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Past Valve Book Events

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cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

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cover of the book What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts?

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The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

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Saturday, July 18, 2009

Superior adaptations of inferior novels (Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince)

Posted by Scott Eric Kaufman on 07/18/09 at 10:13 PM

Reviewing a film based on a book you haven’t read is always a dicey proposition—you likely missed or misread the winks and nods aimed at the readers surrounding you—but I think an exception can be made in the case of a film that works because you haven’t read the source material.  So I begin with an admission: I can’t read the Harry Potter novels.  I got through 100 pages of the first three and stopped once I realized that they are, on the whole, terrible; and that when they rise to the level of unsubtle Dickensian grotesquerie (minus the wit), they’re merely awful.  But I mostly enjoy the films, which dispense the requisite infodumps in digestable bits and—by virtue of being films—relieve J.K. Rowling of the burden of pretending to be Mervyn Peake

The best of them is Alfonso Cuarón’s Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, but that has more to do with having Cuarón at helm than the quality of the source material, as his filmography consists of superior treatments of the same narratives at play in Rowling’s novels: a tale set in a strict boarding house during a period of great struggle (A Little Princess), about an orphan with an unknown destiny and mysterious benefactors (Great Expectations) who comes of age sexually (Y Tu Mama Tambien) as the fate of the human race is being decided (Children of Men).  But even with Cuarón behind camera, the film felt forced—as if the removal of Rowling’s expository indulgence required a labor so onerous, evidence of it clung to the film like slight stains in the pits of an otherwise smart shirt. 

The same cannot be said of the latest film, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, in which the narrative excess of the novels becomes a matter of allusion over excision.  The result?  The first film in the series to have the effect the novels are wrongly purported to: it presents an unnerving and captivating account of a world and moment the audience can’t fully fathom.  The confusion was compelling: I was drawn into situations whose meaning escaped me, but whose significance was clear, and so I spent the entire film intellectually engaged.  In the previous films, all the guns belonged to Chekov, and you appreciated the arrangement of the firing squad or you didn’t—but in either case, you knew which guns would be fired because the overwhelmed screenwriter removed anything that might be mistaken for a decoy. 

The earlier films never alluded; they either explicated at length or vehemently pointed at the mystery the movie would explain.  In The Half-Blood Prince, David Yates includes scenes whose importance is not established by the mere fact of their inclusion.  The narrative wanders, forcing the audience to debate which of the various elements will ultimately be meaningful.  Will it be the stroking and stoking of Ron’s ego?  The development of Harry and Hermoine’s increasingly complex friendship?  The pangs of conscience Draco Malfoy felt upon murdering a bird?  Or will it be one of the many other expertly-acted, deftly-directed scenes in which, for the first time, everyone not named Alan Rickman seemed comfortable in their character’s skin?  The narrative ambiguity, coupled with a pace that allowed scenes to develop such that motivations were intimated rather than immediately revealed, resulted in a film that was strikingly adult in weight and complexity, to which American critics responded by saying:

Boooooooooring.

And:

A giant two-and-a-half-hour YAAAWN.

And:

This movie went on and on and on and on and on.

Not only did all of those sentences appear in a single review, they appeared in three consecutive sentences:

Boooooooooring. A giant two-and-a-half-hour YAAAWN. This movie went on and on and on and on and on.

Granted, that was Debbie Schlussel, who time and again has proven her intelligence to be inversely proportional to her estimation of it.  But she’s not alone.  Rex Reed, the very bellwether of popular American opinion on film, thinks that

the sixth and worst installment is two and a half hours of paralyzing tedium, featuring another colossal waste of British talent and a plot a real witch couldn’t find with a crystal ball. The kids at Hogwarts no longer have any relevance. They have never heard of iPods, cell phones or the Internet.

