On the Fidelity of Harry Potter Films to the Meaning of the Novels: A “Sola Script” Question

In case you don’t follow the Hogwarts Professor “recent comments” sidebar (it’s on your right), there has been some activity on the HogPro thread of a few months ago about Michael Gambon, the actor who plays Albus Dumbledore in the Warner Brothers movies, and his disclosure that he doesn’t read the books because he doesn’t need to in order to get the part right. I argued that his push-and-shove Dumbledore, mirabile dictu, post Deathly Hallows doesn’t seem that far off the mark after all. It may ruin how the story is supposed to work but the Deathly Hallows Machiavellian Dumby is all Gambon.

The news item that revived that lively conversation was the revelation that Julie Walters, the actress who plays Molly Weasley in the movies, is very much of the same school of thought as Mr. Gambon. She said:

“The funny thing was that a rumour went around once that I was an avid reader of the Harry Potter books and that I was always first in the queue when they came out.

“Not quite the case, I’m afraid. Someone caught me thumbing through one on a bookstand and all I was doing – I admit it – was checking whether or not JK Rowling, the author, had written my character out!

“It was out of pure self-interest. I got to the magic words ‘Mrs Weasley’, realised I wasn’t going to be the impending corpse and put the book back on the shelf.”

Daniel Radcliffe, of course, knew that he wasn’t going to be written out of the script before Deathly Hallows and he still read the books with more attention. In answer to the question “What surprised or shocked you the most?” he said:

Dobby’s death. He’s always been a comic character, in some ways. And that’s what makes it so powerful, I suppose. I’m sure Jo’s had that planned for a very long time. That was one of the bits that made me surprised. One of my other theories had been that Snape would end up being a sort of tragic hero, and so I was pleased to see that one in fact come through. That [idea] was given to me by a guy interviewing me, a while ago. He said he thought that would be the case. And I thought, Oh, that’s very good.

Nothing earth-shattering but he’s obviously a fan, even a serious reader. Reyhan added in a comment that deserves to be read in its entirety that:

Perhaps actors are not readers, or at least, no more so than the general population. Perhaps reading the source material is considered a technique, part of researching a character, which not all actors use or subscribe to. Perhaps the alternative technique of reading only the script is as common – or even more common – than reading the source material.

I have no way of knowing. But I do think that the assumption that reseearching the character makes for better depiction of a character may be flawed.

You (you the nameless Potter-addicted blog follower or contributor out there) may argue that had Gambon read the books he would have given us a more accurate Dumbledore. But we are not agreed upon our view of Dumbledor amongst ourselves, are we? Some of us see him as the benevolent and wise teacher and general. Others see him as the deceitful and manipulative master schemer. Some of us see him as loving and compassionate. Others see him as a cold-hearted user. Granted, none of us see him as capable of grabbing and manhandling the kids Gambon is regretfully all-to-prone to do. But maybe that is an expression of love, under deep layers of fear and anxiety, as TrudyK (above) suggests.

My point is, although we all seem to think we have a very good handle on DUmbledore, we don’t necessarily agree with each other. There is no “correct” handle on the man, so contradictory is he. So who’s to say that if Gambon had read the books his handle on Dumbledore would have been the correct one?

And my final point: perhaps researching a character is not related to acting ability. So even the deepest insight into a character will not help someone with a limited range convey that insight across the camera lens.

Pat, another HogPro All-Pro, disagreed and wrote that she thought Gambon’s performance almost certainly would have been better if he’d read the books (and that Walters probably escaped the type of gaffes that Gambon made because she played a more “familiar character — a mother.”

I want to take this conversation in a different direction, which, if not theological in any way (I couldn’t resist the “Sola Script” reference to “Sola Scriptura” Christians in the thread title), may be more meaningful than talk about actors and actresses per se. Let’s talk for a minute about what happens in the gap between ‘book’ and ‘film,’ ‘text’ and ‘performance.’ My thought is that if the screenwriter, director, and actors don’t understand the text or if they just aren’t committed to bringing as much of its power as they can from page to screen, we get what we get in the Warner Brothers films, namely, exciting invitations to the books which only remain true to the surface elements of the story-line.

Before I explain why I think this is so, I hasten to say the fact that the Warner Brothers films succeed in bringing readers to Ms. Rowling’s novels for experience of “the real thing” is both a remarkable achievement and indisputable. When I am asked what killed the seemingly hydra-headed Harry Hating phenomenomenon of five years ago (a T-ball question, I’m afraid, from kind interviewers for me to say “my books”), I always say “the movies.” Film makers are about making money first and making money last, as Janet has pointed out to us before, and the films have made a ton of money while bringing in millions of new readers — to include not a few former Potter Pugilists from Christian ghettoes — without demeaning the stories. Having affirmed that success and wonderful accomplishment, though, I don’t think it can be said that, in themselves, the films haven’t diminished significantly the power of the novels they bring to the screen.

My argument cannot be conclusive, alas. I haven’t got a logical syllogism or “if-and-only-if” demonstration I can wheel out to make the case that the Harry Potter films miss the boat on the meaning of the novels and this failing means much of their power is lost, too. Before getting to cases — scenes that I think reveal gaps between the effect of the story in the books and the effect of the movie version — let’s review a passage from Martin Lings’ The Secret of Shakespeare (Inner Traditions, 1984), ‘Notes On Performance and Production:’

How can actors and producers best do justice to the deeper meaning of Shakespeare’s plays? A general answer to this question is: by being as faithful as possible to the literal meaning. Take care of that, and the deeper meaning will take care of itself. But to be true to the letter is less easy and more exacting than it may sound, for Shakespeare’s maturer plays, even as regards their literal meaning, centre round human perfection, if not already achieved at any rate in the making – a perfection that is absolute and unsurpassable:

A combination and a form indeed
Where every god did seem to set his seal
To give the world assurance of a man.
(Hamlet, III, 4)

Shakespeare has in view a universal norm, a coin which would remain current even as far East as feudal Japan, and as far West as the Red Indians of North America – a complex but not complicated psychic substance made up of marvellously rich elements which are closely woven into a total effect of unity, simplicity and unfathomable depth; and this ideal spells great danger to an actor, for it cannot fail to measure out his capacities to their very fullest extent.

