Alas. Earwax.

A project which involved giving a variety of different (but equally experienced) film-makers the same screenplay and as much of the same crew and set as possible, then seeing how different their films were, would be fascinating. It wouldn’t just illuminate how different their styles as film-makers were; it would also help to reveal just how much of a film is inherent in the screenplay, and how much is even amenable to the film-maker’s vision. The closest I can think of this actually taking place is Gus Van Sant’s attempt to remake Psycho shot-for-shot. But even that’s not quite the same thing, because Van Sant had both seen Hitchcock’s original, and was indeed trying to copy it.

I was struck this week by how close the Harry Potter films might come to the experiment. The films are being made with the same cast, most of the same crew, and genuinely belong to the same film-making cycle — there isn’t a gap in time between the films which might cause the later ones to benefit from changes in special-effects technology, for example. Even the screenwriter (so far) is the same. Moreover, Rowling’s books have enough similarity of location and structure that there’s considerable overlap between the worlds of each of the films. The only significant difference between the films is (will be?) the director.

Alfonso Cuarón‘s stab at The Prisoner of Azkaban is enthralling, and not just in the ways that it succeeds. His command of the visual style of Rowling’s world is light-years ahead of Chris Columbus’s competent hackery. He has no time for parading set-design as if we were in a guided tour of the studio. His camera inhabits the world, swooping and gliding sinuously within it, not merely pointing at it. He loads each shot with an absorbing multi-layered detail. There’s a richness and a darkness and an ability to tell the story through the visuals that Columbus never achieved — witness the wonderfully economic and funny silent season-transitions using the Whomping Willow. There is, essentially, a magic in Cuarón’s world that was entirely absent from Columbus’s.

Cuarón’s film is not short. For what remains a children’s film, it ought to feel very long, but it doesn’t. It almost feels rushed and a little cramped. This is partly because Rowling’s book is a huge step up in richness and narrative complexity from the the first two — a step she subsequently seems to have partially taken back in the following two books. There is a moment in the book in which Rowling’s world opens up in both directions. It suddenly acquires a richness of backstory that it had so far lacked, and, crucially, this backstory propels the story forward compellingly. The moment is connected to the introduction of the Marauder’s Map, and specifically concerns its provenance. The map itself is a great narrative device — it’s Rowling at her very best. But the introduction of its backstory, and that of the mysterious Moony, Wormtail, Padfoot and Prongs, is where the story expands into a new dimension. The moment acquires its power because we already know these people. The narrative can then work by joining the dots, rather than introducing new ones, which is always a sign that things are ticking along nicely.

Given the relative shortness of TPOA — and especially how much shorter it feels than the first two films, it’s regrettable that a little more time wasn’t taken to explode the Moony, Wormtail, Padfoot and Prongs bomb here. One assumes it will be left to the next film, but this was the moment where it would have had the greatest impact. It’s the one genuine mistake Cuarón made.

What doesn’t work so well in the film is entirely Rowling’s work. There’s not very much either Cuarón or Steve Kloves can do about her wholly tin-ear for dialogue, and her tendency to pack scenes with exposition. Telling, in other words, rather than showing. She isn’t remotely a filmic writer. The clumsy dialogue serves to separate the kids from the adults. The casting of the adult parts is, as before, uniformly dead-on (aside: Julie Christie?!), and the actors typically have the savvy to make the most of what they’re given, using all of their skill to wring character out of lines that have little. Alan Rickman, as usual. David Thewlis does wonders with the under-written Lupin, and Emma Thompson has obvious fun with Professor Trelawney. Michael Gambon has the energy for Dumbledore that the ailing Richard Harris lacked.

The problem is that the kids don’t have this skill. Maybe not yet. Maybe not at all. So they struggle with flat lines, often gabbling them too fast. A wily old hand would slow down the delivery and ham it up a bit. The kids aren’t able to do this yet, though. There isn’t quite the same twinkle of fun in their performances that exists in the adult actors’ performances. They play it too straight, and seem to live in a somewhat different space.

The other significant problem is also Rowling’s. Beyond the obvious handful of central characters, there are only white-hats and black-hats, who quickly have become tedious. Yes, we know the Malfoys are nasty pieces of work. It would help the story-world hugely if we were able to grasp motivation in their actions beyond spite and racism. Rowling should be slightly embarrassed by the fact that it takes fan-fiction to even attempt to address motivations, different perspectives, beyond those of Our Heroes. She continually loads the dice in their favour, and that feels unsatisfactory.

Cuarón’s work very clearly delineates what works and what doesn’t work in the Harry Potter films — and, partly, the books. His visual artistry creates a world that’s rich and believeable, a world with genuine magic, rather than merely a world with special effects. But that only serves to highlight the clumsiness in Rowling’s characterisation and dialogue, which he unfortunately isn’t able to overcome.

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