MyLeaky Login

Join the largest Harry Potter Social Network on the Web! | FAQ

Harry Potter and the Adaptation from Novel to Film
By Robyn Joffe

For as long as people have been making movies, people have been making movies based on books. Films have also been adapted from several other forms such as television shows, theatrical plays and even other movies. More recently, entire book series have been adapted, such as the Lord of the Rings trilogy and the still in progress Harry Potter series. With six of the seven books written, and five films finished (four of them released), the Harry Potter franchise has a lot to offer scholars interested in the how-to’s and the results of adapting books to film.

The Harry Potter films, which started with the release of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone in the year 2001, depict the events covered in the books in a more filmic fashion. The films bring Rowling’s words to life; however, as is nearly always the case in adapting work of one form to another, the transitions can be less than smooth. As Deborah Cartmell, senior lecturer in English writes, “An adaptation is undeniably an appropriation of the text, and although the plot remains the same, the telling – or the interpreting of it – radically changes from one generation to the next.” 1

From time constraints to a director’s need for artistic expression to casting choices to how a film is promoted, the process of transforming a book to a film can be fraught with peril. Other such issues surrounding direction, characterization, pacing and chosen content (among others) can also contribute to a film’s eventual success or failure. Though the resulting movie may in fact be a good film, the question that must be asked is whether it is a good film version of the book. Though most published academic works covering the adaptation of a book to a film focus on classic novels, such as those by Shakespeare or Jane Austen, adaptations are not made merely from acclaimed literary masterpieces. What the Harry Potter series lacks in academic acknowledgment, it more than makes up for in mass popular appeal.

For this reason, this essay will dissect the Harry Potter books and their resulting films, paying particular attention to what issues in the process of adaptation were most relevant to each, and see what, if any, perils were encountered in the making of them. In doing so, this essay will make use of both scholarly and amateur sources, because while authoritative texts are more often relied upon (and with good reason) in essays such as this, the opinions fueled by the unquestionable knowledge of the Harry Potter fan base (in regards to the content of both the books and films), are not necessarily any less valid than their more academically informed counterparts.


Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (2001)

Graham Greene, one of the first major literary talents to show an interest in writing for films (and one who often adapted his own short stories) once described the screenwriter as “a ‘forgotten man’ once the film went into production, since after that point other hands might make alterations to the screenplay.” 2 In a much more recent book, the same sentiment was expressed: “Despite the excellent compensation, a Hollywood scriptwriter is a low man on the totem pole, and much of his work – sometimes all of his work – is not used.” 3 However, for Harry Potter screenwriter Steve Kloves, working with director Christopher Columbus was an experience in the opposite. In fact, Columbus described their collaboration – which went from script development through production – as “something of a dream situation,” 4 and Kloves further explained that “Chris has been willing to listen to any idea, and he doesn’t think it’s right until we both agree it’s right, which is great.” 5

Columbus also went a step further in welcoming the continued involvement of not just the screenwriter – but the original novelist as well; “My desire was to remain faithful to the story, the characters and the integrity of those characters ... I realized that I had found a solid collaborator [in Rowling]. And it was important because she knows this world better than anyone else.” 6

Producer David Heyman also noted that Rowling “has been given the freedom to exert perhaps more influence on the Potter films than is usual when a book is adapted for the screen.” 7 This is no doubt due to the fact that the book series is not yet completed, or as Kloves himself put it; “It’s the only time I’ve ever been involved in a story without an ending ... And you would think [Rowling] would tell me something [about it], since I am writing it. But she won’t.” 8 Along with script approval, author J.K. Rowling had one other demand: that the actors playing the British characters actually be British. Thus, casting began.

Casting a film that is being adapted from a book can often become very controversial, especially if fans get wind of which actors are being considered beforehand. Because many novels that are made into films are not illustrated, the reader has created a picture of each character in their mind, according to any descriptions from the book, and accepting an actor who may not entirely fit that description or picture is something that many fans find hard to do. On the other hand, it is not always only a matter of a fan being unable to let go of his/her own interpretation of a character. At times, the decision to cast a certain actor in a certain role can be questionable no matter how good they might be.

An example of this would be the casting of Alan Rickman in the role of Professor Severus Snape. Though Rickman is a very talented actor, he was also fifty-five years old when the first movie was released, whereas at the start of the series Snape is supposedly only thirty-two years old.9 While one might think that the age difference does not matter so long as the appearance is appropriate, the difference – particularly as it’s more than twenty years – has an effect on that as well. In the book, part of Harry’s perception of Snape is that “his eyes were black like Hagrid’s, but they had none of Hagrid’s warmth. They were cold and empty and made you think of dark tunnels.” 10 Snape’s youth, coupled with his demeanor, present a more tragic juxtaposition in the book than they do in the film because in the film that juxtaposition does not even exist. How can it when the embittered contempt that emanates from the character is easily understandable, rather than jarring, in the lined face of an older actor?

The choice to cast Rickman has also lead to another unforeseen side effect among Harry Potter fans: Lust.

The newfound Snapemania was sparked in part by the casting of actor Alan Rickman – well-established as “the thinking woman’s sex symbol” – in the role. Rickman’s feline movements and mellifluous voice give the Potions Master a sensuality absent from the page. And beyond the shoulder-length black wig and black contact lenses Rickman wears, no attempt is made to ugly him up.11

This has even led to Rowling herself questioning whether those who profess their love of the character are talking about Snape, or Alan Rickman, and (as the same thing has occurred in the case of Harry’s nemesis, Draco Malfoy) lamenting the humanizing effect that an attractive actor tends to have on the villainous characters he portrays; “Isn’t this life, though? I make this hero – Harry, obviously – and there he is on screen ... but who does every girl under the age of fifteen fall in love with? Tom Felton as Draco Malfoy.” 12

