Saturday, July 30, 2016

Priori Incantatem: Harry Potter Memories – Chapter Seven: Mischief Managed!

With the publication of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child on the immediate horizon – a play that is effectively serving as the eighth story in the Harry Potter canon I am republishing what remains one of my favorite articles I have ever written: Priori Incantatem: Harry Potter Memories. This piece was originally published in seven parts in November 2010, anticipating the theatrical release of “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1.” It was my final major statement and reminiscence on the Harry Potter series I love so dearly. Thinking this might be the case when I wrote it, I chose to focus on my memories of the franchise, in sequential order, to give the reader a sense of how I experienced this unique period in pop culture history. It is among the most emotionally open, honest, and confessional piece I have ever composed – closer to autobiography at times than review or analysis – and I therefore hold it very close to my heart. Over the next few days, all seven pieces will be published here on the site, leading up to the release of The Cursed Child on Sunday. Enjoy…

Continue reading after the jump…

 Chapter Seven: Mischief Managed!

The story of the boy who lived had finally drawn to a close with the 2007 publication of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. All fans felt melancholy at this passing of an era, but once the discussion and debate about the final novel died down and it was accepted as part of the eternal Potter library alongside its fellows, fans realized there was still a final, unfinished frontier to be excited about: The film series had two installments left, and the next movie, “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince,” would be directed by David Yates, the man who so expertly helmed “Order of the Phoenix.” As the months slipped away and the hype grew, thanks in part to one of the best teaser trailers in Potter history, it was clear that this would be an unforgettable cinematic experience. With November 21st, 2008 just weeks away, the new silver-screen magic we craved for was finally within sight. 

And then Warner Brothers went and delayed the film by eight whole months to increase profits. Merlin’s Beard, how could they?!

When the announcement was made, I wrote a scathing article deriding the decision as a “huge slap in the face to all the fans who have been waiting for the film.” Today, it does not seem like such a big deal. In 2008, Warner had already experienced massive financial success with Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight,” but their 2009 slate was looking a little thin due to fallout from the 2007 Writers Guild of America strike. To make sure their finances continued to look impressive, they moved “Half-Blood Prince” to July 15th, 2009, the same weekend that brought “The Dark Knight” so much profit. It was a completely money-based decision (the film was already edited and locked), but considering how Warner Bros values and defends creativity and quality filmmaking more than any studio in the business, I can forgive their momentary greed.

But in 2008….oh boy, I was spitting mad, and so was every other Potter fan on the planet. At the time, over a year had passed since Rowling’s last book, and we were experiencing severe withdrawal symptoms. Revisiting the old books and movies could only assuage us so much – the real medicine to make us happy Potter-maniacs was something new, and “Half-Blood Prince” promised the perfect cure. So when the delay came, it felt like a betrayal, as though Warner wanted us to suffer. How could I possibly last another eight long months without any new Harry Potter? I, like so many other fans, barely knew what to do with myself: Should I try to find distractions or just give in and go cry in a corner whilst continuing to think of nasty things to say about Warner Bros?

One of the funny things about life is that sometimes, you end up in the right place at the right time so that fate may come along to help you forget your troubles. So it was that one month after “Half-Blood Prince” was originally set for release, one month into the long, excruciating wait, I slipped on an ice patch in my Uncle’s yard in Iowa, broke my ankle in three places, and spent the next six months enduring a long and painful recovery and rehabilitation process. It drove “Half-Blood Prince” completely out of my mind because, let’s face it, going to the movies on crutches is no fun. I listened to my beloved Jim Dale audiobooks during the long sleepless nights, but for the most part, the injury suppressed all thoughts of Potter. By the time I had finally recovered and could walk uninhibited again, voila! It was July 2009! The wait was over!

Still, once the release date drew near, I began experiencing levels of excitement I had not felt in years, certainly not during High School. A lot had changed in my life since the last Potter book and movie, but my love of the series had not; the promise of seeing a new movie was like planning to reunite with an old, temporarily lost friend. I had never attended a midnight screening before, but this time, I was determined. I was no longer writing for the Colorado Kids, so for the first time since Chamber of Secrets seven years earlier, I would not get to see the movie early at a press screening; midnight was the absolute soonest I could go, so I bought tickets the moment they went on sale.

