It’s the longest Potter book… and the second shortest of the Potter films.
So that bodes well.
After Mike Newell bid the Potter series goodbye, David Yates was hired, and proceeded to direct the rest of the Potter series. And while the cohesion is much appreciated, I’d argue that this film stumbles for the fact that Yates is clearly finding his footing in the world. Order of the Phoenix is also the only Potter film that wasn’t penned by Steve Kloves. This time around it was Michael Goldenberg, who had previously written screenplays for Contact and Peter Pan (yay!) and would go on to write the script for Green Lantern (oh dear). This film also came out about a week-and-a-half before the final Potter book, muddying its position in the legacy. I recall enjoying this film very much the first time around, but I don’t think I was in much of a position to pick it apart–the Deathly Hallows was looming too close.
The opening of the film is actually one of its strongest points; we can perceive Harry’s isolation because the setting informs it, and the colors are all washed out to convey his depression. Harry Melling thankfully filled out exactly as the role of Dudley required, making his part as heavyweight boxing bully come off perfectly. (He lost too much weight between this film and Deathly Hallows, so they pad him out with prosthetics for the final go-around.) The appearance of the dementors ups the ante instantly and gets the movie going at a healthy clip. The arrival of the Order members is great, mostly because the flight sequence across London is one of the better ones we’ve had in the series. Then Harry gets to Grimmauld Place and sees his godfather cuddling Remus Lupin like so:
Whatever, I always keep my arm around old friends during tense war meetings.
This is supposed to be the movie featuring emo!Harry, and maybe it’s because you can’t render spoken words in ALL CAPS as a human (yelling or harsh tones just don’t do the same thing to your brain that reading all caps does, I can’t explain it), but Daniel Radcliffe’s angst comes off as entirely reasonable in this film. And because Steve Kloves didn’t write the script, Ron is given better dialogue all the way around, and Rupert Grint finally gets the chance to show that he can do more than mug a camera and get his voice to crack on cue. The odd combativeness in Hermione that I noted in the previous film is missing in this film, where it would have been more appropriate. She just super sunny and sweet for the majority of the film… in fact, I might go so far as to say that she seems out of character.
Harry has a hearing at the Ministry, and the sets for that place are gorgeous. From the tile to the propaganda-style artwork of Fudge to the huge fireplaces lining the entrance hallway, just superb design work. On the other hand, the fountain kind of loses its cohesion because it’s split into two separate pieces; the wizard on one side, and the magical creatures on the other. And since it doesn’t play any role in the final duel between Dumbledore and Voldemort, its impact is pretty much lost. The trial goes the way we know it’s going to go, but getting Dumbledore down in front of the court to say all of his middle names is still worth it.
Then Harry is getting onto the Hogwarts Express and happens to come across Johnny “Voldemort” Cash on the platform.
It’s symbolic of how Voldy is getting into his head (according to the producers), but all I can see is Harry saying, “With all that black, you look like you’re going to a funeral,” and Voldemort replying, “Well, maybe I am.” *guitar strum* And then he goes off to play a concert at Azkaban, starting with “Dark Mark Prison Blues”: When I was a young man, my mama told me, ‘Son,’/ ‘Always be a good boy, don’t mess around with wands…’ Then all the Death Eaters break out of jail.
That’s how the plot goes, right?
There are a few major additions to the cast this time around, and they are all spectacular. Imelda Staunton was the only person considered for the part of Umbridge, and if she doesn’t feel like she stepped right off the page… well, she does, and it’s disturbing. She does the trademark throat-clearing and twittering laugh so well it makes me want to snap pencils. (Hilariously, she and Emma Thompson are great friends in real life, so the scenes between them must have bee a blast to film.) Then we have Evanna Lynch turning in a mesmerizing and ethereal Luna Lovegood. (Her cadence, her far-off expressions, the radish earrings that she MADE HERSELF—Lynch is impossible to look away from in the part.) In an incredible twist, it turns out that Lynch had battled with anorexia as a young teen, and wrote to Rowling during those years; Rowling wrote back to her with words of encouragement. It had to have been a wonderful surprise to find out that Luna would be played by the girl she’d reached out to only a few years prior.
The other greatest addition to the Potter cast in this film was Bellatrix Lestrange. Originally, Helen McRory was cast, but she became pregnant and had to withdraw. (She would later be recast as Narcissa Malfoy.) And I’d say we got lucky there because McRory’s recasting was perfect, and then we didn’t miss out on Helena Bonham-Carter playing the role she was literally born to play. She’s a better Bellatrix than Bellatrix is. Her sunken eyes, her mass of tangled hair, that cackle. She’s terrifying, and I love her, and I wish she’d been in the previous books because I’d watch any number of movies with her in them.
But the problem with this movie is that most of its strengths lie in the montages. And that’s always a bad sign. (Think the opening montage from Watchmen. Easily the best part of the film, and that’s terrible news for the next two hours coming….) And it makes sense because montages are an easy way to impart a lot of fun information in one go, and they’re a good way to build more comedy into your film. So we see all of Umbridge’s rules going up, and we see the kids doing months worth of D.A. meetings in one go, and it’s exciting and well-paced and super cute. And then we get the points in between with stilted scenes full of mealy dialogue.