Aside from these and other slight deviations, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (known as Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone in the United States13), is remarkably faithful to its source text. In fact, BBC film reviewer Adrian Hennigan wrote that Columbus treated “J.K. Rowling’s debut novel with a reverence that wasn’t even accorded to the Bible.” 14

However, not all deemed such devotion praise-worthy, and the film “was criticized by many as being too faithful to the book.” 15 One summed the film up as “an adaptation which paradoxically undermines itself by aiming at a faithful replication of the source text,” 16 while others merely declared that “a commitment to fidelity (in response to the perceived demands of readers/viewers) compromises the processes of adaptation.” 17 However, on the other side of the spectrum, respected critic Roger Ebert wrote that the film had succeeded in doing “full justice to a story that was a daunting challenge ... During [the film] I was pretty sure I was watching a classic.” 18

There are a couple of issues that help explain this broad range of reactions – aside from the obvious reality of people having different opinions. One of these issues is that this book and film are the first of a series, and so while the actual plot is one of mystery, it doesn’t appear until rather late in the actual story – the time up to that point being taken up by Harry’s introduction to (and the setting up of) the wizarding world. In fact, in the shooting script for the film, the titular Stone is only very obliquely referred to for the first time on the twenty-second page; “Hogwarts business. Very secret,” 19 and once more on the forty-third; “the third floor corridor ... is out of bounds to everyone who does not wish to die a most painful death,” 20 before the characters are confronted with the actual mystery on page fifty-five:

HERMIONE
Didn’t you see what it was standing on?
[...] It was standing on a trapdoor, which means it’s not there by accident. It’s-

HARRY
Guarding something.
21

This means that the actual plot of the first film doesn’t start until fifty-five pages into the script, completely ignoring a rule that is not just for “adaptation, it’s a rule of screenwriting in general. You’ve only got about thirty pages to set everything up. Establish your main characters ... ground the audience in the world where your story takes place, introduce the dramatic problem, and move into the second act.” 22 Lagging with the opening could add to any pacing problems that might develop, as well as become the source of accusations of too much fidelity by critics. And yet, because this introduction is not just for this film but for the entire series, it’s (arguably) necessary, because the plotline revolving around the Philosopher’s Stone might be the focus of the first film, but Harry’s place in the wizarding world remains a focus of each of the films that follow. To breeze through it would be inexcusable, making the resulting ambling movement towards the main plot of the film all but unavoidable. However, it is worth it to remember that that introduction is part of what the audience is there to see.

The other issue that must be highlighted when discussing the expectations of both fans and critics is the overwhelming, ever-growing Harry Potter phenomenon that accompanies the release of every single bit of news even remotely relating to the series. As Suman Gupta wrote in a chapter of his book entitled Movie Magic: “Very seldom have films been so preordained to be blockbusters, received so much media attention before they appeared ... been anticipated with so much informed readiness.” 23

Perhaps Professor Philip Nel put it best when he wrote that “the film does no violence to readers’ imagined versions of characters and events, but it does not offer its own creative vision.” 24


Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002)

This film, like the first, was directed by Christopher Columbus and written for the screen by Steve Kloves. Because most of the creative team was the same, most of the commentary towards the process of creating this film is similar as well. However, there are some significant differences and additional issues unexplored in the topic for the previous film that warrant its own – albeit shorter – discussion.

Structurally, the second film is quite different from the first, as the introduction to the entire Harry Potter universe isn’t necessary this time around. As Rowling put it; “The first one is episodic ... And Chamber is a more linear structure so it was easier to translate to screen.” 25 However, it is also the longest Harry Potter film (though, to be fair, it only beats Goblet of Fire by four minutes), and the pacing suffers for it. As one critic wrote, “You get the sense that its makers have tried to film a novel instead of make a movie,” 26 while another pointed out that “watching the film, I mostly felt sensory overload as one special effect was piled atop another. In fact director Chris Columbus has scrupulously avoided anything like genuine emotion.” 27

To be fair, he was worrying about other things - namely, his young stars.

Casting these kids at the beginning of Sorcerer’s Stone was, in a way, horrifying. I spent the first two weeks on that film trying to get them to look away from the camera, stop smiling and be able to utter one line so I could cut around it.28

The experience (or lack of same) of his actors contributed in a large way to how Columbus was able to shoot both of the Harry Potter movies he filmed. As none of the child actors had ever done anything professional before – aside from Daniel Radcliffe, who had only had a few small roles – the movie had to be shot and edited around them. The first two Harry Potter films owe their less-than-sophisticated look to the fact that prolonged camera shots and wide angles were simply not possible in most cases involving the young stars – and neither was the endless repetition that can otherwise be associated with film-making. In fact, Columbus “rehearsed very little with the children since ... he didn’t want to lose their spontaneity.” 29

In Columbus’ words; “When we wrapped on Chamber of Secrets, their performances had improved immensely, and they had become seasoned professionals. I felt my job was complete,” 30 and with his job complete, so was the second film.


Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)

It is in the discussion of the third film in the Harry Potter series that a more intricate and varied discussion on the pros and cons of the adaptation process can truly commence. This is not to say that discussing the first two films is without merit, but that as the books get longer (indeed, the third one is the first of the series to break 300 pages), and the plots grow more complex, the resulting portrayals on film offer more topics to debate.

