Movie Review: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1

The Harry Potter series has a great tradition with my family. The first book exploded on the scene when my younger son was just 3, and as a result I was reading the books aloud to both boys and my wife, providing all of the voices. As the movies arrived alongside new books I modified my voices to more closely match the movie actors. And even when the last book arrived, in spite of the fact that my two boys tore through re-reads of the entire series in less than a week … they wanted me to read it aloud, and I was more than happy to oblige. So the arrival of the final movies in the series are met with great anticipation and simultaneously bring about some wistful feelings about the end of an era.

The Hype:

In this seventh and final installment of the beloved Harry Potter series, Harry faces new troubles; he must collect all of the Horcruxes that the evil Lord Voldemort has left behind. He has no idea where these are and he has to destroy them all, even without the faintest idea how to do so.

The Reality:

Before I start, suffice to say that I will likely reveal things would be considered ‘spoilers’, but since the book the film is based on sold just shy of an infinite number of copies, I’m not going to concern myself. If you have no idea what happens in the book or book series and want to remain pristine before seeing the film, make a quick exit now.

Let me get one thing out of the way right now: YES this feels like half a movie, it definitely stops short, and definitely leaves you wanting more. But in this regard it is neither surprising nor unique; the book itself left no particularly graceful split-point, and I found it no worse than something like Kill Bill in terms of feeling like it was broken in half.

Nonetheless, expect to leave feeling somewhat dissatisfied – but it is a dissatisfaction borne our of what preceded and a desire to see it through to conclusion.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows as a book reminds me of the Star Wars series when it works best – in the original, Empire, and at the end of Episode III: it takes a large scale story and brings it down to a deeply personal level focused around only a few main characters, several secondary characters, and the rest of the universe – including formerly critical players – is reduced to ‘color’. The story here reduces to five characters – Harry, Ron, Hermione, Dumbledore and Voldemort. And since Dumbledore is dead and Voldemort has always been seen largely through the mind of Harry, the first movie is tightly focused on the three main characters of the series.

Having read all of the books aloud, I was very sensitive to sections that could have used much tighter editing. Starting with what felt like an interminable 200 pages of Quiddich World Cup in Goblet of Fire, nearly every book had at least one section that felt like it really dragged. In each subsequent book it is similarly easy to find ways that the length of the book could have been cut without reducing the quality or impact of the story.

In Deathly Hallows, that section is the road trip part that occupies a large middle section of the book. In some ways you can see that is how Rowling planned it – once the explosive initial scenes are done, we are struck by how little the trio actually knows about what they are doing and how to approach doing it. Therefore they are on the run without any real goals, knowing only that they need to find and destroy the remaining Horcruxes in order to make Voldemort vulnerable.

Speaking of the early sections, the movie quickly cuts through much of the early material without actually losing any overall impact – it was nice to have the Dudley & Harry interaction, but would it have added anything to the film? Yet at the same time material not in the book was added to great effect – more on that later.

Soon we are in the midst of the plan to get Harry from Privet Drive to the Burrows, with a scene that is better than the book due to the visual humor and the tremendous chemistry between the actors. As in the book, this section of the movie is full of tension-and-release scenes where there is alternating exposition and all-out action.

The action scenes – the trip to the burrows, the battle at the wedding, the chase and Death Eater battle in London – are extremely exciting and well filmed, bringing you up close and personal with the action and providing a visceral thrill ride without losing the personal feeling of what is going on.

In particular, during the first half of the book there are three deaths that were handled with great care by Rowling – they punctuate the deadly reality of things going on, but also the humanity of Harry and the others. I had heard they changed at least one of these for the movie – but fortunately that wasn’t true, at least not substantively. Each of the deaths still occurred, was still impactful, and drove home the desperate and perilous situations.

Once the story entered the ‘road trip’ section, I was concerned how it would translate into film – I feared that the slow pace of the book during that section would drag down the film. Instead, it shined and was made even stronger than the book due to the stellar performances of Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson.

I cannot speak highly enough of the way those three actors elevated the movie: director David Yates put the fate of the movie in the hands of those three, and it succeeds because of that. I spoke of a non-book section at the beginning, which was Hermione Obliviating her parents memories of her. It was simply mentioned in passing in the book, but here we see her sad but resolute look as she realizes that for their own good she must erase herself in their minds. No words are spoken except for a spell cast as a whisper, yet the scene is touching and emotional.

Similarly, throughout the journey the trio/duo/trio take through the woods over the course of months makes up for in subtlety what it lacks in extraneous dialogue and detail. We see Harry struggle, Ron become increasingly frustrated, and Hermione realizing that her book smarts can’t always save the day. We see the moments of despair, the solitude, and the anger and frustration come to a head as we are brought intimately into the fight between Ron and Harry that causes Ron to leave.