I’m serious, all of the major themes of this story are rendered in sloppy dialogue on film. Like so:
- “But Fudge isn’t thinking clearly, Harry, his mind has been twisted by fear!”
- “It’s like Hogwarts wants us to fight back!”
- “Working hard is important, but there’s something that matters even more: believing in yourself.”
- “It’s changing out there. Just like last time. There’s a storm coming, Harry. And we all best be ready when she does.”
- “Harry, it’s not how you [and Voldemort] are alike. It’s how you are not….”
- “You’re the weak one. And you’ll never know love, or friendship. And I feel sorry for you.”
Movies have a tendency to do this, of course, but this is way over the top. And it’s too bad because some of these heavy-handed moments ride roughshod over the smart ones, like Harry being an excellent teacher in their D.A. meetings, and Voldemort being forced retreat from Harry’s body due to an outpouring of emotion on his end. (Side note: Daniel Radcliffe asked for Harry to be dressed more like Lupin during D.A. meetings as a nod to his best defense professor, and it gives me so many FEELINGS.)
Even the blocking gets on-the-nose in certain scenes. It’s bad enough that McGonagall is stripped of her power through this film—she never once gets the opportunity to tell Umbridge off, which is not okay—but in addition we have the stupid staircase standoff that occurs between them. McGonagall is telling Umbridge that she would prefer that Dolores punished the students in a school-mandated fashion, while trying to get onto the same stair as her, showing off their height difference. Then Umbridge takes a step up and makes the point that her opinions are the Ministry’s opinions, and going against her is being disloyal. And McGonagall takes a step down so that she’s under Umbridge, saying “Disloyalty” in this defeated tone, and you’re like, yes, we GET IT, McGonagall has been p’wned by nationalism or whatever, because she had to take a step DOWN on a staircase. This is how you would stage a play in high school. Not a blockbuster movie.
Scripts that are forced to distill down lengthy books are often simplified and retooled as well, but there are a number of changes in this script that really mess things up. One of the major ones is the discovery of the Room of Requirement. The film starts out by making it seem as though Filch knows exactly where the room is, and just keeps getting led off the kids’ scent. But then Umbridge starts using Veritaserum on students, and because Marietta isn’t a character in the film, it is Cho who gives the group away. That means Snape gave Umbridge real Veritaserum (it’s fake in the book), which severely undermines Snape’s perceived loyalties as a character. Then there’s the fact that once Cho gives them the info, all Umbridge has to do is apparently blow the wall apart? Which makes no sense whatsoever. The point is that the Room of Requirement is capable of protecting whoever uses it from discovery. If it can’t, then it’s not much of an asset in the first place. And then there’s the fact that the group ostracizes Cho when she was forced to give over the information. Her relationship with Harry and her fellow D.A. members is never resolved, and this is a character who has now been falsely accused and maligned by her peers for perceived treachery. Not cool, movie. Cho deserves better.
I don’t want to say that this is what happens when you leave out Dobby but THIS IS WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU LEAVE OUT DOBBY, THERE I SAID IT, ARE YOU HAPPY MOVIE?
(Interestingly, Rowling had to make certain that Kreacher was written into the film. In the first draft, he was nowhere to be found, but Rowling told them they would have to make a place for the character due to his importance in the next two books.)
There are also plenty of points where the film makes Generic Fantasy Movie choices because they clearly didn’t want to spend the time or the effort trying to differentiate the world. Like the exit from the Weasley twins… which reads exactly like Merry and Pippin setting off the enormous dragon firework during Bilbo’s party at the start of Fellowship. Even the music has a similar feel during the scene, and the framing is nearly identical. I mean, would it have killed them to CGI a swamp into the Entrance Hall? I don’t think so.
The Occlumency lessons actually seem more abusive to me here then they do in the book, what with Harry constantly begging Snape to stop and let him rest, so that’s sort of distressing. Alan Rickman does some of his best career takes in this film, on the other hand. It’s one place where what I imagined when I read the book is exactly what we get on film. This Snape is my favorite Snape.
Gary Oldman does an excellent job in his last proper turn as Sirius, infusing the character with all the paternal affection that only comes through between the lines in the books to some fans. But there are a few weird cuts in Grimmauld Place, like the point where Arthur is toasting Harry for saving his life and Sirius is in the door with his hands in his pockets, and everyone raises their glasses and suddenly Sirius is in the room with a wine glass and I’m like WHOA, DID YOU TELEPORT THE WINE, SHOW ME HOW:
Grawp is rendered in a weird, sort of babyish way in the movie, which bugs the heck out of me. They clearly wanted him to be more sympathetic to the audience, so they made him seem like a child, which I guess is fine for the time allotted, but weakens the rendering of giants as a species in the universe. I guess it matters less because all you really care about is Harry being all “I’m sorry, professor: I must not tell lies,” while Umbridge is carried off into the forest by centaurs, because ooooooohhh, that’s how you do a callback, son. High five.
