Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Harry Potter Retrospective Part V - "The Order of the Phoenix"

With the end of the "Harry Potter" film franchise quickly approaching, I've decided to dedicate The Soap Box Office to this wonder filled series for the next week. We'll call it the "Harry Potter Retrospective" because I really like the word "retrospective." Each day, I'll briefly take a look at one of the films, compare them to each other (and possibly the books, too), and delve into my personal experience with each. I invite you to join in the discussion as we prepare for the final chapter of Rowling's wizarding world.


"The Order of the Phoenix"

"Phoenix" is the first "Potter" film that I watched after having read the books. When I got out of "Goblet of Fire" the year before, I drove directly to the nearest Barnes and Noble and picked up the first book. Within a few short weeks I had rolled through all six. In the spring of 2007, I reread through "Half Blood Prince" in preparation for the release of "Deathly Hallows" and that coincided with the open of "Phoenix." It was a radically different experience seeing the vision of the book put to the screen and as such, I have an odd love/hate relationship with this film.

As such, I should apologize up front for the roller coaster-like tone I'm sure this Retrospective post is bound to take. "Order of the Phoenix" is my favorite book in this series. It speaks to me, and to many other male readers, in ways that perhaps the other books do not. The tones and the subject matter are those that men and boys can relate to. The first half is all about growing up, feeling isolated, and balancing the need for acceptance with the "lone wolf" spirit of wanderlust. The second half is all about the very traditionally manly act of doing something; of seeing a wrong, becoming fed up with it, and deciding to act. And no "Phoenix" discussion is complete without touching on the death of Sirius Black, to this day one of the most heartbreaking events of my life (that sounds a lot sadder than it should). Other characters had died in the Potter universe but none as important or emotionally relevant as Black. The pages leading up to and following his death are gut-wrenching. I read this book a few months ago, at least my third time through, and I dripped tears over about 50 pages. I'm not even ashamed to admit that. There is REAL pain within this plot point and I truly loved that character. More importantly, Rowling respects that character (and many others) enough to give him the time he deserves, even in killing him off. I love this book. And for the first (and thus far, only) time during my experience with these films, I have always had real trouble enjoying the film as a film and not holding against it the many times it deviates from the page.

From a purely film standpoint, there is nothing wrong with "Phoenix." In fact, I think it's quite good and perhaps equal to "Azkaban" which was the standard for the series at the time of this opening. New director David Yates fell in line with the tone and atmosphere that Cuaron and Newell had created before him and continued down that path. I love the way that "Phoenix" is shot; the coloring is beautiful, both muted and bright at the same time. (I wish I had the film school knowledge to better express what I mean here but alas, my degree is in kinesiology.) The camera is also used quite well to show the separation that Harry feels from his friends and the connection he has with Sirius: darkness here, light there; wide shot here, close up there. Likewise, the personification of Voldemort again evolves as he becomes genuinely creepy and menacing. The shots of him inside the train station dressed all in black are terrifying and brilliant. And as I've touched on numerous times now, Heyman again got the best talent money could to fill the new role, this time Helena Bonham Carter who is a perfect Bellatrix Lestrange. It all makes for a very good film...

Except that it totally misfires on almost every level from an adaptation standpoint. "Phoenix" is the longest book and yet it is the shortest film. There's very little filler in the book in my perspective so you have to ask, what gives with the shortened runtime? The first answer is that this is the only film in the series that wasn't written by Steve Kloves. The decision to move on without him stands as the worst one that Heyman and company made during the course of this ten year journey. Maybe the only decision that was worse was the choice to replace him with Michael Goldenberg, who is also responsible for the craptastic script that hamstrung "Green Lantern" right out of the gate. As I said before, this is a good film so I can't really say that Goldenberg can't write but he clearly can't adapt. The groove that Kloves had developed to this point, the knowledge that he'd gained in regards to what to keep and what to cut, is obviously and painfully lacking in "Phoenix." Major plot points are missed, tones are overlooked, the bonds of several relationships are missed completely, and the entire film feels choppy and rushed. I'm getting a little mad just thinking about it.

All that said, three factors still allow me to watch and enjoy "Phoenix" without getting too caught up in the feeling of, "how dare you butcher this story!!!" First, for the first time, Radcliffe is really asked to carry a lot of the movie and he does so very well. That may or may not happen with a better script to work with. Second, the final battle sequence which pitches the students against a group of Death Eaters in the Department of Mysteries is a quality fight scene; maybe the best in the series. Third, Imelda Staunton is masterful in the role of Dolores Umbridge and Umbridge is a tremendously difficult character to play correctly. Of all the wicked, evil characters that live in Rowling's world, Umbridge is without question the most hate able. You root against her throughout the course of "Phoenix", both on screen and in the book, with more vigor than you ever root against Voldemort. You want Voldemort to be defeated but you want Umbridge to be killed in Tarantino-esque fashion and that makes her a compelling and vital character. What makes her so difficult to play is the fact that Umbridge is vile and fully evil but she thinks she's good. That's such a tough balance to find and Staunton more than stands up to the task. 2007 was a down year for award caliber films but I personally felt like her performance was worthy of an Oscar nomination. All of this makes "Phoenix" very hard to judge properly and calls into question the "don't judge a movie based on the book" philosophy I live by. I love it for what it is and hate it for what it's not so while that drops it in the "Potter" rank, it's still a solid film overall.

Rank in the "Potter" canon: 5th of 7

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