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New Review

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I have a much amended review of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix up at Infuze.

In the original review, I camped too much on the adaptation quotient. I still think turning an 870 page book into a 130 minute film cannot capture the essense of the author’s story, but it can come close. Phoenix just about gets there, even if it does play like a highlight reel.

I tried this time to focus on the more positive aspects of the artists involved. However, some of them (I’m talking to you, Michael Gambon) deserve their criticism.


Before anyone ever sat down to adapt the 870-page Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, the franchise already faced considerable challenges. Film franchises begin to tire once they reach their fifth installment. Many of the artists, writers, and designers who helped to tell a successful story in the beginning have started to check out, and creative endeavor splinters under the pressure to deliver another $100 million hit.

The immense popularity of the books, and some wise decisions on the part of Warner Bros., kept “the boy who lived” above water for four films. Steve Kloves, who adapted the first four films, had already proven an immense story could condense well onto film and still run under three hours. The Goblet of Fire, however, carried many visual elements that transitioned well to the screen. Phoenix — a darker, longer, and much more cerebral tale — does not.

After witnessing the death of a student and the return of Lord Voldemort last year, Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) ambles along the streets of Little Whinging to pass the summer days before he can return to school. Dementors interrupt his cousin Dudley’s (Harry Melling) cruel taunts, propelling the boy wizard into another cauldron of trouble. Soon he’s whisked into hiding by the Order of the Phoenix — the underground resistance formed by Headmaster Dumbledore in the first years that Voldemort terrorized the wizarding world — now reestablished to counter the looming threat of the Dark Lord’s return.

Back at Hogwarts, Harry endures eerie visions in his sleep, and struggles against the accusations of lies alleged in the papers and shared by many of his friends. A new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher (Imelda Staunton as the devious Professor Umbridge) only fortifies the Ministry of Magic’s suppression of Harry’s version of events, and refuses to instruct the students on how to defend themselves. In an effort to prepare themselves for the coming war, Ron and Hermione (Rupert Grint and Emma Watson) convince Harry to teach the students how to fight.

With a new director at the helm (David Yates) and a writer needed to develop a script after Kloves’s departure, screenwriter Michael Goldenberg stepped in to handle the chores. Goldenberg, who had already proven his ability adapting Carl Sagan’s Contact in 1996, manages to capture the rage that hovers within Harry for much of the film. Certain elements from the novel had to go to keep the running time down (leaving those of us wishing for a rousing rendition of “Weasley is Our King” mildly disappointed), but Yates and Goldenberg keep the gargantuan plot moving and manageable.

Much of the novel’s more visual elements make it into the film. The growth of Dumbledore’s Army, edited to taut precision by Mark Day, make up the finest moments of the film. Yet where film is more concerned with telling a visual story, many of the character elements that moved the fans of the novel never reach their fullest potential.

Harry’s relationship to Sirius Black (Gary Oldman) receives enough attention to endear the greasy haired rebel somewhat to the audience, but it’s far from a homerun. The same goes for Harry’s relationship with Cho Chang (Katie Leung) and the development of Neville Longbottom (Matthew Lewis). Dumbledore, whose humble power roared in the novel, receives a terribly underwhelming treatment from veteran actor Michael Gambon. The dénouement in the headmaster’s office that so powerfully resonated in the book gets a scant minute and a half of screen time, feeling more like a highlight reel than an actual resolution.

Imelda Staunton, however, captures the cringe-inducing Delores Umbridge to near perfection, reading Goldenberg’s lines as though they were scratched from the surface of a blackboard. Nicholas Hooper’s score rises in places to the level John Williams set on Prisoner of Azkaban, creating a subtle and charming theme for the oddly amiable Luna Lovegood, and sweeping the audience through Harry’s sessions with Dumbledore’s Army. Director Yates wisely keeps to the same design and atmosphere established by Alfonso Cuaron on Azkaban, and adds more handheld camera work to breathe frenetic energy into the film’s climactic action sequences.