Another reason that this progression reflected so obviously on the film series was that Christopher Columbus, director of the first two films, stepped back into the role of co-producer (with David Heyman and others) on this film, leading to Mexican filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón being hired to direct. Having previously brought his unique visual style to films like A Little Princess (and consequently proving he could work with children), Cuarón was drafted to lead the Harry Potter series in a new direction: “My approach was that I wanted to do a character driven piece, with cool visual effects, rather than a visual effects movie with some characters running around.” 31

At the same time, Cuarón was conscious of the fact that he was stepping into an already-established universe, admitting that “it was one of [his] hesitations” before accepting the position.32 He solved that dilemma by resolving to serve the material: “and the material meant before anything else the book, and then secondly the position of this film in the franchise of Harry Potter.” 33

His overall success may be debatable, but what cannot be questioned is the dramatic change made in the look of this third film. As Columbus remembers: “Most of our sets were already built, but Alfonso had a desire – as did our production designer Stuart Craig – to open up the picture.” 34 Using more wide-angle and tracking shots to heighten the sense of drama,35 Cuarón was intent on facilitating the overall flow of the film, as well as creating lasting visual connections throughout.36 Particular focus was paid to images relating to time (Harry spends several scenes in and around a large clock tower at Hogwarts), and identity (there are numerous scenes that start or end on a close up of a character’s eye), in keeping with the themes Cuarón had chosen to highlight. The use of darker colours, more haunting music and dramatic lighting (“high contrast, more shadows”) also contributed to the “very different look and feel from the previous films.” 37

Perhaps the most important decision made to create this result, however, was one that was more philosophical than technical: “One of the things we decided was that in order for the magic to spring forward more naturally, it had to come from a real and honest place ... What we sought to create was a sense of reality in which the characters interact with each other.” 38

Cuarón felt that choosing Michael Seresin for the film’s cinematography would help to achieve that goal:

One thing that I felt was perfect for Michael was that we have this magical universe that he could really ground. Because he has got that grittiness, and that grittiness comes from the fact that he is a single-source light cinematographer. He’s very naturalistic in that sense. I felt it would be a good marriage with the material.39

And he seems to have succeeded. As Sloan de Forest, editor and contributor to Scribbulus, writes: “[In] the third film, I saw an immense, imposing Hogwarts drained of its warmth but injected with a unique style and grainy realism not present in the first two films.” 40 The film was lauded by both critics and fans as being “the closest any of the films has gotten to capturing the enormously pleasing essence of the Potter books,” 41 and there seemed to be a tentative collective agreement that Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban was a truly great movie. But that does not mean it was a great movie of the book, and as this is the difference that this essay seeks to highlight, more in depth examination is necessary.

The unique thing about the book, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, is that it is arguably not a story in and of itself – but the story of a story, which gradually unfolds throughout the book, finally leading to its climactic reveal and the ensuing repercussions. The book covering Harry Potter’s third year at Hogwarts is not about Harry Potter’s third year at all, but about the events leading up to his parents’ deaths twelve years before.

It is fitting, then, that with this book comes the introduction of several new characters, including two of particular importance: Defense Against the Dark Arts Professor Remus Lupin, and the escaped titular Prisoner of Azkaban, Sirius Black. One interviewer notes that their “connection with ... Harry’s parents is a major factor in Azkaban’s back-story,” 42 but though most of that quotation is true, it is the use of the word “back-story” that is the problem.

As Amy Z wrote in her essay An Elegantly Woven Tapestry: Plotlines in Prisoner of Azkaban, “it’s true that there is no single central plot in [the story], because one candidate (Quidditch) lacks gravitas, and another (Sirius [versus] Harry) proves to be an illusion.” 43 Instead, in the absence of an obvious main storyline, it is the so-called “back-story” that takes centre stage; “while Harry is going about his life ... there is another drama mostly invisible to him (and to us, until the second reading): that of Lupin, Black, Snape, and, if you think about it, Pettigrew.” 44 In Prisoner of Azkaban the back-story becomes the main plot, as even though the events transpired twelve years previous, they are unfolding to Harry in the present and the story’s climax happens when the truth is finally revealed to all. In that way, there was no conclusion to the events in the past, instead, it was as if those involved were put on hold, held in stasis until Harry’s third year at Hogwarts when they were at last able to play it out:

“Everyone thought Sirius killed Peter,” said Lupin, nodding. “I believed it myself — until I saw the map tonight. Because the Marauder’s Map never lies... Peter’s alive. Ron’s holding him, Harry.”

[...]

“If you’re going to tell them the story, get a move on, Remus,” said Black, who was still watching Scabbers’s every desperate move. “I’ve waited twelve years, I’m not going to wait much longer.”

[...]

“Harry,” said Lupin hurriedly, “don’t you see? All this time we’ve thought Sirius betrayed your parents, and Peter tracked him down — but it was the other way around, don’t you see? Peter betrayed your mother and father — Sirius tracked Peter down —” 45

As Amy Z writes: “We think the story is about Black trying to kill Harry, so the plot seems focused on that; but that’s not what the story is about. It’s about Sirius in a whole different way, and it’s as much about Pettigrew.” 46 With the misunderstandings cleared up and the truth of the events of twelve years before revealed, the climax of their story becomes the climax of the book itself – one which ultimately ends in near disaster, allowing the fallout to finally occur.

In discussing how she has conceptualized the third book, Harry Potter fan Kelly Parker writes:

I think the third book is more about setting up the series for later on and dealing more with the past and how it is affecting Harry and the entire wizarding world now. It’s not so much about his schooling ... his schooling takes a back seat to finding out about his godfather and dealing with all of that. I personally think this is one of the most pivotal books in the series.47

Unfortunately, Alfonso Cuarón apparently did not see it in exactly the same way: “This film is concerned with confronting [the characters’] innermost fears ... It’s [also] a journey of a character’s seeking his identity and accepting who he is. To step out of the shadow of his father, for instance, is one of the themes.” 48 Putting aside the question of whether or not this is true, the difference of opinion as to the main focus of the story obviously resulted in the exclusion of certain things.

One of the most often cited examples of such an exclusion is the actual back-story of Harry’s parents and their friends. Included in this example are several key pieces of information that are either missing from the film entirely, or mentioned in vague generalities that are easily glossed over. The most important piece of information that is introduced in this story is the betrayal of Harry’s parents that led to their deaths. It is in this book that we learn that Voldemort could not just go and attack the Potters, and that they would have been safe had they not trusted the wrong person, because of the preparations they had taken before going into hiding:

“Dumbledore told them that their best chance was the Fidelius Charm.”

