Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Potter’s wheel

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During my sophomore and junior years in college, I worked as a film critic for a currently defunct pop culture website, attending preview screenings and cranking out movie reviews at fifty dollars apiece. This was, believe it or not, my first real job of any kind, and while not particularly lucrative, it was hugely educational. (I learned, for instance, that while it may sound like fun, being forced to see every movie that comes out between January and March is a special sort of hell.) I also suggested occasional ideas for feature stories, and one day, probably in the fall of 1999, I noticed that media interest was growing around a series of children’s fantasy books about a boy wizard. I made a note to bring up the idea with my editor, then promptly forgot about it. I never did write that story. And it looks like this may be my last chance.

Now that the second half of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is finally in theaters, there have been a lot of think pieces about J.K. Rowling and the future of her creation, but one of the themes I find most interesting is the seamlessness of the franchise. This is the first global fantasy series, born from a novelist’s imagination, where books, movies, and other media were allowed to grow along with their audiences. There are those who love both the books and the movies; a significantly larger worldwide audience that has experienced the movies alone; and those, like me, who began with the books, then switched to the movies, once it became clear that the films were finally doing justice to the series. There’s also the theme park, the video games, and even, dare I say it, the fanfic. The result has shaped how we think about mainstream storytelling in ways we’re only beginning to appreciate.

As far as the films are concerned, Harry Potter was never my favorite movie franchise, but for the past ten years, it unstintingly received the full resources of one of our great movie studios, resulting in a polished Cadillac sheen that shouldn’t be underestimated. The installments by David Yates, in particular, while a bit impersonal, are among the handsomest, most lavishly mounted movies in recent memory, to the point where they’ve spoiled me for lesser franchises. These days, I get a little impatient watching a movie like Thor, which is clearly a big studio production but with obvious limits to its spectacle—meaning that it cost $150 million to make, not $250 million. And while the escalation of movie budgets is far from a good thing, there was still something reassuring about paying eleven dollars to see a Harry Potter film, knowing that you were bound to get your money’s worth.

But that doesn’t mean that bigger is always better. Of the movies, my favorite, somewhat to my surprise, is Goblet of Fire, which is also the only installment I never saw on the big screen. The first two movies are frankly embarrassing. Prisoner of Azkaban gets more respect, but while I have nothing but love for Alfonso Cuarón, I can’t get past that movie’s tonal issues and confusing final act, although much of it is smart and charming. And while the Yates installments, as I’ve said before, are big, sleek machines, Mike Newell’s Goblet of Fire comes closest to my idea of what this series should be about: not action, not special effects, but the idea of magic and of being a child. The lovingly detailed buildup to the Yule Ball, which otherwise puts the complicated plot on hold, strikes me as the most satisfying sequence in all the films. And that’s where I’ll remember Harry.

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