Deathly Hallows (Part 1): A Reader’s Movie Notes

I really struggle with writing movie reviews.

I don’t know about you, but I roll my eyeballs at film criticism written by serious book readers in which the reviewer just doesn’t get beyond a throw-away acknowledgment that screened images and printed text are different media so the stories are necessarily different. Reading all the changes made in the jump from page to celluloid, be it in the Potter and Twilight franchises or in Narnia and Middle Earth, especially when these changes are noted with disapproval, disappointment, and a dismissive dismay at what the film-going reader experiences as something like heresy or sacrilege, leaves me marveling that anyone in the 21st Century still doesn’t understand that the movie experience is not and cannot be the reader’s experience of story. (Prof. Baird Hardy, of course, gets it just right.)

As C. S. Lewis wrote, the range of emotions that a film can deliver is relatively narrow, essentially sentiment and fear — and fear only of the heart-racing type you get from something chasing you! No surprise, then, that the first blockbuster Narnia movie adaptation featured a five minute chase scene and epic battle neither of which were in the book as more than a few paragraphs. It’s a given that the subtleties of reading experience are lost in film and one can only hopes they are replaced by a subtlety in lighting and camera angle to replicate something of the book’s meaning and experience. Beyond the obligatory chase, that is.

When Harry, Ron, and Hermione are chased through the woods by Snatchers, then, in the latest Harry Potter film, a totally atextual event inserted as the obligatory flight-from-pursuing-danger-scene, readers watching the film have the option of disappointment consequent to the departure from a beloved story experience or enjoying the re-told story for what it’s worth. The absence of Kreacher’s trip to the Cave? Peter Pettigrew’s new lease on life? I don’t doubt that other reviewers in fandom and the popular media have already taken both routes and that we will will soon have a Wikipedia page listing everything the film ‘left out’ or altered (here’s the nearest thing I could find).

My problem is, as a book guy and an expert on Deathly Hallows specifically The Deathly Hallows Lectures remains the only book devoted to the world’s most anticipated and fastest selling novel — I inevitably write when reviewing film that the movies adapted from written stories stink because they don’t do what the text does. Sorry. Not knowing how films work as art, all I get is how far short of their source material they fall.

If you understand and can accept this failing of mine, here are three points that I think are of Paramount importance (sic) for understanding the book version of Deathly Hallows, points of artistry and meaning I believe created the delight and satisfaction of the series’ finale in biblio-form. All three are absent from the film and I hope to start a conversation about how these omissions affect our movie experience. I think they reflect the chasm separating book and movie as art and want to hear what you think.


Eyes are the predominant symbolism of Deathly Hallows. We have the ‘triangular eye’ of the Deathly Hallows symbol itself, the disembodied eye of Mad-Eye Moody that Harry rescues and buries, the singular blue eye in the God-father’s mirror fragment, the two eyes of the Locket Horcrux, and, lest we forget, the green eyes of Lily Potter in Harry’s head that are reminders to Severus Snape of his great love, great crime, and great obligation. The book is largely about ‘transformed vision’ in the tradition of Romantic fantasy in English literature post Coleridge as we discussed earlier this week and the many Eyes of Deathly Hallows drive this home (see chapter 5 of The Deathly Hallows Lectures for much more on this and my essay on ‘Names’ in the new Harry Potter Smart Talk).

Remarkably, we don’t get any of those five eyes in Part 1.

  • As with the other films, no one says, “Ah, but he has Lily’s eyes…”
  • We see Mad-Eye’s eye in Umbridge’s door but Harry doesn’t take it, lament it, or bury it.
  • The Locket Horcruxes two red Riddle eyes are no shows.
  • The Hallows pendant Lovegood wears at the wedding and shows the trio in his ziggurat is three-dimensional and suggestive of an eye in that respect, but no one calls it an eye.
  • Harry doesn’t see Dumbledore’s eye in the mirror fragment in his bedroom but a full facial cameo.

