I’m a big fan of the Harry Potter books, but so far I’ve been disappointed by the movie adaptations. Not this time around. For me at least, the seventh Harry Potter film did what I thought was unthinkable: it improved on the parts of the novel it portrayed.
The movie enacts the first half of book seven, which charts Harry, Ron, and Hermione’s travails as they track down the remaining fragments of their nemesis Voldemort’s soul—called horcruxes—in their quest to defeat the Dark Lord. The film is a faithful rendering of the original text, except that director David Heyman takes the themes of darkness and hopelessness the books only hints at and runs with them. The first part of J. K. Rowling’s seventh book is not exactly uplifting, but it is nothing compared to the movie; as I watched, I kept thinking that the title shouldn’t have been Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, but rather Harry Potter and the Ninth Circle of Hell.
Like the book, the movie leaves Hogwarts and its associated characters largely behind and keeps the focus on Harry, Ron, and Hermione. There is no more Albus Dumbledore, except for a creepy cameo, and Severus Snape plays only a small role. Harry’s old friends and allies, including Mr. and Mrs. Weasley, Remus Lupin, and Fleur Delacour, all share moments of screen time, but without the endearing quirks that distinguished them in the past. In this film, they are all similarly gray-faced, tight-featured, and grim. Voldemort’s armies are on the rise and these people are, literally, freedom’s last hope. You can tell that the three main protagonists feel the strain, especially Hermione, who—on top of hunting for pieces of the Dark Lord’s soul and erasing herself from her parents’ memories to protect them from Voldemort’s minions—has to balance her friendship with Harry and her boyfriend Ron’s not-so-latent jealousy.
For me, the two most thematically representative parts of the film come about halfway through. In one scene, the trio walks through the great hall of the Ministry of Magic, now controlled by Voldemort, and stops, transfixed, in front of a statue that shows pure-blood wizards trampling on Muggle-borns—an acknowledgment of deeper themes of race and inequality. The next segment of the film finds the protagonists roughing it in the middle of a bleak, snowy forest, trying to stay a step ahead of dark wizards called snatchers who stalk the forests looking for helpless travelers to kidnap. During this part of the film, a jealous Ron briefly deserts his friends, leaving Hermione devastated. All of this is a far cry from the first movie, where the most viewers had to worry about was whether or not Harry would get into Gryffindor. Back then, when things went awry, there was a sense that brighter times lay just around the corner. After all, what could go wrong at Hogwarts? Now the trio is far from the school, and the prospect of succeeding in their quest, or even escape from death, looks uncertain.
It is that quality of near-hopelessness that makes watching Harry Potter 7.1 such an experience. With its pervasive atmosphere of desolation and impending doom, the whole film asks and answers the question: What will Harry and his friends do with their backs against the wall? And since many of those fighting against Voldemort are fairly normal human beings, the film asks a broader question: how do people react when times turn dark? The answer that Rowling subtly suggests and Heyman aptly dramatizes is on the whole an encouraging one. Harry, Hermione, Ron, Mr. and Mrs. Weasley, and company may not be cracking jokes like in happier times, but none of the small band of freedom fighters seems willing to give up the struggle. Resistance may ultimately prove futile, but our heroes seem aware that the alternative—living under tyranny and, worse, living without the love and support of their friends—is unacceptable.
Director David Yates does suspense well, and throughout the film many outcomes seem uncertain: Will Harry’s trip to his birthplace end in disaster? Will Ron return? Will the friends make it out of the Ministry of Magic alive? Implicit but hardly ever uncertain is that the characters, buoyed by their loyalty and love for one another, won’t give in. Life is gray, but they grimly soldier on. It is a theme that probably reflects Harry’s creator’s intent. In a 2008 interview in which she was asked about her religious views, Rowling responded, “I live in a state of spiritual flux. I believe in the permanence of the soul.” The soul’s survival—and triumph—is what Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows brings to the big screen.