'Harry Potter' Ends With a Bang

The Deathly Hallows: Part 2 serves up a satisfying finale to the Potter franchise

hp_orr 615.jpg
Warner Bros

I began reading the Harry Potter books in 2000, between the publication of the third and fourth installments—which is to say that I was a late adopter of J.K. Rowling’s magical oeuvre, though not as late as some. The first three novels went by in a merry rush, each pegged to the rhythms and rituals of a school year at Hogwarts School of Wizardry, where Harry and his adolescent co-conspirators Ron and Hermione untangled one meticulous mystery after another. In the fourth book, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Rowling dialed it up, as Nigel Tufnel might say, to 11, delving into deeper, darker territory, as Harry’s nemesis, Lord Voldemort, returned from a spectral afterlife with murder on his mind.

That was for me, however, the series’ printed-word apogee. The final three books—perhaps inevitably, perhaps even wisely—gradually dispensed with Rowling’s original formula. In place of the sequential yet self-contained conundrums of the early books, the saga entered a longer narrative arc, as the war between good and evil that had lurked in the wings gradually assumed center stage. The epic sweep (and increasingly epic length) of the final books proved, at least for myself, less congenial to Rowling’s talents than the taut plotting and drawing-room deduction of the earlier installments. By the time I reached the conclusion of the architecturally scaled final tome, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, with its multiplying MacGuffins—seven Horcruxes, three Deathly Hallows, two turtle doves —I confess I was glad to be done. And that’s even before I arrived at The Epilogue That Must Not Be Named.

The films, however, have followed an alternative trajectory. The first two, directed by Chris Columbus (of Home Alone and Mrs. Doubtfire fame) resembled cinematic books on tape, loyal yet somehow lifeless. The third, by contrast, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, was directed by Alfonso Cuarón, who gave himself the space and latitude to inject a bit of humanity into the furiously plotted proceedings . Alas, Cuarón had other fish to fry—notably two of the best films of 2006: Children of Men, which he adapted and directed, and Pan’s Labyrinth, which he co-produced. The fourth film, Goblet of Fire, was ably but unmemorably directed by Mike Newell (who, in a truly odd coincidence, is scheduled in 2012 to become, with Cuarón, the second Potter director to release an adaptation of Great Expectations). For the final four films—the seventh book having been split in two for reasons that assuredly have no relation to the box office—BBC veteran David Yates (State of Play) took the helm, and over the course of numbers five and six, the (again, for me) diminishing returns were much as expected.

But last summer, as I steeled myself for the moderate disappointment of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1, I was happily confounded by what proved to be the fiercest, most grownup entrant in the series so far. Not all literary virtues are cinematic ones—and vice versa—and the sense of a world teetering toward Armageddon that had seemed largely expository on the page acquired newfound weight and immediacy onscreen.

Which brings me to the proximate cause of this review, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2. Circumstances have to some degree usurped the traditional role of the critic here: those who have seen the films, or read the books, or both, will have a pretty clear idea of what to expect. (And for those who haven’t—well, if you insist on breezing in for the final chapter, expect no sympathy for your befuddlement.) The cast, in particular young principals Daniel Radcliffe (Harry), Emma Watson (Hermione), and Rupert Grint (Ron), have wormed so deep into their roles that it will be a wonder if they can ever find their ways out again. Director Yates has, over the course of four Potters, made the film series his own: spare, earnest, and unforgiving. And the plot hews closely, of course, to Rowling’s cataclysmic blueprint.

It begins with a Mission Impossible-y penetration of the Goblin bank Gringott’s, in which Hermione disguises herself as Voldemort underling Bellatrix Lestrange (Helena Bonham Carter)—a transformation that entails Bonham Carter offering a wickedly spot-on impression of the stiff-lipped Watson. Following their escape on dragonback from the vault, Harry, Hermione, and Ron gradually make their way to Hogwarts. There, as they try frantically to uncover and destroy the final Horcruxes that hold shards of Voldemort’s soul, the demon-wizard himself lays siege to the school with an army of wand-wielding Death Eaters and club-swinging giants that would do Peter Jackson proud.

Some corners are inevitably cut, and details of the concluding battle tweaked here and there. Many of the UK Hall of Famers who have generously populated the Potter mythos (Jim Broadbent, Gary Oldman, Emma Thompson, David Thewlis, Robbie Coltrane) are afforded little more than cameos, while a couple of others (Kelly Macdonald, Ciarán Hinds) manage to get a foot in the door before it closes. Matthew Lewis, whose Neville Longbottom has sprouted faster than a blast-ended skrewt, is afforded a comparably grander role. And as Severus Snape, the moral hinge and cipher of the series, Alan Rickman chews…. each…. syllable…. with unhurried relish: It’s clear he sees the end coming and intends to make the most of what time he has left.

Nor does he seem to be alone. Like the novel, the film is a bit messy and convoluted, as if Rowling, too, could hardly bring herself to put her invented world to rest. But the cascading climaxes—like the overall epic, martial tone—prove, if anything, better suited to summer cinema than to summer beach-reading. Voldemort’s pyrotechnic assault upon Hogwarts may come a little late for July 4, but it is more than worthy of Bastille Day. And when the castle-school’s magical defenses waver, the onslaught of the Death Eaters resembles Humbert Humbert’s dying threat of black smoke and demented giants come vividly to life. There are echoes, too, of Christian allegory and the Reichenbach Falls, as well as less literary entanglements: the mortal tango of Nagini and Severus, snake and Snape; first kisses between—well, far be it from me to tell. We’ve come a long way indeed from the cupboard beneath the stairs at Number Four, Privet Drive.

It’s a pleasant irony that, just as the first installments of Rowling’s oeuvre were better suited to page than screen, the final installments have reversed the relationship. As numerous characters note in The Deathly Hallows: Part 2, “the wand chooses the wizard,” a presumably unintentional variation on McLuhan’s dictum that the medium is the message, but one that is, under the circumstances, surprisingly apt. In its way, the film is a more fitting conclusion to the Potter saga than the novel that inspired it: even the too-tidy coda, set 19 years later, passes by more smoothly. The final words of the book—“All was well”—at last ring true.