The actors convey the emotions at times better than Rowling managed on paper. In a non-book moment Harry and Hermione try to capture some levity by dancing to a fun song that comes on the radio, but by the end of the song the moment is long lost, the weight of reality comes crushing down and the two are separate again. No words are spoken, nor are they needed.

But as brilliant as Radcliffe, Grint and Watson have become, they are not alone in elevating the movie. Tom Felton and Jason Isaacs as Draco and Lucius Malfoy are cowed, desperate and horribly conflicted, never sure of what to do but always seeking to restore favor with Voldemort. Helena Bonham Carter is delightful as she displays her ‘blood lust’ with zeal and unbridled fervor. The Lovegoods, played by Evanna Lynch and Rhys Ifans, add just the right amount of nutty honesty and fearful betrayal to fully capture the essence of their critical roles from the book.

I don’t live in a ‘major market’, which is a double edged sword. On the one hand we live within two miles of the multiplex, but on the other hand most showings are just standard reel-type projections. We were able to get tickets for the single digital projection at midnight, and it made a huge difference.

The cinematography alternated between shaky-cam up-close shots and large-scope action. Each brought the reality and beauty of the the larger world all around Great Britain where the trio traveled to the screen in luscious detail. We are at Bill and Fleur’s house on the beach and a shot with grass in the foreground showed every detail of the beach without losing the focus on the actors and what they were going through. The CGI effects have come such a long way that you no longer make a distinction between sets and setpieces, between actors and virtual actors.

And then … it was done.

There is no other way to describe the end of the movie. We have just gone through an emotional death, have just completed the prelude for the whole Hallows versus Horcruxes focus shift, and have just seen Voldemort realize his attainment of that which he has sought the entire movie: the Elder Wand. In short, we have gotten to the point at which the movie is like Christopher Lloyd in Back to the Future saying ‘when this baby hits 88MPH you’re going to see some serious stuff’ …

… only, we have to wait until July to see that stuff.

So now we wait – but the requirement to wait was all worth it. Each book since Goblet of Fire was way too big for a single movie, and perhaps this one most of all. In the previous three movies, it made the directors cut deeply through the books, to the point where much of the basis for actions and feelings and plot-critical elements were taken out.

In Deathly Hallows Part 1, we get emotions, we get nuance and subtlety, we get everything that mattered from the first half (well, actually more than half) of the book. After feeling let down I thought about what was left in the book, and about the fact that they have another 2.5 hours to bring it all to a close, an I am excited to see the conclusion. In many ways this is the best of all the Harry Potter movies – perhaps not up to the level of Prisoner of Azkaban on whole, but the maturing talents of the leads makes this an incredibly satisfying half-journey through the grand finale of one of the great book series of our time.

A final thought: because we went to the midnight showing, there were some kids who had dressed up in various wizard costumes and were having loads of fun. We had dressed up for the launch of the last book and had a blast at our local Barnes & Noble. Oh … and being up until 3AM seeing a movie makes getting up at 5:30 (I didn’t even pretend I was getting up at 4:30 for my morning run) VERY difficult!

Movie Review: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1

Where to See:

Price: ~$10 per ticket

What I Like:

+ Amazing acting by kids we have watched grow up on screen

+ Stunning visuals – but never take focus away from story
+ Hits all of the high points and puts the focus where it belongs
+ Splitting in half was the absolute right choice

What Needs Improvement:
– No matter what, you WILL be disappointed at feeling left hanging at the end.

Here is the trailer:

Categories: Reviews


5 replies

  1. Very nice review. In my family we started reading the first book to my daughter when she was 7, and my son when he was 6; they are now 19 and 16. My son has the audio books loaded on his iPod and has gone to bed listening to two chapters of one of the books every night for about ten years now. Needless to say, he is picky about how badly the movies stick to canon – he was livid about the Half Blood Prince movie, saving particular scorn for what he calls the needless chase scene and burning of the Burrow.

    We’re just back from Deathly Hallows Part 1 and he was much happier about this one. He noted all of the changes, but said that he found most of them were acceptable. His one major comment was that he’d rather have had Kreacher’s Tale than the added chase scene near the end, but could understand why they left it off.

    As for my wife and I, we’ve read through each of the books at least twice and are not as hung-up as he is over the movie alterations. Honestly, though, this one really is the best of the series except for Prisoner of Azkaban – that, I think, is still the best of the lot.

    • Oh, and he also didn’t like that they changed *how* Harry, Ron and Hermione were caught; both in London in the coffee shop and then at that chase scene. I guess it’s not an important detail, but it explains why so many wizards avoided using that name through the series.

      • I also missed Kreacher’s Tale, but like so much else it is easy enough to see how it would have only added a little context while occupying too much time. But I loved the way the tale of the three brothers was done.

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