Harry Potter films: Alfonso Cuarón saved J.K. Rowling's movie franchise.

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July 13 2011 4:52 PM

The Real Wizard Behind Harry Potter

I just watched all eight films—one director saved the franchise.

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Also in Slate, Dana Stevens reviews Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2. Two Slate editors and their kids discuss Deathly Hallows the book. Plus: Two " Potter virgins" go see the final film without having seen any of the previous movies or read any of the books.

Illustration by Charlie Powell. Click image to expand.

To watch the entire Harry Potter saga in two days is to be overwhelmed by a lot of things. By the 1,179-minute cumulative running time, nearly 20 hours of lessons, broomsticks, and white-knuckle peril. By the sheer weight of wizardly neologism: kneazles and quaffles and bowtruckles, Godric Gryffindor and Horace Slughorn, riddikulus! and reducto! and petrificus totalis! By the parade of wondrous U.K. thespians, cashing checks for 10 years (like Alan Rickman, who's played Snape in every movie) or breezing by the set for a week's work (like, in the latest film, Kelly Macdonald, who's touching and a bit scary as a ghost).

Dan Kois Dan Kois

Dan Kois is Slate's culture editor and a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine.

But, mostly, to watch the entire series is to be overwhelmed by the pleasure (and surprise) of seeing a film property made right. Despite some preliminary hiccups, the movies have been handsome, rewarding adaptations of tricky material, pitched perfectly between the often-competing interests of superfans and newbies. In anticipation of the release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part II, I watched all eight of the films in a 48-hour stretch to figure out: Why did this series succeed, for fans and for casual viewers? And what, in the end, is the value of the Harry Potter movies—besides keeping an entire generation of British actors knee-deep in country homes?

Viewed in total, the Harry Potter series rarely sold out the book's fans to cater to a popular audience—and, more importantly, vice-versa. Sure, there are details in the movies that drive devoted followers of the books mad: talking letters, flying Death Eaters, goblins in HP7B wearing teensy V-neck undershirts. And what about the laughable notion that the Imperius Curse is a sweet-smelling cloud or makes the victim's eyeballs opaque? The whole point of the Imperius Curse is that you can't tell a wizard's been Imperiused! Jeez!

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But I digress.

The point is, those little changes—and plenty of big ones, too—were all made in the service of making the movies movies. (Except maybe for the goblin undershirts, which seriously make no sense at all.) And the films have struck an uncanny balance between delivering the moments from the books that fans desperately need to see and finding their own storytelling rhythms. While only one of the films can truly stand alone as the work of an auteur—perhaps predictably, that standout, Alfonso Cuarón's Prisoner of Azkaban, is the lowest-grossing of the series—they fit together neatly as a unified whole.

The movies made expert use of their young cast, wisely adapting the film characters to match the qualities the three stars offered. Emma Watson's Hermione is both more glamorous and funnier than the one in the books; Rupert Grint's Ron sillier and tougher; Daniel Radcliffe's Harry darker and angrier. That's not an accident; those are canny choices designed to make the most out of children who, plucked from obscurity before puberty, transformed over the years of filming into entirely different people.

The films' ever-starker cinematography matched the maturing of its characters and darkening of its subject matter; I'd love to see the artist Brendan Dawes make side-by-side Cinema Redux images of the first film's fire-lit frames and HP7b's near black-and-white color scheme. This final film even pays off a silly running gag about a minor character's propensity for blowing himself up that's unique to the movies. While viewers who've never read the books might be confused at timesby the myriad plot twists and exposition crammed into each film, they've never felt cheated—never felt that the movies weren't for them.

Credit for this achievement goes, as it should, to the directors of the films, the screenwriters, the craftspeople, and of course to J.K. Rowling herself. Considering, though, how often movie fans (and critics) curse the studios and producers who seem unable to make decisions for anything other than the most callow of reasons, it's worth noting that a great deal of the artistic success of the Harry Potter series comes thanks to Warner Bros. and producer David Heyman, who've consistently made surprising—and excellent—decisions.