“How does that work?” said Madam Rosmerta, breathless with interest. Professor Flitwick cleared his throat.

“An immensely complex spell,” he said squeakily, “involving the magical concealment of a secret inside a single, living soul. The information is hidden inside the chosen person, or Secret-Keeper, and is henceforth impossible to find — unless, of course, the Secret-Keeper chooses to divulge it. As long as the Secret-Keeper refused to speak, You-Know-Who could search the village where Lily and James were staying for years and never find them, not even if he had his nose pressed against their sitting room window!” 49

The fact that Sirius Black was thought to be the Potters’ Secret-Keeper, and therefore the only person capable of betraying them, is rather central to how he became the titular Prisoner, having been sent to Azkaban without a trial. The fact that Peter Pettigrew was the actual Secret-Keeper, and therefore the only possible betrayer of the Potters: “ ‘ Lily and James only made you Secret-Keeper because I suggested it,’ Black hissed ... ‘I thought it was the perfect plan... a bluff... Voldemort would be sure to come after me ... It must have been the finest moment of your miserable life, telling Voldemort you could hand him the Potters,’ ” 50 is also central to understanding the story. However, interestingly enough, the word “Secret-Keeper” is never spoken even once during the entire film, and the importance of the role is instead glossed over, when it is referred to at all: “Well, now, years ago, when Harry Potter’s parents realized that they were marked for death – do you remember? – they went into hiding. Few knew where they were. One who did, was Sirius Black – and he told You-Know-Who!” 51

Aside from being factually wrong, as it was Harry and not his parents who was marked for death, the use of the word “few” and the phrase “one who did” instead of “the one who did” would imply that more than one person knew where the Potters were hiding. This would, in turn, mean that more than one person would have been able to betray them, rendering Sirius Black’s immediate condemnation inexplicable – and potentially Peter Pettigrew’s later one as well.

Although it minimizes the betrayal of the Potters, the vagueness that resulted from the absence of the word “Secret-Keeper” could still have been explained had another piece of information been included:

Sirius here played a trick on [Snape] which nearly killed him ... [he] thought it would be – er – amusing, to tell Snape all he had to do was prod the knot on the tree-trunk with a long stick, and he’d be able to get in after me ... if he’d got as far as this house, he’d have met a fully grown werewolf. 52

The knowledge that Sirius Black, at sixteen, sent a fellow classmate to his death without remorse (later saying it was just a prank), would have gone a long way to explaining why of the “few” who “knew where [the Potters] were”, he was the most likely suspect: “ ‘ Sirius Black showed he was capable of murder at the age of sixteen,’ [Snape] breathed. ‘You haven’t forgotten that, Headmaster? You haven’t forgotten that he once tried to kill me?’ ” 53 And although this might be considered a deviation from the central plot, or potentially slow exposition in a genre where showing is prized above telling, film as a visual medium allows for both to happen at once. This enlightening bit of back-story could easily have been accompanied by either a flashback or a montage of images, illustrating what was being said. However, this did not happen, and unfortunately, it is not the most important piece of information left out of the final film, by far.

The fact that Remus Lupin, Peter Pettigrew, Sirius Black, and James Potter are the same Moony, Wormtail, Padfoot, and Prongs who created the map Harry is coincidentally given by his friends is never mentioned, even when ample opportunity arises – as seen in the following comparative examples:

Prisoner of Azkaban (the book):

“I happen to know that this map was confiscated by Mr. Filch many years ago. Yes, I know it’s a map,” [Lupin] said, as Harry and Ron looked amazed. 54

Prisoner of Azkaban (the film):

PROFESSOR LUPIN
I don’t know how this map came to be in your possession, Harry, but I’m astounded that you didn’t turn it in....

Harry walks silently.55

While this might seem a small, relatively unimportant piece of information, it would only be considered so in isolation. However, this is not so. The connection of each man to his nickname not only solidifies the reality of their once close friendship, but it also connects each to his animal form and the fact that three became Animagi for the fourth: “My three friends could hardly fail to notice that I disappeared once a month ... I was terrified they would desert me ... [but] they didn’t desert me at all. ... They became Animagi ... They couldn’t keep me company as humans, so they kept me company as animals. A werewolf is only a danger to people.” 56

The connection to Animagi is important because of the role that each man’s form plays in the overall story. Peter Pettigrew is able to fake his own death and hide for twelve years as Ron’s pet rat; Sirius Black is able to both keep his sanity while in and finally escape from Azkaban as a large dog; and Harry is able to discover and reclaim a part of his father, which he finds within himself, when his Patronus takes on the form of his father’s stag. And while the first two are obvious in the film without the nickname connection, the fact that James Potter was an Animagus is not, and therefore the significance of Harry’s Patronus is lost. This is particularly ironic considering that it is James Potter as Prongs who is arguably the link between the opinions of the fans already stated as to the main storyline of the book, and director Alfonso Cuarón’s interpretation: “It has to do with Harry coming to terms with his male energy, his father and what his father is.” 57

The absence of this information is notable not only because it details exactly “what his father is”, but also because the information was there in the shooting script, but still didn’t make it to the final cut:

PROFESSOR LUPIN
Before I go, tell me about your Patronus.

HARRY
Well. At first I thought it was a horse, or perhaps a unicorn, but I think it was –

PROFESSOR LUPIN
A stag.

HARRY
Yes.

PROFESSOR LUPIN
Your father used to transform into one. That’s how he was able to keep me company when I became... sick. ... There are stories about him and your mother, you know. Some are even true. But I think it’s safe to say, in the end you’ll know them best by getting to know yourself.
58

As the final cut of the film is decided on by the director (and the editor, at his direction), it is particularly peculiar that none of the dialogue in this excerpt – all of which would go towards emphasizing Cuarón’s apparent vision – appears in the finished version. This would not be a problem were it not for the fact that in losing these aspects of the story, the viewer is treated to a film that is incomplete – not only in and of itself, but also as a part of the ongoing series.


Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005)

As with the third film, the fourth in the Harry Potter series invites a more detailed discussion on the difficulties and competing interests involved in adapting a book to a film. Fortunately for this essay, most of the issues raised in this discussion differ significantly from those presented in each previous film. One reason for this difference was the inclusion of a new director, filmmaker Mike Newell of Four Weddings and a Funeral fame, who, in his own words, had “never made a film like this before and [had] never made a film even a quarter as big as this before.” 59 Unlike the other films in the series thus far, this film presented a directorial challenge even before shooting began. At 636 pages, Goblet of Fire is more than double the size of Prisoner of Azkaban (the longest of the previous three), and Warner Bros. Studio originally intended to split the story in half, shooting the two films back to back, and releasing them close together – similar to what had been done for the second and third films of the Matrix trilogy.60 Mike Newell, however, thought this unnecessary: “As far as I’m concerned it’s absolutely possible to do it in one. I think it would be slightly embarrassing to do it in two.” 61

Aiming to avoid this, Newell pitched his conception of the story to the producers; “I said to them, I said, I can only make this if you will agree that what we’re making is a thriller and we will ruthlessly take out stuff that doesn’t go to that,” 62 later adding that the whole point of the story was that the villain “needs one tiny, tiny little thing from the boy: three drops of blood.” 63 As the first British director in the series, Mike Newell felt that he had the insider expertise necessary to bring an authenticity to the films that they were previously lacking – particularly in regards to the British school system: “It wasn’t possible for them to get that right. They’d never been to such a school,” 64 Newell said, further explaining:

I went through this sort of education. ... I wasn’t at a boarding school ... but there’s an enormous body of literature books ... and I had read all of those, and I’d been to a school just like it where you were beaten with a cane. I remember some of the teachers being really quite violent ... and it had a headmaster of whom one was likely terrified and then a descending order of authority figures, and then there was... and then there was us. ... I don’t see how anybody who hadn’t gone through that, who wasn’t English, could possibly have suspected that.65

There are two facets of this quote that require further examination, the first being Newell’s view of Hogwarts as being just like all of the typical British boarding schools he never attended. Shaun Hately, author of the essay Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry in the Context of the British Public Schools, writes that “Hogwarts is not a perfect exemplar of the Public School tradition – while there is a substantial influence, it cannot be assumed that Hogwarts always follows Public School traditions.” 66 Further on in the paper, in discussing corporal punishment, Hately demonstrates that “At Hogwarts, such methods seem to have fallen into disuse,” 67 citing a quotation from the first book in the Harry Potter series; “Oh yes... Hard work and pain are the best teachers if you ask me... It’s just a pity they let the old punishments die out.” 68

Additional evidence presents itself in the book from which Newell made his own adaptation, when Professor Moody transfigures a student into a ferret and proceeds to bounce him up and down, catching the attention of Professor McGonagall:

“Moody, we never use Transfiguration as a punishment!” said Professor McGonagall weakly. “Surely Professor Dumbledore told you that?”

“He might’ve mentioned it, yeah,” said Moody, scratching his chin unconcernedly, “but I thought a good sharp shock —”

“We give detentions, Moody! Or speak to the offender’s Head of House!” 69

To J.K. Rowling, the “worst, shabbiest thing you can do” as a teacher “[is] bully children,” 70 and corporal punishment has no place in Harry’s world. And yet Newell, who admits that even real English schools have changed now, still felt the need to “[rewrite] a scene to add a glint of schoolboy mischievousness and the corporal punishment it provokes, in which dour Professor Snape ... bonks Harry and Ron in the head with a book for goofing off during a study period.” 71 Snape does not appear at all in the scene in the shooting script for the film,72 so it is obvious that this was a directorial decision. His selection is also unfortunate for the fact that his character is not one to be considered slapstick, nor is his hatred of Harry something in which to find comic relief. However, this twisted characterization appears to be a sort of specialty of Newell’s, which is the second facet of the previous long quotation in need of examination.

As with the school he runs, Newell has also assigned headmaster Albus Dumbledore to a role in the film that is not in keeping with any other information readily available about him. His idea of Dumbledore as “a headmaster of whom one [is] likely terrified,” 73 is directly at odds with J.K. Rowling’s assertion that Dumbledore is instead “the epitome of goodness.” 74 Indeed, Hately’s essay specifies how the character “as presented in the Harry Potter books seems to fit neatly into the mould of the great benevolent public school Headmaster,” 75 and as James A. Morone wrote in his article Cultural Phenomena: Dumbledore’s Message, “[he] practically awards bonus points for breaking the rules,” 76 citing this quotation from Chamber of Secrets as proof: “I seem to remember telling you both that I would have to expel you if you broke any more school rules ... Which goes to show that the best of us must sometimes eat our words.” 77

The issue of the character and characterization of Dumbledore is a difficult one for numerous reasons. The choice of actor to play the role is very much tied up in that – especially because it was made twice. Richard Harris, a veteran of over seventy films, was initially cast in the role, which he played for the first two films. Critics wrote that his selection “was perfection; he had that twinkle in his eye and he conveyed that Dumbledore was as solid as a rock and as wise as readers of J.K. Rowling knew him to be. There was a certainty about him.” 78

However, when Richard Harris passed away shortly before principal photography was to begin on the third film, a new Dumbledore had to be found. Michael Gambon made his Dumbledore debut in Prisoner of Azkaban, and his performance in both it and Goblet of Fire has garnered several comments – though, unfortunately, few have been complimentary: “I have to say that I thought Gambon’s performance lacked some of the warmth and humour that Harris provided.” 79 Newell, on the other hand, thought he was perfect:

I think that he had not wanted to be the same figure that Richard Harris had been, a figure of enormous Olympian authority who’s never caught on the hop. He wanted something to do, simply because he isn’t Richard Harris, and what he found in this one is that Dumbledore is fallible, not omnipotent, and indeed is behind the game. A great deal of what he does is about being inadequate rather than super-adequate, which is obviously much more interesting to play.80

More interesting to play, perhaps, but woefully inaccurate. Even leaving aside the fact that if Gambon did not want to be the same figure Richard Harris had been, his decision to take over the role seems suspect; Dumbledore has been known throughout the series for being the only one Voldemort has ever feared. However, as de Forest points out:

for this fear to be plausible, Dumbledore needs to appear sharp-witted and not cross the line from affable eccentric to preposterous crackpot. ... How can [Newell] expect us to believe that anyone in the wizarding world reveres a panicky, absentminded grump who ... impulsively attacks his favourite student, throttling little Harry about the shoulders and neck? 81

And to Newell’s argument that a fallible, inadequate, and behind-the-game Dumbledore creates a more interesting and more humanized mentor for Harry, M.Y. Simms asks in her essay Action! Harry Potter from the Page to the Screen:

Why would the greatest wizard in the world suddenly appear to suffer from chronic anxiety? I understand that things got serious in Goblet of Fire, but consider this: would Yoda, Merlin, Gandalf or Obi-Wan have freaked out when things got serious and danger loomed? ... I think not. ... Where did the ‘magic’ of Dumbledore go? 82

In fact, far from being behind-the-game, J.K. Rowling’s Dumbledore continues to run steadily ahead, even at the end of Goblet of Fire, after Harry’s confrontation with Voldemort has already taken place:

“He said that my blood would make him stronger than if he’d used someone else’s,” Harry told Dumbledore. “... And he was right — he could touch me without hurting himself, he touched my face.”

For a fleeting instant, Harry thought he saw a gleam of something like triumph in Dumbledore’s eyes.83

Unfortunately, one repercussion from Newell’s decision to have Gambon portray Dumbledore in this mistaken manner – a decision that is proved to be directorial rather than scriptural, due to the calmer version of the character evidenced in the shooting script84 – is more detrimental than having raised the ire of fans; that being the effect it will have on the next installment of the franchise.

One of the main issues that Harry must deal with in the fifth book is his relationship with Dumbledore and how it has, inexplicably (to him), become estranged. This separation, or distance, that Harry feels causes him great distress as he wonders why the headmaster doesn’t seem to care about him anymore. This leads to continued misunderstandings which result in the death of a main character and the discovery of a prophecy. Unfortunately, due to the portrayal of these relationships in the fourth movie, Harry would be unlikely to wonder if the headmaster cared about him in the first place, nor would it really matter to him either way. And the revelation given to Harry at the end, that Dumbledore “cared about [him] too much” and did all he had done because he “acted exactly as Voldemort expects [the] fools who love to act,” 85 would scarce be believable from Gambon’s discredited caricature. Of course, as Newell has not even read the fifth book, his failure to set it up properly is unfortunately explained.

What’s not as easily explained is his failure in setting up even his own film, as he did read the fourth book in preparation.86 As one critic wrote:

If the film version of [Prisoner of Azkaban] was missing some major plot points, and therefore felt like it was missing a vital organ or two, this one was like finding a skeleton that had been stripped of every conceivable scrap of flesh, leaving only the bare bones behind. Many character motivations were fuzzy at best; my mother, who hadn’t read the book, had a million questions for me after we left the theatre.87

But perhaps this weakness can be understood in reading Newell’s approach to creating the film, in his own words: “What you do is you pack it with references and suggestions and so forth which, of course, you have taken from the book. So that a reader coming to the film goes, “Oh, I see. I get it. They did it that way.” 88 The idea that fans would be appeased by a few references to aspects of the book, no matter what the quality of storytelling, is problematic at best, insulting at worst, and condescending either way. “The movie ticks through critical plot points like it’s checking them off a list,” 89 writes Anita Burkam in the article From Page to Screen: Mike Newell’s Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire; “All that’s missing is reasonably paced and plotted moviemaking.” 90 That, and the so-called “human truth” that Newell apparently prized above all else: “You become more interested in [Harry’s] interior processes, his emotions, than just what goes on,” Newell asserts,91 though it is difficult to understand why he is convinced of this when he, as director, seems more interested in what he can do with Harry’s external world than in how to express the character’s internal one. “It’s one of the most powerful and dramatic scenes,” 92 producer David Heyman says, in praise of Newell’s work. And which scene is he talking about? The maze in the third task, which, as Dumbledore mysteriously informs each champion, changes people? The graveyard where Harry watches Voldemort’s rebirth, duels with him, and comes face to face with the ghost-like shades of his long-dead parents?

No, of course not, that would make sense. Instead, as Heyman clarifies, “We departed from the book a little bit in the sense that the dragon breaks free of the chain that ties him and it leads to a dramatic chase through Hogwarts. Let’s just say it doesn’t necessarily meet the happiest of ends.” 93 Never mind the fact that, as no one dies and Harry completes the task successfully, it does actually meet the happiest of ends, Heyman is talking about a scene in which Harry faces off with the dragon during the first task of the Triwizard Tournament. This is a scene which takes exactly two pages in the book (which includes the detailed description necessary of the medium), but in the film, it clocks in at nearly three minutes – a ridiculously long length of time on screen, particularly for Newell, who has said that “all of [these effects] would count for nothing if [audiences] simply didn’t feel it.” 94

Yet, as de Forest notes, “when a film jumps wildly from scene to scene, frantically flinging in new characters and situations willy-nilly, the seeds of authentic emotional reaction don’t have time to be sown and flourish naturally ... the natural rhythm of reaction is massacred.” 95 All of this leads to an ending of equal ruination, in what de Forest terms “a thrown-together mess of a conclusion. It seems unsure whether to end on a hopeful note, a tragic note, a portentous note, a humorous note or a poignant note, so it compromises by fizzling out with a flat uncertainty. ‘Everything’s going to change now, isn’t it?’ asks Hermione. Yup. Sure is. Well. Will you sign my yearbook?” 96

While several critics enjoyed the film – and several film audiences, too – the question of whether or not Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire was a good film is not the one that is asked in this essay. Instead, the question of whether or not it was a good film of the book must be considered, and while Mike Newell’s Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire might be considered a fun, and even wild ride of a film, it remains on the surface, granting only a superficial and distorted glimpse into the story of Harry’s fourth year. J.K. Rowling’s Dumbledore warned; “You have to make a choice between what is right, and what is easy.” 97 It is unfortunate that Mike Newell did not heed this advice.


