Once upon a time, a total Harry Potter superfan took a total Harry Potter newbie to see the last Harry Potter film. This is what happened. (Be warned: SPOILERS await!)
ADAM B. VARY: The final Harry Potter movie is finally upon us, Dan, and I could scarcely be more excited. One big reason? I will be seeing Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2 seated next to someone who has never seen a Harry Potter movie nor read any of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books: you.
Before we embark on our cinematic adventure – me, the wizened Albus Dumbledore to your fresh-out-of-the-Dursley’s-cupboard-under-the-stairs Harry Potter – I have one question: What do you know (or think you know) about Harry Potter?
DAN SNIERSON: We can start here: Who’s Mrs. Dursley? Clearly, I’ll be reduced to fake-gasping at long-hinted-at revelations and totally not getting inside jokes about characters’ established foibles. Which is why I have mixed feelings about embarking on this experiment.
I’m a pop culture completist – I don’t join franchises in the middle (or end) of their run because you miss all sorts of winks, nods, layers, payoffs, meaning. But I’ll break my rule this once to be your guinea pig, Adam, so we can see if one can jump on the Potter bandwagon at the last minute and still be entertained. And make no mistake, I’m one ignorant little guinea pig. I’d written off Potter as simply a children’s book phenomenon, like R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps or Paris Hilton’s Confessions of an Heiress. But as the Potter chatter continued to pour out of the mouths of friends and colleagues, I realized it was more than that, so I cupped my ears to protect myself from spoilers. Here’s all that leaked into my brain: Harry Potter goes to magic school (Hogwarts), presumably falls for Hermione (pronounced herm-ee-own?), and either has a best friend or enemy in that red-headed kid (is this a Team Edward/Team Jacob thing?). Together, they must save their world from an evil perpetrated by the Hellraiser-ish Lord Voldemort and Snape, which is one of my favorite silly names of all-time.
ADAM: Merlin’s beard, you know even less than I had expected. This is delightful. I, too, am really interested to know just how much satisfaction can be gained from watching the very end of a major franchise. The fact that you are walking into your Harry Potter experience with such a clean slate makes you a perfect candidate for this pop-culture experiment. I don’t even have to do an Obliviate charm on you.
Let’s slip on our 3-D glasses, and make the magic happen!
ADAM: Dan, I have many questions for you – and I imagine you have even more for me. But let’s start with just this: Did you enjoy the film?
DAN: More than I thought! I had to triple-focus to catch all the references hurtling past me, but it had many of the elements I’d look for in a magic-y movie: Adventure, wonderment, horror, and all sorts of wands! (I have many questions about wands and their power capabilities.) The film was also much darker (literally and figuratively) than I’d imagined. There’s a bit of a Empire Strikes Back gravitas to this film. (I assume the franchise didn’t start off this dark?) How did this play for a superfan? As someone who has invested years and tears into this franchise, did you find that it lived up to your dreams? Do you feel sated, sad, or both?
ADAM: Your phrasing is perfect: I feel sated, sad, and satisfied. I laughed, I cried, I cheered, and I’m lucky if I do all of that together once a year in a movie theater. Of course, the intensity of those emotions could never be as potent as what I felt four years ago reading the final Harry Potter book. And I did catch myself multiple times noting when the movie deviated from J.K. Rowling’s text, in ways both big and small. I’m seeing the movie again (and not in 3-D, something we can discuss a bit later), so I’ll be curious to see if my checklist of Things From The Book I Wanted To See On Screen fades away and I can just enjoy the film on its own terms.
I am unequivocally thrilled, however, that despite your utter lack of Potter knowledge, the film still somehow worked for you. I’m also not that surprised; I suspected the reason the story has resonated with hundreds of millions worldwide would be the same reason coming in at the end wouldn’t be that bad. And to answer your (first) question, the franchise did indeed start much much brighter – 2001’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is a true blue children’s movie (much like the book its based on is skewed to a tween readership).
But I want to know more! What was most confusing for you?
DAN: The first few scenes were challenging; my hard drive was spinning furiously, trying to figure out how and why Harry & co. had come to be in the house of a slightly shady hobbit-goblin creature.
ADAM: He’s just called a goblin. Hobbits are a completely different fantasy world altogether!
DAN: Thanks, buddy, but I have seen Lord of the Ri—
ADAM: – and his name’s Griphook. And it wasn’t his house, it was Ron’s brother Bill and his wife Fleur’s beach house, which used to be owned by one of Bill and Ron’s aunts. I mean, obviously.
DAN: You’re going to be doing a lot of nerdy, condescending correcting, aren’t you?
ADAM: Who are you calling nerdy? But more importantly, what did you make of all the horcrux magical hoobidagoo?
