Tuesday, November 29, 2005

 

Coming out of a showing of Harry Potter & the Goblet of Fire the other evening, the film that my mind free associated over to wasn’t any of the earlier trio of Harry Potter (HP) flicks, but rather the Star Wars sextet. The new HP had, I felt, achieved something that always escaped George Lucas in his space operas, something that The Lord of the Rings (LOTR) only occasionally glimpses – a serious perspective on life itself. It’s hardly news that Harry Potter, in addition to its many other aspects, is a coming of age story, the tale of an orphan boy right out of Dickens, but this time with wizardry as a backdrop. But Goblet of Fire suggests that a reasonable comparison might not be so much Oliver Twist, such as in the recent Polanski retelling that got decent reviews but which sank instantly at the box office, as it might be darker films about the transition to adulthood, say, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, the 1993 film that starred Johnny Depp as a troubled teen with a morbidly obese mother & developmentally challenged brother (a role that won Leo DiCaprio his first Oscar nomination) or Spanking the Monkey, a less widely seen film from that same year about a boy (Jeremy Davies, best known now as the gun-shy translator in Saving Private Ryan) trapped in an incestuous relationship with an alcoholic mother. All three are films about kids caught up in worlds they did not make just at the moment when the double-consciousness of adulthood begins to hit. There is a horror at the heart of Harry Potter & the Goblet of Fire that comes far closer to Grape & Monkey than it does to LOTR or Star Wars. That horror is the secret & heart of this film.

Like Star Wars & LOTR, however, Harry Potter is as much a franchise as it is a tale. Goblet of Fire introduces the series’ third director (one who envisions Hogwarts on the edge of a fjord that has not played much, if any, role heretofore), Mike Newell. In addition to the film’s primary stars – Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint & Emma Watson – whom the audience has by now watched grow up in these roles, and of course master mind J.K. Rowling (whose books both of my boys swear are “infinitely better” than any of the films), the most consistent & important presence to date has been screenwriter Steve (Wonderboys) Kloves, who is about to take a one-picture hiatus from the series to work on some of his own projects when the next episode is filmed (piloted on the screen by David Yates, a British TV director) for release in 2007. Michael Goldenberg, screenwriter for Contact, the Jodie Foster-meets-her-father-as-a-space alien film, will handle the screenplay.

Such franchises have been relatively rare in cinema history, rising first out of Saturday afternoon fluff aimed at kids, such as the Bowery Boys or Our Gang comedies, serials (Flash Gordon) & adult crime genres (Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes, the Thin Man series). James Bond & Indiana Jones still reflect those origins, the latter playing to its retro roots in ways that are not so interesting. Like LOTR, presumably, Potter is predicated on a story with development toward an end, which may well save it from the intellectual exhaustion that have reduced Bond films to their weary formula, and which exposed Star Wars as a phenomenon whose sum was increasingly less than its parts.

In a way, the Potter films depend now far more on their main actors than the Bond series ever has on whichever smooth Brit is reiterating that surname to whichever new “Bond girl.” The new Potter shows us 15-year-olds portraying 14-year-olds, a gap you catch in Grint’s arms, just starting to show the musculature of adulthood & in the way Watson – the best actor among the three – fills out a gown. But Matthew Lewis, whose character Neville Longbottom plays an important part here, has taken that teenage growth spurt that renders him all limbs, albeit still very much with a boy’s face. And Daniel Radcliffe’s Harry looks less & less like a boyish Everyman with each advancing film. In the next installment, we will see 17-year-olds portraying 15-year-olds, and nobody knows how old they might be by the time the seventh volume has been published & converted to the screen.

All of which sets up the sixth installment, due in 2007, as one fraught with danger for the film series as film series. With a new writer as well as an untested film director, and with actors increasingly old for the roles they’re playing, will the next film understand that dark vision that is at the pit around which everything else revolves. It is quite a bit more – and other – than just Ralph Fiennes as Voldemort, dolled up in a slicker & slightly damp version of his old English Patient burn.

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