In Hamlet, for example, the actor may be said to have failed in his part if in the last scene the audience does not assent whole-heartedly to Horatio’s admiring exclamation:

Why, what a king is this!

and to Forinbras’ last words over the Prince’s dead body:

He was likely, had he been put on,
To have proved most royally.

Similarly, to take another example, the actor of the part of Antony cannot afford to forget during his performance that at the end, when Antony’s men find him dying, they are to say:

The star is fallen,
And time is at his period.
(IV, 14)

and that Cleopatra is to say, when he actually dies:

There is nothing left remarkable
Beneath the visiting moon.
(IV, 15)

But if, as a loophole of escape, from a greatness hard to portray, the actor seizes on the word ‘dotage’ so often applied to Antony by Cleopatra’s enemies, and if he sets out to portray a man who, however great he may have been is now psychically dilapidated, then the whole significance of the play will be seriously impaired. No actor would, however, admit, even to himself, that for fear of putting on a garment that was too big for him, he was cutting down the garment to fit his own size. The conscious motive for side-tracking is usually the desire to be thought original or ‘up to date.’ However that may be, an actor may well stand in fear of a central Shakespearean part; and whatever the motive, it happens all to often that the main issue, which is one of sincerity and depth, is avoided, and as a miserable ‘compensation’ all sorts of psychological subtleties, quite unwarranted by the text, are invented. [Secret, pages 126-127]

In brief, if the text is about “human perfection’ or at least ‘human transformation towards perfection’ and a producer allows the actor or actress to make it instead a drama about ennui or some other lesser psychological or political vignette, the play moves from something bordering on an experience of the sacred to something simply profane. Eliade argues that much of traditional liturgy has its form from ancient drama, and, as much as each is about transpersonal and cathartic experience this assertion should not be very unsettling, if true. Drama on stage like stories and poems read aloud are the most powerful experience of narrative, and, as is also true of even the shadows of these experiences that we have in reading silently to ourselves or watching a good movie, these restorative events are necessarily diminished when offered as entertainments alone, a consequence of the production’s mis-orientation and the players’ narrow understanding.

To cases: in what scenes do I think the Harry Potter novels’ power was lost or significantly diminished in being brought to the screen? Here are three that come immediately to mind.

(1) The Dumbledore Denoument in Order of the Phoenix. At the climax of the nigredo novel in the series, Harry tears apart the Headmaster’s office and rips into the old man. In the movie, Harry has a heart to heart with his good friend Albus. Forgive me, but I am obliged to think that, not “getting” the alchemy of the moment and the series, the needs of the franchise trumped presenting one of the most powerful, challenging, and meaningful moments in the books. We miss Harry’s black-crisis and Dumbledore’s genius and agony. No small thing.

(2) The Dragon Task in Goblet of Fire: Harry’s triumph over the Hungarian Horntail and the chase through the skies over Hogwarts was great fun to watch. It was necessary perhaps in terms of satisfying Hollywood formula for Blockbuster films (in which at least five minutes are set aside for a good guy-bad guy chase that requires no translation for foreign audiences and even less sophistication to get everyone on board with the good guy chasing or, more often, who is being chased). It is reason justifying sentiment and convention, though, to argue it served any purpose in that particular story arc, which is largely preparation for Harry’s reunion with Ron. (Much the same could be written about the Basilisk chase in Chamber of Secrets, the Hippogriff-Werewolf battle in Prisoner of Azkaban, the Thestral Ride to London in Order of the Phoenix, and every Quidditch match on film.)

(3) Michael Gambon as Albus Dumbledore: The actor doesn’t understand the character portrayed or how the overarching narrative misdirection of the epic works. For there to be a ‘wow’ experience at Dumbledore’s demise on the Tower, we have to love him. For there to be revelation and catharsis in Harry’s “struggle to believe” in him in Deathly Hallows post mortem, we have to have believed in him ourselves. Playing him as a moody martinet (because that is how Gambon thinks Headmasters should be portrayed?) is a washout of meaning and story-experience. As Fr. John Whiteford wrote, audiences will cheer when Gambon-Dumbledore is blasted by Snape at the end of Half-Blood Prince. Sad, really. (Something similar could be said of how Ron and Hermione’s parts have been written in screenplay adaptations, if Gambon’s free-wheeling is sui generis.)

So what?

Let me be the first to say this is the typical book snob’s complaint about films never being as good as the books or plays of which they are adaptations. No doubt this is largely a consequence of my ignorance of film artistry; I confess I do not know how to “read a movie” and I acknowledge this is no small lacuna in my understanding. Mea Culpa.

I think though, even given my failings and blind-spots, Martin Lings’ point about the best way to produce Shakespeare is relevant in criticizing film adaptation of Ms. Rowling’s novels, or for that matter, of Dante’s poems and Shakespeare’s plays:

How can actors and producers best do justice to the deeper meaning of Shakespeare’s plays? A general answer to this question is: by being as faithful as possible to the literal meaning. Take care of that, and the deeper meaning will take care of itself.

