Six Damn Fine Degrees #88: Harry Potter and “O Children”

Welcome to Six Damn Fine Degrees. These instalments will be inspired by the idea of six degrees of separation in the loosest sense. The only rule: it connects – in some way – to the previous instalment. So come join us on our weekly foray into interconnectedness!

This should come with a lot of caveats, but the Fantastic Beasts films have given me a new, albeit partial appreciation of the Harry Potter films. Remember those? Orphan discovers he’s a wizard, goes to a wizarding school, makes friends with some kids, is bullied by others, and all the while this noseless evil wizard threatens the world. For some reason the whole thing, starting with the books and definitely not ending with the films, was a huge success – so You Know Who started a massive media franchise and shared fictional universe, and they roped in the likes of Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Jude Law and Colin Farrell – no, Johnny Depp – no, actually it’s Mads Mikkelsen – to make more of these films and make more money. Sadly, while I found the first of the Fantastic Beasts messy but surprisingly charming, the sequels that have since come out have made it blatantly obvious that whatever magic they lucked on with the original novels and their movie adaptations, this new series would need a lot more wizardry, dark or light, to be successful. Both The Crimes of Grindelwald and The Secrets of Dumbledore suffered massively from plots that were both overly complicated and utterly irrelevant. Momentous things happen, only to turn out that, really, they didn’t matter at all.

All three Fantastic Beasts films were directed by David Yates, and while many of the movies’ problems stem from bad, incoherent plotting (and generally shoddy writing), it’s tempting to blame Yates at least partly. The Harry Potter series of films were similarly VFX-heavy bombast, but you could see a clear difference between the ones that had directors with flair and those that… well… were directed by Chris Columbus. (The first film in the series, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, was reasonably okay, but that one benefited from the relative novelity of the world. The Chamber of Secrets, in turn, had some of the most turgid direction I’ve ever seen in anything, whether involving wizards and giant spiders or not.)

David Yates arrived in the Harry Potter universe when he directed the fifth film, The Order of the Phoenix, and I wouldn’t say the film immediately stood out as one of the best in the series, but Yates brought in a groundedness that I found fascinating. The Harry Potter films always had a certain theme-park quality, and that’s something that, to me at least, has limited appeal over time if there isn’t something else to keep people interested: there’s only so much spectacle you can do without all of it becoming terribly samey. Once you’ve seen one Quidditch match, you’ve pretty much seen them all, the main difference being the quality of the green screen effects. (Not entirely true: a good director can make Quidditch enjoyable, but even then, how many Quidditch matches do we need to see?) But Yates’ film managed a certain naturalism that, for me, made the characters feel more real, which in turn elevated the spectacle. If Harry, Ron and Hermione are pretty much props to the bombast, much like the broomsticks and goblets and whatnot, who cares what big bombastic magic is happening around them? But if they feel reasonably close to real human beings, the rest begins to matter as well. Yates wasn’t the first to do this – arguably, Alfonso Cuarón had done something similar, and with more flair, in Prisoner of Azkaban – but Yates nonetheless did it well. Which didn’t always help: in the end the story often became weighed down by its stretched-out, often contrived plots and by the fictional world being hampered by the childrens’ book tropes that fit the increasingly more YA stories less and less.

Sadly, little of this seems to have carried over into the director’s work on Fantastic Beasts – but if Yates has failed to elevate those movies above their bad writing and plotting and their utter lack of a reason to exist beyond “Well, we made money with this wizarding crap before, perhaps we can make some more?”, he did direct one of the handful of moments in all the Harry Potter films that have stayed with me, and ironically, the moment has absolutely nothing to do with magic or VFX spectacle.

In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 the main trio – Harry, Hermione and Ron – are split up after Ron… has some sort of issues. Honestly, I don’t remember the exact reason why the scene comes about, but emotionally it is quite clear: our heroes are exhausted, they are despondent. They’re on the run, they’re far from their friends and their familiar surroundings. Hermione and Harry are in a tent, the radio is on – and Nick Cave’s “O Children” comes on.

And as the song plays, Harry and Hermione start to dance. The scene is a bit awkward, even clumsy: these two characters aren’t dancers, they’re not used to physical closeness, it takes a physical effort to shake the despondency they’re in. But that’s a part of why the scene works: there is something about the scene that is both lyrical and down to earth, two qualities that only pop up rarely in the Harry Potter films. It’s also a scene that lets the characters be themselves, it is low-key and sad and sweet. There were long discussions about the music that should play in this scene, and the creative team discussed options like some Otis Redding soul standard. But “O Children” is perfect for this moment: it is entirely unlike the twee, amusement park (or haunted house) feel that much of the Potter world has. Like much of Cave’s work, there’s a dark quality to it, a sadness, but one that feels earthy. The song gives the scene a feel that is pretty unique in the entire franchise, but that feels entirely right.

The Deathly Hallows Part 1 is a divisive film in the franchise. It is slow and ponderous and grim. Some found it depressing, others boring, and yet others felt that, hey, it could easily be both of these things at the same time. But it is the Harry Potter film that creates most of a vibe, and for me that vibe is more appealing and more powerful than much of the series. Ever since Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings and the Star Wars prequels, we’ve seen more than enough big CGI battles, we’ve seen monsters and magic duels and exploding stars. These things have their appeal, but in isolation they’re little more than a VFX artist’s portfolio. They work best when they can play off of strong characters and moments that have nothing to do with spectacle. I don’t know what David Yates will work on going forward, and if the lack of success of the Fabulous Beasts series is any indication, it may not have anything to do with wizardry. I’ve not seen much in Yates’ work in recent years that makes me look out for whatever he does next, since his work seems to be greatly dependent on the material – but I do hope he’s got another “O Children” scene in him.

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