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

Arts, entertainment, and more.
July 13 2011 4:52 PM

The Real Wizard Behind Harry Potter

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

After you've seen Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, check out our Spoiler Special discussion:

You can also download the program here, or you can subscribe to the Spoiler Special podcast feed via iTunes or directly with our RSS feed.

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!

Advertisement

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.

TODAY IN SLATE

Foreigners

The World’s Politest Protesters

The Occupy Central demonstrators are courteous. That’s actually what makes them so dangerous.

The Religious Right Is Not Happy With Republicans  

The XX Factor
Oct. 1 2014 4:58 PM The Religious Right Is Not Happy With Republicans  

The Feds Have Declared War on Encryption—and the New Privacy Measures From Apple and Google

The One Fact About Ebola That Should Calm You

It spreads slowly.

These “Dark” Lego Masterpieces Are Delightful and Evocative

Crime

Operation Backbone

How White Boy Rick, a legendary Detroit cocaine dealer, helped the FBI uncover brazen police corruption.

Politics

Talking White

Black people’s disdain for “proper English” and academic achievement is a myth.

Activists Are Trying to Save an Iranian Woman Sentenced to Death for Killing Her Alleged Rapist

Piper Kerman on Why She Dressed Like a Hitchcock Heroine for Her Prison Sentencing

  News & Politics
Politics
Oct. 1 2014 7:26 PM Talking White Black people’s disdain for “proper English” and academic achievement is a myth.
  Business
Moneybox
Oct. 1 2014 2:16 PM Wall Street Tackles Chat Services, Shies Away From Diversity Issues 
  Life
Outward
Oct. 1 2014 6:02 PM Facebook Relaxes Its “Real Name” Policy; Drag Queens Celebrate
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 1 2014 5:11 PM Celebrity Feminist Identification Has Reached Peak Meaninglessness
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Oct. 1 2014 3:24 PM Revelry (and Business) at Mohonk Photos and highlights from Slate’s annual retreat.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 1 2014 9:39 PM Tom Cruise Dies Over and Over Again in This Edge of Tomorrow Supercut
  Technology
Future Tense
Oct. 1 2014 6:59 PM EU’s Next Digital Commissioner Thinks Keeping Nude Celeb Photos in the Cloud Is “Stupid”
  Health & Science
Science
Oct. 1 2014 4:03 PM Does the Earth Really Have a “Hum”? Yes, but probably not the one you’re thinking.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 1 2014 5:19 PM Bunt-a-Palooza! How bad was the Kansas City Royals’ bunt-all-the-time strategy in the American League wild-card game?