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Pitfall Wizard: "Harry Potter & the Order of the Phoenix" PDF Print E-mail
Movies - Reviews
Written by Mike Schulz   
Wednesday, 18 July 2007 02:43

Daniel Radcliffe in Harry Potter & the Order of the PhoenixHARRY POTTER & THE ORDER OF THE PHOENIX

I have no idea whether Alan Rickman, who portrays the impenetrable, vaguely sinister wizard Severus Snape in the Harry Potter films, realized that the Harry Potter & the Order of the Phoenix movie would hit screens 10 days before the release of J.K. Rowling's seventh (and purportedly final) Potter book. But Rickman's portrayal seems so shrewdly tied in to readers' hunger for a new installment - and their passionate "Is Snape a villain or isn't he?" debate - that, with very little screen time to do it in, he practically emerges as the film's star.

Speaking with insinuating mellifluousness (he appears to be swallowing his words as he utters them) and eying Harry with half-bored, half-rapt attention, Rickman is spectacularly enigmatic, and his readings are so loaded with comic malevolence that he can answer a question with a hesitant "Yes ..." and leave you absolutely clueless as to whether Snape meant "yes" or "no." It's a performance of masterful subtlety, and the film's opening-day audience - most of whom, judging by the fervor of their laughter and applause, were devoted Potter-philes - appeared to relish every moment of it. (Not that there was much they didn't relish; the crowd applauded before, during, and after the screening.)

Yet as someone who hasn't read a word of Rowling, I was especially grateful for Rickman's presence because he appeared to be one of the few elements of Order of the Phoenix designed to appeal to both the author's devotees and a film audience in equal measure.

The Harry Potter movies are so chockablock with activity and characters, and are so intricately designed, that they all but guarantee at least a pretty good time. With the exception of Alfonso Cuarón's singular Harry Potter & the Prisoner of Azkaban, though, I've never had anything more than a pretty good time. It's not that the Potter movies are alienating; you can follow the plotlines and character motivations easily enough, and they don't seem overrun with in-jokes for Rowling fans. Yet the figures and storyline twists that appear to mean the world to the books' admirers can't have the same impact on the rest of us, and from this Muggle's perspective, I felt that Order of the Phoenix - directed by David Yates, written by Michael Goldenberg - was too often designed solely for Rowling's readers.

Nothing, of course, can destroy the magical quite like literal-mindedness, yet film is a literal medium, and too much of this fifth installment left me scratching my head. Near the beginning, Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) is reprimanded - and nearly expelled - for practicing his wizardry in front of a civilian. But two scenes later, his friends whisk him away to Hogwarts on broomsticks, at one point swooping directly in front of a boatload of cruise-ship passengers. Wouldn't that constitute the misuse of magical powers in front of the citizenry? When the Weasley twins (James and Oliver Phelps) retaliate against the officious Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton) by setting off fireworks during the O.W.L. exam, why aren't there repercussions for the disruption? Aren't these exams, you know, important?

Perhaps these narrative considerations are dealt with in the book, but all throughout Order of the Phoenix, I felt like I needed an interpreter to explain why the audience was reacting with such delight to such puzzling, and even pedestrian, scenes. Why is the crowd cackling at the ever-grotesque over-acting of Richard Griffiths and Fiona Shaw, who play Harry's uncle and aunt? Are the characters somehow less revolting in the books? Are the sequences of the students training for "Dumbledore's Army" as much of a slog in the novel as they are here? Is the demise of Sirius Black (Gary Oldman) foretold with as much obviousness? Is Umbridge's eventual comeuppance as disappointing? (This tough cookie, so sharp throughout the film, gets rather easily fooled in the final reel.)

And I'm sorry, but are the Hogwarts students as devoid of personality as a Rowling virgin might be led to believe? Daniel Radcliffe has turned into a fine, polished young actor, and Evanna Lynch, as the eccentric waif Luna Lovegood, has a sweetly ethereal creepiness. The others, however, are all pretty interchangeable (and disposable), and that includes Emma Watson's Hermione and Rupert Grint's Ron; five films in, and these two are still all-too-aware of the camera's presence. (Watson and Grint loosen up when they smile, but considering the material, that doesn't happen often.)

Cuarón's endeavor aside, the Harry Potter films seem to me very strange: They're superfluous blockbusters. Every Potter fan I know says the books are better than the movies, but no one seems bothered by that. (Their love for Rowling's prose bleeds over into the movies themselves.) When I tell people I haven't really cared for the film series - the dutiful effects that lack lyricism, the tonal vacillations between childishness and portentousness, the waste of so many gifted British thespians - they ask, every time, if I've read the books. I say no, and most of them reply "Oh ... ." with a piteous head-tilt that implies, "No wonder you haven't enjoyed them." Harry Potter & the Order of the Phoenix will likely enthrall the devoted, but it was really only Alan Rickman's performance that made me think that, by not joining J.K. Rowling's legion of fans, I was actually missing something.

Comments (4)Add Comment
written by schqc, July 22, 2007
Unfortunately, to do the books justice, especially books 3 and on you'd need, say, a season of TV shows to cover. One hopes that the BBC will someday do such a thing.

Otherwise you are right. The books are a shorthand. A nod to the readers.

Just like, I thought, Lord of the Rings was. How one could've understood LOTR without having read the books was somewhat beyond me.

But, anyway, most Dickens on Masterpiece Theater are mini-series length at least, and to get all the nuance one would need 6 hours, I think, at least for each book.
written by Potter fan, July 25, 2007
Yes I am one of those book loving Harry Potter fans and of course I loved the movie. But I also think that the "head-scratching" moments you mentioned were adequately explained in the movie. The people who swoop in to rescue Harry are not his friends - they are adults and members of the Order of The Phoenix who are allowed to do magic.

Before Fred and George fly around and set off the magical fireworks, they have a discussion (in the movie as well) about how they would be better to follow their pursuits outside of school - they are dropping out so they aren't concerned with punishment. Also, the other teachers are so fed up with Umbridge that they are probably relieved to see her go no matter what the circumstances.

I understand what you mean - it is impossible to get everything from a book in a movie, especially since the 5th is the longest book and the shortest movie. I disliked the 3rd movie because they cut out some of the best parts of the book - specific origins of the Marauder's Map and the meaning of Harry's patronus (a stag, but they only show it as a bright light in the movie). Mike, try and read the books (especially 5, 6, and 7) - they are wonderful!
written by Michael, July 25, 2007
There is one theme that has never changed in the history of the movie business. The book is always better than the movie. Anyone who thinks they understand LOTR or Great Expectations or The Shipping News because they watched the movie are sadly mistaken. Movies need to be movies and books need to be books no matter how tempting it is to make a great book into a crappy movie. The only time it seems that a story translates well is when it is a short story and the Director actually adds to the story by fleshing out what was lost in the brevity of a short story. Of course, that takes a special type of director. Anyway, Mike, thanks for pointing out the obvious. We should all save the 10 bucks and spend a few hours reading instead of wasting our time trying to understand the incomplete Cliff's notes that gets on the screen.
written by Linda Page, August 20, 2007
Thank you for noticing Alan Rickman's stunning contribution to an otherwise rather empty film (and book?) series. As someone who also has never read Rowling, his performances, which, in very little screen time, have always seemed to reveal so little, yet promise so much, were the only thing that kept me watching. And yes, Mr Rickman was the only actor to be entirely aware of his character's story arc from the outset - keep watching, it gets much better!

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