Massive series draws to a close

As a furious defender of the Hollywood blockbuster this weekend’s release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 has me in a reflective mood. It’s the end of an era and it’s time to celebrate one of the grandest cinematic achievements of our time.

To the naked eye producing eight movies based on a wildly popular book series seems like a no-brainer and a license to print money. But really the Harry Potter series is unprecedented. Never before has a studio committed to a project the size of this series and it’s likely we’ll never see the likes of it again. Sure Harry Potter was a cultural phenomenon when the films got started. But 10 years is a long time in pop-culture terms and committing to a decade-long high-budget production schedule was a massive risk.

And it’s one that has thankfully paid off.

Since Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was released in 2001 to lukewarm reviews but astonishing commercial success the series has grown in scope and ambition and the films have improved with each passing instalment (although the third film debatably remains the series’ high point).

In part that’s had to do with ever-improving acting from Daniel Radcliffe Rupert Grint and Emma Watson. In the early films they were surrounded by extravagant special effects and the cream of the British thespian crop. They were rarely if ever counted on to delve too deeply into the emotional side of their characters.

But as the series rolled on that changed. When they were at their best the Harry Potter films allowed their focus to linger on their three young stars and Radcliffe Grint and Watson proved adept at handling their characters’ emotional arcs that included not only typical teenage hormonal highs and lows but also the murders of many of the characters’ parental-figures.

Where the Harry Potter series really gained credibility as an artistic endeavor rather than simply a commercial one was in the way it handed over the directorial reigns from film to film. While Christopher Columbus deserves credit for the way he captured the whimsical experience of discovering Hogwarts in the first two it wasn’t until Alfonso Cuaron directed the darker third instalment The Prisoner of Azkaban that the series really found its groove. Bright colours were replaced with darker hues Hogwarts went from Disney-style castle to a more gothic look and adult Potter fans’ assertions that the story wasn’t just for kids were suddenly much more credible.

By the time David Yates took over for The Order of the Phoenix the Potter world no longer felt or looked safe. It helped that the books got more bleak as the series progressed but it’s a credit to Warner Bros. that the various directors were given the freedom to go so dark. Characters were tortured murdered and attacked by snakes.

For a series that was initially marketed towards children — and that’s not meant as a slight — this certainly risked alienating its core audience. Think about the other films based on popular children’s fantasy that have tried to capture the same audience. The Golden Compass cut the wonderfully foreboding ending from Philip Pullman’s novel while The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe rushed Aslan’s resurrection to avoid being too scary.

The Harry Potter films never shied away from their source material’s scarier more devastating moments. This raised the stakes and made the emotional moments that much more tender. Even for obsessives of the books like myself who were initially critical of every small deviation from J.K. Rowling’s plotting the films became their own animal and earned our devotion.

The reviews of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 have been universally positive so far reinforcing why some of us still pray at the altar of the big-budget Hollywood blockbuster. Yes there are explosions and special effects galore but they merely contribute to a sprawling epic that at its core remains a deeply personal story about friendship family and the value of fighting the good fight in the face of seemingly impossible odds. Even if you’re more interested in watching a Terrence Malick film than you are in blockbusters the Harry Potter series deserves recognition and respect as a milestone in Hollywood moviemaking.