DAN: Oh, “horcrux”! I thought they were saying “hall crux”!
ADAM: That’s bloody brilliant.
DAN: The big-picture concept was somewhat clear to me – people in epic tales are usually trying to find their Moby Dick or complete special missions en route to defeating some superbaddie. I just felt clueless about – but intrigued by – the magic aspect. Exactly which powers – and weaknesses – did certain wizards have? Which rules must be followed and which can be bent? Does the Potterverse tend to tweak the conventions of magic, or cling gloriously to them? And since we’re asking questions, was Hermione known for disguising herself – like she did in the form of Bellatrix Lestrange? And if so, did it – or another magic spell – feel like a dramatic cheat?
ADAM: Hermione used a brew called Polyjuice Potion, which first showed up way back in the second film/book, and actually has been one of the most common magical powers used in the larger Potter series. So of all the convenient magical cheats that fill the Potter series, this is at least one of the most well established.
DAN: What about that spell-negating waterfall in the bank vault? Why wouldn’t every institution place one of those bad boys out front to prevent mass dupery?
ADAM: Everyone would get wet! I mean, you could also ask why all banks don’t have metal detectors and x-ray scanners outside their entrances – it’s impractical, and vaguely fascist. You raise a good point about bringing magic into any story, though: It is all too easy to use it as a storytelling crutch, a perpetual deus ex machina. But Rowling, bless her, is by and large a stickler for internal logic, so usually the world of magic in her stories follows certain practical, common-sensical rules. Like: Gringotts Bank prides itself on its many layers of security, so a Thief’s Downfall is really only necessary for those crafty enough to get inside.
DAN: But that crazy powerful wand – the Elder Wand? It’s powerful enough to override the waterfall, right?
ADAM: I’m going to say… probably, although goblins are crafty creatures, so you’d have to do some crafty magic with that wand to make it up. But enough super-geeky quibbling (for now): What did you really enjoy about the film?
DAN: Just this grand sense of destiny for Harry, infused with doom but also adventure and possibility. I was tickled by the bank cave jaunt – and the multiplying H.R. Huffenpufflestuff cups – and enjoyed the wanky wand battles. They’re not quite light sabers, but I engaged with the idea of different wands wielding different powers, and that wands may not offer un-rightful new owners their full powers. I will say that I was expecting more use of 3-D, especially when it came to the wands. The 3-D felt mostly superfluous.
ADAM: Look, there were fleeting moments where the 3-D “worked.” The best moment for me was likely Harry’s venture into the vast, ethereal Kings Cross Station, where 3-D really did enhance the feeling that it was an infinite void. But mostly, the 3-D was just a massive distraction. I mean, there was a scene where it looked like Hermione traveled 25 feet to walk towards Harry, instead of the 10 feet she really traveled. Drove me bonkers.
DAN: Did Harry get to take the A train to Purgatory because he’s special? What resonates from that scene is when Dumbledore tells Harry, “Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?” If you don’t smile at that line, you have a black hole where a heart should be. Oh, and speaking of heart, it was so easy to root for that underdog dude, Neville Longbottom. When he stabbed the snake, was that his passage-into-manhood moment for the entire series?
ADAM: Yup, it most definitely was – warms my heart that you zeroed in on Neville’s arc even though you only saw the final bit of it. And to answer your other questions: Harry got to go to “purgatory” because he is, indeed, special – in that he had a sliver of Voldy’s soul attached to his own soul that Voldy then eradicated with the Avada Kedavra spell. So Harry’s “death” was, in a technical/magical sense, conditional. (Dumbledore’s line, by the way, is one of my absolute favorites from Harry Potter – it comes straight from the book, and is as brilliant a summary of imagination as I’ve ever read.)
DAN: Here’s something else I’m curious about. Did the love story, or really love stories, work for you? I realize that there is a truckload of backstory I’m missing here, but I didn’t feel any rush of emotion or “Yeah, this makes total sense” when Harry hooked up with what’s her name… Ginny? I guess the soaking-wet kiss between Hermione and Ron felt slightly more organic, but I was kind of rooting for Harry and Hermione to wind up together. And I’m guessing you’re scrunching your face in disgust because you’re about to tell me, “No, they’re like brother and sister!”
ADAM: Well, they are like brother and sister, but you make a very good point, one that colleagues of ours have also made about the Harry/Ginny romance: It’s terribly undercooked in the films, and to a lesser extent in the books. There was even a scene added to Deathly Hallows – Part 1 in which Harry and Hermione, alone in a tent, dance together to some Muggle music, so I see your point. But I was still definitely rooting for Hermione and Ron – I guess that’s a clear example of how not seeing their relationship grow from film to film undercuts that climactic kiss in the Chamber of Secrets. Which is very much not how it was in the books, by the way, but to explain that would mean explaining what S.P.E.W. stands for, and I’d just as soon leave you in suspense for the books on that one. Still, I think I cheered when they kissed, or maybe applauded? There was a fair amount of that in our screening.