He complains about the gorgeous, subdued cinematography of Bruno Delbonnel, who previously worked with the notoriously muted Jean-Pierre Jeunet on visually uninspired films like Amélie and A Very Long Engagement, and is the second untalented cinematographer in a row David Yates has chosen to work alongside—the first being Slawomir Idziak, a Polish hack so dumb his director, Krzysztof Kieslowski, had to name his films after the color of the desired palette lest Idziak murk them up.  I daresay that anyone who complains about the cinematography of The Half-Blood Prince knows nothing about the medium he or she is paid to write about in, say, the Wall Street Journal:

[The film] may suffer by comparison to visual memories of the first film, which wasn’t all that wonderful but teemed with wondrous images.

The film was so dull and so visually unstimulating that, at the New York Times, Manohla Dargis forgot how families work, writing:

The chosen one, Harry has been commissioned to destroy the too-little-seen evildoer Voldemort, a sluglike ghoul usually played by Ralph Fiennes (alas, seen only briefly this time out) and here played, in his early embodied form as Tom Riddle, by the excellent young actors Hero Fiennes Tiffin and Frank Dillane. There must be a factory where the British mint their acting royalty: Hero, who plays the dark lord as a spectrally pale, creepy child of 11, is Ralph Fiennes’s nephew[.]

Ms. Dargis, if I may, you answered your question about this hypothetical actor factory in the previous sentence.  It’s called “the Fiennes family,” and its existence has been known about for the better part of two decades.  It seems that when confronted with anything resembling complexity, the popular American critical establishment falls asleep—by which I mean, they reveal themselves to be whatever it is one becomes after spending a lifetime trying to catch up to the lowest common denominator.

If I were a more generous person, I’d note that the reason these critics were bored by the film was because they knew what would happened—it being the plot of the only book they read that year—and wanted the film to get on with it already.  Dargis as much as admits exactly that: “[T]he lag time between the final books and the movies has drained much of the urgency from this screen adaptation, which, far more than any of the previous films, comes across as an afterthought.” This impatience with development is a symptom of a collective addiction to novelty in American culture, one which results not only the unwillingness to glory in a studied presentation of the end of adolescence, but in the elevation of incurious, anti-intellectual populists like Sarah Palin to national prominence.  Meanwhile, across the pond . . .

(x-posted.)


Comments

I would say that, if the movie is better for not having read the book, that is a much bigger knock on the movie than the book.  I’ve read The Godfather, The Lord of the Rings (well, the first book and a half), and Jaws, and in all three cases I liked the movie better than the book, because in all three cases the movie was better than the book.  In particular, Jaws and The Godfather are genuinely mediocre books, but that doesn’t hurt the movies any.

So if I read Harry Potter and then think the movie is less good, that doesn’t provide evidence that the book is “inferior,” or that liking the books is like voting for Sarah Palin, or whatever, much as you might like it to.  To the contrary, if the Potter movies (excluding the Cuarón one) were more than mediocre, then I wouldn’t be struggling to remember any details about them just a couple of weeks later, while still remembering favorite passages from the books years later.

As a final note, if “development” is what you’re interested in, the books are a far better source for it than the movies, just as one would expect.  In particular, the sixth book has much more on Voldemort’s past—some of the best material in the series—than the movie does, and much more complexity in the “studied presentation of the end of adolescence” in which you “glory.”

By tomemos on 07/19/09 at 03:37 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Oh, and just as a matter of intellectual honesty, it’s pretty forced, not to say disingenuous, to pretend like there’s some gulf between the opinions of American film critics as a whole and their much-better colleagues in Britain regarding this movie.  By any objective standard you care to use, “American critics” reviewed Half-Blood Prince favorably.

By tomemos on 07/19/09 at 03:45 AM | Permanent link to this comment

if the movie is better for not having read the book, that is a much bigger knock on the movie than the book.