The best parts of the Potter movies are when they capture the books faithfully and near literally.

I covet, as always, your comment and corrections.


  1. revgeorge says

    John, what an excellent post & very thought provoking. I admit I fall into your line of thinking in this regards. That is, a movie can never be as good as the book from which it derives its content, just as an adaptation of a movie can never be as good as the movie itself. It’s just the way it is.

    This is not to denigrate the movies, though, it’s just a recognition of each one’s proprium. Books convey certain things which cannot adequately be reproduced on film. A picture is not worth a thousand words. But a movie is best when it does capture as much as it can the spirit of the book. That is key, for no movie can literally reproduce the book.

    This is where I have my criticisms of Peter Jackson’s LOTR & of the new Narnia movies. Not in that the producers did not do an excellent job of portraying the world on the screen or that most of the actors did not do a good job, but that they missed the spirit of the books.

    This is the problem I have with Gambon’s portrayal. Not that he isn’t a good actor; he is. But that he doesn’t get the spirit of the part. Now whether he’s the victim of poor script writing or just his failure to understand the part is debatable.

    But on the whole I think the HP movies have done a fairly good job of capturing the spirit of the books. I liked Columbus’ adaptations because I thought for the first two they kept to the spirit of the books, that opening sense of wonder & beginning involvement in the magical world while still building towards the conflict of good & evil. Cuaron’s adaptation, except for the talking heads, was in line with the spirit of the books, too. Moving us deeper into the darkness of the world. GOF was a wash. Newell missed out on the spirit of the book, in my opinion. OOTP kind of caught back up, though.

    The problem we’re running into & will continue to run into, is that as the books have grown larger & more complex, it’s been harder for the films to keep more closely to the more literal sense of the book. To keep within time limits, the plot of the films have to continue to be stripped down further & further to just the bare salient points. Which ends up missing a lot of the character development & complexity of the world.

    This also means common movie conventions more & more replace literary ones. For instance, Ron in the movies has been mostly used as comic relief, which is a typical movie convention. Ron in the books does have a little bit of that aspect but he’s also much more deeper. Movies, by definition, tend towards shallowness. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it does affect changes between books & movies.

    Anyway, being a bit long winded here, so I’ll leave these as just preliminary thoughts. Thanks again for your article.

  2. Very thought-provoking post, John. More than one interesting thread of conjecture you’ve got here.

    The first thing I thought of was a question:

    What exactly is the literal meaning? And how are we to know it and be faithful to it? By sticking to the text?

    Because if that’s what that means, then I have to disagree when it comes to Potter. JKR is no Shakespeare. Not only is Potter not poetry, it’s not even deathless prose. It’s serviceable, mostly, trite and repetitive sometimes, and on the odd occasion, moving. With those exceptions (which we made a list of back at the Hog’s Head when it was SoG) I don’t think the deeper meaning is in the exact words.

    Is it perhaps in the plot, then? Well, that’s closer. But like most novels, a lot of the plot is not essential to the deeper meaning. Does it really matter what Harry gets in his OWLS? Does it matter who wins which Quidditch match? Does it matter what the kids plant and reap in Herbology (with the exception of the mandrakes, and even then, another hard-to-get cure would have worked).

    Which is not to say that there are not moments when the plot hits pure gold. And I think for the most part we’d be in agreement about those moments; but there’d be some disagreement about others.

    The deeper meaning, I think, is found in a handful of passages, some dialogue, some description. The trick is to figure out what’s gold and what’s entertaining filler.

    Those are the “best parts” you talk about. I agree that they are the best parts of the movies, but would add that they are also the best parts of the books. There is an awful lot of entertaining filler in between in the books, which the scriptwriter and director have to contend with. What to show, what to leave out, how to show it most entertainingly, those are the decisions they have to make, and they’re not easy.

    There are a number of other reasons I don’t think you can use the Shakespeare analogy to make the point about Potter: the amount of thought and analysis that went into Shakespeare before there was consensus; the possibility that every age has its own different consensus about the “deeper meaning” of the plays; the fact that Shakespeare wrote dialogue, which is much easier to be faithful to.

  3. Arabella Figg says

    Back from vacation and so many intriguing posts to catch up on!

    Professor, I was finally able to get online the interview in Christianity Today magazine with the director of Prince Caspian. Perhaps this will shed some light on transition to film from story in the Potter films–http://www.christianitytoday.com/movies/interviews/andrewadamson.html.

    I agree with you absolutely on your three film gripes (and I can think of more), especially the end of OotP, which was criminal. Instead of being the huge climax it should have been, it was ridiculous, nonsensible and flatter than cardboard. Dumbledore’s comment in the book that Harry wasn’t nearly as angry with him as he ought to be was a critical hint leading into HBP. And the movie Ron I simply don’t recognize as book Ron, who is much more “real,” fun and balanced.

    I’ve read interviews where actors refuse to read the source material. It’s as if it’s a point of pride, so they aren’t (shudder!) influenced by the original work and can “make it their own.” I find this arrogant. In a huge and nuanced series such as HP, hoo-boy.

    As I pointed out on the Gambon thread, Richard Harris’ “benevolent, lovable, twinkly-eyed Dumbledore” was a perfect narrative misdirection mirroring the books, who is revealed to be a removed master manipulator. What a film shock that would have been. You simply can’t love and care about Gambon’s annoying DD.

    I’ve don’t believe I’ve ever seen an adapted film that was as good as the book; I even avoid films of favorite books because I don’t want to see them mutilated.