This last, as we’ll see, is the biggest departure both in symbolic weight and in meaning that was made in the transition from book to movie.

Alchemical Scaffolding and Holidays:

I devote a whole chapter in The Deathly Hallows Lectures to the detailed alchemical symbolism of the Saga’s finale, from the Alchemical Wedding of the Red King and White Queen to the golden apples and white rose of the Epilogue. One of the neater and more interesting aspects of Ms. Rowling’s hermetic artistry was the link she made in the book between each alchemical stage — black, white, and red — and the three Christian holidays of the story: Christmas in Godric’s Hollow, Harry’s Baptism and Ron the Baptist’s Epiphany in the Forest of Dean, and the Easter rising from Dobby’s grave and Rubedo resurrection in  the Battle of Hogwarts.

The Forest of Dean scene was the best of the lot in terms of fidelity to the story. Traditional Christians call the Lord’s baptism in the Jordan (and all subsequent baptisms) a photismos, or ‘enlightening.’ I thought Ron’s description of the light entering his heart at Christmas and his heroic repentance in the pool and in destroying his demons via the Locket Horcrux were wonder-full screen versions of Rowling’s story.

Dobby’s burial (on the beach? oi) was a non-starter, however, for what is the pivotal scene of the book in which Harry decides he must believe in the Headmaster despite his misgivings. The nigredo nightmare of Harry’s escape from Bethilda Bagshot, too, is frightening, if only like a car chase, alas, and doesn’t lead to the novel’s nadir back in the tent. As you recall, I’m sure, in the turning point of the book, Harry denies Dumbledore and that Albus ever loved him.

Ring Composition Double Axis

As I explain in my Ring Composition lecture notes, Deathly Hallows has two story axes, beginning-middle-and-end. Like Half-Blood Prince, there are parallel sets of story starters-turns-and closers in Hallows with complementary meanings. There is the Snape-Voldemort-Harry storyline that begins in Malfoy Manor, turns in ‘The Silver Doe,’ and has its complete-the-circle climax in Harry’s battle with the Dark Lord in the Great Hall at Hogwarts.

Running alongside it is the Faith-In-Dumbledore axis. Harry reads about The Life and Lies of Albus Dumbledore in the second chapter and declares he will never look into the eye of the Headmaster ever again, he reads that very book in the story center and denies Dumbledore in the nigredo-nadir mentioned above, and, of course, in the penultimate chapter he meets with Dumbledore, the radiant dead man, at King’s Cross, and finds he knows the answers to all his questions after Dumby explains all the issues raised in the opening and center chapters.

As noted, we don’t get the eyeball and expression of doubt or at least ‘no-faith’ in the opening mirror fragment scene in Harry’s bedroom. Instead we get a cameo of the Headmaster that Harry, far from denying he saw it, embraces so that when he gets in a jam at Malfoy Manor he whips out the mirror fragment like it is his secret Maxwell Smart cell phone and asks with no little surety for help. In the novel, this is Harry’s great leap of desperate faith that he only attempts because the eye appears where his ‘I’ should be again. A grateful Harry, unwilling and unable to deny the Eye’s existence and help, accepts the reality of the transcendent Eye/I as his identity; he rises from Dobby’s grave a changed man and Horcrux Hunter rather than a young man looking to defeat the Dark Lord and death with the Hallows.

I don’t doubt that we’ll get a King’s Cross scene in Part II, but will it mean anything when the beginning and center of this story axis have been stripped of their ‘struggling for faith’ meaning? I have my doubts that this is possible. The movie story, consequently and alas, is an substantively different story than the book. It’s not about Harry’s struggle to believe in Dumbledore. It’s just a ‘Beat the Bad Guy’ story.

I think there are two explanations for this radical change in focus.

First, of course, is that I have missed how the director delivers this same kind of personal crisis of faith and transformation to his audience because, admittedly, I know nothing about the artistry of film — pacing, lighting, camera angles, shot length, etc. Maybe this is a function of my ignorance about how to read a movie.

