Wizards or Jedis?

Salon's TV critic and his ninth-grader discuss the cross-generational magic of Harry Potter and Luke Skywalker

Published July 19, 2011 4:01PM (EDT)

My daughter Hannah is a ninth-grader, and my favorite person to see movies with. Sometimes we'll see a film and then instant message each other about it later, or tape ourselves talking and do a transcript, then publish the result at my friend Ed Copeland's blog, Edward Copeland on Film. This conversation is on the final Harry Potter film, "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2." I was really looking forward to seeing this movie with Hannah, not just because it's the final installment in a franchise that's been around nearly as long as she has, but also because Hannah has read all the books and I've read exactly none, which makes her an ideal explainer.

Matt: So here's what I was thinking going into "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2." I was 8 years old when the original "Star Wars" came out in 1977 -- the movie that your generation calls "Episode IV: A New Hope." The timespan between that film and the conclusion of the original "Star Wars" trilogy, "Return of the Jedi," was six years. That carried me from fourth grade through freshman year of high school. Those movies dominated my imagination during that six-year period, and were almost as much a part of my life as any person I actually knew.

Do the Harry Potter movies seem like a comparably big deal to you? Has there been anything during your childhood -- a movie series or a book series or a combination -- that seemed like as big a deal as the whole Harry phenomenon?

Hannah: "The Hunger Games," Percy Jackson ... those are the only two I can think of. And they are nowhere near as big as Harry Potter.

Matt: Do you see these movies as movies first and foremost, or as movies based on books?

Hannah: Movies based on books, definitely. After the first three movies, it's really hard to follow the plot unless you've read the books. Seeing the movies after reading the books is just the icing on top of the cake.

Matt: I have seen all of the Harry Potter films, but I've only read the first 40 pages of the first novel. I remember watching the first movie when it came out and not liking it because it felt too much like an illustration of a book rather than a free-standing movie. I thought, "I should get on track with this series of books, otherwise I won't be able to judge the films as adaptations." But then the second movie came out a year later, and I didn't like that one either, and I decided that I wouldn't read the books after all, because a film has to have a life apart from the book, no matter how good or poor it is as an adaptation.

In the end I feel like their track record as movies is a mixed one. A couple of the films are terrific, a couple are bad, the rest are pretty good. But I should also confess that I have trouble keeping the story straight over the entire saga. I am tempted to give the films the benefit of the doubt and say it's all my fault. But I follow much more complicated stories on long-form TV series and in movie franchises such as "The Lord of the Rings," so maybe the filmmakers are at least partly to blame.

Hannah: I agree when you say that a movie has to take a different life apart from the book. But if you really enjoyed the movies and want to truly respect the invention of the insanely imaginative world that is Harry Potter, the books should be read. I think the key thing to have when you're creating a culturally defining saga/franchise is the ability to create a world unlike our own, and create parallels to what we know in our lives, such as education, career, government, etc. Along with that, I think that it's also key to place human traits in the characters living there, so that it's easy to lose yourself in the universe. The books have all that.

Matt: I feel like the movies were only partly successful -- for this viewer -- at capturing the essence of the books. I only read "The Hobbit" and part of "The Fellowship of the Ring," yet I was tremendously involved with, and excited by, the "Lord of the Rings" films. And I never read Mario Puzo's "The Godfather" until right before the third movie came out, yet I didn't feel I'd been cheated as an audience member. These were substantial experiences that were equal to, but different from, the books they were based on.

The Harry Potter books, though ... I don't know. I always felt there was something missing from the movies, that that there was something incomplete or slightly flat about them. There were only two "Potter" films that I thought were really terrific as cinema, the third and fifth ones. The sixth had its moments. But the rest only grabbed me in fits and starts. A scene here, an action sequence there, a bit of acting that moved me.

For the most part I felt like I was seeing a transcription of something that was absolutely beloved in its original form -- and that the incredible intensity of the love that people felt for the source was carrying over into the movies, and sort of filling them out, or giving them an extra kick. There were definitely times when I felt my attention beginning to wander a bit during one of the movies, and then suddenly the crowd would laugh or applaud as one, because they had obviously read the books and were feeling a great rush of emotion, and I felt it, too, although the rush was secondhand, or once removed.

Hannah: I know exactly what you mean. When it comes to adapting a 700-page book into a two- or two-and-a-half hour movie, you needn't have read the book previously to know that there were parts that were off, or flat, or like something was missing. It's hard to devote yourself to a book and come to love certain scenes, characters, etc., and see them changed, altered or cut on the big screen. The point of the movies is to bring the book to life, and it always sucks when you can't see the entire book come to life exactly as it should.