The kids head to the Ministry to rescue Sirius at the end, and this is where things start to go really wrong. I mean, it starts off hilariously, mostly because Jason Isaacs is killing it as Lucius Malfoy, while he plays the part of Only Sane One in the Room. Then Bellatrix makes a jab at Neville, and he makes a comeback about avenging his parents, and WRONG. That is not Neville’s journey and should never have been in the script. Then the Death Eaters are capable of becoming smoke apparitions that can be anywhere, and sure, it looks cool, but it makes no sense whatsoever. Like, I don’t really understand when they’re corporeal and when they aren’t, or how they’re doing it, and how it differs from Apparition, etc. It’s a classic “looks great but undermines logic” movie choice.
Then they all get to the veil room, but there’s no veil in the archway, just a weird ripply-ness to it, which is dumb. And Lucius is like “Give me the prophecy, or we’ll kill everyone,” and Harry’s like “Okay fine,” and THIS NEVER COMES BACK IN THE REST OF THE FILM. I’m pretty sure this is first on the list of How to Ruin Your Movie Plot 101. This was the whole reason everyone was here, and we never find out if Voldemort gets his hands on it. (Presumably they get it off Lucius when he’s arrested? Which we also never hear about?) Edit: It has been pointed out by several people in the comments that the prophecy is dropped by Lucius a moment later, and that’s still a problem because again, it’s never brought up in the dialogue, and more importantly we never get a close up establishing shot of it breaking, which is Basic Filmmaking Rules. It’s too important to break in the corner of a frame during a fight–this prophecy what the entire story has been riding on for two hours.
There’s a swishing sound and suddenly Sirius is behind Lucius being all “Get away from my godson” and then he decks him, I guess because Sirius forgot he has a wand and/or he’s seen too many Muggle movies and knows that this is how you start a bar brawl. (Except the line would likely be more of a “Step off my girl, Clarence” vibe. Work with what you got, that’s what Sirius Black always says….) And the dueling is actually one of the better parts of the film; they worked with a fight choreographer who came up with five basic wand fighting moves that the actors could put character flourishes on, and it really comes through here, especially for the adult actors. Then Sirius calls Harry by James’ name as they fight side by side and I’m like NO, WRONG, DO NOT UNDERMINE A CHARACTER SECONDS BEFORE HIS DEATH. I don’t care if it’s suggested that he sometimes views Harry as his father, Sirius never called Harry by his father’s name in the books, and certainly not when he was busy trying to save the kid’s life. Bad job, movie. I’m taking away all of your House points for that.
Bellatrix kills Sirius and that’s another moment that was translated poorly, especially because we never actually find out if Bellatrix used the Killing Curse on Sirius in the book. We’re led to believe that falling through the veil is what really finalizes his death, and that makes it worse because the special effect on film looks ridiculous. The death is supposed to be shocking partly because of how mundane it seems; he falls through a curtain and is gone. Doing this weird floaty fade-away kills the blow because it just looks… confusing. Then poor Harry’s scream is muted–apparently because Daniel Radcliffe gave a scream so raw and visceral, they didn’t feel comfortable putting it in the film. And that just makes me wish we’d heard it, honestly.
Voldemort shows up, and so does Dumbledore, and they duke it out mostly by shooting weird colored lights at each other. I mean, we get one cool moment of fire, one with a ball of water, then the shattering glass that Dumbledore turns to sand (which would still hurt you, by the way, especially in the eye region), but it’s mostly sparks and lightning. So then Voldemort possesses Harry… and doing that apparently involves putting on a music video in someone’s head with sad imagery, then stealing their body and putting your head on it.
And then Harry’s pals all show up while he’s writhing on the floor, and Harry remembers what he has to be happy about, and he drives Voldemort out with the power of hugs, while going on about how sad it is that Voldy’s never had friends of his own. Come on, Harry, Death Eaters are basically friends that you pay to hang out with you, don’t you know how Dark Lording works? He has a chat with Dumbledore later about how bad stuff is, and Albus admits he cares about Harry too much. This is all sort of hard to parse out because we still aren’t sure what happened in the Department of Mysteries aside from Cornelius Fudge realizing that Voldemort is really back.
Then Harry gets ready to go home. And as he walks toward the carriages wearing a Dad Blazer (seriously, Harry, you wear that blazer two times in this movie, and I cannot figure out who bought it for you, or where, or why you think it works for a fifteen-year-old who is not a substitute teacher), he tells his buddies that something Dumbledore said is going to stick with him. They’ve got something Voldemort doesn’t have… and that’s something worth fighting for. I mean, you know, Dumbledore never actually said those words exactly, but Harry’s extracting. He’s paraphrasing. He’s putting a positive spin on a negative sitch.
In other words, the endings of all these movies always suck.