That is certainly possible. But I doubt it.

We have a precedent for this kind of story stripping that keeps Harry ‘likable’ and his experiences palatable, inoffensive, so that the film audience isn’t challenged in the way that they could be. The film of Order of the Phoenix, easily the darkest of the Potter novels, was released two weeks prior to the publication of Deathly Hallows. I don’t think I’m being especially cynical for believing that CAPSLOCK Harry was stripped from Phoenix, most notably in the Headmaster’s office at movie’s end, because the guardians of the multi-billion dollar film franchise didn’t want Daniel Radcliffe (and he is Harry to most film goers and perhaps even to himself) to be a bad boy or even just a kid going through a rough spell right before the finale’s release. The function of the films in the Potter franchise is to promote without damaging the marketability of the hero. Enraged Harry tearing up Albus’ office and breaking his things isn’t going to help book sales, Universal theme park attendance, or sales of little Potter action figures.

I think we see the same thing in the stripping of Harry’s faith-in-Dumbledore issues from the movie. He remains a Dumbledore Man Through and Through throughout the movie. Unfortunately, the loss of Harry’s faith and the Human Heart’s return to the Divine Mind despite its doubts, is the freight of the book’s allegorical and anagogical artistry and meaning. Without them, we are left with a superficial shadow of the story.

I don’t think that makes it a bad movie necessarily. I believe that movies, as sense perception experiences, are necessarily as different from imaginative-identification experiences in reading as mundane chemistry is from spiritual Alchemy. What I love about the movies, as Travis Prinzi taught me, is that they act as trailers to the books; movie goers come to the greater experience because they enjoyed the taste or hint of the novels’ power that they had in the cinema.

So I’m not lamenting the stripping, I hope, just noting it. I am grateful, as always, for your comments and corrections, especially if anyone can give me a short course in cinematography so I can understand the good parts of this story-telling — my boys and I had a great time watching it, after all — as well as I do the lacunae and dumbing down of the story in the film.


  1. John,

    I’m confused by your opening lines – are you saying that people give a throw-away head nod to different medium only to later rag on a movie for not delivering as a book does? If so, I say preach it.

    If not, are you saying that movies should deliver as books?

    thanks for clarifying, in advance.

    much love.

  2. I’m saying that people who expect a film to do what a book does as a book does are looking for a lion to fly like an eagle. It cannot happen.

    Having said that, for films to neglect the artistry and meaning of a book that is supposed to the basis of movies means they can only be re-tellings in screened images of the surface narrative with little of the moral and none of the allegorical and anagogical layers.

    I allow, however, that there is probably an artistry to film making totally removed from the nuance and traditions of printed texts that delivers edifying experience. I don’t know anything about that and submit that my ignorance on this subject restricts what I can say about a movie to what I do know, namely, what the book has that the movie doesn’t.

    I have to confess, as I do in the opening, that I find this kind of lamentation and dismissal of film boring and pointless, ultimately. Alas, it’s all that I have to offer! I hope that answers your question.

  3. Thank you for this review, John. After viewing DHp1 I was disappointed at the lack of the questioning faith/Dumbledore storyline but I didn’t quite equate that omission as the cause for my emptiness – or rather a lack of emotional connection to the film. I blamed the score for not providing the right emotional pitch to this movie. Now I understand and you are right, they took the human out of Harry and made him a super hero. I feel better now. (The snobby musician in me still holds the score could have been better, however).

  4. thanks, John for struggling through the movie review, we appreciate it. It’s amusing that you said you “roll your eyeballs” at certain film criticism. Harry Potter could do with a really long BBC series to explore all the layers of meaning. The Warner Bros. films are certainly good family entertainment, and if they lead more people to the books, that’s encouraging. Personally, I never would have read Last of the Mohicans if I hadn’t seen the film back in the 80s and the film was radically altered from the book’s plot. So feature films do help to put a face on each character and that helps bring the book character more to life for some of us.