Another thing that makes the Potter movies hard to follow is the constant foreshadowing. There were times in a Potter movie where one character mentioned a person, place, magical object, etc., and another character said, "Gee, I met that guy/went to that place/learned about that object briefly a few years ago! Who knew that information would be helpful now?" It's easy to constantly foreshadow in books when you're the person creating the story, but when you're a filmmaker adapting that story, I can see how you would look at a script and go, "Crap, we should have mentioned this in a previous movie, because now it's crucial to the plot!"

Matt: Well, I'm glad you mentioned that, because that phenomenon is one of the clunkiest things about the Potter films -- their tendency to say, "Here is this really important character who is right at the center of the ongoing narrative and whose fate is of absolutely critical significance," yet this is the first time you've ever heard them mentioned.

There was a moment like that in the final movie, actually -- the appearance of Dumbledore's brother. Harry says something like -- and I'm paraphrasing -- "You're Dumbledore's brother? He never mentioned you to me." And the brother says something that's almost like a self-deprecating joke, like, "Yeah, that sounds like him."

The "Godfather" films and the various seasons of "The Sopranos" did this, too, as you will eventually see when you watch them. "Hey, Tony Soprano, say hello to your beloved cousin who was like a brother to you growing up." And it's Season 5, and you never heard a syllable about that guy until now! At least when the movie series or TV show is completely original, the filmmakers have a bit of an excuse. They're flying by the seats of their pants, just kind of making things up and hoping it all makes sense with hindsight. But the "Potter" films were based on preexisting books, so the clunkiness there seems strange to me.

The "Star Wars" films are an example of that. You really have to stretch to find foreshadowing of Darth Vader being Luke's father in the original 1977 movie. I think that was because the filmmaker, George Lucas, originally wrote "Star Wars" as an entire series, or a very long film, then had to cut it down and eliminate a lot of the more novelistic flourishes. And then when the 1977 film was a hit and the studio wanted sequels, he had to reintegrate a lot of the things he'd cut, and create a lot of stuff that was never there previously in any form. And that led to some narrative awkwardness.

Hannah: That makes sense. But I'm talking about seven books that are released about a year-and-a-half apart from each other. The makers of the first Harry Potter movie only had the first two or three books to work with, as far as foreshadowing goes. Sometimes in Harry Potter, the foreshadowing is subtle, and the time between when something is foreshadowed and when it happens is short. With the movies being three books behind, it may have gotten hard to take every move into account.

Matt: Fair enough. OK, since you have read all the books and I've read only a tiny part of the first one, so I want you to play expert witness for me and explain some things that I found confusing, OK?

Hannah: Yes, sir, fire away. I am prepared with my geeky answers.

Matt: I am confused about the ownership of the wand that Harry uses to kill Voldemort. Can you walk me through that?

Hannah: Do you mean the Elder Wand? Because that's the one Voldemort used, not Harry.

Matt: I'm talking about the wand that Harry used to kill Voldemort, which I guess was not actually Voldemort's wand? Voldemort took it from Snape, right? What was the line of succession before that? And what are the rules, exactly, governing the possession of wands and how it affects one's ability to do magic?

Hannah: The wands in Harry Potter are pretty complicated. Voldemort is a part of Harry. When Harry got his wand in his first year, rather than him picking out a wand, a wand chose him. The wand had a twin who chose Voldemort when he started at Hogwarts. So there were two identical wands, one possessed by Voldemort and one possessed by Harry. When Voldemort tried to kill Harry in his fourth year, it didn't work because their two wands were the same. So Voldemort set off to find a new wand.

Dumbledore possessed the Elder Wand. The night that Dumbledore died in the sixth year, Draco Malfoy disarmed Dumbledore and took the Elder Wand against Dumbledore's will. Shortly after, Snape killed Dumbledore. Dumbledore was buried with the Elder Wand. But, little did anyone know, Draco Malfoy was truly the owner of the Elder Wand. Whoever takes the wand from the owner against his will is the new owner. Voldemort takes the Elder Wand from Dumbledore's tomb. When the wand doesn't work for him, he assumes it's because it belongs to Snape, because Snape killed Dumbledore, the previous owner. So Voldemort kills Snape. But Voldemort still is not the master of the Elder Wand.

