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It All Ends: Harry Potter (2001 – 2011)

IT ALL ENDS. That's the tagline that is stamped across every poster for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, the final curtain call for the biggest film franchise of all time and one of fiction's most iconic and popular characters of the screen and literature.

IT ALL ENDS. That’s the tagline that is stamped across every poster for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, the final curtain call for the biggest film franchise of all time and one of fiction’s most iconic and popular characters of the screen and literature.

For everyone, the end of this era will come with a number of mixed reactions. The fans will anticipate the final film with a sense of excitement but also a heavy heart. The casual cinema-goer may be thankful that by the end of the summer they won’t have to deal with scrums of screaming fans packing out screenings. And the haters will most likely be happy seeing the back of it.

Harry Potter is unavoidable. He has taken the world by storm. Even the haters can’t deny that there will be a massive hole left by the young wizard when the final film goes out to audiences. Of course, the title of this article is kind of misleading, we have had Harry Potter in one form or another, as either a film or a novel, since 1997. So for 14 years we haven’t been without a Potter release. It’s going to be strange that in 2012 nothing Potter related will hit us.

To put it simply, the phenomenon of Potter is quite remarkable. It goes back to over 20 years where a broke J.K. Rowling penned the story outline for her precious boy wizard on the back of several napkins on a train from Manchester to London. The first book: Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (retitled for the US to Sorceror’s Stone) sprang out 5 years later in 1995 while she supported herself as a single parent in Edinburgh.

It wasn’t published till 1997 in the UK by Bloomsbury, after being rejected 12 times. Those 12 publishers must now be kicking themselves. It seems odd to think of a J.K. Rowling who was penniless. She is now one of the richest women in Britain, with an estimated wealth of £560 million, around $800 million. Not bad work for 7 books and 12 years of work.

Hollywood saw they had a hot property and purchased the rights a month after release of first book in the US. Before the first film’s release, the fourth instalment of the novels: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire broke literary records selling 3 million copies stateside within the first 48 hours of publication. The adaptation of the first book for film followed about a year later. It still reamins the highest grossing entry of the franchise, making a massive $968 million worldwide. It was then that we got the alternating years between book and film release.

I do have a very large place for Harry Potter in my heart, but it would be difficult to say that the books are great works of literature. They are pulpy, genre fiction that survive solely on plot rather than any deep, important philosophical work. Sure, its development of plot and character are occasionally great but it is light reading, it requires no thought and you can breeze through them in a matter of days. There is no depth, it maintains its teen audience by the ever growing darkness in the material as the books develop, not because of the intellectual ideas.

Harry Potter is important on the face of literature as mostly a financial success (although the cultural impact leading to the Percy Jackson or Twilight series is undeniable). Whether it will be considered the cornerstone of fiction or more specifically British fiction and considered to be up there with the works of George Orwell or even Philip Pullman is something only time will tell. But for my (and many others) childhood and teenage years, Harry Potter was the perfect bedtime read. It was something that was so difficult to put down and children would spend hours at a time reading the books.

I have read each book at least twice, and Prisoner of Azkaban (far and away the finest Potter book) many more times than that, they are comfortable relaxants to get away from more heavy going works that an English student like myself is required to study. Trust me there is no better antidote to Jane Eyre than a Harry Potter novel.

The films however I am less reverent about. While all of the Harry Potter novels range from good to excellent, the quality range for the films is far more wide, going from very rubbish to perfect blockbuster fare. The first and second films directed by Chris Columbus are simply awful. Despite getting an array of very talented actors, none of them are truly on top form (Alan Rickman duly noted as always being consistently brilliant). The early films were let down by a director whose ability with actors is practically none existent and a story plotted so episodically that the pure length became interminable.

As a result of this, the direction of child actors (which make up the majority of the Potter cast) are all crap in both Philosopher’s Stone and Chamber of Secrets. Daniel Radcliffe is so wooden that he occasionally blends in with the furniture around him and Emma Watson is so brittle that as you watch her walking, the fear of her legs fragmenting only escalates as the running time inches closer to the three hour mark. It took Alfonso Cuaron to really put the boot up the arse of the Potter franchise and really get it into the high kicking quality of filmmaking that the material deserved.

Of course, he had the best book to contend with and the finest additions to the cast. The very underrated Gary Oldman appears in one of his finest (and oddly heroic) turns as Sirius Black, the convict turned father figure. David Thewlis proved to be an excellent Professor Lupin whose wolfish facial qualities only enhanced the rapture of the audience, and who would have guessed that Timothy Spall would have been perfect as the snivelling Peter Pettigrew?

The adaptation of Prisoner of Azkaban still remains the high watermark of the franchise, if only because the presence of narrative was finally graced. Cuaron’s masterful handling of the final 40 minutes of the film prove deftly handled and superbly edited with a wondrous symmetry of plot that Chris Columbus could only dream of. It is also the first time the child actors really got a grip on the material, with Cuaron very cleverly getting very graceful comic performances from the 3 leads. Unfortunately, the film is also the least financially successful of the franchise. $800 million however isn’t anything to be sneered at.

