Arriving at Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows—Part 2 was awful because it really felt like the end of everything. The books were complete, the films were soon to be over. There was a lot riding on the final film, which appropriately billed itself in posters and trailers as “The Battle of Hogwarts: The Movie.”
The film was critically lauded for the most part, but for fans of the book it strikes an odd balance between doing some things perfectly and some things… oddly. Awfully. Disappointingly. The performances are gorgeous, the spectacle is right on, the visuals are beautiful. But there are misses in this film that prod at your sides like weird itchy tags on new clothes.
The theft from Gringotts sequence works well overall, the depiction of the dragon in particular being quite impressive because you can tells it has been abused just by looking at it. The sight is deeply upsetting. Helena Bonham-Carter playing the part of Hermione-under-Polyjuice-Potion is just excellent. (She apparently watched Emma Watson act out her lines so she could mimic her exactly. Actors on set reported forgetting that it wasn’t simply Emma under makeup.) The vault is claustrophobic and the action that follows puts us right back into the story, which can be a hard thing to pick up after a cliffhanger.
We do have a funny continuity problem from book to film here—when Ron asks Harry how he’ll know what the Hufflepuff Cup looks like, Harry claims he has seen it before. But since we never got the Riddle flashbacks in The Half-Blood Prince, that doesn’t make any sense in the context of the movies.
We have Ciaran Hinds as Aberforth Dumbledore, and while it never quite grabs me so much in the book, something about the tension between Hinds and Radcliffe makes their scene really sing in the film. He’s not just gruff and irascible, Hinds plays Aberforth with a tangible bitterness that makes Harry’s outburst toward him feel truly earned. When he comes right out and says “I don’t care that you’ve given up,” you can’t help but punch the air in agreement. It’s a place where Harry truly comes off like an adult, and I find myself being proud of both Harry and Daniel Radcliffe at the same time.
The return to the school is where things get interesting. The fight between McGonagall and Snape is far more public, and frankly badass as hell. (Alan Rickman reported having trouble with this scene, partly due to the difficulty of making wand-fighting look truly menacing, and partly due to the fact that he had worshipped Dame Maggie Smith as an actor for most of his life, and couldn’t really conceive of giving her a hard time.) But then we arrive at the point where Voldemort gives his first surround sound announcement, encouraging them to give over Harry, and Pansy Parkinson agrees… to which McGonagall’s response is to direct the entire Slytherin House to their common room in the dungeons.
Sure, it may seem simpler than discussing evacuation plans for the school, but that action is deeply unethical regarding the treatment of the student body. Those kids could have been hurt stuck in that common room during a full-scale war, and they were ordered there under duress. Sometimes films have to compress bits of story, but that was one place where it should not have occurred, and I’m sort of surprised that it didn’t occur to anyone.
The section where they prepare the castle for war, with the moving statues and the protective spell work, and all the teachers and Order members working together, it moves me to tears every single time. This is partly due to the score by Alexandre Desplat, who easily created one of the greatest soundtracks for a war sequence that I’ve ever heard. It’s so affecting that I often super-impose it over books that I’m reading. (I did this for The Hunger Games, which made the actual soundtrack for the Hunger Games film strangely disappointing to me the first time around.)
We sort of awkwardly wedge in Ron and Hermione’s first kiss, by having them destroy a Horcrux in the Chamber of Secrets and then get all overcome with emotion. It’s still played adorably, but I feel like there are too many points where the film misses the chance to lighten the mood the way Rowling does, and this is one of those places.
We have another bit of awkwardness where Crabbe was not available for the movie because the actor who portrayed him had been arrested for drug possession. This led to replacing his character with Blaise Zabini during the Room of Requirement scene, and Goyle casting and dying in the Fiendfyre. It’s mostly awkward because you can’t help but wonder what’s happened to Crabbe—did Draco just not ask him along? Was his family another being held hostage by Voldemort? Is he dead? On the other hand, it’s nice to see more of Blaise. (He’s a character I always wanted more information on, really.)
Snape’s death is a completely different animal in the film. Alan Rickman has spent eight movies imbuing the character with far more subtlety than the books contain (he was told very early on by Rowling what Snape’s backstory was and the various series directors often had to defer to him in how he chose to play a scene, knowing that he had extra knowledge), and his passing feels more emotional in every possible way. Rather than simply brimming over with memories for Harry to bottle, he literally cries them out. When he searches Harry’s face to see Lily’s eyes, it does seem that perhaps he is seeing Harry right for the first time. These are choices that only come into play when an actor decides to work them out. The memories that Harry gets the chance to look back on seal the deal. We watch Snape crying over Lily’s dead body and we can’t not feel bad for him, even if with don’t agree with his actions beforehand. When Snape realizes that Dumbledore had always planned for Harry to die, the horror is palpable on his face. Everything lands differently because we are relating to him.
I’ve never been overwhelmed with sorrow for Severus Snape. But Alan Rickman as Severus Snape saddles the audience with more than we bargained for because he was a superb actor of the very highest caliber. (Was. It’s so depressing to use the past tense now.) You know you’re observing a craft master when you find yourself feeling for a character for whom you would normally never sympathize in real life. He was a damned inspiration to watch.
