This past week marked the end of an era. After charming millions with his brooding, wizarding ways, Harry Potter has beaten The Dark Lord in novels, audio books, action figures, musicals, and, finally, film. Though only first introduced to the world in 1997, the Harry Potter franchise has been adapted into countless forms. And, really, there is nothing I love more than seeing fans manipulate their favorite pop culture material into something new and weird.
But how to critique these various adaptations? As I was coming out of the film (before any of you bitches! Thursday AFTERNOON! Bazinga!) I heard a girl tell her friends (and, in answer to your questions: yes, they were adults, and yes, they were nerds) that had the studio made the film she wanted it would have been 4 hours long. I assume she meant the movie we just watched – Harry Potter 7.2 – which seems to mean she wanted a 6 hour and 26 minute adaptation of the J.K. Rowling book? Now, not only would this version of the story be economical and budgetary suicide, but I wonder if such an adaptation is necessary or even appropriate.
I have often heard/read the phrase “the book is always better” when referring to adaptations. Usually, when questioned further, the critics behind this statement usually point out that the book included “more.” It’s true that quantity of material can help the reader form complex judgments of characters and situations, but is that always the case? Look at A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh, a classic, very short children’s book that has – like the Potter books – created an empire, the most recent edition competing with Potter at the box office this weekend. It seems that tone, rather than length and intricacies of plot, is the more important aspect of close adaptation. In tone, I believe both Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and Winnie the Pooh stay true to the original source material.
Rather than comparing and contrasting what parts of what novel were left out (I remember outrage over a certain house elf at some point), it seems more important to compare what emotions both versions of the story evoke, which themes are apparent in both, and why changes should be made depending on the medium.
A famous film theorist, Dudley Andrew, has pointed out the absurdity of comparing film to literature on an evaluative basis. To say one is better than the other is like saying that Shakespeare’s version of Romeo and Juliet is better than Tchaikovsky’s is better than Baz Luhrmann’s. Yes, these men tell the same story, but a play, a symphony, and a film are so different that it’s impossible to compare the three. What is it about film and literature that makes us think they should mirror each other so perfectly? How do we compare editing to paragraph breaks and prose to cinematography? It seems a pointless endeavor.
This post is the beginning of a series I’d like to do on adaptation in general and specifically. It’s a selfish project because it’s the area of study I’ve been most interested in over the years. But, I think it’s also important for casual film viewers to consider how they think about different stories in different mediums. To start with, I think it’s fair to say that you enjoyed your experience with one version of the story more than another (maybe you like opera so much, Berlioz’s version of Romeo and Juliet is your favorite) but let’s stop there and figure out why. Why you enjoy it more and why certain adaptations made certain choices.
This is going to be so fun!