Friday, May 20, 2011

Dudley and Harry

One of my favorite scenes in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows comes early on – around page 40 of the 750-page plus tome. We’re inside No. 4 Privet Drive, the place where the 16-year-old wizard Harry Potter has spent the unhappiest years of his childhood. As the Dursleys prepare to flee, lest they be tortured and killed by the evil Lord Voldemort and his minions, Harry’s mean-spirited cousin Dudley surprises everyone when he tells the teenage wizard: “I don’t think you’re a waste of space.” As Harry explains, “Coming from Dudley that’s like ‘I love you.’”

I think what I like most about that scene is that it’s one of the few moments in the entire seven-part series where a character makes a genuine change. Other characters in the series are *misunderstood*, to be sure; Severus Snape comes to mind (is there another character in modern fiction who plays it so closely to the vest?), and Albus Dumbledore is certainly misunderstood throughout much of Deathly Hallows; he gets posthumously slimed by the mainstream media, and even Harry begins to doubt his beloved headmaster. But hardly anyone goes through quite the transformation that Big D does here.

You can imagine my disappointment when the scene didn’t make the theatrical cut of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1. The deleted scene that's included on the DVD is an even BIGGER disappointment. It got me thinking about how the Potter movies have failed in some ways to clearly tell Rowling’s epic story, and how film adaptations in general offer two different experiences: one for fans of the source material, and another for non-fans.

As you may have gathered, I count myself among the countless admirers of the Potter novels. As Stephen King has said, they’re “just fun, pure story from beginning to end.” Like most Potter fans, I’ve been mostly pleased with the 6.5 film adaptations thus far. (Of the bunch, Alfonso Cuaron’s Prisoner of Azkaban is the most stylish, but the one I find myself returning to most often is Mike Newell’s Goblet of Fire; sans Quidditch, Goblet is a scarily accurate portrait of the teen years.) I can be a pretty tough movie critic when I’m a fan of the book. For example, I simply didn’t *get* Sean Penn’s adaptation of Into the Wild. Author Jon Krakauer brought his readers so close to the soulful odyssey of Christopher McCandless that, for me, that was the definitive telling of that story; Penn simply couldn’t compete. And yet that’s a much-loved movie; it currently holds an astonishing 8.2 user rating on IMDb, making it the 145th most popular movie on that website. (I’d like to think a lot of those users haven’t read the book.) IMHO, the movie is a jumbled mess.

That's an apt description of the deleted scene on the Deathly Hallows DVD, which is titled simply Dudley and Harry. The action is moved from the house to the street, where the Dursleys are piling into their Muggle car. Dudley lumbers over to his cousin, offers his hand and says, “I don’t think you’re a waste of space.” This is met with a somewhat chilly response by Harry. (In the book, Harry is genuinely moved.) It doesn't help that the scene is technically incomplete; green screens are visible in several shots, giving Privet Dr. a decidedly unfinished look. Another distraction: the bloated, bizarre appearance of the young actor who plays Dudley, which may explain why he’s filmed in long shot when we first see him, making it difficult for us to gauge his emotions.

The scene will be especially hard to follow for viewers who haven't read the books. The event that led to Dudley’s change of heart – Harry saving him from the Dementors – happened a lifetime ago. In the book, Rowling does a quick recap so as to jog our memory. But in the movie, the filmmakers expect us to remember something that happened at the very beginning of Half-Blood Prince, without the benefit of flashbacks. A lot has gone on since then (like, say, the death of Dumbledore.)

Of course, readers will remember what Harry did for Dudley. Reading the books has always been a kind of prerequisite for completely understanding the movies. Take the ending of Chamber of Secrets. I found it very moving when the students of Hogwarts erupted in applause at the sight of Hagrid, but my dad (who’s more of a Tolkien fan than a Potterhead) thought that scene was bizarre; why were the kids applauding this hairy giant who’d been given so little screen time? My dad rightly guessed that Hagrid is a way bigger deal in the books than he is in the movies. Similarly, when I saw Half-Blood Prince with a friend (who hasn't read the books, either), I had to remind him that there’d always been some question as to whether Snape was a good guy or a bad guy. What's etched indelibly in the minds of Potterheads is merely sketched in the minds of the uninitiated. People usually say, “Read the book instead.” In the case of the Harry Potter movies, I think the best piece of advice is, “Read the book FIRST.”

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