It is a night I shall never forget, one filled with nostalgia and joy. The movie played at the United Artists Denver West theatre, the same Cineplex where the first two films were shown years ago; it felt oddly appropriate to be returning there for a new Potter film after so much time away, and the nostalgia factor was high. My family and I arrived a good three hours early, but the lines were already out the door; never underestimate the dedication of Potter fans. Luckily, it was a warm summer night, and to entertain ourselves, my brother and I had brought our old Game Boy systems and the cherished Potter games from our elementary school years to boost nostalgia. 

I was worried, since I had never been to a midnight screening before, that I would not be able to stay awake for a whole two-and-a-half hour movie. By the time the film began, I was already feeling a little tired, but any drowsiness was quickly cast away. I was excited for “Half-Blood Prince,” but I never once imagined how utterly fantastic and captivating the film would be; not only did I not fall asleep, but it took me quite a few hours after getting home to finally go to bed. This is a magical, funny, dark, and powerful movie, and seeing it with the big midnight audience only enhanced all of its best qualities; fans laughed, cheered, and cried in all the right places, and only the best movies can elicit such great reactions from such a large crowd. 

“Half-Blood Prince” is easily my second-favorite film in the series, behind only “Prisoner of Azkaban;” in many ways, “Prince” is more of a sequel to Alfonso Cuáron’s “Azkaban” than to any of its fellows, sharing remarkably similar aesthetic, tonal, and adaptation designs. The movie focuses more on character than anything else, like Cuáron’s film did, and that means there are some significant deviations from the book. That is a good thing. A book develops character differently than a movie does, and visa versa; on page, we can hear Harry’s thoughts, but that luxury isn’t afforded in film. 

Instead, new scenes (or at least new takes on what’s found in the source material) must be created to let these characters live and breathe cinematically, to allow the cast’s excellent chemistry to carry the movie instead of relying on long stretches of exposition. “Azkaban” did this expertly, and “Half-Blood Prince” takes the concept to the next level; it is filled with riotously funny and remarkably poignant scenes, and a lot of that comes from simply stepping back and letting the terrific cast interact. All the important plot points are, of course, covered, but the movie works because the characters we know and love so well come first, and for a fan experiencing Potter-withdrawal, that was a dream come true.

Director David Yates also took cues from Cuáron visually and tonally; like “Azkaban, the world of Hogwarts feels very alive. Magical education can be fun and thrilling, but there’s danger lurking around every corner, and Bruno Delbonnel’s innovative cinematography exceptionally demonstrates these contrasts. Some scenes emulate the magical, otherworldly color scheme of “Azkaban” to enhance the sense of exciting wonder; other shots suck all color out of the image, giving the visuals a Sepia-tinted flavor and creating an almost unbearable sense of dread and tension. Just as the book uses words to express both whimsy and darkness, the film employs brilliant imagery to convey how delightful, gritty, or brutal Harry’s world can be depending on the situation.

“Half-Blood Prince” had been a long time coming, but it was worth every second of waiting. The film series is not perfect, but with yet another phenomenal movie under its belt, I knew, walking out of the theatre at three in the morning, that history would see this as one of the all-time great film franchises. After all, if the penultimate chapter was so spectacular, then there was no reason to doubt that “Deathly Hallows,” the final film and arguably the most important piece of the Potter-puzzle, would close the series on the strongest note yet. 

Long before “Half-Blood Prince” hit theatres, it was announced that the final film would be divided into two parts, filmed simultaneously a la Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy and released within a few months of each other. When the decision was made in March 2008, I felt ambivalent about the concept, writing that “ will either be the worst or best idea ever.” I had to wonder whether or not this was truly a creative choice or an attempt to milk as much money out of the series as possible, and Warner’s decision later that year to delay “Half-Blood Prince” for financial reasons weakened any trust I had of the former. 

But when “Half-Blood Prince” finally came out, all was forgiven. The movie was so incredible that there was no doubt in my mind that “Hallows” would be as good or better, especially since David Yates would return to direct; if the producers had come this far, continually making good films, then I trusted their instinct to split the last book in two.