At its finish, however, the film feels stretched between creative trims and cuts to produce an entertaining movie, and the studio’s fiscal concerns to produce a film that can play enough times in a day to earn enough money.

DVD special features include an electronic version of the film for your PC or portable video device (sorry, iPod users, the file won’t play with Apple’s iTunes software). Deleted scenes add little to the experience and fortify the editorial choices in the film, although Emma Thompson does get to show off her comedic genius in an extended cut of the opening feast. Following Tonks actress Natalia Tena around the movie set will score some chuckles (keep an eye out for the refrigerator — turns out Tonks has an affinity for Coca-Cola). Two other documentaries are included: “The Hidden Secrets of Harry Potter,” which makes for an entertaining recap for those only familiar with the movies, and director Yates and editor Day walk through the Dumbledore’s Army sequences.

Phoenix would likely have played better had certain elements received their due attention, but that would mean a running time perched dangerously close to three hours. And Order of the Phoenix is not The Lord of the Rings.

(edited by Sam Gaines)


Written by taj

December 14, 2007 at 5:59 pm

Growing by Doing

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There are many times when I sit down at the keyboard to write that I just end up sitting there, staring at the cursor.  I can’t write because I just don’t feel like it.  The words just aren’t there; the familiar rhythm of the narrative is nowhere to be found. 

The same thing, I believe, occurs in other disciplines, whether it’s reading the Bible or exercising your abs.  It’s why so many people drop their resolutions three weeks after New Year’s. 

A friend of mine approached me once, Bible in hand, a smile on his face, and he said, “You know, you can’t hunger for the Bible unless you read it.” 

Good point there.  Especially in light of the attention Mother Teresa’s legacy has received over the recent revelation of her struggles.  The struggle to believe is something every sincere believer faces at some point.  John Wesley suffered for years pondering whether the Gospel he preached every week was even true.  J.K. Rowling has illustrated her own struggle to believe through the final volume of Harry Potter.  I struggled similarly about three years into college.  And the difference, I believe, comes in the exercise of doing.  Just believing.  Just reading.  Just writing.  Usually, you can emerge on the other side free of the struggle, hungering for more. 

Remembering that encourages me.  After all, John Wesley made it to Aldersgate.  Harry made to King’s Cross.  I made it too, though the place doesn’t really have a name.  And I still struggle at times.  But I keep going.  Because when I do, like when I write, I can feel His pleasure. 

Written by taj

August 28, 2007 at 3:50 pm

Harry Potter and the Gospel of Matthew

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Dave Bruno at Christianity today takes a look at the use of the two biblical passages found in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows…

Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also (Matthew 6:21)
The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death (1 Corinthians 15:26)

…taking the position that this final volume of J.K. Rowling’s epic works as “a narrative exposition of the Gospel of Matthew 6:19-24.” 

Bruno makes some good points, particularly when he writes:

Now in the context of that Scripture passage [1 Cor. 15:26] it is the crucifixion and literal resurrection of Jesus that conquers death. Rowling and Dumbledore could have put anything on the Potters’ tombstone. They did not have to quote the Bible. They did not have to reference the New Testament passage that most explicitly connects Jesus’ death and resurrection with a genuine faith. But they did quote that very passage. She seems to me too careful a writer to make this reference without its fullest meaning in mind.

Perfect for anyone wanting to make a clear case for (or for anyone still unconvinced of) the series’ Christian significance. 

HT: The Point

Written by taj

August 6, 2007 at 2:43 pm

As if it Matters how a Man Falls Down – Thoughts on “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows”

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(Ed note: if you’re looking for the “As if it matters” quote, see here.)

As Harry Potter comes of age at 17, the magical protection under which he has lived at the oppressive Dursley household since arriving on their doorstep at the age of one threatens to lift.  Therefore, the Order of the Phoenix attempts to remove Harry to a safe location.  Just as they lift off, a throng of angry Death Eaters circle above, ready to pounce.  Thus begins the tumultuous final volume in the epic of The Boy Who Lived.

