Thu
Jun 16 2011 2:14pm

Rewatching the Potter Films: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets is very much of a piece with its predecessor. The books were similarly a pair, with the first balancing the “more of the same” demands of commercialism with a necessary broadening of the created universe. Where the book Chamber of Secrets succeeds in crafting a compelling narrative—Hogwarts under attack by the previously mythical Heir of Slytherin . . . who might be Harry!—and ultimately becoming, if not the strongest book in the series, certainly not the weakest, the movie contents itself with dutiful, almost grim, recitation. It stretches two hours of story out over two and a half hours of running time through truly shameful cinematic execution.

Told more concisely on-screen, Chamber of Secrets would be an excellent suspense movie, though the book’s narrative energy is largely squandered by the poorly staged, timidly edited action. Like in Philosopher’s/Sorcerer’s Stone, nearly every shot is held at least a full second longer than necessary, although director Chris Columbus has daringly included two extreme close-ups (in a scene between Harry and Dumbledore; they each get one) to break up the perfect string of medium close-ups that constitute the entire rest of his two Potter movies.

The clunkiness of the direction isn’t restricted to film nerd nitpickery. Take this scene toward the beginning: Harry, the Weasley family, and Hermione are in the bookstore and gigantic twit Gilderoy Lockhart (Kenneth Branagh, who really is quite good in the role) makes a big deal over Harry being there for a photo op. When the jealous Draco Malfoy confronts them, it’s as if the scene takes place on a stage, with the actors arbitrarily walking to a particular point in the room to deliver their lines. It makes no cinematic sense, and no sense of any kind other than to satisfy fans of the books who are thinking first “Ah, the scene where Draco jealously confronts Harry that leads into the introduction of Lucius Malfoy” rather than “how did someone who was getting paid to direct this movie by a major Hollywood studio get away with blocking this scene this badly without being fired?” Not to mention that, rather than the highly satisfying fistfight between Lucius Malfoy and Arthur Weasley, the scene ends with the elder Malfoy snootily swishing his cape and gliding off-screen.

Jason Isaacs as Lucius Malfoy is great fun. He imbues the role with a glorious nastiness that is at once silky and oily, and starts the tradition of each new Potter movie adding one or more British acting all-star to the ensemble. The other worthy making his Harry debut, Branagh, is an example of fairly inspired casting; I freely admit to a degree of initial disappointment that a more tabloid-y, celebrity-type actor wasn’t cast, and I also now freely admit that my impulse was the wrong one. Branagh is infinitely better as the preening, narcissistic fraud Lockhart than someone like Hugh Grant could have been in a million years.

The returning cast are mostly good as well. Alan Rickman’s Severus Snape is so good, it’s hard not to make every review entirely about his line readings and the way he cocks his eyebrow in that one scene. Some others fall victim to Columbus’ haphazard direction, particularly the kids, who aren’t as prepared as classically-trained veterans to create an entire performance out of thin air. Multiple times, Dan Radcliffe’s Harry leads Ron and Hermione to the middle of a room, stops, and shouts dialogue at them. This isn’t bad acting, it’s a director not having his actors’ back, as well as an example of the director caring more about slavishly recapitulating the events in the source book than about making an actual movie.

Ultimately, where the first movie’s script (copied, for the most part, directly from the novel) lent a sense of wonder and discovery of a new world that smoothed over its cinematic flaws, Chamber of Secrets stumbles badly on those flaws. And, like the tiny handful of changes in the adaptation, Chamber of Secrets’ are jarring. At the end of the movie, after Harry tricks Lucius Malfoy into freeing the house-elf Dobby (who, after reading Deathly Hallows, will never be annoying again, in another welcome improvement this rewatch), Malfoy pere is so enraged that he pulls his wand and actually gets out the “Avada” in Avada Kedavra before Dobby intervenes with house-elf magic. Obviously, after all my criticisms of Columbus (and screenwriter Steve Kloves) for excessive, blind fidelity to the source material, I’m not getting on him for adding something new. But having Lucius Malfoy, a character defined by the care he takes to never get caught doing anything bad and whose continued existence outside of prison is entirely due to that care, attempt to murder Harry Potter about ten feet from Dumbledore’s office in Hogwarts is an unforgivably thoughtless misstep. One might as well have Hermione reply “LOL IDK” in Charms class.

Primarily because this horrible oversight takes place right at the end of the movie, the overall feeling at the end of Chamber of Secrets is that it’s terribly overlong and redundant. I can only speculate what the experience of it is for someone who hasn’t read the book, but for me it just reminded me that I had, and that the book could have been made into a much better movie if making it into a movie had been a priority. Instead, we got Lucius Malfoy coming within an inch of murdering Harry in Hogwarts, and this among the countless missteps in execution based on the assumption that the audience has read the books already. However true that may be, one can never make that assumption in an adaptation.

