JJ Abrams, a nation (or two) turns its lonely eyes to you
Last night, Marc and I went to see “Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince”, which of course meant spending more than an hour waiting in line in the summer heat to even have a hope of getting decent seats. Which in turn meant a lot of time for talking, and of course, we talked about the major problem with turning the Harry Potter franchise into movies, when the books are so long and crammed with so much plot and subplot—the movies give the story the short shrift and often require the audience to have read the books to follow along. “Half Blood Prince” was no different. It was certainly a step up from the previous two movies, and director David Yates does a great job of capturing how JK Rowling raised the stakes as the main characters aged into teenagers. Genuinely scary shit happens, and Yates also goes full throttle in showing the British landscape during the school months as cold and dreary and foreboding as it is. Just as in the books, the Voldemort that seemed childish scary in the first books now moves into Darth Vader-level scary, but unlike in the Star Wars series, our glimpses into his past show that Tom Riddle was always a sociopath. We also get a few hints—though as with everything else, not enough—of the anti-Muggle racism that pervades wizard society that is hard to shake, though good wizards know it has to go, especially after the first Voldemort reign of terror.
Before the movie, we talked about how much more fun the Harry Potter franchise would be as a TV show, because that means that each season could be dedicated to a book and use anywhere from 12 hours to 17 hours to tell the story of each book. And some subplots could get their own episodes, like the various love affairs. This would have the benefit of resolving that storyline while isolating it from the darker happenings, and avoiding groaningly awful situations, such as the end where Hermione and Harry talk about the war and Dumbledore’s death, and then a little about why you shouldn’t snog Ron’s sister in front of her. No one talks like that, but with a running time slightly over two and a half hours, it’s clear that they were just cramming stuff in.
And, inevitably, leaving out some of the best stuff to advance the plot. On a TV show, you can have entire episodes that only minimally advance the main plot, but fill in the necessary color and resolve subplots. There’s so many things that are half-explored that could, on a TV show, get an entire episode or two all to themselves. Imagine an hour-long episode dedicated to the memory retrievals about Voldemort, another one that’s light about the love affairs of Hogwarts, a mid-season break episode about how Katie touches the cursed necklace that was intended to kill Dumbledore, a twinkly sweeps episode about how Harry finally (after spending one-two scenes per episode of trying) gets Slugworth to spill his secrets by getting him drunk, and of course, a two hour season finale where Harry and Dumbledore go to get the Horcrux in the necklace and then battle the Death Eaters at Hogwarts. Hour one could end with the dramatic poison-swallowing scene, and then they pick up in hour two with the daring escape, only to find Hogwarts besieged by Death Eaters when they return. Season six of “Harry Potter: The Series” could end with Snape cursing Dumbledore, and Dumbledore’s body flying off the tower. In a movie, they have to do it so quickly it loses its impact, but on TV, it could be spectacular. You could also get audience members who haven’t read the book so involved in the characters—and you could have time to construct red herrings, etc.—that you could actually get them to an emotional point where Dumbledore’s death is a surprise. As it is, in the movie, it’s neither surprising nor impacting. Believe me; I’m a blubbering baby at movies. I cried like 4 separate times during “Up”. But I wasn’t even tempted when Dumbledore died.
This idea is so good that no one should allow the existence of the movies to thwart it. Imagine if they did up “Harry Potter” like they did “Lost” (to steal Marc’s example). Hell, you could probably get JJ Abrams to direct. With a budget like “Lost”, you could do some amazing shit with “Harry Potter”, especially since you don’t need to shoot on location in Hawaii. Do the same thing that they did in the movies: cast a bunch of unknown kids in the main roles, but populate the supporting roles with beloved character actors. Can you imagine Anthony Stewart Head as Snape, for instance? Ricky Gervais could come on for season six to play Slugworth. These are just the first actors to come to mind—I’m eager to hear your suggestions in comments. Since you’d follow the books’ format and have one season per book per year of school, the kids would age in real time over seven years. I have very little doubt that they’d get a return on the investment, since Harry Potter fans are fanatical, and because it’s on TV, they’d be able to pull in a lot of people who are curious about the story, but don’t want to put the effort into reading the books or watching the movies. But flipping on the TV? They were going to do that anyway.
The problem with turning novels into movies instead of TV shows has always been this one, unless they’re plot-and-character void novels like anything Michael Crichton has written. Movies, even those that run nearly 3 hours long, are more like short stories than novels, and TV shows, with the space for digression and intricate plots twists, are more like novels. But in a perverse irony, movies and TV shows have the reverse prestige of short stories and novels, and so the temptation is to take higher prestige novels and turn them into movies. I have no doubt that this was the logic of turning “Harry Potter” into movies instead of TV shows. TV seemed too cheap for the series, especially back when they were first selling the story to Hollywood. But in the years since, prestige TV projects like “The Wire” and yes, even “Lost” have changed the equation considerably. A lot of TV shows are hands-down better than a lot of movies now, especially since the taboo against having intricate plot lines that make it hard to enter the story halfway in have been lifted. Though you probably wouldn’t have that problem with “Harry Potter”, which makes it even more appealing as a TV series. Viewers could enter at any time they’d like, and grasp the basic idea that Voldemort was bad and he’s coming back, which would be enough of a hook to get them to stay and piece together the rest.
I’ll forgive you, Hollywood, if you think that it should be a few years before it’s tasteful to reboot “Harry Potter” as a TV series. Get people’s hunger for the stories and characters up again. But you should still do it, and do it right—budget, actors, seven year run, good writing staff and directors, the whole nine yards. Because these movies are leaving people unsatisfied. In the meantime, I will say that seeing “Half Blood Prince” has given me the enthusiasm to reread the last book of the series again.