Transfigurations: Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets

Welcome back to my feature comparing movies to their source material. We continue our six-part Harry Potter series with the second book and film, Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets.

NOTE: Again, all kinds of Harry Potter spoilers are rampant in this post, though mostly for this installment

The Crew:

As mentioned last week, our filmmakers are screenwriter Steve Kloves and director Chris Columbus.

The Cast:

Once again, the cast is huge and it really wouldn't do to recap everyone's storied career. Suffice it to say that our three stars, Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint, have all grown up a year and gotten better, and our already packed-with-ringers supporting adult cast adds Kenneth Branagh to its ranks this time out.

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1. Not to hark on this or anything, but- Subtlety

It's the little things, people. I know that the subtleties of the printed page are completely different, but Columbus is just too "gee-whiz!" of a director to be right for this series at all.

Dobby, for example, is in large part directly translated from the book (Toby Jones's rasping voice-work I mostly could've done without), but is initially seen inexplicably jumping on Harry's bed, a completely out of character moment.

Or the stairs in Hogwarts castle, which merit but a sentence or two about how they shift about in print (and move mostly in the background in future films) get a musical flourish and their own camera shots in Chamber, and then Harry and co. pass by.

This attitude carries once again into a spectacularly overdone Quidditch match (where Harry flies through the stands, and Oliver Wood's broomstick is shattered by a bludger), Hermione immobilizing an entire roomful of pixies with one speel (instead of two at a time), and the important-to-the-plot breaking of Ron's wand- in the book, he finds it broken after the whomping willow pummels the car, but in the film breaks it himself whacking it on the steering wheel. This after the flying car nearly gets hit by the Hogwarts express, a completely new idea.

It's the difference, I think, of existing in a world versus presenting it. As exposition-y as Rowling's books can be, they sort of take the whole magic thing as a given, and don't waste time emphasizing it (at least not more than other things, like characterization and plot). Columbus is less interested in Harry than he is in the scar on his forehead (which shows up a lot more in these two films than later ones, where Harry's bangs cover it up).

2. Advance The Plot In A Timely Fashion

As we find out at the end of Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets, a lot of the master plot has to do with Ginny Weasley, and small scenes from the book that seem inconsequential at first glance back that back that up: she looks pale and sickly at a point, she looks mortified when she sees Harry with Riddle's diary, and she seems about to tell Harry and Ron something one morning before Percy walks by.

Are any of these scenes in the film? No, though we do see Ginny's Harry-related nervousness early on, and she's around the whole time.

Other plot elements get shuffled, but the scenes that dealt with them are preserved: Gilderoy Lockhart is still introduced signing books at the book-shop, but he doesn't announce he'll be teaching at Hogwarts- he just shows up there a few scenes later.

Similarly, Harry still arrives in Borgin & Burkes accidentally, but doesn't eavesdrop on Lucious Malfoy- the scene seems to be preserved mostly because Columbus wanted a disembodied hand to suddenly grab Harry's wrist. Magic!


1. Have Excellent British Actors Bringing The Adults To Life

Again, by far my favorite part of these first two films is the stacked cast. Here, we spend some time around Mrs. Weasley (Julie Walters), who scales back the more reactionary book character in a fun performance, and Mr. Weasley (Mark Williams), who has my favorite non-book line when asking Harry about Muggles: "Now tell me Harry, what exactly is the function of a rubber duck?"

Which is not to mention Alan Rickman's legendary Snape again (though I just did, I guess, because Snape is awesome), Maggie Smith's spot-on McGonagall, or Richard Harris as Dumbeldore- the late Harris's quiet, rasping Dumbeldore obviously stands out the most, since it contrasts with Michael Gambon's later interpretation of the character.

2. Pace The Big Finale A Lot Better

My problem with the end of the second book is that, after the first book's careful constructed obstacles, the finish is just four pages of Fawkes ex machina. In rapid succesion, Dumbeldore's pet phoenix shows up, pecks out the basilisk's eyes, drops the Sorting Hat in Harry's arms (which produces Gryffindor's sword), heals Harry's wound, and brings him the diary to destroy.

The film, in the rare instance of the cinema of spectacle helping an adaptation, spaces these moments out with a blind-basilisk chase-sequence and a small sword battle. Harry also stabs the diary all on his own.

I promise from now on that the "Things the film does" parts will be longer because the rest of the films do more things.


-When you use Polyjuice Potion in this film, you still have your own voice (but not, as we'll see, in the next one). Hmm?

-In an early example of Ron's lines getting given to another character (Steve Kloves seems to care very little for Ron), Hermione knows all about what a "mudblood" is.

-We do get to fly through the Harry Potter logo for the first time (a trend in all subsequent films), though the WB logo sort of falls out of the way.

-I mostly liked the way Parseltongue was depicted, though I find myself wondering why the basilisk only ever talked about killing things as it wandered about the castle. Why didn't Harry hear things like "I haven't molted in a while....this is really getting, spiders sure are delicious...I wonder where they all went?"

-Hermione is a lot less of a scold in the films in general: here she seems hardly reproving of the boys arriving in a stolen car and damaging the whomping willow.

-I like the way Harry frees Dobby in the film better- hiding a sock in the diary, which Malfoy then hands to his servant. Tossing the sock over your shoulder seems like an iffy definition of "giving."

-The restriction on underage wizardy doesn't seem to exist in the early films- Harry gets no letter after Dobby uses a hover charm. More on this when we get to the fifth movie.

-Finally, John Williams score is once again a large culprit in the "golly gee!" sense that I dislike in these two first films.


So after two installments of Columbus-vision, I couldn't be happier to be moving on. The irony here is that if you're a book purist, these two films have been the hands-down best at keeping the story intact.

But that's the problem, they're not really films that way. The more you try to imitate another art form, the more you reveal that you can't do the same things.

Granted, Harry Potter isn't exactly a property that you can just hack apart in the service of movie-making, and it's not exactly a collosal failure that Columbus couldn't do both at once. But it's no wonder that the franchise went with an entirely different choice for the next film.

What Harry Potter books need are people who can tells stories with the camera to match the source material. Columbus was little more than someone trying to read the first two books to us as a bedtime story: serviceable enough, but he couldn't do the funy voices the way we like.

Next week, with Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, we'll see how it's done.

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