Harry Potter and the Joys of Adaptation

Posted by Dan Saturday, November 26, 2005 0 comments

I don't mean to start this off all chipper here, but I really did like Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. I didn't think I would, but I did, and I'm pretty sure I've figured out why. It's all the scriptwriter, Steven Kloves' fault, and I'm starting to fear for Order of the Phoenix, which he's not adapting.

The thing about movies that are crafted around a much beloved series of books is that rarely do they live up to expectations. Generally speaking, it doesn't matter if the movie is good, or if it holds up as entertaining. The main criteria always seems to be how close it is to the source material, and that's not fair. It's impossible to cram every ounce of detail in a 1000+ page novel into two hours of movie. The best adaptations have always been written by people who excell at editing. It's a unique skill to take a novel and pare it down into a script that flows well enough to drive the action, keep everybody entertained, and capture the salient points of the source material. Obviously, the more detailed and fully realized the novel, the harder that scriptwriter's job.

Fortunately for the Harry Potter series, Steven Kloves excells at his job. To date, he has done a masterful job of editing J.K. Rowling's work into fine movie script form. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is no exception. Yes, it's missing quite a lot of information, and Kloves takes a big risk in relying on what we already know about the Potterverse to bring in new characters, but it works. Goblet of Fire snaps along at a breakneck pace in a masterful attempt to cram as much information into two and a half hours of movie as it possibly can. The end result is that by the time you get situated with your soda and popcorn, switch seats out from in front of the nine year old brat that's kicking the back of your chair, shuffle through a half hour of badly produced commercials and mostly uninteresting previews, you find yourself getting up to leave the theater with the stunning impression that you have just been well entertained for the last few minutes. It's a shocker to find out you've been there over two hours. Any movie that can do that rates an A+ and multiple viewings in my book.

Mike Newell is a director who has always excelled at making movies that sound horrible in concept work extremely well, and I would never have thought to associate him with the Harry Potter series. His track record to date consists of an eclectic mix of non genre work including Four Weddings and a Funeral, Pushing Tin, Donnie Brasco and the chick flick to end all chick flicks, Mona Lisa Smile. There's a real mad genius at work behind the scenes of the Potter franchise, and it makes me think that maybe someone like Anthony Minghella should tackel a Steven King novel or two. The combination works and works well. Newell draws outstanding performances out of Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint who under a lesser director would be sleepwalking through their parts by now.

Principles aside, the secondary characters in this movie seem to be having fun too. David Tennant has a blast playing Barty Crouch Jr. and masterfully steals every scene he's in. Brendan Gleeson, the great character actor that tends to get cast in at least as many "We need someone Irish" roles as Colm Meaney, is outstanding as the new defense against the dark arts teacher Mad Eye Moody, and Ralph Finnes chews scenerey like Al Pacino on a two day crack bender, bringing exactly the type of insane, calculated menace that Lord Voldemort should have. Alan Rickman doesn't have a lot to do in this one. Snape really could have been completely written out of this movie, but we'll need him for The Order of the Phoenix. However, Rickman squeezes every ounce out of his limited screen time, and ends up presenting one of the funniest scenes in the movie.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire doesn't beat Prisoner of Azkaban for drama and sense of wonder, but it's very nearly as entertaining. You know you'll go see it anyway, so just relax and enjoy it. It's solidly entertaing, and a whole lot of fun, two and a half hours well spent.

The Unsung Hero of Genre Fiction

Posted by Dan Friday, November 18, 2005 0 comments

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There are few people working in the world of genre fiction in Hollywood who truly understand what they're doing. Typically a genre movie, especially a science fiction movie is pretty stupid, all things considered. Either its science is wonky, or there's no character development, or both, and it quickly degenerates into a messy spectacle of overgrown post adolescents blowing up models.The sad fact is that there is usually very little thought behind your average Sci Fi flick. The one genre that has the greatest potential to make its audience think without realizing that they're thinking, is invariably dumbed down into pre-digested crap. Mind you, I think it's important that the audience not realize they're thinking, after all, if you're too busy thinking, you just won't be able to enjoy your nastified butter-flavored slime covered popcorn, and your watered-down, mold flavored death tub of soda-esque fizzy liquid. When you want to think, you go see movies like The English Patient, or Magnolia, or Mr. Holland's Opus. You don't go to films like A.I., Minority Report, Gattaca, or Dark City. So, it's a rare and precious gem of a movie that can get its audience to think, without making them realize that they're thinking, and that's just what Joss Wheedon has done here.

Spinning out of his criminally short lived T.V. series, Firefly, Joss has created a larger than life fantasy world with a deep, well thought out backstory, and vivid, brilliantly realized characters. Admittedly, I'm biased in favor of this movie from the start, because I actually got to enjoy Firefly when it was first released to DVD, but I'm told by several people who went into Serenity cold, that it's completely enjoyable without the backstory that the T.V. series gives you. Serenity lifts the series characters into a bit more of a grand spectacle than what we saw on the small screen. The characters' backstories are truncated a bit, relationships are tweaked slightly, and Joss kills off three of the story's major characters, but its still a lot of fun.

The core story of Serenity is about the youngest character River, a brilliant teenager turned into a psychotic killing machine by the powers that be. She's set off on a rampage by a post hypnotic suggestion, that drags the Serenity crew to the edge of known space. It culminates in a toe to toe battle between the powers that be and the savage hordes they created. Serenity is a wild, fun ride with scads of interesting background story and a great central driving plot. It careens from planet to planet, and ends with a donnybrook that would make Cecil B. Demille weep. It's well worth your time to see at least once, and in the tradition of some of the best science fiction, there's so much going on in the background that it rates at least a second and third viewing.

Serenity, just like the ship that bears its name, is dirty and grimy and well lived in. The people we meet while traveling through Serenity's galaxy range from the sterile, antiseptic Star Trek worlds of the core systems, to the gritty frontier world pioneers, that have more in common with the desperados of a Sergio Leone western. This movie reflects the best and the worst of humanity in a world that has become a kaleidoscope of cultures.

Joss Wheedon, the show's writer and director is the unsung hero of the science fiction genre. He writes with an enthusiasm and a love for his material that is sadly lacking in most of today's science fiction movies. With Serenity, every ounce of this love is reflected up on the screen, from the excellence of his ensemble cast, to the gritty hyperrealism of the special effects, through all points in between. Go see Serenity, you won't be disappointed.

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Im an essayist, critic, online blogger, short story writer and to borrow a descriptor from Peter David, "Writer of stuff." I love all things pop culture related: Music, Movies, Comics, Books, Politics... if you can label it I probably have an opinion about it, and I love to argue. All informed opinions are welcome here.
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