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Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 (2011)

Posted on the 18 July 2011 by Entil2001 @criticalmyth

Coming into the final installment of the “Harry Potter” film incarnation, I had certain apprehensions. For one thing, as I’ve said quite often, I don’t feel that the films have properly set up the character arcs throughout, even for Harry, and that was going to mitigate the effect of the final moments, no matter how well they were written. And beyond that, I was a bit concerned that the desire to produce a battle on the level of “Lord of the Rings” would overshadow the actual material.

Review #2903: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 (2011)

For the most part, Steve Kloves stuck to the plot elements in the book, though some items were revised for the purpose of film continuity and to interject some of the missing character beats. Most obvious is the revised reason for Ron and Hermione’s first kiss; without the SPEW subplot, it is given a different context (which actually works).

Not as effective is the revision of the role of the Slytherin students in the final conflict. Perhaps this is a personal pet peeve, but in the book, the Slytherins left the Great Hall in what seemed to be an act of cowardice. Later, it is revealed that they were just applying that clever and ambitious nature by leaving to get reinforcements. It was something of a redemption for the Slytherins en masse, so to have them sent off to their common room in the dungeons for the duration undercuts their purpose in the story.

However, watching the film, it’s clear that Kloves was trying to use the two-part format to bring in the subtext from the novels. This was very true in the previous film, and it carries into this one. As many fans know, the entire saga really comes down to the story of three characters. Not the Trio, of course, but rather three generational figures: Albus Dumbledore, Severus Snape, and Harry Potter. And so a lot comes down to how this film manages to handle the critical plot and character arc elements of all three.

I’ll start with the one that was serviced the best. I’ve never hidden my appreciation of the character of Severus Snape. I love how JKR foreshadowed and telegraphed the truth about Severus in the very first book, and then continually used Harry’s perspective and assumptions to manipulate the reader’s understanding of his motivations. It certainly didn’t help that Severus was, quite often, being remarkably cruel to Harry and his friends.

Of course, in the books, it is revealed in the end that Severus was utterly devoted to Harry’s protection, and he was well aware that the eventual return of Voldemort would require him to play the role of the turncoat within the Order, as the only Death Eater to have switched sides during the first war. Knowing this places his attitude towards Harry in a very different light; while he let his anger towards James feed into it, he could never let Harry (or anyone else) believe that he was anything but the traitorous Death Eater he seemed to be.

Such a constant act requires enormous soul-crushing sacrifice and deprivation of the self, which makes his unyielding characterization so powerful. Because at the end of the day, Severus wasn’t a white knight. He still held onto his resentments, and let them out regularly. Neville was the alternative to Harry that could have allowed Lily to live, and so he was a target. Hermione was a Mudblood and had ability similar to Lily, and so on. The key thing is that on the whole, Severus is a flawed man who does incredibly brave and self-sacrificing things, many of which are hidden from our viewpoint characters. And so his negative qualities are emphasized, even though they are valid observations.

The books contained a number of subtle but recognizable moments, particularly after the return of Voldemort in “Goblet of Fire”, that made it clear where Severus’ loyalties truly centered. And of course, there was the all-important moment in “Order of the Phoenix” where Severus recalls his worst memory. Severus’ heart-breaking reaction to Harry’s accusations at the end of “Half-Blood Prince”, “I am not a coward!”, foretold Harry’s eventual reversal of opinion of the man. Considering that each and every one of those moments was missing from the films, there was reason to be worried about the adaptation of The Prince’s Tale.

So I was over the moon when that moment came in the film, and all the most important beats of that chapter were all right there, rendered even more emotionally powerful by Alan Rickman’s incredible performance and the montage style. It was rightfully one of the most powerful moments in the entire saga, and it did a great deal to make up for other shortcomings. I give that part of the film a 10/10 without reservation.

I hold that in stark contrast to the treatment of Dumbledore’s arc. The film did a near-perfect job of setting up the three main portions of Dumbledore’s deconstruction over the course of the films. In the books, Harry begins by seeing Dumbledore as any other student would: the grandfatherly headmaster. By the center of the story, he sees Dumbledore as the flawed but dependable general, capable of error but a pillar of strength. The final novel reveals the truth: that Dumbledore was brutally Machiavellian, ready and willing to sacrifice Harry to save the world from his own inability to act so many years earlier.