I don’t follow.  I agree—nor do I know anyone who wouldn’t—that Coppola lapped Puzo times infinity with the first two Godfather films.  In fact, were I a sharper pencil, I would’ve analogized The Half-Blood Prince to the Godfather films—adjusting for relative greatness, of course—but that’d be a little disingenuous, given that I haven’t read The Half-Blood Prince.  That said, I can’t imagine it being superior enough to its predecessors to be worthy of a read, and believe you me, I tried: to read the first book after the first film, then the second book after the first film, then third book after the second film.  (And, as you well know, I’m no elitist.  You’re the one who likes The Invisibles, after all.) (About that: I think you might be more right than me on that front, but I won’t be admitting that publicly until . . . God damn it!)

In particular, the sixth book has much more on Voldemort’s past—some of the best material in the series—than the movie does, and much more complexity in the “studied presentation of the end of adolescence” in which you “glory."

So what you’re saying is, I lack imagination?  That I can’t turn artfully presented suggestion into deeply meaningful significance?  Because if so, well, you’re probably right . . . but not having read the books, I wouldn’t know.

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 07/19/09 at 03:49 AM | Permanent link to this comment

One note about the books—I’ve only seen the first couple of movies—it is a bit questionable to rely on an evaluation of the first few books to estimate the source material for movies made for the last few in the series.  I’ve read all the books, and Rowling does a pretty good impression of writing the first one for an 11-year-old, the second for a 12 year old, and so on up to 17 or wherever it stops.  Perhaps that’s just Rowling becoming a slightly better writer as she goes, but it’s as if she was writing the series for one child who was growing up as she did one book a year.

Therefore the later books, while still clunky, are at least older-adolescence YA.  I was actually pretty impressed by one aspect of the series: its near-anarchist rejection of all official authority figures.  Sure, it’s a staple of this kind of fantasy that the adolescent hero can somehow succeed where all the adults fail.  But here the adults fail really comprehensively, and fail not merely as parent figures but also as government and civic leaders.  By the end, Harry is effectively living in the equivalent of a death squad state, in which people are routinely kidnapped, tortured, and disappeared, and constituted authority is either complicit, corrupt, or at best ineffective.

By on 07/19/09 at 09:10 AM | Permanent link to this comment

the sixth book has much more on Voldemort’s past—some of the best material in the series

The problem is that it belonged in book two. There’s no plausible internal explanation for that information being secret until that late in the story. (The plausible external explanation is that Rowling hadn’t figured it out yet, which is why the later books—which should have been easy if she’d really had the plot worked out from the beginning—took so long and were so awkward.)

By Ahistoricality on 07/19/09 at 11:32 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"So what you’re saying is, I lack imagination?  That I can’t turn artfully presented suggestion into deeply meaningful significance?”

I’m not saying anything about you at all.  If you hate Rowling’s writing, that’s fine, and if the end of the sixth movie—"A terrible tragedy has occurred…But anyway, there’s this girl I think you should date"—strikes you as artful suggestion, that’s fine too.  What I’m saying is that if people who dislike the movies aren’t interested in development, they wouldn’t like the books, either.  They’d just go and watch Transformers 2 instead.

Incidentally, I wouldn’t even say I dislike the movies.  They’re fun enough to watch, or I wouldn’t have spent $60 to see the lot.  It’s just that, when each one begins, it’s a frantic struggle to remember anything about the previous one.  In ten years, the only people who put these movies into DVD players will be parents.

By tomemos on 07/19/09 at 01:38 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Isn’t the traditional venue for this kind of harping the comments over at Rotten Tomatoes?

By Jonathan M on 07/19/09 at 01:53 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’ve read all the books, and Rowling does a pretty good impression of writing the first one for an 11-year-old, the second for a 12 year old, and so on up to 17 or wherever it stops.  Perhaps that’s just Rowling becoming a slightly better writer as she goes, but it’s as if she was writing the series for one child who was growing up as she did one book a year.

