundane reviewers chortled with glee about Azkaban?
In my sarcastic view, because it is an example of the auteur at work. Cuarón is an interpretive artist in the style of that irritating opera director Peter Sellars: auteurs more interested in advancing personal stylistic idiosyncracies than in analyzing and accurately recreating the source material.
Directing is supposed to be an interpretive art, respectful of the source material. Then why do New Yorkers have to suffer endless Shakespearean revivals set in every country and time period other than those that the plays were set in by The Bard? Because it takes considerable intellectual skill and literary sensitivity to direct well. It’s a hell of a lot easier being an auteur, to my mind a term synonymous with pretentiousness. Sadly, there will always be viewers and reviewers who worship the auteur, but then compost always draws flies. Personally I prefer – as do many SF/fantasy genre aficionados – Chris Columbus’s respectful handling of Harry Potter over being hit over the head by Cuarón.
There’s hope, though – mainstream and genre critics alike seem to agree that Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is the best Harry Potter film so far. I think so, too, and praise the adapters for preserving everything they could of the ultra-long novel. Subplots had to be shaved down or eliminated, but while one might regret the excision of Hermione’s House Elf Liberation efforts, the loss of that material neither hurts the film nor overly disturbs those who have read the book (unlike Peter Jackson’s elimination of Tom Bombadil from Fellowship of the Ring, his sole stupendous mistake.) Even Rita Skeeter’s comeuppance, though eliminated from the film, is not missed, but I imagined it would be addressed in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, which it was not. Nor were many other important issues. What poor judgment, turning the longest book into the shortest Harry Potter film. The casting, as ever, was excellent at least, but otherwise OOOP’s cinematic virtues are in short supply.
Department of Unexpected Joy: Long ago, I lamented the old TV SF series, Salvage-One, starring Andy Griffith, which its network canceled early in the second season, leaving at least four episodes unaired. But there is now a DVD version of the show in existence, and it contains those missing shows! It may not be readily obtainable, but I got mine on eBay.