When the FilmsFilmsFilms movie marathoners first got together in February 2012 we tossed around ideas for future events. The Harry Potter movies were high on everyone’s list. There’s something very British about JK Rowling’s wizarding saga, a kid’s series with undercurrents of Roald Dahl inspired horror and quirky waves of Monty Python-esque humour. If your heart stirs at the sight of the White Cliffs of Dover or a tankard of ale in a oak wood pub, its hard to resist the Potter story. Among both my hardcore and casual film fan friends I don’t know anyone that doesn’t love a romp around Hogwarts. But with so many people wanting to come on our eighth film journey we had to change the rules slightly.
Its now tradition to complete a whole FFF movie saga in one sitting. But with the Potter films totalling 20 hours for the sake of our less experienced marathoners we decided to split the series over two days, the first four films on Easter Saturday, the last four on Easter Sunday. Having gathered some Chocolate Frogs and Bertie Bott’s Beans for sustenance (for the love of God, stay away from the vomit flavoured ones!) we were almost ready to set off. Then on Friday 27th March news broke of a more fitting reason to broomstick our way through all eight films. The great character actor Richard Griffiths OBE had passed away at the age of 65. As Harry’s horrible Uncle Vernon, Griffiths’ talents allowed him to stand out amongst a cast that featured just about every great British actor of this generation. As Potter proved, whether it was his supporting role in Gandhi (1982) or his toe-curlingly brilliant turn in Withnail & I (1987) it was impossible not to be won over by one of this country’s most recognisable movie faces.
Modelling an early edition of the Nimbus range...the Mark 1!
So when Harry Potter and the Philospher’s Stone (2001) whirred in the blu-ray player and Uncle Vernon sneered his first line we all stood, raised a glass and gave a toast to Griffiths, who now transfers his talents to the great legume in the sky. As Chris Columbus’ film chugged its way along the tracks to Hogwarts everyone’s first comment was the same, "Ooo, look how young they look”. Emma Watson’s painful over-annunciation has become so familiar grimaces now turn to grins; A for effort, C for achievement. Thankfully her acting improves no end as the series develops. Highlights of the first film remain Leslie Phillips sorting hat, a chess match for the ages, and Robbie Coltrane stealing the show as Hagrid, "I shouldn’t have told you that”. What is often overlooked is just how faithful a job Columbus made of recreating Rowling’s intricate world. As novel adaptations go it’s as perfect as Spielberg’s Jaws (1975) or Jackson’s Lord of the Rings saga.
Taking our turn with the sorting hat.
Columbus returned to the director’s chair for the second instalment, the longest film in the series Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002). Watson, Daniel Radcliffe and Rupert Grint have already aged visually despite only being a year on from their first outing. They also appear much more comfortable in their roles, the wonderful dynamic amongst the trio starting to sparkle. The always brilliant Alan Rickman gets more screen time second time around, but the highlight is Ron and Harry’s frantic trip to school in the Weasley family flying Ford Anglia. We breeze into the third film without any sign of fatigue, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004), which saw Afonso Cuaron take over directorial duties. The plot starts to sprinkle in the first elements of the over-arching Voldemort plot, notably the welcome introduction of Gary Oldman. The rewinding time tool that Hermione pulls out of her pocket makes for a nice story twist, but does beg the question why the hell she doesn’t use it during other vital moments in the Potter saga?
Perfecting the Hermione pout
Cuaron only lasted one outing, paving the way for Mike Newell to deliver the best instalment yet, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005). The marathoners are all doing much better than Cuaron though, with no signs of film fatigue creeping in yet. The best film of the day lifts our spirits even more. The Tri-Wizard tournament is a great central plot, even more so when it’s hijacked by a shocking left turn that finally reveals Ralph Fiennes’ Lord Voldemort. Newell doesn’t pull his punches, killing off a pre-Twilight Robert Pattinson in a real tear-jerker finale, a distraught Harry juxtaposed by a cheering Hogwarts crowd. The Quidditch World Cup is brilliant, as is its fiery destruction. David Tennant makes the most of a rare villainous outing and Brendan Gleeson as Alastor Moody keeps the brilliant new characters rolling in. The one sticking point remains the female contingent of Beauxbatons, who all seem to be way too advanced in their sultryness to compare to their Hogwart counterparts.