    Uh-oh, I see Thudders has rendered another mouse and brought it for me to admire…

  4. John, I agree with you 100% with your assessment; Harry’s story is best communicated on the screen when the books are “faithfully and near literally” represented. Perhaps this is why I am much more interested in DH, parts 1 & 2 than in the present filming of HBP.

    Not to say we will forego HBP when it opens…Nov 21 is my husband’s birthday! What a fun evening 🙂

  5. I don’t think the Shakespeare analogy serves you well at all. I think the beauty and brilliance of Shakespeare is that there are so many ways to interpret it. How many ways have different directors on both stage and film interpreted Hamlet? And as long as there is minimal textual support, just about any interpretation is valid.

    I think that’s often the beauty in good stories– sure, there are overarching themes, but there are so many different ways of interpreting it. Someone once pointed out the problem of Martin Sheen as General Lee in Gettysburg. Lee is such an intensely personal figure to many people that finding an actor to portray him to everyone’s liking was unlikely. Dumbledore has that same kind of prestige. Given what seems like almost universal dislike, well, perhaps they could’ve done better. But I’m sure there are folks who couldn’t stand Harris, either.

    I don’t get as bothered by Gambon because I’m more likely to blame the director myself, although he isn’t as endearing as Harris was. But since I don’t really see people sticking up for him, I figure I might as well.

    Gambon’s choice to not read the books is a legitimate one. The auteur theory of filmmaking says that the director is the author of the film, and the director will interpret things as he wishes. An actor can, taking this viewpoint, decide that he should not crowd his mind with extra details from the book or form his own distinct opinion but instead take the script and the direction that he gets and work only with that. It is a legitimate choice, even if one I, as a fellow book-snob viewer, would not make that choice.

    I think a lot of the things that I missed from OotP where directorial and script choices– it wasn’t Gambon’s fault that Dumbledore had none of those brilliant places where he was able to assert some power in spite of Umbridge. The director was emphasising powerlessness, and the same thing happened to McGonagall.

    Maybe I’m also helped by the fact that despite it being two different actors, I see it on a continuum of the same character– I’ll love Dumbledore for being the Dumbledore I know, regardless of whether Gambon gets that down perfectly.


  6. revgeorge says

    Certainly the film makers have to make a film that anyone can walk in & kind of know what’s going on & certainly they can’t include everything in the books. But that being said, there’s just some things they’re either going to miss or simply not include because they didn’t think it important at the time.

    My still biggest worry is how they are going to handle the importance of Snape. Snape has been a tangential character in the films, whereas in the books he is integral, although we might not necessarily know how or why. I think it was quite the mistake that they left out the part in OOTP where Lily comes to Snape’s defense & he insults her.

    I also get leery when directors start adding in scenes that were never in the book, like this supposed attack on the burrow at Christmastime in HBP.

    Not that any of this will stop me from going out to see the movie or buying the dvd’s. The way they do the films will just be the difference between whether I watch the film from beginning to end or whether I fast forward through bits of it, like I do with GOF. Which so far is the only one I fast forward through.

  7. I too have to agree with John.

    I am not convinced that the directors quite ‘get’ what the books are trying to convey and this leads to misinterpretations that it will be very hard to rectify in the remaining films. I always hope for the best for the future films whilst expecting them to disregard many of the layers that make the books so much more satisfying.

    I agree also with NZie that it is up to the director to direct the actors.

    If Mr Newell instructs Mr Gambon to shake Dan Radcliffe in GoF for ‘dramatic effect’ then the actor will most likely do what they are told.

    (…the optimist in me has fingers crossed: according to rumours and leaks from the set, for what these are worth, Mr Gambon’s performance in HBP will be well worth seeing)

    A final point in defence of the film makers: they have to produce a film that someone with no prior knowledge of the series can walk into off the street, pay their money, sit, watch and be entertained.

  8. revgeorge: “.. I think it was quite the mistake that they left out the part in OOTP where Lily comes to Snape’s defense & he insults her…”

    I wondered about that decision too.

    I decided that Yates did not want to confuse the audience. He wanted to make just one point; Harry’s father was a bully. However I have found two interviews that don’t back me up (sigh)

    The two interview extracts below I believe may go some way to explain David Yates’ thinking at the time:


    (here it is apparent that Yates has read book 7)

    ..What you won’t find in the DVD’s deleted scenes, however, is a shot that fans thought would have made the film because it explained Snape’s behavior throughout the whole series, a scene referred to as Snape’s worst memory, in which he calls a teenage Lily, Harry’s mom-to-be, a Mudblood. Some of that was in the film, but it stopped short of showing Lily, who turned out to be the love of Snape’s life.

    David Yates: “We had a lovely actress play Lily,… and we may bring her back. But by introducing Lily and the Lily/Snape plot, that back story, we complicated it too much. We had to cut it.”

    And a slightly different angle from this interview I think before Yates had read Book 7 :


    TODAYShow.com: Does not knowing the outcome of the final story make it difficult for you to direct the movies and develop the on-screen characters?

    In a sense, no. It’s kind of more interesting. With a character like Snape, where you’re not really sure if he’s a good guy or a bad guy, that gives you a latent tension. As the story rolls out you just go with it.

    I think the coolest thing you can do with an audience is deny them a little bit of information.

    ( and then Yates goes on to prove just how much he is in the dark ! )

    TODAYShow.com: We’re posing a Harry Potter Mystery Question each week. Can I ask you our fifth question, which is about “Order of the Phoenix”?

    Yates: Sure

    TODAYShow.com: Great, here it is: In a chapter titled “Snape’s Worst Memory,” Harry sees his teenage father and his friends attack the young man who would become Professor Severus Snape. Why would this be “Snape’s worst memory”? What else do we know about Professor Snape’s personal life?

