Harry Potter and the Cauldron of Expectations

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (film)
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

When the first Harry Potter books were published I didn’t bother to read them.  I saw the films, but they didn’t strike me as especially significant.  Yes, they were full of magic and wonder.  But I failed to perceive anything of lasting substance. I dismissed Harry Potter as a fad.

Yet as the series progressed, so did the depth of storytelling.  By the time that I read Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, I had become a believer.

But I didn’t begin reading the books until Deathly Hallows was released.  Why?  Because friends kept telling me that the books were superior to the films.  That’s not unexpected, as fans of any series would make similar claims.  But what struck me as unusual was that these friends had a decidedly different viewing experience of the films than I did.

“The Books are So Much Better”

Not having read the books, I found each film in the series to be progressively enchanting.  But these friends were increasingly disappointed with each film.  Perhaps the pinnacle of this phenomenon was when Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix was released.  I was enthralled by it, and found it to be supremely entertaining.  It was magical, suspenseful and emotionally powerful.

But many readers of the book had a different experience.  In their perception, the positive aspects of the film were overshadowed by omissions from the novel.  Many key scenes had been excised.  A number of Harry Potter fans were bitter because of this.

For this reason I made a resolution.  I wouldn’t read the books until I had seen every film.  After all, it was apparently impossible to enjoy the movies if you had read the novels.  I didn’t want to jeopardize the joy that these films bring me.

But this resolution didn’t last long.  After viewing Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, the suspense crushed my willpower.  I purchased the final book of the series and devoured it.

The Burden of Expectations

So why are many fans of the books so disappointed with the films?  It’s because of unrealistic expectations.  They were expecting to see the books accurately depicted on the screen.  When this didn’t happen, they felt as if the integrity of the story had been violated.

My perspective is different.  I believe that a comprehensive translation of any Harry Potter book to the screen would be insufferable.  First, it would have to unbearably long.  And secondly, it would move too slowly.  For a sense of how this would be paced, try watching the most boring film in cinema history – Out of Africa.

Motion pictures and novels are very different mediums.  What works beautifully in a novel could fail miserably in a film.  When the translation does work, it’s because significant structural changes have been made to the story.

The Films Aren’t Intended to Replace the Books

A film is not meant to accurately translate a novel to the screen.  Rather, it should be viewed as an artistic interpretation.

Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films, to use an example, are not meant to replace Tolkien’s original works.  Nor are they in competition with them.  Instead, Jackson’s film trilogy is a work of art in its own right, inspired by the novels.  It should be viewed in the same light as paintings inspired by Middle Earth.

The same holds true for the Harry Potter films.  They are artistic interpretations of J.K. Rowling’s books.  They aren’t the same as the novels, nor should they be.  They aren’t meant to supplant the books.

Instead, they should be appreciated for what they are: entertaining stories told in a different medium.  Whether or not the books are better shouldn’t be at the forefront of the viewer’s mind.  Rather, the viewer should recognize that the films are something entirely different, and judge them on their own merits.  In other words, they should simply relax and enjoy the show.

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11 years ago

Hey Rendrag,

Thank you for the recommendation. This Symposium looks fascinating.

11 years ago

You might find this Symoposium to be of interest. I had no interest in this series until listening to “Whence Potter Mania?” a few weeks ago. I have since read the first three books, and rewatched the first two movies (I have only seen four of the theatrical releases to date). Prior to reading the books I found the movies to be insufferable, but watched them because of my son’s interest. Now I find myself enjoying the series.