Harry Potter and the End of This Essay (2007)

“Books have one of the highest ratios of conversion from development to film of any source, including original screenplays,” 98 and yet the process of adapting the Harry Potter book series into films is unique in many ways. Perhaps the most important cause of its uniqueness is the fact that the seven book series is being adapted one novel after the other, and yet the seven book series is not yet complete. With the intense secrecy surrounding the story and revelations still to come from the original author, filmmakers must attempt to adapt each of these films from an incomplete overall source text. This only heightens the difficulty and the scrutiny that are already present in the adaptation process. That is why the question of fidelity, though it “cannot be considered a valid yardstick with which to judge any adaptation,” 99 must figure in more heavily than it might otherwise. John Tibbetts and James Welsh wrote that “movies do not ‘ruin’ books, but merely misrepresent them,” 100 as “the accumulation of minor details can create a markedly different experience between a book and a film,” 101 and while usually that may not create any problems, Mike Newell’s Dumbledore aptly demonstrates that in an ongoing – and unfinished – series, certain changes have far-reaching effects.

Still, while fidelity holds more importance in this case than in others, “changes made by the screenwriter and director might not necessarily destroy the original. In the best adaptations, narratives are translated and effectively transformed into the medium of film.” 102 With the seventh, and last, Harry Potter novel being released this summer, perhaps the remaining films will have a better chance of achieving this transformation.

Mireia Aragay writes in Reflection to Refraction: Adaptation Studies Then and Now, that the real aim of adaptation is

to trade upon the memory of the novel, a memory that can derive from actual reading, or, as is more likely with a classic of literature, a generally circulated cultural memory. The adaptation consumes this memory, aiming to efface it with the presence of its own images. The successful adaptation is the one that is able to replace the memory of the novel.103

Although Harry Potter is not widely considered a classic of literature, the same philosophy can apply. An adaptation must be more than a filmed novel, without compromising the text it is meant to represent. A good film does not make a good adaptation, and though the Harry Potter film series had a promising start, future directors would do well to keep those words in mind.

Notes

1. Cartmell, “Shakespeare on Screen,” 33.

2. Tibbetts and Welsh, Novels Into Film, 279.

3. Havens, Genius Behind Buffy, 24.

4. Elrick, “Chris Columbus talks….”

5. McNamara, “When Steve Met Harry.”

6. Elrick, “Chris Columbus talks….”

7. Hopkins, “Behind the Scenes….”

8. McNamara, “When Steve Met Harry.”

9. Vander Ark, “The Ages of Snape and the Marauders.”

10. Rowling, Philosopher’s Stone, 102.

11. Millman, “To Sir, With Love,” 43.

12. Rowling, “Edinburgh Book Festival.”

13. Scholastic editor Arthur Levine, suggested that Rowling change the title of the book for its American release as he felt it was “too esoteric,” and the change would convey “more immediately the sense of magic that’s in the book” (Heiberger). This, despite the fact that the Philosopher’s Stone is an object of legend, often found in myth and folklore (Anderson), and referred to in many areas of study, including religion, alchemy, the occult … while the Sorcerer’s Stone means nothing.

14. Hennigan, “Films … Philosopher’s Stone.”

15. Krevolin, How to Adapt…, 52.

16. Aragay, “Reflection to Refraction,” 20.

17. Cartmell and Whelehan, “Fidelity Debate,” 37.

18. Ebert, “Sorcerer’s Stone.”

19. Kloves, Sorcerer’s Stone, 22.

20. Ibid., 43.

21. Ibid., 55-56.

22. Krevolin, How to Adapt…, 54.

23. Gupta, Re-Reading Harry Potter, 143.

24. Nel, “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bored.”

25. Mzimba, “Conversation with….”

26. Nel, “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bored.”

27. Butler, “Potter has the stuff….”

28. Spelling, “Leaving School,” 44.

29. Elrick, “Chris Columbus talks….”

30. Spelling, “Leaving School,” 44.

31. “Y tu Harry…,” 22.

32. Ibid, 19.

33. Ibid.

34. Spelling, “Leaving School,” 44.

35. Puig, “Harry hits his teens.”

36. Nazarro, “The New Magician,” 39.

37. Puig, “Harry hits his teens.”

38. Nazarro, “The New Magician,” 38.

39. Trout, “Alfonso Cuarón Interview.”

40. de Forest, “Fractured Fairy Tale.”