    Yates: You know why it’s Snape’s worst memory? Because it’s a kind of public humiliation and it’s quite an intense scene in the film. It’s intense because there’s the notion that his character has such gravitas and authority and such power and everyone hates him for it. But in this scene we see how weak and vulnerable he is. He would hate for everyone at Hogwarts to see that scene.

  9. John,

    I have been thinking about your theory that the Dumbledore Gambon gives us will not allow the audience to grieve his death, to be dismayed by his earlier errors of judgment, to be shocked by his willingness to let Harry die “like a pig to slaughter” and to finally forgive him for only being human. Because what Gambon gives us never goes beyond being only human, and not very prepossessing at that, irritating at best, brutal at worst.

    Would being faithful to the literal meaning of the books have prevented this? I would need to be convinced of it.

    Dumbledore is a challenging character to portray. On the surface, and at the start, he is Gandalf redux: the good and wise old wizard. He knows more than he says, but is content to watch the young ones do their adventuring, offering a sage word here, coming in at the end of the story to place everything in perspective. He starts to change on us in GoF, muttering indecipherably to himself. He is distant and inscrutable – for no known reason – in OotP. And at the end of OotP he has those weird hysterics, professing his love for Harry and claiming that’s the reason why he didn’t level with him. He starts HBP by using Harry to seduce Slughorn into returning to Hogwarts. And then gets mad at Harry because Harry hasn’t been able to charm the truth about horcruxes from Slughorn. He again has some weird hysterics over the green potion of awfullness. And ends the book by pleading with poor Snape to zap him. Exit Dumbledore. And what we learn about him in DH makes us – and Harry – rethink everything we thought we knew about him. It’s only at the end, when Harry has given everything, that the old deceiver comes back, sheds tears of remorse, and receives forgiveness.

    Try putting that into a chacter arc. It would take great acting to show convincingly. Great acting because we need to believe in Dumbledore – like Harry does – despite the contradictions and the emerging flaws. The character needs an actor who can project charisma and power and evoke faith even as the ground is crumbling away from under him. Peter O’Toole could have done it, because we saw him do it as Lawrence. But it would take more than great acting: it would take prior knowledge of the character arc. So that the potential for deceitfulllness, manipulativeness, cold calculating callousness, all those things would be hinted that, or at least not seem to be outside of the realm of possibility.

    The way the movies were filmed, before the final book was written, meant that the full character arc was not available. The actor playing Dumbledore could not hint at the complexities. Gambon’s irritable brute was perhaps his own way of trying to guess at what lay underneath.

    Like SeaJay, though, I am somewhat hopeful. The truth is now out. Even if Gambon will not bring himself to read the books, the scriptwriter and probably the director know. And can direct him to show more of Dumbledore’s hidden depths in HBP. And how difficult can it be to depict a tearful, formerly great old man, now full of self-pity and remorse. All Gambon has to do is channel Lear, which I believe he was supposed to have been good at.

    It’s just too bad that he never built up mask of powerful benevolence when he had the chance.

  10. Perelandra says

    As to the question about movies that were closly faithful to their books, GONE WITH THE WIND made very slight cuts and is a triumph of Old Hollywood filmmaking. At the other end of the scale, the MASTERPIECE THEATER version of COLD COMFORT FARM manages to cram in every plot point and a great deal of the text of the utterly hilarious original, to much better effect than the newer movie version.

  11. I’m glad you brought up Gone with the Wind, because every time the discussion of books to movies comes up, it’s the example I always think of. By the time the movie was made, the book was widely read, so it was crucial that they get it right. And they absolutely did–the casting, the script, the look of all the places. Unfortunately for me, it’s the standard by which I view all other movies made from books. And most don’t even come close to doing a good job.

    There are so many things I enjoy about the Harry Potter movies, but there are the details that are crucial to understanding the richness of the books. When those details are changed or left out, that’s when I get really annoyed and whine a lot. But now that we are coming to the end, I’ve just become resigned (well, somewhat) to never seeing the movies being as good as the books. They could have done, but they always seem to stop short of getting the end of the movies right. Part of it is due to Gambon, but not all. The script and the director probably bear more of that responsibility. And maybe what it really gets back to is the studio caring more about making a buck than about making a really good movie.

  12. Harry Potter made one film reviewer’s list of “movies that are Better than the books:”

    9. The “Harry Potter” series. Another nomination to fight over. The complaint I heard is specifically about the more recent novels, not the entire series. Readers say that, as Rowling’s celebrity increased, her writing lost its edge, and the stories sprawl about, unfocused. Movies of these books do what an editor should have done in the first place-they select and tighten so that the story itself has a punch.

  13. SophiaJoanna says

    While I agree with the comment about “what an editor should have done” to some extent, it’s noteworthy that the film reviewer apparently hasn’t read the books himself and yet puts Harry on the list. Sigh…

  14. Arabella Figg says

    Despite what I wrote above (and my feelings haven’t changed), I do think that to the filmmakers and most audiences, these are action films. Rowling has offered a treasure trove of visual action scenes which can easily be embroidered upon (such as Harry’s dragon test in GoF). these kind of films need to move and, given that they’re “children’s” films, are unlikely to be too deep. A film focused on SPEW simply wouldn’t have left the ground much.

    I do wish the films were more, not less. But think of all the people who will read the books because of them…and *then* get the full and true story. In the case of HP, the films and books are two different things, I enjoy them differently and I wouldn’t have wanted the burden of writing scripts for them.

    Janet, what do you think?

