NR Digital

The Sunset of Magic

by Ross Douthat
A review of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part II

The Harry Potter phenomenon has passed from an object of wonder to a fact of nature, but with the release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part II — the eighth and final Potter movie, based on the second half of J. K. Rowling’s final book — it’s worth pausing to marvel over how completely the wizards of Hogwarts have broken the rules that normally govern pop entertainment.

Consider, for instance, that there have now been more movies about Harry Potter, a character that Rowling dreamed up during a long railway delay 20 years ago, than there have been movies about Batman, Superman, or Spiderman. There have been more Potter movies than Star Wars movies, more Potter movies than Rocky movies, more Potter movies than Lord of the Rings and Matrix movies put together. With his eighth big-screen outing, Harry has entered the rarefied territory reserved for horror-movie villains: He’s keeping company with Jason Voorhees, Freddy Krueger, Count Dracula, and other unkillable kings of the multiplex.

Even more remarkable than the output, though, is the consistency of the product. The first two Potter movies were flat and plodding, the third was joyfully original — and then the last five have been basically indistinguishable from one another in their quality, achieving roughly the same level of handsome, somewhat unmemorable competence every time.

It helps, no doubt, that the same screenwriter (Steve Kloves) has written the script for all but one installment, and the same director (David Yates) has held the reins for the last four films. But continuity is no guarantee of artistic consistency, and big-budget sequels are usually hit-or-miss even when the same people are in charge. (On the other hand, most filmmakers don’t have the world’s richest authoress looking over their shoulders, making sure they always hit their marks exactly.)

For a while I was disappointed in the middling-ness of the movies: their mix of slavish fidelity and somewhat desperate condensation, the roster of British master thespians amusing themselves (and their grandchildren, presumably) playing wizards and witches, the dutiful polish of the special effects. But that was before I finished the last Potter book and realized, like more than a few fans, that I had built the saga up to be rather more than it actually was — more morally complicated, more self-consciously tragic, more theological and mythological and psychological, more adult.

What Deathly Hallows the book proved, in the overplotted and underwhelming way it wrapped things up, is that the Potter saga is best appreciated without the Tolkien-Shakespeare-Dickens baggage that some of its more enthusiastic adult admirers tried to pile on top. That’s not an insult to Rowling, whose work will certainly outlast its small coterie of highbrow haters. It’s just a warning that future readers should approach her books as children’s books, rather than freighting them with unreasonable grownup expectations.

Equipped with a more appropriate sense of what the Potter saga is and isn’t, I had a lot of fun at Deathly Hallows: Part II. Directorial competence, British thespians, digital dragons — what’s not to like? In what other summer blockbuster does a noseless Ralph Fiennes get to ham it up with a long-haired Alan Rickman, while the audience plays “Which Masterpiece Theatre do I know him from?” with even the most minor supporting character? (Yes, that’s John Hurt as the wand-shop proprietor Ollivander, and Ciarán Hinds hidden behind the beard of Aberforth Dumbledore . . .) In what other long-running franchise has a cluster of child stars — Daniel Radcliffe as Harry, Rupert Grint as Ron Weasley, and the lovely Emma Watson as Hermione — grown into adult actors of impressive range and depth? (If only George Lucas had been as lucky in his casting choices for Anakin Skywalker.)

Plot summary is pretty much superfluous at this point: If you’ve read the books, you know what’s coming, and if you haven’t, all you need to know is that the great battle between good and evil is finally upon us, pitting Harry and Co. against Fiennes’s Lord Voldemort and his black-cloaked Death Eaters. There are various talismans (the titular “hallows” among them) to be collected and either used or destroyed, and a lot of business about which wand will answer to which wizard in the final showdown, but happily the screenwriters have streamlined the often incomprehensible details. (You may not understand exactly why certain things happen, but at least you won’t feel like you need a spreadsheet to keep track of the magic.)

Unfortunately, the obligations of fidelity have left Rowling’s unwieldy plot architecture more or less intact, which means that the buildup to the grand finale is twice interrupted: once to fill in crucial backstory, and once for a long jaw-jaw-jaw between Harry and the ghost of Albus Dumbledore (Michael Gambon). But since that crucial backstory involves the tragic story of Severus Snape (Rickman), by far the most interesting character in the Potterverse, I can’t complain too much — especially since (confession time, dear reader!) the Snape sequence actually had me on the verge of tears.

When Deathly Hallows the book came out four years ago, the entertainment writer Dan Kois marshaled a battalion of perceptive criticisms and then added: “I freely admit that 12-year-old me would have thought this was about the greatest book ever written.” Get in touch with that inner 12-year-old, and Deathly Hallows the movie will seem pretty awesome too.