  5. Maggiemay, I still aver that Mohicans is one of those very few cases in which the film is actually a better artistic work than the book (and I’ve said this in class but no one has threatened to un-teacher me yet!). In fact, Jessica, I think the score is one of the reasons for its great success as a film. With a soundtrack like that, I could whallop Magua, too!

  6. gotcha. Yeah, I agree with you – which is why Watchmen the movie cannot do what watchmen the graphic novel did (even though it mimicked it scene-for-scene, word for word.)

    The key to understanding screenplays (and to writing them for any writers out there) is conflict. Visual art, as you may know, builds the majority of its meaning and delivery off of contrast. This is why people love gray-scale – it turns everything into blacks and whites. To understand a painting is to see it by contrast. Some people argue that all of life is like this, but I disagree.

    Screenplays, however, are most certainly like this. Take good screenplays – Meet the Parents, for example – and look at every scene, then every sequence, then the screenplay as a whole. Each division has a set-up, a conflict, and a pay off. The whole movie builds that conflict until resolution.

    Why would alchemists and ravenclaws care about this? Because of the resolution of contraries. To maximize the visual effect in a screenplay of what Rowling is getting at, you have to play off of colors using HUGE, sweeping dynamics like Tchaicovsky’s music – large crescendos, decrescendos from ppp to FFFF.

    Which is why I loved the first scene in the forest of Dean. From dull, drab, greyscale, blue-washed muck and mire to a white-washed, snow-covered silver screen. That perspective shot made the whole movement for me. my wife gasped in a breath of air and whispered out, “snow!” To do it right, you have to use the contrast – and then resolution – to its maximum potential. Your narrative misdirection is functionally shot. There is little time for astrology. The post-modern stuff is either all there (sky high) or just mentioned in passing (iron man). Traditional symbolism, unless it’s Tolkien himself, needs to take up LARGE chunks of the script. We don’t see mythical creatures all that much on the center screen – the care of magical creatures class gets only honorable mentions.

    So what does that leave? The alchemy. And that’s why I loved the wedding scene. Dark purple works for me – it still represents the gold movement AND it contrasts with the dull, drab, yellowish acreage of Yate’s version of the Burrow. Why does Luna’s bright sun dress stick out?

    Because everyone else is wearing dark purple. Good film = good contrast.

  7. I like your comments on the film and understand the disappointment with what was left out. I feel similarly whenever I see a Harry Potter film. However, I have decided to take the films for what they are, and let my knowledge of the books “fill in” in my head for what’s missing. I think this last film is one of the most faithful to the books, with the notable (and regrettable) absence of Harry’s anguish over Dumbledore and his motives. I am looking forward to part 2, and hope they do a decent job with Harry’s sacrifice and Snape’s revelations. I feel most sorry for people who watch the movies without having read the books, since I think those who know the stories can, as I do, fill in what’s missing. We can always re-read!

  8. Actually the movie franchise started to disappoint me with all the missteps in Goblet. Dumbledore lost all his mysticism. After all, shouldn’t a master alchemist have a different sort of insight into the goings on?

  9. My biggest disappointment with the film version of OOTP was the omission of Harry’s meltdown in Dumbledore’s office. Without it the significance of Siruis’ death and everything else gets lost. That said, I still liked the movie. I agree that the spiritual heft of DH 2 will be lost unless we have some inkling that Harry has chosen to believe Dumbledore. DH1 left enough clues (Muriel’s and Ron’s comments for example) to have me think that there will be something more in DH2, but it won’t have anywhere near the same weight as the book. I think that to do this subplot justice, you would probably need it to be a separate movie in itself. I’d rather have the movie leave it alone rather than mess it up. To my uncinematic mind, it’s the ability to see people’s expressions — the focus on unspoken gestures and looks — that make me like the movies. To me, that’s where the movie version actually fills in the blanks from the books. Needless to say, I loved the dance scene with Harry and Hermione.¶

  10. Rebecca S. says

    First of all, I have discovered that whenever I see a movie after having read the book the first viewing of the movie is all about what was or was not in the book. The second viewing is when I can just enjoy the movie.
    It seems to me that the difference between book and movie is so extreme that it is like the difference between “Morte D’Arthur” and the “Sword and the Stone” – two different takes on a common story theme. They have to be enjoyed as completely separate entities.
    (After the second viewing of the movie I usually reread the book.)