Meanwhile, in the showdown at Malfoy Manor at the end of "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1," Harry disarms Malfoy and takes the wand Draco received when he started Hogwarts (made of hawthorn). But since Harry took a wand from Malfoy against his will, that makes Harry the master of the Elder Wand. Harry uses Malfoy's wand for a while because his original wand broke. When Harry is fighting Voldemort, he uses Malfoy's Hawthorn wand to kill Voldemort, who is using the Elder Wand, despite the fact that Harry is the true master.

Matt: That was amazing, and I'm not sure it helped. It kind of reminds me of when a friend asked me to explain the relationship between the Corleone family, the Rosato brothers, Clemenza, Hyman Roth and Frankie Five Angels in "The Godfather, Part II." When I got to the end, even I was confused.

I'm also not sure what to make of the whole Snape evolution. So he's a good guy pretending to be a bad guy pretending to be a good guy? Was he ever really working for Voldemort? Or was he always a triple agent working for the forces of good?

Hannah: Snape knew he was a wizard since he was born. He was a half-blood. His mother was a witch and his father was a muggle. He was very poor, and his parents fought a lot. He lived near Lily, Harry's future mother, and her muggle parents and her muggle sister, Petunia. He recognized that Lily was a witch and filled her in about the wizarding world when they were growing up. He fell in love with her. But when they got to Hogwarts, Lily was sorted into Gryffindor, and Snape was sorted into Slytherin. They remained friends through their earlier school years. Even in his beginning years at Hogwarts, Snape detested Harry's future father, James, because James used to bully Snape and was rather arrogant, and also because Snape knew James had a crush on Lily. Snape was worried about Lily eventually falling for James.

But Snape and Lily drifted apart as Snape befriended his fellow Slytherins who were interested in the dark arts and becoming Death Eaters. When they left school, Lily got together with James and married him, and Snape went off to become a death eater. And yet Snape was still in love with Lily. When the prophecy was told, Snape knew that Voldemort (at this point, his master) would set off to kill baby Harry and anyone that got in his way, such as James and Lily, Harry's parents. Snape begged Voldemort to spare Lily, but Voldemort ignored him and killed her anyway.

Dumbledore told Snape that he had been foolish instilling his trust in Voldemort, and that the best way to pledge his love for Lily would be to protect her son. Snape agreed, but begged Dumbledore not to tell. Dumbledore said, "Fine. I will hide the best of you." When Harry started Hogwarts, despite the fact that Snape was protecting him, he couldn't stand to be around Harry because he was reminded so much of James, whom he hated.

Snape went on to be a triple agent as Voldemort rose to power. Then in the sixth year, Dumbledore was cursed by a ring that was made into a Horcrux by Voldemort. He only had a year to live. Dumbledore was aware of a plan that Voldemort had to make Draco Malfoy kill him. But Dumbledore knew Draco wouldn't be able to do it, so he told Snape that when Draco failed, Snape must kill Dumbledore. And he did, at the end of the sixth year. Then he continued to carry out the tasks that Dumbledore asked of him before his death, despite the fact that many of the good characters in the book distrusted him.

That took a long time! I hope you understand now.

Conclusion: Snape is the awesomest character in Harry Potter. (Faints)

Matt: OK, that was truly epic. Now I really regret not having read the books. I missed a lot of the nuances.

But even so, I agree with you about Snape. He's my favorite character. Nobody else can come close to his complexity. And Alan Rickman is the acting MVP of the whole series, in my opinion. It is really, really hard to play a character like that and not either give the game away early or mislead the audience in a way that seems unfair in retrospect. In degree of difficulty, that performance is at least a 9. The only thing that could've kicked it up to a 10 is if he'd given the entire performance in Spanish or French or something.

Hannah: Did I answer your questions with as much enthusiasm and detail as you would if I asked you about a major plot point in the "Star Wars" movies?

Matt: Oh, absolutely. And this is as good a place as any to admit that while the Potter books and films would not exist without the "Star Wars" films paving the way, they are clearly superior to Lucas' saga in terms of narrative and character. Maybe the only area where Lucas has the edge is visually: the films are more daring in how they are composed and edited. But that's small consolation considering what a big steaming mess a lot of them are.

And like you said, the movies aren't at the heart of the phenomenon, the books are. And judged purely as a pop culture event, the books are huge. There's nothing else like them.

I think if we look at this in terms of a generation's relationship to a defining piece of popular culture, I think your generation definitely got the better deal.

Hannah: Yes, I think we did.

This piece was cross-posted at Edward Copeland on Film, where you can read earlier installments in the Hannah-Matt conversations on Fantasia and Cinderella.

By Matt Zoller Seitz

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