    The kitties are excited…a flatscreen TV is in their future and they can see Crookshanks up close and personal…

  15. revgeorge says

    I said, “Not that any of this will stop me from going out to see the movie or buying the dvd’s. The way they do the films will just be the difference between whether I watch the film from beginning to end or whether I fast forward through bits of it, like I do with GOF. Which so far is the only one I fast forward through.”

    Actually, I have to amend my statement. I did fast forward through part of OOTP the other night: Harry & Cho’s kissing scene. It works well in the book but comes off a bit too polished & professional in the movie. Probably cause they had to do 88 takes of the scene.

  16. Puffy Griffinclaw says

    John, the comment by the film reviewer about the movies “tightening up” the HP stories reminded me that there were probably movie critics who said the same of Cecil B. DeMille and Exodus/The 10 Commandments!

    Movies must tell their stories in such different ways than books can; they can use visuals, lighting, sound, music, camera angles, all kinds of tricks to give the story the texture and nuance that a book will do with words. I think what bothers me is that it is so much more interpretive, as many others have pointed out. The books let us use our own imaginations, the movies force us to rely on the director’s.

    Sometimes that is not a bad thing, looking at something from a different perspective. I’m sure there are songs, for example, that we all have certain preferences about (whose version, vocal or instrumental, jazzy or classical or rock). Sometimes I will hear a really different version of a favorite song and I think, “What were they thinking!?!” It jangles, it jars. Kind of like Gambon’s DD. The danger is when interpretations become caricatures, exhaggerating only one or two aspects at the expense of the “whole picture”. Perhaps this is the weakness of Hollywooding Harry.

    Even so, the movies still tell the coming of age story, the hero’s journey story, the “willing to march into hell for a heavenly cause” story. Maybe not the whole story, maybe missing favorite characters (Gran Longbottom) or favorite scenes (Peeves saluting the escaping Fred & George); maybe missing the depth, breadth and height of the significance of the story. But perhaps if they tried too hard, too literally, the paying public (kids) would not queue up for the movies and the merchandise and we’d all lose the chance to enjoy the movie versions. You’re right, Arabella; can you imagine, “SPEW: The Movie”. Hermione as a young Sally Fields doing Norma Rae. And the merchanidisiing possibilities for SPEW??? Maybe for Pepto-bismal.

    In honor of Reyhan I will avoid the fudge and broccoli comparison, but I love the books and still enjoy the movies. I think for the most part the movies have not quite flopped over onto the caricature side but have managed to tell most of the essential story in their own way. It may not always be an interpretation that I like, but none have been so bad that I haven’t watched the DVDs several times on a rainy Sunday afternoon folding laundry. And frankly, the $10 I plunked down to see the IMAX version of OOTP was worth every penny, what fun! THAT was why the thestrel-riding scene was in the movie!


  17. revgeorge,

    I find the entire Harry-Cho plot-line forced and incredible in both book and movie. I can’t see what she sees in him, nor what he sees in her and there is no chemistry that I can detect. However, I did enjoy the scene in the movie because of the mistletoe that grows and then blossoms above their heads. That is a return to the sense of sheer magic that originally made the movies so wonderful, back before plot took over.

  18. Arabella Figg says

    Well, Reyhan, it doesn’t matter what Harry and Cho see in each other. Crushes and infatuations sort of descend upon one like a cold. You just have to ride it out till it clears up. In the meantime you’re obessesed with how you feel; you’re not coldly reasoning out the whole random system of germs, thus eliminating them.

    There’s a certain “victimhood” in unlooked-for crushes.
    I remember flitting from infatuation to infatuation like a float on on ocean waves, without much thought about or insight into the actual person I had a crush on. Harry and Cho show this aspect of adolescence beautifully, including the awkward ending. The tragedy that haunts their relationship makes it both more sad and wryly humorous (the kiss being “wet”).

    Forced, no; representative of hormonal drives, yes. And Harry’s and Won-Won’s infatuations grandly illustrate the difference between informed twoo wuv with Ginny and Hermione.

    Thankfully, the kitties have been spared; they’ve been “tutored” (as cartoonist Gary Larson put it)…

  19. Arabella,

    I agree that crushes are irrational and can only be ridden out. I like the analogy to ocean waves.

    But that’s in real life.

    In a work of fiction, is the fact that adolescents experience crushes enough of a justification to spend time on describing Harry’s and Ron’s in detail? Does JKR have to faithfully document the adolescent experiences of her protagonists? How crucial is this to the plot?

    One could argue that they are important to the characters’ development, that both boys need to play with love before they can know the real thing. One could also argue, in a sexist fashion, that boys need to sow their wild oats before settling down, although there don’t seem to be any sexual feelings involved, and Hermione seems to dabble in an experimental relationship with Krum before settling down – gmwas – with Ron.

    The argument doesn’t convince me. Ginny loves no one – although she dates quite a few – but Harry. That fact is clear about her from almost her very first appearance. And interestingly enough, her love for Harry is one of the few such feelings I do believe in (Snape’s feelings for Lily would be another, and perhaps also Hagrid’s feelings for Mme Maxime, although those I see more as lust and loneliness rather than true love). In other words, I think that both Harry’s and Ron’s characters would have developed fine – and their eventual discovery of their true loves would have been just as convincing – without the prelminary crushes.

    It seems to me that JKR puts in the shipping tales not because they are important to the plot, but to cater to her adolescent audience, just like she does with the quidditch matches. I see both sub-plots as filller. The story would be tighter without them.