DAN: The biggest reaction was the loud clapping – and your “YEAHHHH!” cheer – when the old Hogwarts lady called Lestrange a “bitch” and wanded her to smitherenes. Guess that one was a long time coming.
ADAM: So many things going on in that response that are just adorable, from calling Ron’s mother “the old Hogwarts lady” to calling Bellatrix by her last name (which to a Potter fan just looks kinda, well, “le strange,” like a Lost newbie referring to Kate as “Austen”). But, yes, that one was a long time coming – and “Not my daughter, you bitch!” also ranks up there as one of the all-time great lines in Potterdom.
Okay, time for a lightening (scar) round: The death of Severus Snape. Go.
DAN: Trying to process that scene was like attempting to solve a giant puzzle in 180 seconds with a third of the pieces missing. That said, it was moving stuff, and I know I’m just scratching the emotional surface. Alan Rickman seemed to capture a man who teemed with conflict and one who, at death’s door, was finally allowed to unburden himself.
ADAM: For someone who just scratched the surface, you cut right to the core of the matter – beyond your own story parsing acumen, I chalk that up to Rickman’s acting and Steve Kloves’ expert adapted screenplay. Okay, next question: You mentioned earlier how dark this movie was. What did you make of that?
DAN: Brits don’t get tons of sun? I really did enjoy the heaviness of watching Harry walk through Hogwarts after Snape’s death not as savior, but as someone who’s indirectly responsible for heaping death and injury on the students.
ADAM: That walk, amid all that rubble and grief, was maybe the darkest moment in the entire series. But I also appreciated how, at the very end, after Voldemort has been vanquished, Harry walks again through the same space and is greeted with no more than knowing, grateful nods from those around him. It was quintessentially British – no American-style back-slapping or slow-clap applause.
DAN: Speaking of death and Voldemort, earlier in the film, why didn’t he check to see if Harry was really dead? He just trusted, um, I don’t know her name?
ADAM: And why would you? She’s barely in the film! That was Narcissa Malfoy, Draco’s mother. And I think I know where you’re going with this…
DAN: Tough logic leap. If I were in a movie with a crazy villain, I’d still be pumping bullets into his corpse as the morticians were taking the body away.
ADAM: I hear you. James Hibberd brought up the same problem in his movie recap, so this catches up even major Potter fans. The best I can say is that Voldemort was wounded, and making a lot of rash decisions, so he maybe wasn’t at his best. Also, in the fifth movie/book, he is described as one of the best mind-readers in the magical world – Rowling calls it “legilimency” – so perhaps his hubris that no one would dare lie to him was reason enough to trust Harry was dead.
DAN: Bless your heart, B. Vary, you are a true believer.
ADAM: Finally, the “19 years later” epilogue – it brings such a poignant sense of full-circle closure to Harry’s story, true Potter-heads have been aching to see this scene on screen since they first read it. But I’m wondering, did it work for you?
DAN: It certainly showed that the cycle continues: There will be a new Potter to assume the Guardian of Good post. That said, what if it had ended after Harry breaks the wand and throws it off the bridge? (A wizard can’t retrieve it and put it back together, right?) I don’t know, there was just a great feeling of… open road in that moment.
ADAM: Yeeeeah, I think the Warner Bros. lot would’ve been invaded by a mob of angry Potter fans if that epilogue hadn’t made the final cut.
So, Dan, having seen the very end of this very long story, are you any more or less interested in going back and seeing how it all started?
DAN: Obviously, part of the surprise has been ruined – I opened my gifts before Christmukkah began – but I can find plenty of little presents in the holidays leading up to it. I want to know more about the origins and mechanics of Hogwarts. (How does being in a certain house shape your wizarding skills? Do some wizards train outside Hogwarts instead?) I have a feeling that Snape will become one of my favorite nuanced characters, so I’m eager to find out how he came to play both sides of the coin. And I’m wondering how the books/movies play the dynamic between magicians and Muggles. (Are there doomed relationships between the two? Are Muggles mocked as the unchosen ones?)
ADAM: I could answer these questions for you, but at this point, I think I should just lend you the books instead.
DAN: I already swiped the first few from your office. But you probably won’t figure this out because I totally Confundus Charm-ed you.
ADAM: Dan, you’re learning already!
DAN: Also, you’re kind of disorganized.
ADAM: Ah, yes. There’s a spell for that here somewhere…
What is your favorite Harry Potter film?
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