In the novels, Dumbledore is something of a reflection of Harry (or vice versa, in some respects). Dumbledore is a Gryffindor due to his nobility of purpose and bravery, but there’s plenty of evidence that he, like Harry, could have been a Slytherin and a terror as great as Voldemort. This is made clear in the very first chapter of the first book, when McGonagall notes the essential difference between Dumbledore and Voldemort. Voldemort wants to sacrifice Harry to his own ends, to conquer death; Dumbledore is willing to sacrifice Harry, and himself, for the salvation of the world.

The readers come to understand this through a great deal of exploration into Dumbledore’s past in the final book. Dumbledore’s human nature is laid bare. By the end, one comes to understand that Dumbledore and Severus are very similar: they both do the right thing for their own personal reasons of redemption. In the film, while characters (particularly Aberforth) allude to Dumbledore’s calculated nature, there’s only one moment within The Prince’s Tale that reveals it plainly. And since that moment is more about Severus, it just doesn’t have the desired impact. I would give the overall treatment of Dumbledore’s story a 7/10, because while the first two parts were there, they shortchanged the ending, even with the additional time granted by the expanded treatment of the final novel.

That leave me with the treatment of Harry’s final moments of growth. If anything, this could and should have been the easiest character arc to service. With a few minor exceptions, Harry’s slow but steady growth to manhood was well-represented in the films. The final book was Harry’s acceptance of his mortality. In essence, while Dumbledore was willing to set up Harry as a sacrifice, it still all came down to Harry’s choice to be the sacrifice.

That was the point of the Deathly Hallows. By the end of the story, Harry knows that he has effective possession of all of three. By virtue of his bloodline (left out of the film), he has the Cloak of Invisibility. He has the Resurrection Stone. And when all else fails, he has power over the Elder Wand. Facing the uphill battle in the hunt for Horcruxes, a path that Harry increasingly realizes must end with his own death, there is the constant temptation to seek the Hallows to escape his fate, taking on Voldemort’s grasp at immortality in the process.

The second half of the book, following Dobby’s death, is dominated by Harry’s growing realization of the path he must take. His suspicions are confirmed when he views Severus’ memories, and it culminates in the scene in the forest with the Resurrection Stone. While that scene is perfectly rendered in the film, and works beautifully in conjunction with The Prince’s Tale and King’s Cross shortly thereafter, nearly all of his moments leading up to that point are tossed in favor of more and more action.

This tendency comes to full fruition in the final showdown with Voldemort. In the book, Neville has dispatched Nagini already, so it comes down to Harry stepping forward, in full confidence, and calling out Voldemort. Harry stands tall, having completed the Hero’s Journey, no longer afraid to challenge Voldemort directly. By that point, Voldemort’s defeat is a technicality, but most importantly, he stands for everyone in attendance.

In the film, the final showdown, while an impressive display of magical combat at times, is a wham-bang action sequence. Harry takes on Voldemort alone, before he knows that Nagini has been destroyed. In essence, Harry is hoping that he survives long enough for someone to kill the last horcrux. If it wasn’t apparent that Harry knows the moment it happens, from Voldemort’s reaction, it would be even more irritating a revision.

So much like Dumbledore’s character arc, the film undermines the whole point of Harry’s development. Only it’s far more damaging, because one can forgive the lapse with Dumbledore, given that the producers chose to focus almost entirely on Harry’s story starting with the third film. There’s simply no excuse for them to drop the ball with the main character’s character arc! And this is especially true when the first half of the story did a capable job of setting up those very elements.

For that reason, I have to be fair about my final assessment of the film. I can’t argue the production values; the Battle of Hogwarts lived up to the name. It was wonderful to see those moments in the book put onto the big screen. So many of the minor characters got the end to their stories as well as one could hope, under the circumstances. All those things sit in the film’s favor.

I said before seeing the film that as long as The Prince’s Tale and the critical scene in the forest were done correctly, I could forgive just about anything else. And I’m very happy that those scenes were pitch perfect. I can set aside my disappointments with Dumbeldore’s arc. But I find it a bit harder to forgive the short-circuiting of Harry’s arc. In my opinion, that comes down to the writing, which while often strong, has often been one of the main points of criticism from the fans. With the stakes as high as they were for this final film, I can’t help but agree.

Writing: 1/2
Acting: 2/2
Direction: 2/2
Style: 3/4

Final Rating: 8/10

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