I can scarcely believe I’m doing this…
Saw the Potterocalypse. Well crafted. I’ve had worse afternoons in the cinema.
One of the most interesting things about the films is how much better they are than the books. That goes for all of them. This last is no exception.
Rowling is a poor novelist but Kloves is an excellent adaptor. It’s quite amazing how he streamlines the windy, pompous, digression-ridden plots so that audiences can follow them without flowcharts.
Also, the films have always made Harry easier to like than the books, partly because Radcliffe is naturally likeable and partly because cinema can’t give us what Rowling insists on foisting upon readers: unfettered access to Harry’s every self-obsessed, uncharitable, weak-willed, petulant thought. Again, in this latest film, Kloves helps mightily by snipping out acres of Potterian sulking and obsessing over irrelevancies, like the ancient and brief moral failures of mentors, etc..
Harry’s wobbles over loyalty to his dead headmaster go on for faaaaaar toooooo loooooong in the book… and yet, in the film, even after all the set-up from the last film, we get only the briefest hint of Aberforth’s resentments before Harry states that he trusted Dumbledore And That’s All There Is To It. Harry doesn’t even ask the spectral Dumbledore about it in the dream/afterlife bit (which is filmed in a pleasingly 2001: A Space Odyssey-ish way). I’m not complaining about this, but it’s odd how breezy is the treatment of the whole Dark Dumbledore Backstory in Deathly Hallows Part 2, given how much attention the set-up stuff (i.e. conversations at the wedding, Rita Skeeter’s book) gets in Deathly Hallows Part 1. This is an odd but ultimately minor stumble, largely because this subplot is fundamentally uninteresting and they are quite right to sideline it.
One of the worst of Rowling’s many, many, many flaws as a novelist is that she doesn’t understand her own characters. She knows who she wants them to be… no, hang on… a better way of putting it would be that she knows how she wants her readers to view them, but this often fails to jive with how they actually behave. For example, she damn-nigh instructs the reader to love Harry because he’s kind and brave and heroic and full of love, etc. etc. etc. ad nauseum, but actually depicts him (especially in the final book) as a thoughtless, selfish, grumpy, maudlin, indecisive, clueless little irritant.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with having a flawed hero – especially if that hero is a teenage boy, since they’re usually pretty damn flawed – but it becomes a problem when the authorial voice fails to percieve the flaws, and has the embodiment of moral authority in the books (Dumbledore) treat Harry as though he’s a ruthlessly efficient intellectual humanitarian.
But then the embodiment of moral authority is deeply flawed too. His actions make him – to any disinterested observer – a cynical, calculating manipulator with a revolting streak of sentimentality and an outrageously brazen habit of indulgent and permissive favouritism towards certain of his pupils. Again, the author fails to notice this… to the point where, when she suddenly wants to introduce some fatuous ‘darkness’ into the character for the last book, she doesn’t just ask us to ponder the manipulativeness that the character already gives off in waves, but instead invents a baroquely overcomplicated backstory, of tenuous necessity to the main plot, in which she implies that Dumbledore was once briefly tempted by world domination because of a (to add insult to injury) youthful gay crush.
Kloves and Yates (and their actors) are more perceptive about Rowling’s characters than Rowling.
We see this in the movie of Half Blood Prince, which allows us to occasionally see Dumbledore as a manipulator, makes the Slughorn subplot work by subtly shifting him so that he becomes a fundamentally decent but lonely old man instead of a crass and venal twerp, and borderline-miraculously makes the Harry/Ginny romance seem credible by making Ginny resemble a human being with an independent moral identity which guides Harry back from the brink.
In Deathly Hallows Part 2, Kloves and Yates try to do something similar with Snape… however, for me, it doesn’t quite work. Or rather, it works… but it’s not particularly interesting.
In the final novel, Rowling pulls her usual trick of depicting the character one way through his actions but then implying (‘commanding’ might be more accurate) that the reader should judge him in a way that is inconsistent with them. We already know – from Half Blood Prince (the novel) that Snape informed Voldemort about Sybil Trelawney’s prophecy… which led Old Voldy (in a rare moment of proactivity) to hunt the Potters, believing that their infant son was a possible future nemesis. In Deathly Hallows (the novel), we learn that Snape is distraught by this because he loves Lily Potter. (In Rowlingworld, you meet the love of your life when you are both pre-pubescents and never waver from this. According to her, I should still be in love with a girl called Angharad who lived across from me when I was 7.)
But the thing is… Snape is bothered only by the danger to his beloved Lily. He doesn’t care about her husband or infant son getting killed. It’s clear that he wouldn’t care at all if Voldemort had interpreted the prophecy differently and gone after, say, the Longbottoms and baby Neville. In other words, he’s a selfish and callous shit. Rowling, however, seems to believe that a doglike devotion to one particular person redeems you, even if that person is dead and you care nothing for anyone living.
Now, Deathly Hallows Part 2 does not refer to the fact that it was Snape who told Voldemort about the prophecy. This strikes me as very important. The film goes all out to make the Snape story into a heartrending tragedy, so it has to whitewash him. It is impossible to go for the same intended effect of the book (i.e. poor Snape, he was a sad case really, he saw the light and bravely became… etc., etc.) while retaining one of the most crucial aspects of the book’s story. Snape’s culpability is actually first revealed in Half Blood Prince (novel), but the film version of HBP doesn’t mention it either. It has to be suppressed so that the films can carry off their avowed intent of making Snape a tragic hero.
The trouble is that whitewashing Snape’s worst crime and the selfish character of his subsequent regret, thus allowing audiences to percieve him as a tragic hero, actually squanders an opportunity to yank something genuinely interesting, possibly even challenging, from the rubble of Rowling’s mediocrity. Well-crafted as this final Potter movie undoubtedly is, most especially in the affecting and nuanced performance given by Rickman, it contents itself with being a mere tearjerker.
What if Kloves and Yates had shown us Snape’s full culpability, and refused to flinch from depicting the purely selfish nature of his regret? What if they had also refrained from mustering all the rhetoric of cinema to instruct the audience to feel sad for him? They could have avoided Rowling’s confused take on the character, offered a gargantuan audience something other than cliche and said something very unRowlingy on the subject of love.
You see, to Rowling, love – in the most simplistic form imaginable – conquers and excuses all. But for Snape – although Rowling seemingly never realised it – love was a selfish ravening monster and a form of moral myopia that paradoxically lead him to betray the leader who, in all other respects, was his perfect master.