Chamber of Secrets is still watchable, amazingly, due to J.K. Rowling’s story and the immense skill of the actors and designers. Beyond that, it’s not much of a mystery why this was Chris Columbus’ last movie as director in the series. And when Warner Bros decided a change was in order, they certainly had a big one in mind. Next: Prisoner of Azkaban, and new director Alfonso Cuarón!


Danny Bowes is a playwright, filmmaker and blogger. He is also a contributor to nytheatre.com and Premiere.com.

This article is part of Potterpalooza on Tor.com: ‹ previous | index | next ›
17 comments
Sean McGuire
1. Exorian
I still think Terry Gillam should have directed the Harry Potter movies. Or really, anyone who can actually direct; Chris Columbus is a horrible director, in every sense of the word, which it seems you agree with me on.
dav
2. dav
Best decision WB ever made. The introduction of Cuaron as the next director took the series to a whole new level. I feel like that pick told both the cast and the fans that they were serious about making quality "films" rather than bland recitations of the books. I still can't watch Chamber of Secrets. All of the magic and intrigue I felt while reading it and discovering the diary was completely gone from the movie (the moment that the diary spoke back to Harry was the moment I truly bought in to the series. I was sort of just checking it out before, but that moment turned me). It may be more to do with the inherent nature of the medium (books in books still come off as significant and engaging, while books and maps on film are flat), but Columbus' fumbling sure didn't help.
Rikka Cordin
3. Rikka
I can't watch the first two. They're just all wrong. But Cuaron! Ah, godsend! Azkaban is actually my favorite HP movie so far. And I doubt pt 2 of 7 is going to wow me, seeing as I dislike the source material XD
Marcus W
4. toryx
This was the last Harry Potter film I bothered with until Order of the Phoenix came out. I was just so bored and unimpressed with it that I no longer had any interest in the others.
dav
5. dav
I would also have loved to have seen what Gilliam could have done with this series, but it's just not feasible. He's too much of a wildcard from the studio's perspective, especially if handed the reins of their flagship franchise with no guarantee that they were going to get a blockbuster or The Brother's Grimm back (as much as I like Gilliam that was pretty bad). Cuaron was the perfect pick. Great with child actors (see the excellent Little Princess). Just the right dash of darkness and irreverence (Y Tu Mama Tambien anyone?). An established track record successfully working within the system. Up and coming talent, but not a breakout success yet (i.e. cheap). He hit it out of the park. I wish he would have come back for one more.
rob mcCathy
6. roblewmac
not being a huge Potter fan there was nothing here I liked except the idea of the magic dairy. As AN obsessed dairiest (love that word!) myself.
Noneo Yourbusiness
7. Longtimefan
Kenneth Branagh is magnificent as Lockhart. The movie over all is one I can still watch even though it is not as sharp as it could be.

At two hours and some odd mintues long the pacing really slows down before the basilisk reveal and I find that if I am not watching it early enough in the evening I will doze off while the long and quiet climax is slowly talking its way to a conclusion. :)

While all of the actors are great and the younger actors are doing better in this outing than the previous one (they were still good but sometimes things are a bit over ennunciated) I always cringe at the Moaning Myrtle scene. I am certain the actress is a very nice person and she does a very good physical job of being a ghost but that voice, ugh that whiny, childish, syrupy voice. I truly hope it was just a bad directing call to have her speak that way because it is so awful I would never wish that pattern of speech on anyone.

Also Moaning is more of a throaty sound and in the film she mostly cries and wails. Not really enough low notes to be "moaning" unless it is just because her name was not Wanda so the nickname had to be alliterate but not accurate.

I own them all and watch them all so they are fun in their own ways. I kind of like that as ham fisted as it might have been that Columbus tried to follow the book as much as possible. It did not sell millions of copies because it needed improvement by leaving parts out. :)
dav
8. blueworld
The plot issues in Chamber of Secrets don't hold a candle to the plot issues introduced by Cuaron and Newell. Cuaron cut out the reveal of who the Marauders are. Newell cut the house elves because they were "too expensive," which reduced the Barty Crouch/Jr. plot to nonsense. Individually, the later movies are better, but they drop the ball completely in overall plot arc and the backstory it requires.
Joel Cunningham
9. jec81
you forgot about the worst scene in the movie -- the terribly syrupy standing overation for hagrid at the end, despite the fact that no one is supposed to like hagrid at all except the trio (not even the other gryffindors are big fans; he's the weird groundskeeper, not a hero). it is just such a maudlin "movie moment." i could. not. stand it.

i think this is also the one where dumbledore cancels exams "as a school treat," which is such a dumb way to write that line. as a treat? not because lots of students almost died and the school was nearly closed? i mean, i can't remember the wording in the book, but i hated harris' performance in both movies anyway.
dav
10. GuruJ
I've only read the fourth Harry Potter book, and only watched Prisoner of Azkaban at the cinema (which I loved, although was a bit shocked at how scary it was).