I wondered about that, and asked a friend in the department who’s read them, and she chalked the superiority of prose and characterization in the later books to development as a writer, not to modeling each one after an age-appropriate audience—which, I should add, would be one hell of a technical feat.

and if the end of the sixth movie

I was talking about the entirety of the film, not just the end.  The end struck was a low-note that thought it was a high-note—a seemingly shot-for-shot recapitulation of the conclusion of Fellowship of the Rings.  I think it was a mistake to confront Jackson’s trilogy head on, as those are comparisons you don’t want to invite; that said, the oddest bit about the Times review was this:

But on the evidence of The Half-Blood Prince there is a real chance that Potter, like The Lord of the Rings before it, will be a fantasy franchise that ends in a bang, not a whimper.

I don’t know how you define “bang,” but “spending an hour and a half ending the movie fifteen damn times” strikes me as whimpering.

Isn’t the traditional venue for this kind of harping the comments over at Rotten Tomatoes?

Because anything you define as “harping” must be unintellectual?  The larger point of the post wasn’t about the film itself, but about the process of adaptation, which seems to me a fine subject for a literary blog.  (As does kvetching about the current state of popular cinematic criticism, for that matter.)

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 07/19/09 at 03:16 PM | Permanent link to this comment

[waves pencil at screen] Bloggus veritatis!

By Adam Roberts on 07/19/09 at 06:52 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I don’t know how you define “bang,” but “spending an hour and a half ending the movie fifteen damn times” strikes me as whimpering.

Not to get all geek on you, Scott, but I think the ending of The Return of the King is probably misremembered as being a lot worse and longer than it actually was.  It’s not really that long, or that ridiculous, to spend 20 minutes wrapping up a 9-plus hour long trilogy, especially when most of that time is spent showing the after effects of war.  Most big-budget Hollywood epics would be content to just roll the credits when evil is defeated (which is basically what happens at the end of the last Harry Potter book), so it’s to Jackson’s credit I think that he choose to be a little unconventional.  Granted, Jackson may have benefited by including “The Scouring of the Shire” chapter from the book, which gives the ending a bit more focus and makes it feel less like one giant farewell hug, but that’s a topic for another day.

I think the frustration people had with the ending of Return of the King is actually similar to the critics’ frustration with the latest Harry Potter.  People get upset when Hollywood films, especially the summer tent-pole franchises, aren’t plot-centered.  Thus, all the time that Half-Blood Prince spends with the characters’ private lives is ultimately seen as a waste of time.  Much better to have Harry & friends spend the film walking through dungeons and fighting Voldemort.  At least that “moves the plot along.”

By on 07/19/09 at 07:22 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I thought that the Harry Potter books actually started out well. The first book was a good children’s book: whimsical conceits, persecuted hero rescued from nasty family (wish fulfillment there, eh?), and a plot that galumped along with alacrity. It’s *hard* to write a good pageturner.

The later books bogged down, as J. K. Rowling became too popular to edit. Robert Jordan disease.

I can’t say that I’ve liked any of the movies I’ve seen. They’re just too MUCH. Summer movies with lots of special effects, scary monsters, and things that go bang. But my taste in movies is probably suspect, since I enjoy Bollywood confections like Om Shanti Om.

By on 07/19/09 at 08:17 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Scott --

As to intellectual and unintellectual I have no verdict.  That strikes me as a weird distinction.  But complaining about the state of American film criticism because it failed to pay adequate respect to volume 23 of the Harry Potter series really is exactly what goes on at Rotten Tomatoes.  Right down to the “you didn’t realise how sweet this bit was! You don’t know how to do your job!” special pleading.

American film criticism is in a terrible state and were you to write a piece about its failings I would be right there agreeing with you.  But to decide to talk up that fight because of bad reviews of a Harry Potter film?  that’s just geekrage masquerading as something more profound.