The conclusion of the Half-Blood Prince left Harry with the quest to seek and eliminate the remaining portions of Voldemort’s soul—those last anchors that keep the Dark Lord tethered to life.  Of the six believed created, we know two have been destroyed.   Therefore, Harry sets out to vanquish his foe forever, culminating in a final battle that threatens to leave Harry’s world in ruin.

As J.K. Rowling has touched upon various themes throughout the fifteen years she has spent writing about Harry, death and immortality, sacrifice and love have become the touchstones of his journey.  In this volume, the theme brings the narrative to its final act, resulting in a full, complete, and satisfying saga, even if we are left with some minor plot threads hanging, noticeable to only to those most ardent and committed readers.

Her narrative, while brilliant in concept, still falters somewhat in the quality of her prose.  The read suffers from an excess of adverbs, and the frequent use of an out of place colon.  But this is Jo Rowling.  She can misplace an umlaut for all I care.  The beauty of this novel lies in its content, and here at the end, her characters, always delightfully rounded, face life and death with surprising results.

The subject of how we face death has weaved its way into creative works since Eden.  One of my favorite examples (supposedly) comes from a scene in The Lion in Winter in which two men face execution.  One says to the other, “You fool!  As if it matters how a man falls down.”  To which his companion replies: “When the fall’s all that’s left, it matters a great deal.”

Watching a person (or persons) battle against the insurmountable remains one of the more stirring facets of great storytelling.  The charge of the Rorhirrim in The Return of the King, for instance, would never have read as dynamic if Théoden and his men were not outnumbered thirty-to-one, knowingly marching straight into death.

In his trials, Harry has learned how to fall well.  While many heroes prefer to battle by skill and wit, his courage and strength grow from his love for his friends, and his willingness to lay down his life for them.  Some of the greatest moments in this story come not in when characters meet their ends, but in how.

As Rowling writes it, Harry possesses power the Dark Lord knows not.  Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends, said Jesus Christ.  Rowling even found a way to insert more of His words into her story, as well as St. Paul’s.  (If you don’t already know, read the epitaphs on the grave stones at Godric’s Hollow)  John Granger posits that Rowling’s tales of the boy wizard resonates so well with so many because it evokes the Great Story.  Rowling used to skirt around questions about her faith, telling those who asked to let her finish the story, that we’d have our answer then.  As you turn the final page, the message rings loud and clear.  I don’t want to spoil it for you, because Jo was right.  If you knew just what she believed, you really could guess the ending.

The narrow and caustic perspective of those in the church intent on branding this series as a tool for Wiccan practice and recruitment have missed an extraordinary opportunity to share in the joys of epic storytelling; have missed the chance to share the Great Story with young readers.  The story of a heavenly creature that sought power over all, and the One who took the curse of death in our place, so that we might not have to endure it ourselves.

Written by taj

July 31, 2007 at 10:26 am

Smash Cut – Harry Potter and the Order of Reader’s Digest…er, the Phoenix

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I am little behind the curve, but c’est la vie.  Watching this movie felt like watching the book in fast forward with every single subplot removed.  What is left, therefore, is a hodgepodge of a movie that disobeys one of the rules of a sequel that, when ignored, often spells peril.  Sequels ought not to be dependent on their predecessor(s). 

Granted, this little principle is difficult to maintain, especially when you’re trying to adapt book five of seven.  In this case, an 870 page book five, whittled down to about 138 minutes. 

Let’s take those numbers into account for just a moment.  My one-volume copy of The Lord of the Rings runs 1,008 pages, and that doesn’t include the appendices (if it did, we’re talking, 1,112).  The extended editions of Peter Jackson’s film adaptation of the trilogy clocks in at just a hair under 11 hours.  Do the math, and we’re looking at roughly 92 pages squeezed into every hour of film.  That is a monstrous challenge in adaptation, but Jackson makes it work, and he has three Oscars to show for it.  Now, run the same math on Order of the Phoenix—that’s 387 pages, give or take, for every hour.  That’s not just begging for trouble, that’s inviting trouble in for tea and biscuits.