There is, after all, a fair bit of creative logic there: First, once the Potter books started getting long, the films compensated by cutting all the day-to-day stuff, like classes and Quidditch. Deathly Hallows does not take place at Hogwarts, so those natural cutting-points do not exist. Second, many plot points in Hallows that lead to Voldemort’s eventual downfall hinge on plot/character elements that were excised from prior adaptations, so extra time is clearly needed to make up for what the earlier films missed. Third and most important of all, Hallows is the conclusion to what is, so far, a nine-hour film series, one unprecedented in its scope and creative ambitions, perhaps the only series to chronicle one set of characters over such a long stretch of time. The final film should have an epic climax worthy of such great build-up, and I think the producers were right in speculating that an ending of appropriate magnitude could not be accomplished in just one movie. 

Once I realized all this, it became easy to get excited for “Deathly Hallows” Parts 1 and 2, especially after the amazing, early 2010 trailer proved everything was headed in the right direction. I had such a fun time at the “Half-Blood Prince” midnight screening that I knew I had to see “Hallows” at midnight too, so once again, I bought my tickets as soon as they went on sale and readied myself for the last few weeks of unbearably excited waiting.

Then, just a few weeks ago, I arrived home one afternoon following a particularly rotten day at school only to open my e-mail and see perhaps the greatest sentence in the English language: “Warner Brothers invites you to a special advance screening of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1.” I just about fainted with surprise – this was too good to be true! It could not be real! But it was; as a member of WB’s Insider Rewards program, I had been sent tickets to the first Denver screening of the film on Monday, November 15th, a full four days before the movie’s release, at the Harkins Northfield theatre on their majestic ‘Cine-Capri,’ the largest screen in Colorado. 

My brother and I went together, and it felt just like old times; back during the Colorado Kids era, we went to pre-screenings together all the time, always finding the most excitement at the Potter premieres. We arrived two hours ahead of time for good measure, but I had once again underestimated my fellow Potter fans; we were at the back of a three-hundred person line. It was no problem; since the auditorium seats nearly 600 people, we still got our favorite seats close to the screen, a habit I had learned watching “Chamber of Secrets” eight years ago to the day.

As this thought struck me, I began to reflect on the other ways Harry Potter has affected my life. When I was seven and my grandparents passed away, Rowling’s boy-wizard arrived to be my friend and role model in a time of great emotional suffering; his adventures inspired me to start writing stories of my own, and I have never stopped; the movies chronicling his journeys sparked my lifelong love of film and taught me the core values I hold dear as a critic; during those depressing middle school years, Harry was there for me when few others were, and when I broke my ankle, he and all his wonderful friends helped me get through the long, sleepless nights. I would not be who I am today without Harry Potter.

And as I sat there in the auditorium, eagerly waiting for the beginning of the end to start, this wave of reflective nostalgia washed over me, overwhelming my mind. I expected to once again feel sad, to mourn the loss of one of my greatest childhood friends and mentors, but I instead felt fulfilled. After all, if we love anything hard enough, be it a person, place, or thing, it will exist eternally in our hearts and minds, to recall upon happily or to help us in times of need. Harry Potter taught me this eleven long years ago, after I lost my grandparents, and I know that my time spent with him and his friends at Hogwarts will always be with me. These are memories I will cherish forever, and nothing can take them away. 

I checked my watch; we were a just a minute shy of 7:00, and in mere moments, the movie would begin. I realized I had been getting ahead of myself. The series would not end for another eight months, so there was still plenty of time left to make new everlasting memories, starting in just a few seconds with the first part of the epic conclusion.

My watch hit 7:00, and for the second-to-last time ever, the lights went down, the crowd cheered, and the magic began, casting a spell as powerful and enchanting as any of the ones I had encountered before on my long, life-changing journey with Harry, Ron, Hermione, and all my other friends at Hogwarts.

All was well.                          

The text of this article is taken from my 2012 book, Fade to Lack: A Critic’s Journey Through the World of Modern Film, available on Amazon and other online retailers.

Follow author Jonathan Lack on Twitter @JonathanLack.

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