Harry Potter is back, and in this second outing the stakes are higher, the themes darker, the Malfoys nastier, the action grander, the monsters scarier, the gross-outs ickier, the climax stronger, and the movie longer.
Returning director Chris Columbus and screenwriter Steven Kloves repeat the formula that made Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone a hit: They simply follow J. K. Rowling’s text as reverentially as possible. Never before has any author’s work been so scrupulously transposed to the screen.
As with the original film, therefore, there’s little to offend the most myopic fan of the books, but also little room for the imaginative extension of the author’s universe that distinguishes an inspired adaptation from a merely workmanlike one. Gandalf’s opening line in The Fellowship of the Ring (“A wizard is never late, Frodo Baggins. Neither is he early. He arrives precisely when he means to”) isn’t found in Tolkien, but I laughed for sheer pleasure at the rightness of the characterization. Columbus’s films contain no such surprises for Rowling fans, but rather give them exactly what they expect, and nothing more.
Though workmanlike rather than inspired, Columbus’s Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets is good workmanship, and like the source material remains entertaining. Highlights include Mr. Weasley’s flying car, which threatens almost to become the movie’s most intriguing character; Dobby the House Elf, annoying but well-animated; the hammy pleasures of Kenneth Branagh as preening new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher Gilderoy Lockhart and Jason Isaacs (The Tuxedo, Black Hawk Down) as Draco Malfoy’s malevolently aristocratic father Lucius; and a quietly effective moment in which words written in a seemingly blank diary fade away and answering words flicker momentarily into sight.
As with Harry’s first outing, Rowling’s story combines the trappings of fantasy magic (flying broomsticks, magic wands, etc.) with elements of folklore and classical mythology, such as the phoenix with its regenerative powers and the identity of the hidden monster capable of petrifying its victims. (For a discussion of the moral implications of magic in the Harry Potter books, see my essay “Harry Potter vs. Gandalf.”)
What the first story had that this sequel necessarily lacks — and has nothing to make up for — is the thrill of discovery, the sense of wonder at a world of magic previously unknown to Harry (Daniel Radcliffe). The first story wasn’t really about the philosopher’s stone (or “sorcerer’s stone”) as it was redubbed by crass American editors); that was only the McGuffin. The real point was Harry’s initiation into the world of magic and Hogwarts, his newfound camaraderie with Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) and apprenticeship under Albus Dumbledore (the now-late Richard Harris), Minerva MacGonagall (Maggie Smith), Severus Snape (Alan Rickman), and so on.
Lacking that sense of revelation, the sequel drags, especially in the middle. At a long two hours and 41 minutes, it may be only about 10 minutes longer than the original, but without the advantage of novelty it feels 20 or 30 minutes too long.
Also due to the absence of the discovery of magic as the central focus, the story’s center of gravity defaults to the mystery of the Chamber of Secrets — a mystery that begins with bloody messages on the walls at Hogwarts before escalating to attacks upon students and finally revealing itself in the manifestation of a creature of archetypal evil. (Incidentally, the climactic battle, along with a confrontation with giant spiders, is far scarier than anything in the first film, and should have earned a
Needless to say, good ultimately triumphs — or rather, evil is ultimately defeated. For, although the climactic sequence is more dramatically satisfying and evocative than anything in Sorcerer’s Stone, there’s a sense in which it’s more about the defeat of evil than the triumph or revelation of goodness.
As a point of comparison, think of the first two Indiana Jones movies. Raiders of the Lost Ark balanced the evil of the Nazis not just against hero Indiana Jones, but against the numinous presence of the Ark itself. By contrast, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom was dominated by an evil mystery cult; Indy won in the end, but the climax, lacking any meaningful revelation on the side of goodness, brought only relief, as opposed to wonder or exhilaration.
Something not entirely unlike that is the case here. Harry triumphs over the forces of evil, and an innocent life hanging in the balance is saved; but no greater good is accomplished, no image of goodness comparable to the evil of the Chamber is revealed.
The obvious candidate for such an image of goodness would have been the phoenix, a creature that was identified as a symbol of Christ and the resurrection as early as the first century, beginning with Pope St. Clement of Rome. Given the context of the mythically resonant events of the movie’s climactic showdown, the phoenix would have been an especially appropriate icon of goodness opposed to the movie’s evil — if only Columbus had known how to make the bird wonderful rather than merely exotic. (Fawkes the phoenix evidently enjoys a significant place in the imaginations of readers: In an opening-day online poll at IMDb.com, fans overwhelmingly chose Fawkes over the Chamber monster, the giant spiders, the flying car, and so on as the one element from the book that they were most excited about seeing the moviemakers pull off in the film. Unfortunately, despite this apparent fan awareness of the importance of the phoenix, the onscreen creature is visually much less impressive than many of the movie’s other sights.)
Alas, as realized in the film, Fawkes the phoenix doesn’t make nearly as strong an impression as his antithesis in the Chamber. Still, in spite of this weakness, the climax of The Chamber of Secrets remains one of the most interesting and evocative episodes in Rowling’s work, and certainly in the two movies to date.
Almost as noteworthy are Dumbledore’s subsequent words of wisdom to Harry, who’s worried about troubling similarities between himself and the archvillainous wizard Voldemort. Harry belongs to Gryffindor House, but fears that he may really be the “heir of Slytherin” (Voldemort’s house), that he was wrongly assigned to Gryffindor only because he asked not to be assigned to Voldemort’s house. Dumbledore (Harris in his final performance) puts these fears to rest with words of notable insight: Harry’s very wish not to belong to Voldemort’s house is more telling than whatever magical talents they may have in common. “It is not our abilities that show what we truly are,” he says, “it is our choices.” Good moral theology, that.
But then the impact of these climactic scenes is undermined by the calculated, hollow feel-goodism of the denouement, which involves the cancellation of final exams and a big standing ovation for Hagrid. That there’s no discernible reason for either won’t stop die-hard fans from enthusiastically joining in the applause.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.