    Another reason why they feel forced to me is because both love interests – Cho or Lavender – seem completely bland as people. They are interchangeable with each other and with any other female student at Hogwarts. In other words, the characters are created to give Harry and Ron immature love interests. And before anyone points out the link to Cedric – does the link have any function, plot wise, except to make Cho weep – or weep more?

    Which is why the mistletoe makes more of an impact on me than the kiss.

  20. revgeorge says


    I don’t see these ancillary crushes being just filler but that they add a bit of humanity & character development to both Ron & Harry & even Hermione with Krum. Sure, they probably aren’t needed. But it doesn’t ring true for an adolescent to go through puberty & all that without having some sort of crush. Makes Harry more human & more accessible.

    Most people have experienced the pangs & heartache of their first crush & first failed romance. But most people haven’t had the experience of having their parent’s killed by a super villain & then living life in the cross hairs with the threat of death always hanging over them & a destiny to either kill or be killed in a climatic showdown between good & evil.

    I agree that Lavender is a bland character, just like Romilda Vane who’s only thrown into HBP for a very specific purpose & discarded after that purpose is over. But Cho has a bit more depth; not much but some. And she & Harry do have some common interests, quidditch for one. But like with most real life crushes Harry finds out that just one thing in common & an adolescent puppy love isn’t enough to build a relationship on, without even throwing in Cedric’s previous relationship with Cho & then his death.

    The mistletoe scene? Ugh! Don’t you know it was probably full of nargles? 🙂

  21. revgeorge says

    Speaking of snogging, I’m quite sure I saw Ginny snogging with some guy in the Gyrffindor common room during a deleted scene. So, apparently Bonnie Wright got her first on screen kiss, too, during OOTP, although it was cut from the released version.

  22. revgeorge says

    I knew mistletoe had a long history & lot of meaning to it. However, all Jo seems to use it for is the traditional holiday thing of standing under the mistletoe to kiss. I don’t think it’s really mentioned in all of Harry Potter except for this scene, is it?

  23. revgeorge,

    Made the mistake of googling mistletoe. My goodness, but it has an incredible botanical, ecological, cultural and mythological history. Nargles are the least of its problems. It’s wood was supposedly used to fashion the cross on which Christ was crucified, as well as the spear with killed the Norse God Balder. It’s a symbol of immortality and is being studied for its ability to destroy tumours and cancer. It blooms at the time of the Winter Solstice, and was used by the Druids for its healing properties.

    Makes me realize, once again, that JKR leaves nothing to chance. Everything is thought out. Everything has a meaning.

  24. I was referring to this scene, to Luna’s comment:

    “It’s often infested with nargles.”

    It seems like a totally throw-away comment. Luna being Luna. Off the wall, unrelated to reality, unrelated to anything.

    But it’s not, is it?

    Mistletoe is not an innocuous, harmless plant. It’s powerful, potentially deadly. And JKR – through the words of Luna, one of her more transparent avatars – tells us that.

  25. imdb.com has short extracts and interviews with some of the cast for Order of the Phoenix including this one with Sir Michael Gambon concerning his understanding of Harry’s view of Dumbledore:


  26. I agree with a lot of the opinions of previous posters, but can’t help coming from the perspective of one who LOVED the books and expected so much from the films. It is somewhat of a letdown to see what has been changed, left out, or just plain interpreted differently than I would have done. I suppose it would have been too much to expect one director to take on the task of all 8 movies, so there are very clear discontinuity issues among the films. I do think that film adaptations are most driven by the director’s interpretation of the script and the source material (when they are familiar with it).

    I also want to offer (IMO)a suggestion for a book that was well adapted to film: E.M. Forster’s “A Room with a View.” I happened to see the film first and loved it. I later read the novel (short, almost a novella) and was amazed at how true to the original the film turned out to be. The one scene that was significantly different in the film was George and Lucy’s first kiss. I couldn’t fathom how the way it was written in the novel could be accurately adapted to film. In fact, I believe the film version of this scene had greater impact.

  27. revgeorge says

    Oh, reyhan, you know what would’ve been great in the movie is if they had had the scene of Luna pointing out the mistletoe to Harry first & then seeing his reaction of jumping back & then hear Luna’s explanation about nargles. I’m sure Evanna Lynch could’ve nailed that scene. 🙂

  28. Bruce Charlton says

    The best scene in the Harry Potter movies (so far) was, in my opinion, one that was not in the books – and was left on the cutting room floor!


    As for actors and the shaping of their parts – in *most* instances this is done by the director, not by the actors – especially in classical drama (such as Shakespeare) where the actors often don’t know what the words mean unless the director tells them!

  29. Arabella Figg says

    Oh, my, why did they cut this? I agree, fantastic scene.

  30. What an interesting thread! I’m coming at it quite late, but nevermind…

    I agree with you, John, that the HP movies don’t often get across the central meanings or spirit of the books. I agree with you that the nuances of the adaptation are the reason the meanings differ, and that the choices made by actors and directors to change things can change the underlying meanings of the stories, something that’s not often brought up at all (except in fans’ gut reactions, maybe). But for me, a “literal” translation (of the events and details and tonal shifts in the book) isn’t the answer, unless I have a different definition of literal, because it’s impossible…. Transcribing the literal details wouldn’t necessarily produce the same central meanings because it’s a different medium, a medium that expresses meaning differently.

    For me, the difference between the Shakespeare analogy you quoted and the Harry Potter films is that Shakespeare was written to be performed; Harry Potter was written to be read. There are new productions of Shakespeare plays and there are new films made of them, but the medium of performance remains the same (cinema is slightly different, but not that different). The process has remained essentially the same as far as I know ever since the very first performance in the Globe; theatre is meant to be re-performed. I guess I wouldn’t call that process adaptation, I would call it… performance.