By Jonathan M on 07/20/09 at 04:58 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Tom, my memory may be fuzzy and my copy of the film is all boxed up, so I can’t confirm, but I can say this: there’s a difference between meanderings that happen before the climax of a film and those that occupy and function as a denouement.  I’m all for films that discuss the aftermath of tragedy—The Sweet Hereafter is one of my favorites—but I don’t think it worked in ROTK.  This isn’t to say it couldn’t have, only that it didn’t, which is why my memory of the film is that those scenes occupied at least an hour or so.

Jonathan, I think my complaint amounts to more than your dismissive summary of it—for example, I don’t think the fact that a critic can’t tell from quality cinematography is about the sweet bits; nor, for that matter, is the fact that Dargis memory-holes an accomplished actor like Joseph Fiennes.  In point of fact, my complaint wasn’t about any particular bit in the film, but with the popular critical establishment’s inability to understand a film released in the summer that isn’t paced like a blockbuster.  There’s the issue of expectation—although that’s not exactly what’s wrong with Dargis’s review, which seems to me a matter of inadequate self-reflection—but even that doesn’t pertain to bits and their relative sweetness. 

Moreover, your characterization of this post as me deciding to take “up that fight because of bad reviews of a Harry Potter film” mistakes the occasion for airing an argument for a decision to enter the debate.

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 07/20/09 at 02:07 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Scott—My choice of language was uncharitable and I apologise for that. 

However, I do think that your desire to take isue with Dargis’s review comes from the same emotional space as the people who tell Armond White that he should be fired because of his lack of respect for Hellboy II.

Could you point me to other examples of critical failings that annoyed you despite not being attached to literary adaptations of popular genre novels?

In other words, are you annoyed at problems in the critical community or are you annoyed that someone didn’t like what you liked?

I haven’t seen this Potter film but I did see the previous one and that was definitely both overly long and dull. Dargis’ criticisms of the new film do seem to have a ring of truth about them based upon Yates’ direction of the previous film.

In the previous film Yates devoted a lot of screen time to the relationships and budding romances of the characters.  There was a clear desire to deal with the characters in an adult fashion rather than treating them as exposition providers.  However, none of these relationships were particularly interesting or real on a human level.  Yates’ decision to devote more time to these human elements was a mistake.  That’s not me failing to grasp the logic of the film or me wanting spectacle above drama… that’s me thinking that the characters were not particularly well written, that the relationships were thin parodies of real life and that the actors lacked the skills to infuse the film’s human elements with an importance and an urgency commensurate with the amount of time lavished on them by the final cut of the film.  In other words : Booooooring.

By Jonathan M on 07/20/09 at 03:49 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Scott,

Fair enough.  I (as I imagine you and many others here) am a fan of unconventional narrative choices, but of course only if they’re executed well.  Long-ish denouements can be really effective, and I think in certain cases “meandering” at the end of a film (or book) can work really well. The Shawshank Redemption and No Country for Old Men are two films that pull it off, for example.  I think Return of the King does, too, but my familiarity with the book may be clouding my judgment.

This is all wandering a bit from the original post, but suffice to say: we should have more summer blockbuster doing unexpected things with narrative.  (And on that note, anyone who hasn’t should read io9’s hilarious review of Transformers 2.)

By on 07/20/09 at 07:08 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Hi Scott,

I haven’t read the books either and the films (barring the first which I thought good fun) seem to me ultimately formulaic: JK’s a lucky gal!

However, to your larger point on film adaptations, as a true addict to both genres could I suggest that sometimes it’s not a question of a film being better than a book but each being brilliant in it’s own right? I’d cite Dickens’ Great Expectations and Oliver Twist and David Lean’s films of same as examples: both amazing but almost entirely different.

(As an unrelated post-script, may I just say a huge thanks to ‘The Valve’? I feel you guys really understand freedom of speech and don’t just publish glowing tributes to yourselves like others I could mention: ‘Bravo’!)

By on 07/20/09 at 08:51 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Sorry about the apostrophe in ‘it’s’ - how could I? Hope none of my students sees this!

By on 07/20/09 at 10:12 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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