After ten years and eight movies – one more than the book series that spawned it – the Harry Potter franchise finally comes to an end this Friday with the second part of The Deathly Hallows. Readers already have a pretty good idea of how it’s all going to play out, and the early word is that director David Yates brings the series to a climax with enthusiasm and respect. That’s par for the course on this film series. Though it never approached the greatness of the books, it remained solid entertainment almost from the start: a remarkable achievement for a franchise this prolific. Part of its success lies in the little moments, where Rowling’s imagination really takes root and you feel her universe springing to life around you. Everyone has their favorites, and we thought we’d share some of ours before we wave good-bye to The Boy Who Lived and his friends. We’ve picked one for each of the previous seven movies, arranged in chronological order below.
Chris Columbus had a bit of a shaky start. His young cast still needed seasoning, and the strength of the universe struggled to assert itself in the first outing. It resonated most deeply during an early moment: after Daniel Radcliffe’s Harry received his first invitation to Hogwarts, only to be thwarted by his odious relatives, the Dursleys. The invitations kept coming, however… and coming… and coming… and coming… until the very ordinary street on which he lived was festooned with messenger owls. It’s a striking image -- genuine magic breaking through into the ordinary world – that the rest of the film never quite manages to match.
The series really found its footing with the second go ‘round: still one of the best entries so far. Throughout the first movie, Harry is seemingly given everything he needs, because he’s the great Harry Potter after all. Here, we start to see him act on his own. More importantly, we begin to see the depth of this universe and the fact that it doesn’t all revolve around him. The touchstone moment comes with the Sorting Hat, who looks down at him from its shelf and says, “I still think you would have made a good Slytherin.” Not only does it deepen a seemingly throwaway line in the first film, but it reminds us that the Hat still exists… even after its function in Harry’s story has passed.
Purists decry this film for slighting the first appearance of Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), while film lovers praise the imaginative direction of Alfonso Cuaron. The debate rages on, but lost in the middle is a lovely character who demonstrates the strength of Rowling’s writing and how well it translates onto the screen. No, it’s not David Thewlis’s Remus Lupin (a marvelous figure in his own right) but rather Buckbeak: the condemned hippogriff that Harry and Hermione need to rescue from execution. He exists completely as a CG figure, but was rendered surprisingly well onscreen. More importantly, Cuaron filled him with loads of personality, ensuring that we cared deeply about his fate and shared the thrill of his victorious flight with Harry at the end.
We’d heard a lot about Voldemort in the previous three films, and even caught a glimpse of him here and there as a deformed spirit being. This time, he finally arrives: big as life and twice as scary. Ralph Fiennes proved an inspired casting choice, with a coiled menace that never requires him to so much as raise his voice. But the extraordinary make-up job – featuring serpentine eyes, skull-like teeth and a nonexistent nose – really sends chills down the spine. Not only does it give Fiennes an exquisite launching point for his performance, but it adheres closely to Rowling’s description: a balance this series has gotten quite good at over the years.
Imelda Staunton deserved an Oscar nomination for her portrayal of Delores Umbridge: sickly sweet paragon of petty authority who delivered Orwellian oppression with a Mary Poppins smile. She single-handedly staved off franchise fatigue with her usurpation of Dumbledore’s position at Hogwarts, while providing Fred and George Weasley – whose film presence was severely truncated from the books – with a proper target for their endless pranks. From their good-hearted mischief came genuine social rebellion, as well as a reminder that the greatest evils are often facilitated by small-minded people.
Poor Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton): the sheep amid the lions that constitute Harry’s adversaries. When you’re facing villains bent on global domination and wholesale genocide, the school bully starts to look like small change. For five movies, Malfoy acted as a tiny fly in Harry’s ointment: starting out bad, then fading to utter insignificance with nary a backwards glance. And then, like a minor miracle, he finally flowered here, forced to commit an unspeakable deed at Voldemort’s behest, lest his own life be forfeit. The terror in his eyes spoke to the bargain he made... a bargain whose fine print he blithely neglected to read. Consequences are a bitch, aren’t they Draco?
As of this writing, filmgoers still don’t know the full significance of that Patronus in the woods: the one shaped like a doe who leads Harry to the Sword of Gryffindor. (Those who have read the book know exactly what it is, but revealing it here would be telling.) It encapsulates the emotional core of the seventh film: a fragile, inexplicably mysterious source of hope just when things look their darkest. We’ll get the payoff this Friday – hopefully forming another high point – but for now, its beautiful secrecy forms a selling point all its own.