The Skill of Adaptation: Your She Writes Interns on the Final Harry Potter Film

We don’t know what your plans are for tonight, but Isabel and I (the two She Writes interns) have had the tickets booked for a month- we’re both going to say goodbye to Harry Potter, and more symbolically, to the period in our lives in which we can still read children’s fiction as children. Okay, so that time has probably passed for both of us; but we’re willing to extend the fantasy a little longer and savor this final glimmer of childhood.

Despite our enthusiasm, we aren’t going to hold back our criticism of the film and neither will thousands of fans. “How could they include X?” “Why would they leave out Y?” Some scenes will be met with universal ire, and a certain caliber of fan will go crazy over the slightest change of Rowling’s original details. “How dare they leave out the part where Harry turned his head slightly to the left in Chapter 28?” for example (though if you are willing to get that particular, we assume you were put off the films quite a long time ago). Rabid enthusiasm for all things Harry Potter isn’t going to blind the readers-cum-viewers to creative decisions made by David Yates (the film’s director). Instead, this protective feeling over the original source material will make an editor out of everyone and their house elf.

  Whether or not you’re familiar with the series, you’ve likely encountered the phenomenon in some form or another. If you’ve heard nothing else about Harry Potter, know this: unlike the books, the films are not universally loved- in fact, they are highly controversial. Nearly every film emphasizes a different theme and occasionally adjusts the characterization of a major player to a significant degree. The series did, after all, have four separate directors over its eight-part run. While few people would openly admit to hating the books, most viewers despise certain aspects of the films. At a place like Yale, where no topic is safe from academicism, Isabel and I have encountered the debate about the relative merits of each film in the classroom and at parties (newsflash: Yale is nerdy). To be fair, adapting the material is a tall order. Cost and technology place serious constraints on what can be done onscreen- as much as we wish it weren’t so, magic does not exist in our reality. But the primary contentions are with the creative interpretations of the directors and the screenwriters, interpretations that are not always shared by fans. This is true for any adaptation, but for a series as beloved and widely read as Harry Potter, the exclusion of a favorite scene or character can ruin the entire film for one fan (or thousands). Yates had to choose wisely so as to alienate as few people as possible while maintaining his personal vision.

  Before the film came out, though, JK Rowling had to pick and choose from her own material under similar pressures. Already a celebrity before the books were finished and deluged with fan opinions, she needed to weigh the desire to include backstories on certain characters versus their relevancy and effectiveness in the plot. She’s clearly very talented at achieving this balance, given the number of satisfied fans and the overall quality of the series. But she has faced controversy as well- the epilogue of the series divides fans as powerfully as the films do, and the division centers around whether Rowling revealed enough about the future in the final pages, or if she should have revealed anything at all. Still, Rowling has jealously guarded her backstories so fans don’t know what exactly what they’re missing. In the transition from book to film, however, the viewers know precisely what was left on the cutting room floor. The act of adaptation allows us another sort of creative opinion on the franchise, one unavailable for books without films. While the books themselves gave so many children the gift of reading, the adaptations give viewers the gift, or at least the inspiration, of editing. It forces us to think about the choices we would make if we were in Yates’s position, what we love but would have to sacrifice and what we dislike but would save for the sake of the narrative. Editing can make or break a work, and nothing has proved this to Isabel and me so much as the reactions (our own included) to the various Harry Potter films.

  We both write character-driven fiction. Isabel’s is novel-length and mine is of the short story variety, and, like the people who adapted the Harry Potter novels to films, and more significantly, like many of you, we have to decide what to include and what to leave out. It’s a struggle experienced differently by both of us, mostly because of the genres in which we work. Isabel has to decide when to include information, while I have to figure out whether to include a detail at all. It’s not always about what we like, but about what has to happen. Characters must be believable once they leave our heads, but that doesn’t always mean the reader needs to know what cereal each character would prefer to eat, even if I’m certain it’s Rice Krispies. The reactions within the Harry Potter phenomenon have emphasized this aspect of the creative process for both of us. It’s made us think harder about what we include and what we don’t when we write for others.

  If you’re planning on seeing the final film tonight, hopefully in costume, take time the enjoy the incomparable magic of CGI and the bittersweet fellowship amongst fans as the story draws to a close. But as a writer, let your editing impulses fly- no one else will be holding back. Whether you’ve followed Harry since he was eleven years old or you’re only in it because your own eleven year old is, let Rowling’s and Yates’s mastery of (or incompetence in) their craft inform your own. What will you leave out in your future works, and why?

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Comment by Shelley Workinger on July 15, 2011 at 8:06am
I thought that they overdid some book scenes by making them into "movie moments," particularly ones involving Neville Longbottom. By the raucous applause in the theater, I see that they correctly gauged what a cinema audience wanted, but I thought it took credit away from J.K. Rowling's writing.

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