Dolores Umbridge makes her debut....boooo hissss!
Ten hours in we break for the night and reconvene on Easter Sunday for Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007), the first of David Yates four films as director. It’s a good debut, helped no end by Rowling’s source material. Another large serving of superb new characters keeps the story rolling, notably Imelda Staunton’s pitch perfect realisation of the hateful Dolores Umbridge. Not for the first time we resort to pantomime boos and hisses each time she squeaks on to the screen. Our catcalls continue when Helena Bonham Carter’s cockney-geezer-bird from Hell Bellatrix Lestrange makes her debut, until she stuns the room into silence by offing Harry’s surrogate father Sirius Black. The long awaited throw-down between Voldemort and Dumbledore doesn’t disappoint as the Ministry of Magic has to order in a shit load of screen-doors.
Shit! A Dementor! Keep him away from the beer, warns Prof. Snape
Previously, my least favourite Potter outing was the Deathly Hollows Part 1, a film that felt like a two hour trek across monotone countryside. But whether through movie fatigue or an over indulgence of Potter, the first two hours of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2009) dragged. Aside from some relationship woes for Hermione and Ron little if anything seemed to happen, at least nothing we hadn’t seen before. It all seemed to be a drawn out pre-amble designed to get us to the real point of the sixth film, the offing of Dumbledore. Its fortunate then that this moment is still as shocking as it was when first viewed (and shocking it was – I hadn’t read any of the books prior to seeing the movie). Despite looking every inch the Voldemort sympathiser Prof. Snape is really everyone’s favourite character. His apparently treacherous about-turn is doubly unforgivable.
Twenty hours done, exhausted, exhilirated, a final flick and a swish
Running behind schedule thanks to more frequent food and alcohol pit-stops (no doubt inspired by the grub laden tables that seem to crop up in every other Hogwarts scene) we slip Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 (2010) wearily into the blu-ray player. Now isn’t the time for the weakest film in an eight movie series. Thankfully David Yates’ third effort plays a little better on repeat viewings. Perhaps it’s knowing that Harry and Hermione’s non-stop wandering and Horcrux exposition rambling will come to an end; it never felt like it would at the cinema. The Deathly Hallows animated sequence was a clever move by Yates and remains a highlight of the whole saga. Dobbie’s death still draws a sniffle and the Bathilda Bagshot / Nagini scene still scares us out of our wizarding robes.
At 17 odd hours in we reach the final movie, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 (2011). The finale had to be grandstanding and so it was. Prof's Snape's final moments remain the most moving of the entire series precisely because its underplayed and not stretched out; there's real tragedy here, only saved by the fact that Snape can finally reveal to Harry his true feelings and history. We raise another glass in salute to Rickman, who wins our prize for best performance across the entire saga. The battle for Hogwarts owes a little to the battle of Helms Deep, but is spectacular enough in its own right not to be derivative. The only bum note is the slightly rushed finale, with major characters dropping like flies with barely a tear shed. Sequel baiting and crap make-up aside (there’s no way Ron, Harry and Hermione look 19 years older) the coda is sweet with Albus Severous Potter heading off for his own adventure. We all still find it hard to believe Harry and Hermione didn’t hook up given the obvious relationship between the two and the fact that Harry doesn’t once mention his future beau Ginny during the entire six months he’s banished from Hogwarts.
Brief moans aside, its a wonderful ending, finishing with the three central characters that carried the whole saga. And for all the magical qualities of the Potter story, it is all about the trio, how they grow as characters and friends. Doubly, it is fascinating to watch Grint, Radcliffe and Watson develop over the eight films, from rosy cheeked amateurs to adult professionals capable of shouldering possibly the best British film series ever made. Will we ever return to Hogwarts? This old sceptic can’t help but be convinced that Hollywood will milk the Potter cash-cow a few more times yet. Lucas said no more Star Wars after The Return of the Jedi (1983) and look how that turned out. I just hope Rowling remains involved and doesn’t ruin everything that’s gone before with needless, for-the-sake-of-it sequels.