41. Turan, “Prisoner of Azkaban.”

42. Nazarro, “Alfonso Cuarón Interview.”

43. Z, “Elegantly Woven Tapestry.”

44. Ibid.

45. Rowling, Prisoner of Azkaban, 257-68.

46. Z, “Elegantly Woven Tapestry.”

47. Kelly Parker, e-mail message to author, 12 April 2007.

48. Puig, “Harry hits his teens.”

49. Rowling, Prisoner of Azkaban, 152.

50. Ibid., 271.

51. Kloves, Prisoner of Azkaban.

52. Rowling, Prisoner of Azkaban, 261.

53. Ibid., 286.

54. Ibid., 213.

55. Kloves, Prisoner of Azkaban, 80.

56. Rowling, Prisoner of Azkaban, 259-60.

57. Nazarro, “The New Magician,” 38.

58. Kloves, Prisoner of Azkaban, 125.

59. Fischer, “Exclusive Interview.”

60. Ibid.

61. Geri, “News: Mike Newell….”

62. Fischer, “Exclusive Interview.”

63. Ibid., “Interview: Mike Newell.”

64. Associated Press, “Newell puts the Brit….”

65. Fischer, “Exclusive Interview.”

66. Hately, “Hogwarts School of….”

67. Ibid.

68. Rowling, Philosopher’s Stone, 181.

69. Ibid., Goblet of Fire, 182.

70. Fraser, Conversations with J.K. Rowling, 21.

71. Associated Press, “Newell puts the Brit….”

72. Kloves, Goblet of Fire, 66-67.

73. Fischer, “Exclusive Interview.”

74. Solomon, “J.K. Rowling Interview.”

75. Hately, “Hogwarts School of….”

76. Morone, “Cultural Phenomena.”

77. Rowling, Chamber of Secrets, 243.

78. Simms, “Action! Harry Potter….”

79. Aloi, “Grown Up Magic.”

80. Whitehead, “Interview: Mike Newell….”

81. Witherwings, “Fractured Fairy Tale.”

82. Simms, “Action! Harry Potter….”

83. Rowling, Goblet of Fire, 604.

84. Kloves, Goblet of Fire, 32.

85. Rowling, Order of the Phoenix, 739.

86. Fischer, “Exclusive Interview.”

87. Moondaughter, “Under the Microscope.”

88. Geri, “Newell discusses….”

89. Burkam, “From Page to Screen.”

90. Ibid.

91. Ibid.

92. Geri, “Update: Heyman talks….”

93. Ibid.

94. Nathan, “This boy…,” 90.

95. Witherwings, “Fractured Fairy Tale.”

96. Ibid.

97. Rowling, Goblet of Fire, 628.

98. Hopkins, “Behind the Scenes….”

99. Aragay, “Reflection to Refraction,” 20.

100. Tibbetts and Welsh, Novels Into Film, xvii.

101. Nel, “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bored.”

102. Tibbetts and Welsh, Novels Into Film, xx.

103. Aragay, “Reflection to Refraction,” 20.


Bibliography

Aloi, Peg. “Grown Up Magic.” Witch Cinema 19, 5 June 2004. http://www.witchvox.com/va/dt_article.html?a=usma&id=8491.

Anderson, Hans Christian. “The Philosopher’s Stone (1859).” Hans Christian Anderson: Fairy Tales and Stories. 25 September 2006: http://hca.gilead.org.il/p_stone.html.

Aragay, Mireia. “Reflection to Refraction: Adaptation Studies Then and Now.” Books in Motion: Adaptation, Intertextuality, Authorship. Ed. Mireia Aragay. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2005. 11-34.

Associated Press. “Newell puts the Brit back in Harry Potter.” MSNBC, 21 November 2005. http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/10054009.

Burkam, Anita L. “From Page to Screen: Mike Newell’s Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.” The Horn Book, Inc. http://www.hbook.com/resources/films/harrypotter4.asp.

Butler, Robert W. “Potter has the stuff but not the spirit.” The Kansas City Star. 23 November 2001.

Cartmell, Deborah. “The Shakespeare On Screen Industry.” Adaptations: From Text to Screen, Screen to Text. Eds. Deborah Cartmell and Imelda Whelehan. London: Routledge, 1999. 29-37.

Cartmell, Deborah and Whelehan, Imelda. “Harry Potter and the Fidelity Debate.” Books in Motion: Adaptation, Intertextuality, Authorship. Ed. Mireia Aragay. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2005. 37-49.

Ebert, Roger. “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.” RogerEbert.com: Movie Reviews, 16 November 2001. http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20011116/REVIEWS/111160301/1023.

Elrick, Ted. “Chris Columbus talks about directing Harry Potter.” DGA Magazine: Directors Guild of America 27:5, January 2003. http://www.dga.org/news/v27_5/feat_columbus.php3.

Fischer, Paul. “Exclusive Interview: Mike Newell for Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.” Dark Horizons 24, October 2005). http://www.darkhorizons.com/news05/goblet1.php.

———. “Interview: Mike Newell for Mona Lisa Smile and Harry Potter 4.” Dark Horizons 9, December 2003. http://www.darkhorizons.com/news03/mona2.php.

Fraser, Lindsey. Conversations with J.K. Rowling. New York: Scholastic Press, 2001.

Geri. “Newell discusses the challenges of ‘Harry Potter’.” HPANA, 30 November 2004. http://www.hpana.com/news.18430.html.

———. “News: Mike Newell won’t split ‘Goblet of Fire’.” HPANA, 30 January 2004. http://www.hpana.com/news.17863.26.html.

———. “Update: Heyman talks about first task and Fiennes.” HPANA, 11 Oct. 2005. http://www.hpana.com/news.18913.html.

Gupta, Suman. Re-Reading Harry Potter. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2003.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. Directed by Christopher Columbus. Burbank: Warner Bros. Pictures, 2002.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Directed by Mike Newell. Burbank: Warner Bros. Pictures, 2005.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Directed by Chris Columbus. Burbank: Warner Bros. Pictures, 2001.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Directed by Alfonso Cuarón. Burbank: Warner Bros. Pictures, 2004.

Hately, Shaun. “Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry in the Context of the British Public Schools.” HP InkPot, 13 December 2005. http://www.fictionalley.org/authors/shaun_hately/HSOWAWATBPS01.html.

Havens, Candace. Joss Whedon: The Genius Behind Buffy. Dallas: BenBella Books, 2003.

Heiberger, Sara. “Harry Potter and the Editor’s Pen.” Brown Alumni Magazine Online, November/December 2001. http://www.brownalumnimagazine.com/storydetail.cfm?ID=421.