And following this sequence, it all gets turned over to Daniel Radcliffe, who grew into this part better than nearly any child actor I’ve ever seen the world over. What a strange place to be in, cast as one of the most important pop culture characters of the century at ten years old, and managing to grow and improve and embody that part. In a very real way, Daniel Radcliffe kind of was Harry Potter. Someone knocked on his door and said “Yer a superstar, Daniel,” and he had to take that in stride and survive a decade of filmmaking—and then all the years after it, where the world halfway expected him to crash and burn. He and Watson and Grint deserve medals (or something more impressive than medals) for making it all the way through, and even more for continuing on this path after such a ridiculous amount of exposure throughout childhood.
So Harry heads into the woods and Harry faces Voldemort and Harry dies. His scene with Dumbledore is another place where I’m super insistent on Gambon being the right pick for this character. He’s so divinely blithe and sunny the whole way through. The set is dressed gorgeously, the color palette is spot on.
And then we get to the final battle sequence and everything gets all… squidgy. I mean, there are things I love about the interpretation, and things I really don’t love, and it all happens a bit too fast. Voldemort calls out anyone who should be on their side, Draco shuffles over for awkward hugs, and the Malfoys simply hightail it away from the scene. It’s not bad as far as exits go, but I wish they’d had them stay they way they did in the book because we get robbed of the relevance of them sitting in the Great Hall with all the survivors at the end. In addition, there was a filmed scene that they axed from the final cut, which would have painted the whole thing differently; in the original version, once it was clear that Harry is alive, Draco was meant to defy the Death Eaters and toss Harry his wand. On the one hand, I’m sort of against Draco being that openly defiant because it’s counter-intuitive to his character. On the other hand, in a film where the entirety of Slytherin has been relegated to the dungeon that would have been an excellent pointed choice. So maybe I wish it had made the cut? I don’t know.
Neville makes this grand speech about how it doesn’t actually matter if Harry’s dead because they’re in a damn war and that’s what happens, and it doesn’t mean that they have to stop fighting. And this speech is actually super smart in terms of being a rallying point, maybe even better than Neville’s original lines in the book. It shows a maturity of thought for Neville, who knows precisely what it’s like to lose people in war, and knows that the world keeps turning regardless. And for someone who the prophecy almost applied to, it’s rings even truer.
But then Harry just sort of jumps up and the sword of Gryffindor appears and everyone starts running around. The battle in the castle is pretty sloppy, and it’s such a mistake that they wait to let Neville kill Nagini later when Ron and Hermione are in danger. They basically rob Neville of that deeply important moment in favor of getting excited over Harry’s revival, which is a poor choice because Neville has just beautifully rallied the troops and effectively defied Voldemort. The moment was there, and in retreating from it, the battle loses momentum.
Instead, we get this weird chase scene through the castle where Voldemort keeps generating silky-scarves off of his robes and trying to strangle people? What. What the hell is this? Why did this seem like a good way to articulate the final action? Then he sort of materializes and Harry’s like “Tom, it’s time to finish this the way we started this—TOGETHER.” And then he high dives them both out of a window, and I’m like is Harry attempting double suicide, there seems to be literally no cogent plan here whatsoever.
Then they’re in the courtyard alone, and they duel with a great big stream of light between them again, but it backfires and Voldemort dies by flaking off into the ether like some really bad dandruff.
There is no show of it in front of the school, no point where Harry tells Voldemort to work for remorse, not a word about the many mistakes the Dark Lord made with the Elder Wand and Dumbledore’s plans. There’s no real showdown. It just ends with some loud noises and a lot of thoughtless action. And Voldemort doesn’t die like a normal man, which really ruins all those delicious themes Rowling built up over several books.
But the best is yet to come, when Harry tells Ron and Hermione all about the deal with him being master of the Elder Wand. And he never repairs his own wand with it, but he does break it in half and chuck over the side of the castle bridge. IT’S THAT EASY FOLKS. Want to get rid of a very powerful magical object that has been haunting generations of users? No big deal. Just snap it in half with your hands. Then clap your hands together and call your work as Chosen One complete.
We get the epilogue, which is mostly the same as it is on the page, with necessary omissions to prevent too many name drops at the end of the film. The kid who plays Albus is adorable, and Radcliffe plays the part of loving dad exceedingly well for a guy barely out of his teen years. Some people thought the age makeup didn’t do much to them, but the alternative was reportedly very over-the-top, and made everyone look more like sixty-year-olds. Ginny doesn’t get the chance to comfort Harry as the train is pulling away because she’s been ignored through most of the film. So that’s great.
So it ends the way the book ends, but it doesn’t? It’s still one of the better endings that these films have had.
For all its flaws, there is still much to applaud in the final film, at least before the very end. Part 2 needed to feel like an event, and it absolutely did. But it was strange to say goodbye to all of this. The movies played alongside the release of half the book series, and we spent the better part of ten years with these actors, taking the journey next to them. Potter was unique in that regard, as it was in practically every aspect. And with a brand new film at hand, and a new installment on the way in theatre format, it continues to be.
We’ll just have to see what comes next.