The Avoidable Mediocrity of the Harry Potter films

In late August, I finally found myself bored enough to go and see the final installment of the Harry Potter film franchise: Harry Potter and the Death Hallows: Part 2 (my, that is an unwieldy title).  The desire to see the film stemmed more the the investment in having seen each of the previous seven films. Not seeing the final film would be like throwing away the pizza box with one slice left.  The Potter films, like any generic pizza, were edible and palatable enough, but certainly not memorable. 

At the end of the eighth and final installment, I was more disappointed than I had been with any of the previous films.  This film was no worse than the others; in some ways in may have been marginally better.  Yet my disappointment sprang from the sense that the mediocrity I had witnessed could have been avoided.  In fact, what kept me coming back was the hope (irrational, I know) that the films would eventually deliver something much greater.  They did not.

It may have taken me eight films, eight long films, but I finally figured out why I saw more promise in the Potter films than they ever delivered.  As I walked out of the theater, I kept thinking to myself that director David Yates only used Alan Rickman for about fifteen minutes of screen time.  Fifteen minutes! For Alan Rickman!  I felt cheated.  Yates and the various other directors filled hour upon hour of screen time with the tedious triangle of Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Hermione (Emma Watson), and Ron (Rupert Grint), yet they couldn’t find an extra half hour for Rickman.

Less of these three . . .

To riff a bit on Rickman, he is simply on of the coolest actors around.  His performance in Die Hard (1988) helped launch Bruce Willis as a Hollywood A-lister.  He single handedly made Kevin Costner’s Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991) remotely bearable.  In Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007) he provided a wonderful and evil counterweight to Johnny Depp, the only actor who has truly been able to match Rickman cool for cool.   Alongside Juliet Stevenson, he proved to be a sweet and tender romantic sort in Anthony Minghella’s too often overlooked Truly Madly Deeply (1990).  It was my sincerest hope that The Deathly Hallows: Part 2 (2011) would have recognized such skill and deployed it in more generous amounts. 

And Rickman was not the only talent left to wallow as the three school chums tried so very hard to convince us that they were doing a good job of acting. 

And more of him.

The list of excellent British actors to have appeared in any or all of the films is singularly impressive: Rickman, Emma Thompson, Richard Harris, Michael Gambon, Kenneth Brannagh, Timothy Spall, David Thewliss, Gary Oldman, Jim Broadbent, Kelley Macdonald, Helena Bonham Carter, John Hurt, Maggie Smith, Brendan Gleeson, and others whom I have probably omitted.  That is one hell of a Hogwarts faculty assembly.  That cast could make discussions over tenure requirements riveting. 

With all of that talent available, the films seem rather a waste.  I am well aware that the “Harry Potter” films were suppose to convey the story of “Harry Potter” and the essence of the J.K. Rowling books. Yet films vary from the original books all of the time.  So why not here?  Shove Harry and his friends into the backstory and make Rickman and the rest take center stage.

Whether the directors wanted to make the Potter films an ambiguous and complicated moral tale or a rip-roaring battle between good and evil, Rickman and friends could have handled either scenario with more pizzaz and tact that Radcliffe, Watson, and Grint.

It would seem fanciful on my part that the producers and directors of the franchise would deviate from a formula that was raking in millions and billions of dollars to simply make a better film.  On the other hand, following my advice would have led to the creation of demonstably better films (if not necessarily more profitable films).

In the end, watching the films reminded me of watching my Seattle Mariners earlier this season.  Instead of seeing Dustin Ackley and Mike Carp, I had to watch Chone Figgins and Milton Bradley.  To draw out this metaphor, Rickman = Ackley or Carp and Radcliffe = Figgins or Bradley.  So instead of watching this:

and this:

I had to watch Chone Figgins and Milton Bradley eat up space on the field and 25 man roster.  Thankfully, the M’s called up Ackley and Carp, released Bradley, and relegated Figgins to the bench. It is too bad that David Yates did not do anything similar with his roster.  The crime of the Potter films is not that they are bad, but that they severely underutilized their talent.  Rather than being memorable and great, they were mediocre and profitable. I suppose that the investors and the film studio will take that trade off any day; I would have liked a little more.


About Todd Hunter Starkweather

Todd Starkweather is an Assistant Professor of English at South University-Richmond. He has a PhD in English Literature from the University of Illinois-Chicago; his interests include film, Victorian studies, sport, and post-colonialism.
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2 Responses to The Avoidable Mediocrity of the Harry Potter films

  1. Peter Schilling says:

    What a great article! Any piece that features an examination of the majesty that is Alan Rickman (who also added needed gravitas to the at times excessively merry “Sense and Sensibility”) and a lament over your awful baseball team has me hook, line, and sinker.

    I had to stop watching the Potter films after the Cuaron entry (number four?), simply because the plots seemed all the same, and even that one, which I think was Prisoner of Azkiban (yes, I know I didn’t spell that correctly), left me feeling like I was watching a redundancy. It’s never good when the opening credits come on and your first thought is “I am going to be bored for the next two hours.”

    However, you’re damn right about this series having a brilliant cast. And as for films varying from their original sources, I think the best films from books are the ones that realize that it’s best to make each one a separate creature. As a novelist who would obviously love to have his book adapted into a movie, if I had my druthers I’d much rather sell the thing to a great filmmaker that does whatever he or she wants, rather than a hack who’ll be “true” to the source. If you want to be true to the source, read the book.

    • thstarkweather says:

      Peter, I almost felt that as the series moved forward the directors (Yates in particular) made a determined decision to not have the kids/young adults share the screen the the “adults.” The more time that Radcliffe, Watson, and Grint spent on camera with Rickman et al., the more obvious it was that the adults were the better actors and the more compelling characters. The stars of the film franchise were in danger of being overshadowed, so Yates removed the figures that were casting the shadows.

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