Moving Pictures July/August 2009

Sex and the Single Wizard

The peculiar challenge of adapting Harry Potter for the screen

Image: Daniel Adel

Personally speaking, my difficulty with Hogwarts School for Witchcraft and Wizardry has always been the girls. Because at my elite British boarding school, you understand, there were no girls; gray cloisters and shadowy halls, yes, and ringing bells, and triangles of cold toast at breakfast, but no girls. When Matron applied the anti-headlice ointment, combing up our schoolboy mops into reeking little pompadours—no girls. When fainting swept the school like some hot new dance, and we slumped from our pews in morning chapel—no girls!

At Hogwarts, however, the remote and castellated establishment where Harry Potter pursues his studies, there are girls everywhere: eccentric girls, stalwart girls, mean girls, ghost girls who live in the toilet, girls you get crushes on, girls you can kiss … Is this how a sorcerer is made? By shaking a leg at the school dance? Shouldn’t his education be more like mine—which is to say, a lonely flare of unrequited hormones?

James Parker follows Harry and his cohorts through an enchated but awkward school dance

Perhaps, perhaps. But then, J. K. Rowling, bazillionaire author of the Harry Potter series, didn’t write the books for me. And to her global readership, a girl-less Harry Potter, who waves his wand in an erotic vacuum, is no Harry Potter at all. The movie adaptations of her work have served as a sort of time-lapse study of puberty: we’ve seen Harry (played by Daniel Radcliffe) sprout up from a round-faced minor, blinking through the fumes of his latest supernatural act, into a bony young man with the pallor and intensity of an English First World War poet. He’s grown moody, complicated, agonized even. And the closer he gets to sex, the trickier things become. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, released in 2007, almost finished him off, as his hesitant courtship of a fellow Hogwarts student (the demure Cho Chang) proceeded simultaneously with the onslaughts of a rampant snakelike essence from within his own brain. “Look at me!” he implored the great mage Dumbledore, headmaster of Hogwarts. “What’s happening to me?!”

How to handle this blend of teen drama and high fantasy is part of the peculiar challenge that Rowling’s work has posed to filmmakers. (This July sees the release of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, the sixth and penultimate movie in the series; the last one, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, will be a two-parter, with its first installment scheduled for late 2010.) Rich as they are in basilisks and Triwizard Tournaments, her books advance, narratively, at an absolute crawl. There’s the paralyzing obsession with bureaucracy, for instance: hearings, edicts, exams, disqualifications, issues of procedure, administrative reversals … Can you think of another children’s story-cycle that features so many frigging committees? Add to this Rowling’s perpetual, enveloping burble of talk, as Harry and his chums puzzle earnestly through the latest goings-on, and you have a sense of pacing that is more Thirtysomething than Lord of the Rings. The younger reader—for whom reality actually moves like this, in close whorls of micro-plot—is delighted. The adult, less so; which father or mother, reading Rowling aloud to small, pricked ears, hasn’t sighed at the onset of another four-page debriefing of Harry by Hermione and/or Ron?

Attempts to filmically infuse this material with a Tolkien-esque sweep and drive will fail, as the thudding Prince Caspian—the second adaptation of C. S. Lewis’s Narnia series—failed: the intimacy evaporated, the pageantry became stultifying, the audience went zzzz. How then to keep the asses in the seats? Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, both directed by Chris Columbus, clanked rather obviously between their megabucks set pieces—Quidditch matches and dueling wands and so on. (In a minor mode, though, Columbus did do a lovely job with Moaning Myrtle, the dead girl who haunts the Hogwarts bathroom like a spectral plumber’s friend: “I was sitting in the U-bend,” she gurgles, “thinking about death.”) Alfonso Cuarón had a gift for magical detail—for the realism, if you like, of the violently fantastic. His Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban was a string of moments: Harry’s godfather, Sirius Black, getting nihilistically face-sucked by a dementor, with tiny white-hot filaments of soul drifting upward from his parted lips; or the hippogriff Buckbeak, swooping low with Harry on his back, trailing innocent dinosaur knuckles in the waters of the lake.

Then there was saucy Mike Newell, director of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, whose camera candidly appraised the bottoms of the beautiful French girls from Beauxbatons Academy as they sashayed across the flagstones of Hogwarts. Newell and his fellow Englishman David Yates—director of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, and future director of both installments of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows—have a good grip on teenhood. Newell’s touch is lighter; we remember Harry’s friend, the sallow and sturgeon-lipped Ron Weasley, sitting stricken in the wake of one of the aforementioned French girls: “There she was, walking by.” He moans. “You know, I like it when they walk … Always like looking at them from behind.” Harry in Yates’s Order of the Phoenix is gaunt, stormy, traumatized: “Out there, when you’re a second away from being murdered, or watching a friend die right before your eyes—you don’t know what that’s like.” But he also shares a lovely kiss with Cho beneath the hovering mistletoe.

Presented by

James Parker is an Atlantic contributing editor.

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