Chamber of Secrets might be the weakest of the Harry Potter novels. It’s not a bad book, but I’ve never thought it can stand toe-to-toe with the joy and discovery of its immediate predecessor, nor the personal stakes and dread of Prisoner of Azkaban. Its main value is that it sets up a lot of background that becomes extremely important in the endgame, but it’s never gripped me like the other books have. Knowing that, I was a little surprised to discover that when I sat down to watch the 2002 film of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, I ended up liking it even more than Sorcerer’s Stone. It might be the only Harry Potter movie that’s actually better than the book it’s based on.
Second installments have a built-in advantage to them, in that they don’t need to waste time on exposition. Despite that, one of the weaknesses of Rowling’s novels was that they tended to recap Harry’s entire school career, especially in the first three or four books. You always get to hear about how he discovered he was a wizard, and how his aunt and uncle mistreated him, and how great Hogwarts is, and then you get a rundown of everything Harry accomplished in his previous years. It’s probably a sop to young readers who need the recap, but it’s silly to assume that someone will just pick up one of the books and start wherever. The film of Chamber of Secrets makes no attempt to recap the story to that point, and the result is something that hits the ground running. Within 10 minutes, Harry has met Dobby, indirectly ruined his uncle’s dinner party, been locked in his room, and escaped in a flying car.
(Speaking of Dobby, I was prepared to be irritated at him. One of the unfortunate byproducts of the age of CGI in movies is the all-digital character, which didn’t really gain legitimacy until WETA was able to give life to Gollum in The Two Towers, released mere weeks after Chamber of Secrets. My memory of Dobby was a lot closer to Jar-Jar than anything else, but I was relieved to see that the effects here have aged quite well. I’m sure part of the reason is Toby Jones’s vocal performance, which always has sounded perfect to me. )
One thing that sets this second film apart is how it embraces big action sequences. Sorcerer’s Stone plays more like a straight mystery. What action there is happens briefly and without a lot of fanfare. Even the climax is more about wits and logic than anything else. But the adrenaline is amped up considerably here. It’s not like Harry suddenly became Jason Bourne or anything, but just look at that early sequence where Ron and Harry chase the Hogwarts express in the flying car. It’s got just a little Indiana Jones flair to it, something that you can’t really do when you need to introduce all of the main players.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the climax, where Harry faces against Tom Riddle and the basilisk. Sorcerer’s Stone is mostly an epic chess match and a very revealing conversation. Here we are treated to an all-out chase sequence, tense and thrilling. I love when the blind basilisk slithers through the pipes listening for Harry. It feels positively Spielbergian. Even the Chamber itself feels bigger and more epic than the vaults in the first movie. And of course, the threat of Ginny Weasley’s death adds just a little more urgency to everything.
That’s what really makes Chamber of Secrets for me. The threat is far more immediate than it ever was the first time around. Before it was a little abstract, more of an attempt to stop a bad guy than anything else. But here? Here lives are in danger, and it’s even more frightening that the teachers are at a loss as to what should be done. It’s a bit different from the looming threats of the later stories, because while those were more dangerous, they were at least understood. Here they are faced with petrified students, messages written in blood, and mere rumors and legends. Not only that, but seeing students being harmed is a shock when compared with the more standard fantasy threats in the first film. These are friends and family who are in danger.
But for the increased action and danger, Chamber still manages to capture some of the joy and brightness of the first film. It doesn’t have as much to introduce, but there are a lot of new things to see. One of the pleasures of the Harry Potter series is how it draws back the curtain on the wizard world a little more every time. I’ve always loved the lumpy, squealing mandrakes, and the scene where Harry and Ron pose as Crabbe and Goyle has always made me laugh in its absurdity. That’s to say nothing of the introduction of two very important families, the Malfoys and the Weasleys. They both serve to show Harry what a family dynamic should look like, but they do it in such different ways.
The Malfoys in particular bring perhaps the second story’s most important thematic contribution to the series, the simmering prejudice against muggle-borns. It’s a conflict that will become increasingly pronounced as the series continues, but for now it exists in the form of vague threats and menacing asides. It’s a savvy move, because overt prejudice is one of the few things that feels genuinely uncomfortable in polite company. It puts the viewer off-balance to see a surprisingly real-world concern manifesting itself in a fantasy world. That it is so closely entwined with the hopelessly corrupt Ministry of Magic is even more disconcerting.
Chris Columbus returned to direct the second installment, and once again he uses a light touch and mostly lets the story speak for itself. I’ve heard some complain that he had the easiest stories to direct, and that may be true. But the results of both of the first two movies are so strong that I think their greatest quality is that they make it look easy. But Chamber of Secrets uses that effortlessness to tell a more intense story with more danger and more action, while mostly maintaining the humor and joy of the first movie.
- I didn’t mention Kenneth Brannagh’s take on Gilderoy Lockhart. He does a great job, somehow managing to be arrogant and in over his head all at once. But surely there’s some screening process for these teachers, isn’t there?
- Also introduced is Jason Isaacs as Lucious Malfoy, who basically slithers in an out of every scene he’s in.
- Snape keeps trying to pit Malfoy against Harry. Is there any point where Malfoy actually bests Harry in one of these contests? Sources say no.
- Have you ever noticed how every Hogwarts lesson consists of the teaching doing something, and then scolding all of the students that they couldn’t figure it out by just watching them? Lazy teachers, man.
- One of the more unfortunate introductions in this story is polyjuice potion, which gets leaned on a lot in this series. It’s not just the overuse either. Surely a society where three preteens can brew this stuff would be constantly suspicious whether anyone was who they said they were, especially since this is clearly an issue? I dunno, maybe I’m just hoping for a Harry Potter/Battlestar Galactica cross-over.
- So wait, Dumbledore can just cancel finals if he feels like it? Aren’t there more deserving moments for cancelling exams later in the series? Like, “Hey someone died, maybe no exams this year, OK?”
- I think this is the first time we’ve seen Rupert Grint’s “I’m going to cry and wet my pants with fear” face, what I call his Bloody Hell look. It’s prominently displayed when the train sneaks up on the flying car and when the spiders surround them in the forest.
- Also, those spiders? I’m surprised that withstood the PG rating.
Next week: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban