“Come on, Tom. Let’s finish this the way we started: together.” (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2)
I want to start with this blanket statement: adaptation is not easy, and I know from practical experience as a member of the media industry. Having majored in Digital Video & Cinema at university, I had more than one class where I not only studied the art of adaptation, but had to try my hand at writing speculative adaptive scripts. While rewarding, those were some of the most difficult scripts to crank out.
I think it’s easy to fall into what I like to call “purist mode” and say something to the effect of: “I could make this film and keep everything and it would totally work.” Well, I’m sorry to be the one to break it to you — no, it wouldn’t. And this is not only in terms of film as art, but also film as business. A filmmaker has maybe 120-minutes at best (180 if you’re lucky) to hold an audience captive, and that’s not often enough to adapt a multi-hundred-page novel. Beyond that, one has to take into account that the majority of films are high-cost risks for everyone involved. Now, I could go into a wealth of specifics on the topic of adaptation, but I’ll boil down my thoughts to this: if I can understand or justify an adaptive change in my head, then I’m usually going to be okay with it.
The Harry Potter films were, in my opinion, great films on a standalone level, and I also think they are fantastic adaptations of quite high quality, with perhaps the exception of Half-Blood Prince. While I can understand the “why” related to its cutting a good deal of important information — backstory does not make for good movie — it still bothers me as a fan. That’s an adaptation change I can justify in my head from an objective standpoint and, while disagreeing with it as a fan, I can move along and leave it be. But there is, however, one very significant adaptive change within the final film of this series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, with which I draw umbrage: the final duel between Harry and Voldemort.
SPOILER WARNING: This post will contain spoilers for the entirety of the Harry Potter series, films and books alike. If you have not yet read or watched all of the Harry Potter stories, this is your chance to turn back now. You’ve been warned.
The difference between my Half-Blood Prince critique and the climax of Deathly Hallow, Part 2 is that I can neither justify nor understand the significant change that was made to the way in which Harry and Voldemort meet for the last time.
In the Deathly Hallows novel, Harry and Voldemort duel in the wreckage of the Great Hall, surrounded by all of their respective supporters who, incidentally, pause to watch the final showdown. It might sound almost silly, until you start to think about why it’s so important that this microcosm of the Wizarding World pauses to witness the fight between Harry and Voldemort.
Simply put: catharsis, and closure.
What baffles me most about the change from book to film in this case is wondering why on earth the filmmakers would decide to have Harry and Voldemort duel alone. Sure, from a cinematic perspective, a mano e mano duel fought alone is a visually dynamic and striking image…but so is a mano e mano duel fought in front of an audience. Think of the final duel between Maximus and Commodus in Ridley Scott’s film, Gladiator. The fight allows the viewer to feed off of the emotions and energy of the audience in the Colosseum — something that’s thematically significant given one of the biggest questions posed by the film is, “What is Rome?” Here, we have Rome, itself, watching its own two potential fates fight for victory. The same is meant to occur in the Final Battle of Hogwarts.
The last time Harry “defeated” Voldemort, there was no one there to witness it’ no one there to actually know if Voldemort truly died. When Harry and Hagrid first discuss Voldemort in Philosopher’s Stone (US title: Sorcerer’s Stone), Hagrid brings up the fact that nobody in the Wizarding World really got the catharsis of seeing Voldemort die, saying:
“Some say he died. Codswallop, in my opinion. Dunno if he had enough human left in him to die. Some say he’s still out there, bidin’ his time, like, but I don’ believe it.”
None in the magical community were afforded the leisure of moving on from Voldemort’s reign of terror — they even still fear to speak his name, despite him being “gone.” This time, however, in the Battle of Hogwarts, it’s different, because now there is a microcosm of the Wizarding World standing as witness to the defining, final conflict.
The second reason that necessitates the need for the crowd in the final duel is something that Luna Lovegood actually vocalizes within the fifth film, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix:
Luna Lovegood: Well if I were You-Know-Who, I’d want you to feel cut off from everyone else. Because if it’s just you alone you’re not as much of a threat.
Harry is powerful because of the people he loves and who love him. Harry is powerful because of his family. J.K. Rowling was phenomenal in highlighting different kinds of families within Harry Potter; she demonstrated that the concept of family is not necessarily about blood, and that family can be people whom you choose, and who choose you, even at your worst and lowest. Harry has always had this — after all, his blood relations, the Dursleys, were horrible, whereas the family he chose, the Weasleys and Hermione, stayed with him through it all. Adopted families, blood relatives, teachers, friends — they are all bound by genuine love and respect.
Love and family and mercy — three things which Voldemort noticeably lacked — are what ultimately triumphed at the end of the day in Harry Potter. Which is why I have a hard time understanding the decision made by the filmmakers to have Harry and Voldemort duel completely alone in the finale of Deathly Hallows, Part 2. I do, however, have a couple of production-based speculations.
The two Deathly Hallows films had an estimated combined budget of around $250 million, which sounds like a lot of money to you and me — and, yes, that is a large sum of money. But I think it’s important to think of all the people and materials that go into making a feature film — and a studio-backed, franchise-concluding fantasy feature film at that. Everything is going to be big, including the cheques.
The more people you include in a sequence, the more work you make for yourself: more actors to pay, feed, costume, make-up, shoot, and block.1 Having more people in the Harry vs Voldemort fight would have necessitated more time and, more importantly, more money. And yet I don’t find this a truly satisfactory answer — and you’re talking to someone who deeply understands the weight of those previously-listed production aspects. But given that roughly 75%2 of Deathly Hallows, Part 2 is devoted to the Battle of Hogwarts, featuring the entire main cast of the series, it should have been possible to schedule days where they shot this sequence.
Say, for example, the day they shot Neville’s crowning moment of badass where he gave Voldemort the verbal middle finger. That sequence features all the characters one needs to continue on in the fight as portrayed in the novel: congregated together into one space.
There’s also post-production to consider, Many films these days spend the majority of their lives in post-production, as the advent and proliferation of digital effects has only grown since their initial introduction into the medium. And something like Harry Potter commands a great deal of necessary computer-generated and special effects…things which are not made easier by more people on set.
Voldemort’s disintegration upon defeat is a beautiful effect, with the audience watching him both literally and figuratively come apart at the seams. And creating that effect, mapping it onto Ralph Fiennes’ face, manipulating it through light — all of that gets trickier with more people in the shot. And that’s not even taking into account the streams of coloured light from the wands and digitally reflecting that off of people’s faces, background extensions and matte paintings, continuity…I think you catch my drift.
These are all very valid, potential reasons based solely on production mechanics. Of course, they are all just speculation because, as of right now, I have not heard any reason from director, David Yates, screenwriter, Steven Kloves, or even J.K. Rowling herself for why this change was made.
But I didn’t make the film, and who knows what the process of making that decision was like.
If there’s anything to be learned about adaptation, it’s that it is difficult and has many different elements considered in every stage of its creation. As David Benioff, a man who’s no stranger to writing adaptive scripts has said:
“Every adaptation requires that the screenwriter make difficult choices – and in particular, difficult cuts.”
- Blocking refers to choreography and the way you position actors about the shooting space during a scene.
- This film is two hours and ten minutes long, and I took the beginning of the Battle of Hogwarts as being Voldemort’s first announcement to the school, which begins around the 36-minute mark.