The film of the book (or is it the book of the film?)

J.K. Rowling had barely published three of the total seven Harry Potter novels when she sold the film rights to Warner Bros. in 1999 for $2 million. It seems like a paltry sum now, as the film franchise has grossed about $5.4 billion so far – not including sales of DVDs, merchandise and other lucrative tie-ins.

Indeed, the films have been a huge contributing factor to the novelist’s wealth, prestige and power. In essence, they built a platform upon which Potter could dominate children’s culture from every media corner. Every two years, a new film was released, and a new book enticed introverted wizardry-loving kids to line up around the block outside Chapters at midnight.

The concurrent release of books and film, combined with a rabid fan culture that is not strictly devoted to one media, have led the Potter films to be interpreted by the public as something of an official visual representation of the book. Even as fans of the books cry and moan about the differences between the novels and the films, most critics, uneducated in the finer points of Hogwarts wizardry, still tend to conflate the two.

But this isn’t just about a bunch of children’s books that critics haven’t read. It’s about the unintended consequences of a mass marketing practice that sees publishers and film studios jumping into bed together at the first signs of success.

In fact, the Harry Potter optioning happened a little late: studios have been known to buy the rights to books garnering buzz before they have even been published. And publishers, eager to hit the jackpot associated with film franchises, take into consideration the possibility of a book being adapted to film before even purchasing the novel.

As someone who loves both books and film the way a parent loves both their children – equally, but in different ways – it saddens me that the market for a book is often measured by its potential profitability as a film. That whole media convergence thing never ceases to disappoint.

Movies and novels are vastly different media suited to telling different kinds of stories. When fans complain about stuff like, “Sirius had a much bigger role in the books,” they aren’t just whining about their favourite character being cut. They are speaking about the possibilities of the novel to offer an immersive, multifaceted narrative experience that a two-hour film is simply unequipped to do.

That isn’t to say that novels can never be successfully adapted to film – of course, some of the greatest films of all time are adaptations, and we have a whole screenwriting category devoted to it at the Oscars. Where would we be without the film version of The Godfather? Jaws? A Clockwork Orange? Die Hard?

Yet the word “adaptation” should not be misunderstood. It means a creative interpretation of a written work undertaken by a screenwriter and a director. At that point, it really is no longer the creative property of the author, nor does it bear a strong obligation to the fans and their every wish of what should remain in the film. A good filmmaker will cut the novel right down to its very bones, to the arc of the story that reveals the most about our heroes’ journeys and the social themes on which it comments.

That’s why the Harry Potter movies are generally disappointing. Tangential details from the books are crammed into the films, yet essential turning points of the plot are glossed over so quickly that any member of the audience who hasn’t read all seven books cover-to-cover usually gets confused and bored. The best of the films, 2003’s Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, flayed the novel within an inch of its life. And it was a great novel.

Now we have a seventh book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, divided into two film instalments. The first part was released last week, and the second will hit theatres in July 2011. This offers the studio a chance to double their profits on a book that – while very long – was mostly dull and meandering.

In a way, the book felt as though it was an 800-page plot synopsis, an incomplete treatment for a film that never quite found the passion and urgency to actually tell the story. It’s possible that J.K. Rowling’s dream movie deal backfired on her, that she had Daniel Radcliffe and Alan Rickman in her head instead of Harry and Snape. It’s possible she forgot she needed to “take us there,” imaginatively and emotionally, through the sheer power of prose.

But, hey, maybe it takes a bad book to make a good movie.

//Laura Kane, Columnist

Laura Kane is a grammatically reliable UBC-attending contributor to the Courier, who has been watching movies since before George Lucas was ruining them. It’s actually quite possible that she’s seen every movie ever made by a human. All of these things made her the genuinely ideal candidate for a film columnist.

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