From there on the films took a dive as the books got progressively thicker. The adaptations of Goblet of Fire and Order of the Phoenix only get by due to fine filmmakers behind the lens. Order of the Phoenix, narrative wise, is too packed in and feels 40 minutes longer than it actually is, David Yates‘ ability to draw excellent performances saved his skin. Yates managed to drag a performance of true emotional turmoil and depth out of Daniel Radcliffe, whose performance up until that point had never really developed past the personality of a teaspoon. Plus, the casting of Imelda Staunton as Dolores Umbridge is wonderfully inspired. As for Goblet of Fire, it took the chilling late arrival of of Ralph Fiennes (fantastic as Lord Voldemort) and the ever growing sense of doom in the film’s final act to save it.

Half-Blood Prince however saw a staggering return to form, reclaiming a narrative that would bleed over into the final 3 outings with the search for Horcruxes becoming the focal point to keep the film’s pacing in gear. Not to mention giving actor Jim Broadbent the chance to steal every single scene he is in as Horace Slughorn, with a sublime mixture of charm and comic chops. The film captures the tone of the novel just right, it showed Yates finally finding his feet as a director, making him the perfect choice to round off the franchise.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 is easily the most ambitious and experimental of all the films. The removal of all familiarity that was present in every other film lends this particular instalment exactly what it needed, a breath of fresh air. The shackles and comfort of Hogwarts are gleefully abandoned, the camera switches to a more verite style and visual palette becomes more pallid and gloomy. It is a risk that pays off wonderfully, the pacing takes a notch down and the complexity of character takes centre stage. The search for Horcruxes is almost entirely peripheral, it is the turmoil and the dynamic between the trio of Harry, Ron and Hermione which is really on the minds of the filmmakers.

This results in the film that shares the honour with Prisoner of Azkaban as being the finest. Yates’ direction, the visual effects, the cinematography, the acting, the look and not to mention the score by Alexandre Desplat (which tops the John Williams score) are all top notch. It is the kind of quality you expect to receive all the time from big budget filmmaking. As a self declared film obsessive who does know a fair bit about his subject, I think it is entirely reasonable to suggest that the mark of Harry Potter on the face of cinema is bigger than the mark of Harry Potter on the face of literature.

While Hollywood is the bigger business model for the film industry and 10 times more powerful than the British film industry, cinema’s biggest product is the Harry Potter franchise. It’s also an entirely British product. Sure, Warner Bros. put up the money but from the beginning, the creator has entirely insisted on a British pedigree in front of and behind the camera. In the main cast, which equals well over 100 actors, it is wholly British. It is hard now to name many talents of the British acting fraternity who have not appeared in a Harry Potter film.

Kate Winslet, Colin Firth, Daniel Day-Lewis and Stephen Fry are all notable by their absence but look at who they did bring in. Jim Broadbent, Richard Harris, Michael Gambon, Julie Walters, Ralph Fiennes, Alan Rickman, Maggie Smith, Kenneth Branagh, Emma Thompson, Gary Oldman, David Thewlis, Jason Isaacs, Helena Bonham Carter, Imelda Staunton, Brendan Gleeson, Miranda Richardson, John Hurt, Timothy Spall… the list is endless. And forgive me for missing some of those great actors who have leant talent to the films and given it the gravitas it deserves.

It has all been shot in Britain and with sets designed and built by British union workers. It is the product of the Britain’s finest filmmaking talent and that is not to be underestimated when considering it as a whole work. It has provided so much for the UK and put the spotlight on us for the past 10 years as the films are pushed out into cinemas. It has done marvels for the culture and will be insanely missed by us, as a nation.

Personally, my relationship with Harry Potter is of great significance to my life and people of my generation (or born in my year) for a very simple reason. The first Harry Potter book was released in 1997 which was my first year at school, the start of compulsory education. The close of the franchise with the release of the final film in 2011, marks my last year at school.

Harry Potter has coincidentally charted my school career and has helped me along the path of maturity. Harry Potter‘s most successful attribute is capturing the school experience. The trepidation with which you approach it, the joy of meeting life long friends, romantic relationships, fallouts.

Most importantly is the fact of Harry Potter being a troubled and confused child, thrust out of nowhere and attempting to live in a world where he is different to others. For me this is where the novels and films really do hit home and have ‘helped’ me overcome feelings on insecurity in my own life. Reading and watching Harry Potter has undoubtedly aided me accept that it is okay to be different. Outside of pure escapism, Harry Potter has changed my life on a deeply personal note and when considering the legacy of Harry Potter, this is what I will look back on most fondly of all.

From all of us here at We Got This Covered, we’d like to thank everyone who worked on this beloved franchise. Whether it was on the novels or on the films, we thank you all and your work will be missed. It’s been a wonderful ride and one that will not be soon forgotten.

About the author

Will Chadwick

Will has written for the site since October 2010, he currently studies English Literature and American Studies at the University of Birmingham in the UK. His favourite films include Goodfellas, The Shawshank Redemption and The Godfather and his favourite TV shows are Mad Men, Six Feet Under, The Simpsons and Breaking Bad.