'Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows': Do the films stand on their own?

The cinematic versions of 'Harry Potter' lack the 'oomph' of the books. Film critics say some have been too derivative. Potter fans say they aren't faithful enough.

Eliana Aponte/Reuters
Fans gather in front of Mexico City's Bellas Artes Palace Oct. 30 to celebrate the launch of "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1," the seventh movie in the series.

Thursday at midnight is the beginning of the end for the big-screen life of the Boy Who Lived as “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1” opens, with Part 2 scheduled for next summer.

Advance ticket sales have outstripped the previous film, but as the franchise begins its move from theatrical exhibition into Netflix and family DVD libraries, the question arises: how good are the movies – really – and how will they hold up over time? Do the cinematic versions have the same cultural oomph that propelled J.K. Rowling’s ink-on-paper universe to such global popularity?

The general consensus seems to be that one or two of the films – most notably the third installment, “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,” will achieve independent status as a good if not great film. The rest of the canon – still unfolding as it is – is more problematic.

The first two films were just plain not good, says author Philip Nel, a Kansas State University professor who teaches graduate courses on Harry Potter and has written extensively about the relationship between the films and the books.

“The director Chris Columbus essentially made costume dramas in an effort to be really faithful to the books,” he says. As a result, he notes, “he has the inverse achievement, particularly with the second film, of making a boring movie that sucks all the life out of what is actually a really good story in the book.”

Alfonso Cuarón, a director with some very adult films on his resume, however, breathed life into the filmic world in the third installment by moving away from such scrupulous re-creationism, says Mr. Nel. Instead, the creator of the R-rated, Spanish language “Y Tu Mamá También" took the themes and emotional journeys of the "Potter" characters and re-imagined the whole world, including mussing up the obligatory robes the Hogwarts pupils don during the day and allowing them to appear in civilian outfits.

“Alfonso Cuarón created an artistic experience in the third film, even though it didn’t have all the plot elements that the first ones did,” Nel says.

New Zealand director Peter Jackson’s treatment of the J.R.R. Tolkien's “Lord of the Rings” (LOTR) trilogy is the most frequent comparison for book-to-film creations. The award-winning blockbusters generally leave the Harry Potter films on the sidelines, both in the critical and popular imaginations. Mr. Jackson had the advantage of adapting a completed work, so the issue of what to include or leave out for later relevance didn’t trip him up.

This particular issue has bedeviled some of the first six Harry Potter films, because in addition to being a coming-of-age serial tale, it’s also an unfolding mystery. “It’s hard to know if you are deleting something really important if you don’t know for sure where the story is headed,” points out Greg Garrett, author of “One Fine Potion: The Literary Magic of Harry Potter.”

Which plot points, characters, and even whole subplots to trim or weave into a screenplay is a challenge for any director who takes on a well-known book. Despite the fact that it won a best picture Oscar, there are still LOTR fans who can’t forgive Jackson for completely excising a loved secondary character, Tom Bombadil from the first film. The LOTR franchise itself benefited greatly from having a single creative vision for all three films, notes Rob Weiner, an associate librarian at the Texas Tech University Library.

Ms. Rowling reportedly encouraged screenwriters on the sixth film to retain the cranky house elf, Kreacher, because he would be important to the final film. These are the sort of potential missteps that can tarnish the films for even the most generous book and movie lovers.

Texas middle-schooler David Carstens says the studio should have begun splitting the books into two films with the fourth book, when the page-length nearly doubled.

“They just had to start leaving out so many important things,” he says via cell phone between an art class and study hall. He insists he is not one of those book-purists who wants everything to stay the same when a written work moves to the screen. The 12-year-old Mr. Carstens says he understands the difference and actually “pretty much likes most of the movies.” But, he says, when they lose important themes, not just little details, then that makes the overall film worse.

Carstens points to the fourth book, “Goblet of Fire,” in which two characters, Dobby the house elf – who is also critical to the final book – and Cedric Diggory help Harry in key moments. But, he says, when the fourth film came out, the elf is completely gone, and Diggory’s role in aiding Harry is greatly underemphasized.

This, he adds, is more than just losing a costume detail or eye color (many fans complained that Harry Potter’s eye color in the book was green, while Daniel Radcliffe’s eyes are blue). “People helping each other in hard times is an important part of the book’s message and they shouldn’t have cut it out,” he says.

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