    The process of taking a novel and “making it into” a film, however, is adaptation from one medium to another. To do that, I imagine you have to do something different. First off, I imagine “story” and “novel” to be two different things: the “story” is what the novel tells, but it isn’t (necessarily) the novel itself. The “story” is the events or changes that happen in the novel (whether plot points, changes in tone, changes internal to the characters… the significant change or lack of change that *happens*). I once read an interview in which an author (I think it was Philip Pullman, not that it matters… I could be misremembering) talked about myth: he defined myth as a “story whose meaning exists independently of its telling.” For instance, the story of Arthur pulling the sword out of the stone has been re-told by many people; so has the story of Little Red Riding Hood, but the essential meanings of these stories are recognizable each time you encounter them, and in each of those re-tellings the stories are no less themselves than they were before. In fact, it is in telling them that they come alive and are once again “themselves”. Kind of like how each performance of a play is no less “that play” than the last performance was.

    I imagine in the process of adapting a book to cinema you must have to imaginatively take the story out of the novel and treat it as though it were a myth, i.e. a series of events that could be told once more and still be themselves. The problem is, history and endless oral re-tellings haven’t already done the work of whittling the story down to its mythic “essentials.” You have to do that yourself, which makes it very subjective as to “your” reading of the story. Then you have to re-tell it through film, which is to say, show it visually and through dialogue rather than prose…. What’s most important: Cho and Harry fighting in the teashop, or Harry publishing his story in The Quibbler? To answer those kinds of questions surely you have to know what the essential story you’re telling is, which means having a deep understanding of what the book is about. Maybe the essential story of the fifth book has something to do with Harry’s learning how to cope with the negativity that Voldemort has sparked in him now that Voldemort is reborn (Harry’s trauma and anger after witnessing Voldemort’s rebirth, the internal effects of his proximity to Voldemort’s evil and the evil (Voldemort’s own soul) it literally calls up in him in response). How do you respond to evil without becoming evil yourself? Or something like that. Obviously that’s not the whole “story”, but the events of the story would speak to that. For me.

    I guess I’m arguing for adaptation based on the themes “beyond” the events (theme which is expressed in as similar a way as possible, through tone, character, etc) rather than adaptation based the literal events themselves. Theme or “meaning” is as close as I can get to what I mean by “the heart of story”. For that you need to rely on your reading of what the story of the novel “is”.

    The themes I mentioned above seem to be the central through-way the filmmakers chose for the fifth film, anyway, and some of the changes they made are consistent with it. Having the emotional climax moment of the film happen when Harry experiences Voldemort literally possess him makes sense if the film is about Harry dealing with the how the evil he’s encountered has effected him inside. Films need to simplify like a short story does, and to show in a very visual way. When Voldemort possesses Harry, that battle suddenly becomes pitched, literally, inside his head, which is where the whole conflict has been happening for Harry anyway. It is a good opportunity for getting into Harry’s head and literally showing his thoughts (and his struggle with the presence of Voldemort’s evil inside him), in a direct way that would be hard to do in any other scene. In the book it is the grief (that is, love) for Sirius that shuts Voldemort’s evil out. The same thing happens in the movie but they show it in a more immediate, simplified, and direct way through those clips that are Harry’s thoughts as Voldemort is trying to possess him.

    In the book I think catharsis/understanding comes to Harry in Dumbledore’s dawn-washed study, or more slowly throughout all the events of that climax… and it’s more complex. I was devastated the tower scene was so totally diminished, it had such important character moments and was the emotional climax of the book. But I understand that it would be almost redundant after the climax that had already happened in the movie. So I was ok with that change.

    Having Gambon!Dumbledore shake Harry in GoF, however, served no thematic purpose I could see at all, and as you say, totally undoes the misdirection of his character that JK Rowling sets up: I totally agree with you on that one. Totally. Uggh.

    All this tl;dr to say: for me, the literal details of the book hold the clue to the “story beyond”, but if the filmmakers have a good enough understanding of this “story beyond”, they can tell it with some amount of different literal detail in the film. It all depends on what story those details are telling, and whether it is one that I recognize from the essential truths of the book.

    Thank you for making me think about this in such depth! Sorry for ^ appalling length! 🙂

  31. @Kathy,
    I totally agree about A Room with a View! Other great adaptations, in my opinion, are East of Eden and What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, both of which I think are better than their books. 🙂

  32. I will only know this for sure in a couple of weeks, when I see how they deal with the King’s Cross scene – but it seems likely that the primary decision making for the movies either does not understand, or is hostile to, the core Christian elements of the books.

    The saving ‘Love’ in the movies is not, therefore, Christian Love/ Agape/ primarily Love of God – but just the normal Hollywood ‘Lerv’ – a mixture of being ‘in Lerv’ and ‘I Lerv you Mommy’.

    Harry would then be sacrificing himself not to save immortal souls from the falseness and apostasy of worshipping Voldemort, but ‘merely’ to try and prevent the suffering of his friends under a cruel regime of Death Eaters

    I began to harden my view in this interpretation when I noticed that the Biblical Tomb inscriptions at Godric’s Hollow had been omitted – I would guess there was a deliberate choice to purge the movie of Christian elements, even at the level of background detail.

    This inevitably means that the deepest moral level of the books is deleted – leaving only the postmodern/ politically correct level of morality

  33. Kathleen says

    It’s been a long time since I read or saw either one, but I thought Tess of the Durbevilles by Hardy was adapted faithfully to film, from the red lip motif to the dialogue to the time line.

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