So here we are, in the last big push before the entire series is over. Of course, Deathly Hallows is split over two movies, and we’re covering the first one here. I’ve always been of two minds about the split. On one hand, at no point have I ever assumed that it was for some altruistic reason to be more true to the book. It was, pure and simple, a way to wring one more movie ticket from all of the fans who had stuck with it for so long. There was so much content cut out of previous books so that a story could fit in a single movie, but suddenly we need over four hours to adapt the final installment? How convenient.
But then it must also be said that if any Harry Potter book required two movies to cover the essentials, it is Deathly Hallows. It’s unusually dense, especially when compared to the leisurely pacing of the two previous novels. The closest analog is probably Goblet of Fire, which definitely showed the strain of having to adapt 750 pages into two and a half hours. I would hate for that crammed feeling to affect the final book, since it’s actually my favorite book in the whole series. At last, the safety net is gone. Harry and his friends are pretty much on their own in a dangerous world, forced to grow up in a hurry. Thematically it’s the richest book in the series, thick with literary allusions and archetypes, and it brings all of the different threads in the series to their proper emotional conclusion. (For the most part, anyway.) It’s the ending that I always hoped Harry Potter would get, but didn’t dare hope for.
Because of my affection for the novel, I had a hard time going into this movie with clear eyes. The first time I saw it I left the theater feeling largely unsatisfied, as if most of my favorite qualities of the book had been removed, leaving me with the abridged version of what should have been the most fleshed-out story in the series. It was a lot of setup without a lot of payoff, and I honestly felt cheated. But since then, I’ve come around on Deathly Hallows Part 1, to the point where I now think it’s one of the strongest movies in the series, and certainly the one that challenges my conceptions for what a Harry Potter movie can be.
First, let’s get this out of the way: this is basically half a movie. It moves all of its pieces in place without showing us the results. All of that will have to wait until Part 2, where most of the big action set-pieces reside. So we’re left with a movie that, aside from a couple bursts of adrenaline, is spent in literally wandering through the wilderness. Much has been made about how “boring” the journey through the woods is, both in the book and in the movie. All I can say to such criticism is that it says more about the viewer than the movie when you don’t find that passage compelling. It tests the main trio like nothing else in the series does. It’s always been easy to act in the confines of Hogwarts, but out in the real world it’s not so simple. If there’s one thing that Harry and company aren’t used to, it’s waiting on what to do next. They are characters who always need to act now, and the inability to do so makes for perhaps the most dramatically fascinating scenes in the whole series. Ron’s abandonment of the group, Hermione’s quiet grieving, and Harry’s inability to lead his way out of those doldrums are a much better choice than just barreling headlong into the next chase scene. It’s actually here that I’m most pleased in the two-movie format, because in a single movie I’m sure the wanderings in the forest would have been cut out.
If Half-Blood Prince showed the clouds gathering on the horizon, Deathly Hallows is what happens after the world has already ended. It recalls post-apocalyptic stories like The Stand and Battlestar Galactica. The danger is almost oppressive at times, forcing the trio to hide in barns and under bridges while those noxious contrails of Death Eaters leave inky streaks across the sky. It’s a mournful, dark story, and since we aren’t given the ending we aren’t given any relief from that darkness. David Yates treats it a little like a funeral. There’s such a sense of loss and sadness, and the oases in that desert are spent mourning losses that have already come, like when Harry and Hermione spend a tender moment dancing to the radio or visiting the graves of Harry’s parents. They aren’t moments that comfort exactly, but they allow us a moment to recognize the pain within them, to know that such anguish drives them forward in a way.
The movie conveys all of this so well and with such beauty that it’s amazing to think of what could have been included in the story to make it even richer. The book deals extensively with the life of Dumbledore, whose saintly image is challenged mightily. I miss those scenes terribly, because one of the biggest parts of adulthood is learning that the people you admire are fallen and broken just like you. I also wish we got to see more of Harry’s mania with seeking the Hallows, but they are introduced so late in the film that this obsession is mostly glossed over. Again, I wish they could have put it in there. It shows Harry to have a little more darkness in his soul then we previously thought, and it draws such a cool parallel between himself and the young Dumbledore. Maybe it’s for the best that these aren’t in there, since it might have cramped a story that actually has plenty of room to breathe as it is. But I have always felt the loss of those subplots. And there’s no getting past the fact that we’re left with half a movie, though that’s a bigger problem when the sequel isn’t sitting right now my shelf. It actually hangs on its own much better than I remembered.
So we are left with a partial story, and one that is actually pretty light on action. And yet the tone and look is so wonderful, and it dares to dive into character moments without launching spells all over the screen. It’s the most human of the movies, lighter on effects and heavier on emotions. I have no idea how it plays to younger viewers, but one of the wonderful aspects of Harry Potter is how Harry grew with his fans. It’s about the journey towards adulthood, and part of that journey is learning how to deal with the reality of death. It’s not a journey if explosive epiphanies, but one of gradual recognition. So maybe it would be boring to a 14-year old, but now I’m 30, and for me it’s the first movie in the series that I feel was made for me.
- Fewer new cast members this time, except for Rhys Ifans as Xenophilius Lovegood. Interesting anecdote here: when the sixth book was released in 2005, I read an article in Entertainment Weekly speculating who would play the new characters from Half-Blood Prince. They said that Ifans would be perfect for Morfin Gaunt, a character who appears prominently in the flashbacks in the book, but is written out of the movie. I have always wondered if the casting agent read that and cast Ifans in this movie. He does a good job too.
- That animated interlude where we hear the Tale of the Three Brothers? One of my favorite artistic choices in the whole series.
- The Death Eaters have gone full-Nazi in their treatment of muggles and muggle-borns. It’s discomfiting to see the Ministry using language that sounds like Muggle-borns are about a step away from a concentration camp. It’s not strong enough to be tacky, but I’m also sure it’s intentional.
- One of the curious weaknesses of Rowling’s book is that a lot of major deaths happen off-screen. There are more in part 2, but this time we’re treated to Bill Weasley saying, apropos of nothing, that Moody was killed. Maybe there’s no good time to share news like that, but it’s pretty clumsy.
- The raid on the ministry provides a couple of rare moments of levity, and a big credit has to go to the three actors who play the Polyjuice’d versions of the trio. They look perpetually uneasy and suspicious the entire time. I especially love Runcorn awkwardly walking away after he leaves Umbridge’s office.
- How about that horrible vision that Ron experiences when the locket is opened? That’s some bold visualizing of an understated passage from the book. Especially disturbing is the nightmare versions of Harry and Hermione, which pushes the bile right to the edge of my throat, which is just about perfect.