But I have seen enough of Chamber of Secrets to know that if I had only watched this, I would have dismissed HP as complete rubbish. An awful, leaden film.
Tricia Irish
11. Tektonica
Thanks for this ongoing rewatch, Danny. You nailed it about Chris Columbus. Awful. The pacing is an absolute plod and the camera work is pedestrian. I hadn't realized how much he dropped the ball with the kids, I just didn't think they were very good actors. Dan (Harry) keeps waggling his head back and forth quickly when he's surprised. I keep wanting to yell at him to stop it! The director should've been on that.

I'm glad they opted for Cuaran after this, even though He could've made a longer film and not left out so much, as his take on Potter was visually exciting and had a much faster paced editing style.

Btw, I preferred Richard Harris as Dumbledore. I always found his replacement a bit stiff and weird. (I know, it's not like they could continue with Harris *sigh*.) I didn't pick up on Lucius Malfoy trying to off Harry right in Hogwarts. Big mis-step.

None the less, I own all of the movies and do enjoy rewatching them all for a quick revisit, and to watch the kids grow up and become much better actors.
Sean Arthur
12. wsean
Great post. I've always felt the Columbus films were totally blah, but don't really have enough knowledge of cinema to put my finger on why. Loved your explanation.

And yes, the Lucius "Avada" always stood out to me as a terrible misstep.
dav
13. mlabbe
jc381-- Thank you! Yes! I've actually never seen anyone else (besides my cousin and fellow HP fanatic) comment on the ending. Whenever the subject of the second movie comes up, I am given to shouting loudly and at length about the ovation Hagrid gets despite that, just as you say, none of the students except the Trio really care that he's back. And I'm sorry, but even Harry would not say "It's not Hogwarts without you, Hagrid." Augh!

And I've only ever seen it once. I had refused to see it in theaters on the grounds of how much I disliked the first movie, and would happily have never seen it had it not been playing at a friend's house.

Third one roped me back in. It had its own problems, but at least it was compentently made. Columbus's lingering shots and over-focus on special effects drove me mad. Cuaron made the magic seem more matter-of-fact.
dav
14. Smarty L.
Longtimefan - In the UK, 'moaning' can mean what we Americans call 'whining,' which should explain the name. And that actress does actually have that high voice - she's really quite good. Check her out in the BBC miniseries "The Way We Live Now."
Bridget McGovern
15. BMcGovern
Smarty L.--good point! I also found the character extremely irritating the first time I saw the movie, but after Shirley Henderson showed up on Doctor Who, I warmed to her a bit. She's also in Topsy-Turvy, which I don't love--but between the Doctor AND Gilbert and Sullivan, she's racked up too much geek cred for me not to like her :)
dav
16. vsthorvs
So I've always been of the opinion that the most important part of a movie is the screenplay. And with that in mind I think Chamber of Secrets is better than Sorceror's Stone, having just done a rewatch. The reason being simply that Chamber of Secrets has a plot, while Sorceror's stone is just introducing us to this magical world. Chamber of Secrets works as a movie while Sorceror's Stone just doesn't.
dav
18. Shralla
Prisoner of Azkaban was desolate and disapponting. Clocking in a full forty minutes shorter than the first two movies, all the heart and soul of the characters and setting were pushed aside to make room for the central plot. Scenes were rushed, dialog was awkward, and everything felt cold and empty. It was the complete antithesis of everything that the Harry Potter universe actually represents.

The Chris Columbus movies were hopeful and bright, just like the books, and took the time to actual develop characters and the universe. Cuaron was so busy making sure he jammed twice as much plot in forty minutes less movie to give any kind of attention to fleshing out the characters and world. Plus the actual direction and filming were just crap. Long, wide compositional shots for no other reason than he learned about them in film school, where most of them should have been closeups of the actors and their emotions.

Even the grounds of Hogwarts were turned from vibrant colorful fields and forests to cold, grey highlands. There's really just nothing better about Azkaban than the first two movies, and there's really nothing wrong with either of the first two movies.

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