Appreciating The Boy Who Lived

I have now committed what I consider a major sin as a film critic for this year: I will not be reviewing Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them. At least, not in a timely matter to where it will make a molecule of a difference in whether you will see it or not. I suspect that for the most part, Fantastic Beasts will perform very well at the box office this week. It’s written by J.K. Rowling herself, it’s directed by Potter loyalist David Yates, and it has a solid cast to boast proudly about, including the Oscar-winning Eddie Redmayne as the lead. I highly doubt that longtime Rowling fans will overlook this new venture into the Harry Potter universe, and I expect it to get a large turnout at the box office. Whether it deserves that turnout will be another matter decided once I have time to collect myself after Thanksgiving break.

I am a more recent fan when it comes to the Harry Potter franchise. My biggest appreciation of Harry Potter comes from the movies themselves, as I am one of the few that have not ventured far into the book series (I only read the first two. I lost interest after Chamber of Secrets).

Hardcore Potter fans criticize me frequently for watching the movies before reading the books, and maybe they’re slightly warranted in their frustration since they are more knowledgeable of the franchise than I am. After all, when Stephen Sommers changed the ending to Mark Twain’s endearing The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, I was livid. I can only imagine how Potter fans reacted when entire clops of characters were missing in multiple films altogether.

My defense is that by watching the movies before reading the books, it allows me to view those films through a different, vital scope that most don’t even think about: the eyes of a viewer as opposed to a reader. When watching adaptations, the job of a critic is to watch and judge the movie fairly on its own merit, not through the pages of the book that it was based upon. You can’t judge a movie through the same criteria as a book. That would be like judging a fish on its ability to fly.

Because of this, I rarely read the books before the movie comes out, and I actually make it a point to avoid reading them if I can. I’ve done this with numerous adaptations, from Lord of the Rings all the way to The Fault In Our Stars. I’ve always tried to watch the movie first, judge it on its own storytelling, then read the book and go back and see if my view has developed any further. It is not the movie’s job to adapt events, but rather emotions. If they invoke the same aesthetic and feel that the book did, I consider the film a successful adaptation.

I held Harry Potter to this same standard, ever since The Sorcerer’s Stone came out over 15 years ago. While my opinions of those films may differ slightly from fans of the books, we can all agree that Harry Potter is nonetheless astounding. Whether you’ve read the books or not, all of the elements are in there and retained. There is a boy who was orphaned after his parents died when he was just a baby. That same orphan was forced to live with a cruel aunt and uncle who spoiled their own son while neglecting their nephew. That boy gets swept up into a world full of wizards, witchcraft, and sorcery, and he learns about the true value of life, love, and appreciating the things that we’ve lost.

No matter what stance you have on the books, this much is intact in the film series: who Harry is, what are his desires, why he goes on this epic quest, and who he grows into as his journey comes to a close. This is why Harry Potter is one of the greatest film franchises of all time, as well as one of the greatest film adaptations. If both fans and non-fans can see, feel, and experience the same things in the movies, then the movie succeeded in adapting its source material. And Harry Potter definitely did that very well.

Another thing that impresses me with Harry Potter is the fact that this is a movie series, as opposed to a trilogy. Most movie studios do not have the gumption or the ambition to pursue book-to-film adaptations past three movies. Heck, Miramax films wanted to shrink The Lord of the Rings down from three movies to two, then to one. With Warner Bros. venturing to adapt all seven books as opposed to combining or omitting a few, Harry Potter went on to become the second highest grossing film franchise of all time, grossing over $7 billion at the box office.

(Although, I silently suspect Warner Bros. allowed the series expansion for more than just monetary reasons. With how large of a fan base Harry Potter had at the time, Warner Bros. might not have survived the backlash if they decided to mess with the official canon.)

Being a fan of film as opposed to a fan of Harry Potter has allowed me to appreciate its success without bias. It allowed me to go on Harry’s journey with him with fresh eyes, watching him grow from a boy to a man to a hero, facing all of his fears and overcoming them with the help of his friends. Fans of the books will voice that they went on it first, to which I fairly give them credit for doing so. But the point is I did go on that journey with him, and it is in no way less or more amazing because I haven’t read the books.

To which I now say that I am excited to see Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them for different reasons. This is an original narrative crafted from the mind of Rowling herself. There’s no concerns with being faithful to the book, or with taking narrative liberties, or with making changes fans won’t appreciate. The movie’s creativity doesn’t stop where the book does, mostly because there is no book to base it on. It excites me to see what new ideas and characters Rowling comes up with, and it excites me even further knowing that for once, myself and Harry Potter fans will be experiencing the exact same thing. This is new territory for all of us.

All of that excitement and anticipation will be paid off… soon. For now, I’m going to appreciate the boy who lived, knowing that I got to live right alongside him, as well as so many other muggles out there.

– David Dunn

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