  11. For this particular kind of story, one of the most obvious limitations of film is depicting scenes where one character disguises himself as another, especially if you want the narrative to not require much concentration to follow. (In a book, it can always say “Harry did this, Harry did that”, and we don’t get confused just because he’s in Goyle’s body.)

    The movies’ solution has been to have the disguised character retain his “real” voice, but this was applied inconsistently — the fourth film didn’t bother to have David Tennant (as Barty Crouch Jr) do all of Brendan Gleeson’s lines (as fake-Moody). The problem here, of course, that Polyjuice Potion is supposed to fool everyone. It would have been a giveaway to Dumbledore if his friend Alastor didn’t sound like himself — yet in the Ministry scene in the seventh film, the coworkers of Cattermole, Runcorn and Hopkirk don’t notice anything funny about their voices. Oh well. (My fix if this problem is faced in some distant remake: Either invent a new magical thingamajig that allows a person to hear her transformed co-conspirators with their original voices, or, more difficult, do away with Polyjuice altogether.)

    Some of the omitted moments noted here would have been impossible to include without getting into Harry’s head. By extension, the audience who had only seen the films would lack certain reminders (whereas it’s quite easy for a viewpoint narration to point out similarities to something from three books ago). In particular, had Harry taken the Mad Eye from Umbridge’s door, half the audience would think “Huh? What a weird thing to do!” He would have to talk to himself: “That’s Moody’s eye, not just some eye stuck on a door! It doesn’t belong here.”

    All the stuff about doubting Dumbledore may likewise have been difficult without head-narration. Of course, I myself didn’t find it engaging to begin with, perhaps because I’m not compelled by the “moral” that we should trust the good guys no matter what they seem to be doing or thinking. (While I tremendously enjoyed the fifth book — really! — I did find it problematic that people are “supposed” to accept Dumbledore’s word just because his name is Dumbledore, in the absence of convincing evidence of Voldemort’s return.)

    Anyway, it just felt annoying that Dumbledore had all these dark secrets, but none of his enemies, such as Fudge or Skeeter, had bothered to mention them. Harry confronting the living Dumbledore over the skeletons in his closet — that might have been compelling. But after the man’s death, it doesn’t seem to matter anyway. Now, if Rowling had somehow figured out a way for Harry to doubt the necessity of defeating Voldemort… golly. (But that would take an overhaul, due to just how evil the Dark Lord is.)

    My overall feeling is that the books are fine comic fantasy mysteries and the films more or less do their best to make the stuff work on screen — sometimes, I think, outright improving the actual sequence of events into something that makes more sense, is more dramatically compelling, or is simply easier to follow without sacrificing anything.

  12. Actually, I’m compelled to list one thing I wish they’d included: The freeing of the Muggle-borns! The characters accomplish something undeniably heroic, and the filmmakers thought there wouldn’t be time for it. Instead they chose to have the Polyjuice wear off earlier so there could be the image of Mrs. Cattermole kissing her husband-oh-wait-he’s-not-ha-ha.

    In the book, I thought this line and what followed was a major highlight: “Okay, all of you who haven’t got wands need to attach yourself to somebody who has. We’ll need to be fast before they stop us. Come on.” It felt like actual freedom-fighting, which is often a series of small victories, not just a struggle to destroy the single-linchpin-of-all-evil. (Plus, I love the comic/dramatic way Harry has to switch between telling the Muggle-borns “I’m really a good guy! Get out while there’s time!”, and telling the other Ministry workers “Do what I say or I’ll use my Nazi authority and punish you for having Muggle relatives”. “)

  13. Catherine Rose says

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