The previous four films, while there is plenty over which to quibble, at least catch the broad strokes of their literary counterparts.  This film is a fuzzy snap shot.  It nails, perhaps two things—Harry’s anger and internal rage, and the villainous Professor Umbridge.  Everything else is, as Janet Batchler put it, a mere trailer for what is the epic scope of the Order of the Phoenix

While I am pleased to know that the three leads have signed contracts ensuring their presence in the final two films, I am beginning to wonder if the degradation of quality everyone expected much earlier has finally eaten its way into the franchise.  Let’s face the simple economics of the matter: a 138 minute movie can play in a theater many more times than a film running for, say, 200 minutes (The Return of the King, theatrical release), and can therefore expect a greater box office return.  But stop a moment and consider this—The Return of the King won 11 Oscars, and is currently the ninth highest grossing film of all time.   

You do the math. 

Written by taj

July 26, 2007 at 10:00 pm


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I actually finished reading around noon on Tuesday.  I have been thinking, and thinking hard, trying to write down my thoughts, and I am just not there yet.  There’s just so much. 

But I will say this: The book is excellent, a fitting and satisfying close to the epic. 

Will try and post something more soon.  The wheels have been turning like mad these last couple days…

Written by taj

July 26, 2007 at 8:05 pm

Posted in Harry Potter

Awaiting the Saturday Delivery of Deathly Hallows

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6:00  – There is a way in which we might at look at this so that I might not appear so much like an idiot, and as soon as some one sees it, please let me know.

The truth is, I was duped.  For when I stepped out and checked the mailbox, there sat in the hollow a white, cardboard laden package.  The book had arrived by none other than those couriers whose rounds will not be impeded by rain, nor sleet, nor rumor of a UPS delivery.  No, UPS had not delivered the book.  The USPS had. 

So I have my book, I have read the first chapter, and I leave now to go and read more.  Before I do, let me just say that…you know, there really is no way to salvage my dignity at this moment.  See you on the other side…


5:45, still nothing.  The laundry is folded and put away, another is currently making its way through the spin cycle.  The door bell rang just a moment ago.  And with a heart full of anticipation I opened the door and saw…something that was definitely not UPS. 

Five eleven-year-old girls stood on my porch.  They were doing a little scavenger hunt and they read me a list of the things they still needed to find.  Luckily, I was able to procure for them one item—a blue hair tie.  They also needed red string.  I offered them a red pipe cleaner, but they passed. 

They went away smiling.  Me?  I’m still here, blogging about nonsense when I could be reading…


Well, it’s 4:30.  UPS has still not arrived.  The dishes are currently in the washer’s first rinse cycle, and I am folding laundry.  Just to brag on myself a moment: I can fold a fitted sheet.  


This is worse than watching paint dry.  I know—it is likely for some people to think, from a certain point of view, that I am only torturing myself with this lame little exercise.  And I am okay with that.  Not that doing this affords me any special merit; it just gives me SOMETHING TO DO!  Other than chores.  The completion of which I am sure makes my wife very happy.  It’s just that I could be reading now. 


It is about 3:30 here in the mountain time zone.  Amazon.com told me they would (try to) deliver Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows to my door on this very day.  And it has not arrived. 

I have had my doubts about this since the beginning, wondering if this really was the more practical decision in regards to purchasing the book.  I’ve been to two retailers today, both of whom had it on sale and on display, and were in no danger of selling out.  I could be reading the book right now.  Instead, I am here, washing dishes and waiting for UPS. 

So, I have decided that I will keep a log on this here blog, if for no other reason than I am a geek, and that I can. 

Written by taj

July 21, 2007 at 3:32 pm