How the 'Harry Potter' Movies Succeeded Where the Books Failed

The films have embraced the dark melodrama that the novels only dabbled in

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Warner Bros

Seven years ago, the Harry Potter series seemed like it was going to be hard to put on screen. Rowling’s books were long, endlessly complicated, and full of things like butterbeer, grindylows, fizzing whizbees, and boggarts.

But early reviews of the eighth and final installation of the Harry Potter series are in, and the word is that director David Yates and his cast have managed a task with near impossible expectations, to the tune of a 96 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. It looks like the new movie, like the rest in the series, hasn’t just managed to yank a couple more million out of some blockbuster novels. It’s been able to take the Harry Potter story and turn it into the epic Rowling couldn’t manage.

It's rare that the movie actually fixes problems from the book, but in this case the simplicity and narrative drive of a Hollywood script was just what the series called for.

The basic story in Harry Potter is an old one, and a good one. The boy of destiny is plucked from ordinary circumstances and becomes incredulous when he’s told the truth behind his real identity. Some training, trials, and a crisis of self-confidence later, he emerges as the true hero ready to defeat ultimate evil.

But the Harry Potter books were not built on Rowling’s ability to craft a narrative. They were built on her ability to craft a world. The most memorable moments were never plot developments, but rather things like the introduction of Hogsmeade, the Quidditch World Cup, or the first reveal of Diagon Alley.

Rowling’s writing had that endlessly obsessive quality required of a true world builder, but her storytelling couldn’t stack up to her setting. With every book from three on, she talked about how the stories were getting “darker.” But while “darker” things happened—some characters died, terrible monsters appeared, and schoolyard quarrels evolved into wars of racial purification—the tone could never quite catch up to the circumstances.

Take a passage from towards the beginning of the Deathly Hallows, Harry is trying to convince his aunt and uncle about the mortal peril they’ve found themselves in. But when “Daedalus Diggle,” the wizard meant to protect them arrives, they find a “small man in a mauve tophat … sweeping the floor in a deep bow,” and announcing himself in a “squeaky excited voice.”

Silliness butts up against severity throughout the latter books. As the main characters are preparing to infiltrate a government intent on racial cleansing, they do so with the aid of "puking pastilles." As Xenophilius Lovegood reveals the wand that could be used to kill villain Lord Voldemort, Rowling constantly dashes to the side to describe "erumpent horns," "crumple-horned snorkacks," and "freshwater plimpies."

Presented by

Dave Thier

David Thier is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The New Republic, AOLNews, Wired.com, IGN.com, and South Magazine.

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