Fan service, nostalgia and storytelling

When I first heard about Warner Bros. Pictures’ plans to bring the Potterverse back to the big screen with Fantastic Beasts and How to Find Them, I pretty much dismissed those plans as them going back to their favourite cash cow: a decision based primarily on monetary interests. Rowling’s book, published in between the fourth and fifth Harry Potter novels, was more of a sourcebook for the fans, so why turn this into a film – or, indeed, a series of films? For the many shiny sickles and galleons the producers would add to their hoard at Gringotts, obviously.

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Fighting the franchise funk

Over the last few years we’ve been watching the Harry Potter movies with a friend who lives abroad; every time she’s been over, we watched another one or two of the films, and over the holidays we saw the two parts of Deathly Hallows, in my case for the third or fourth time. As far as I’m aware, the first part fared less well with critics and audiences than the second one, and it’s clear why: it’s definitely the less crowd-pleasing film of the two. Its plot meanders, what big setpieces there are don’t feel as cathartic as the showdown against Voldemort, and a lot of the movie seems to be dedicated to Harry, Hermione and, with some interruptions, Ron hiking, camping and generally looking wet, cold and miserable.

Nonetheless, rewatching the two films, I found myself clearly preferring the first one. Deathly Hallows Part 2 largely works because it’s the end of a journey, but it feels (and felt even when I first watched it) perfunctory to some extent. We need to resolve the different plot strands, we need to bring closure to Snape’s story, we need to dispose of the remaining horcruxes and of Voldemort himself – but little of this feels like it tells us anything about the characters. We know that Harry is brave, Hermione is smart and Ron is, well, Ron, and we also know that the visual effects wizards are great at doing what they do, as are the designers, artists and everyone else responsible for the way the film looks and sounds. After a while, though, setpieces become interchangeable, and while the escape from a fiery Room of Requirement is exciting in the moment, it’s also strangely bland. It’s a Harry Potter movie, of course there would be some chase or fight involving pixel magic, derring do and last-minute escapes. It’s fan service to some extent, but fan service isn’t automatically bad.

It's quidditch time!

However, there are moments in Deathly Hallows Part 1 that are decidedly different, that are quiet and unexpected, that have nothing to do with crowd-pleasing 3D whooshery. The film already starts with some of these scenes, filled with foreboding and sadness, as Hermione for instance wipes herself from her parents’ memories so they’d be safe. It’s a largely wordless scene, not of teary farewells but of loss and poignant resolve. Another scene I found surprising and delighting was the animated Tale of the Three Brothers; and later, as Ron is temporarily off and Harry and Hermione are alone, Nick Cave’s “O Children” plays on the radio, and Harry engages his friend of many years in a clumsy, sweet dance. It doesn’t further the plot, and it doesn’t get the pulse racing with excitement and danger – but it surprised and enchanted this muggle here more than all of the final part of the final part of Harry Potter.

Obviously the Potteriad wouldn’t have worked, or at least been as successful, if all it consisted of were these quiet, unexpected, intimate moments (though it would be intriguing to see someone try their hand at creating the Before Sunrise of the wizarding world) – but for me it highlights both the shortcomings and the potential of big franchises. Many of the fans love the Harry Potter films for the magic and the world, the quidditch matches and firebreathing dragons and wizards’ duels, so obviously these are things by which later instalments are judged. We want what we know, what is comfortable, because that’s how we came to love the franchise. These expectations are reasonable, but they’re also a trap, keeping a franchise frozen like an insect in amber. It’s similar with something like the Marvel Cinematic Universe, where we get some variation between the different strands – Iron Man isn’t the same as Captain America, whose pulpy WW2 first instalment and more sombre second film differ from Thor‘s sci-fi/mythology mashup – but we know what we’ll get, namely some good action setpieces, some snarky humour and a band of heroic characters that need to put their rivalries and disagreement aside and come together as a family to defeat some colourful yet dull villain – or, if you’re lucky, Tom Hiddleston.

Loki here!

Franchises are the storytelling equivalent of comfort food: when you want a plate of spaghetti, you don’t want it to surprise you with chopped coriander or shiitake mushrooms or a honey-aceto balsamico reduction with shavings of shock-frosted lamb’s kidney. The line between comfort food and tinned spaghetti is thin, though, and there’s always a risk of that exciting quidditch match or that bit where the Hulk goes smash getting stale, to the extent where you hardly know which particular instalment you’re watching at the time. Franchises thrive on constancy, on giving fans what they want, but they can’t be that and that only if they want to be alive and vibrant. They need scenes like Harry and Hermione’s awkward dance to Nick Cave, just like they need Trevor “I am (not) the Mandarin” Slattery. They need to be willing to withhold the simple, immediate gratification of More Of The Same” at times if they want to be good and not just safe. And there’s potential in exactly this: fans know what to expect, so you can surprise them by playing with the format. The most memorable episodes in TV series (which tend to be prone to becoming formulaic) are often the ones that, once the format has been established, play with the formula: Buffy the Vampire Slayer‘s “The Body”or “Once More With Feeling”, House M.D.‘s “Three Stories”,  M*A*S*H‘s “The Interview”. It’s because people know the formula that they see how it’s played with, and if it works, it can create some of the most memorable moments a franchise can afford.

Doing that with an entire film is risky: people who go and watch a Harry Potter movie want to see an adventure for the whole family, with magic and special effects setpieces. Iron Man fans want an action comedy with explosions, flying metal suits and Robert Downey Jr. doing what he does so well. But the safety net of the franchise shouldn’t become a prison. By all means, establish a formula, make us fall in love with the flying brooms, the comic-book villainy, the TIE Fighters and Star Destroyers and light sabres. But use those things as a starting point. Don’t just give us what we already know we want: surprise us and win our hearts again by whisking us into a clumsy, earnest dance to the strains of “O Children”. Because being a franchise doesn’t mean we want to watch the same movie over and over again, forever stuck on repeat.

Visiting with my Auntie Beeb

The casts the BBC gets for its dramas are amazing. Look at The Hour: Ben Whishaw, Romola Garai, Dominic West, Anna Chancellor, Juliet Stevenson. Look at Page Eight: Bill Nighy, Michael Gambon, Ralph Fiennes, Rachel Weisz. It’s as if the good old British Broadcasting Company had some dirt on all of those people, saucy negatives from last year’s Christmas party when everyone got sloshed and made an ass of themselves.

The production values are equally great; especially in HD (yes, the city where we live finally seems to have updated its telecom cables to glass fibres!), these series look gorgeous and crisp. Perhaps not quite on par with the best that HBO has to offer, but that may be British understatement versus trans-American grandiosity. Also, look at the writers and directors: veterans of such quality drama as Cracker, State of Play, the guy who adapted The Hours and The Reader to the great pleasure of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Let me stress that I greatly enjoyed watching both The Hour and Page Eight. They’re quality entertainment, and you could do a lot worse than to check these out. It’s a shame, though, that compared to everything else about recent BBC drama, the acting, directing and production values, the writing is decidedly weaker. There are a lot of nice exchanges in The Hour, and I’ve liked Page Eight‘s dialogues more than some of the David Hare I’ve seen on stage, but apart from the dialogues the writing in both of these is relatively lazy. They rely on clichés (of plotting as well as characterisation) without twisting them into something more interesting, and in striving for relevance both dramas go for facile analogy. Obviously, in some ways the Suez crisis and Anthony Eden’s stance may lend itself to parallels to more recent adventures in the Arab world that Britain, in an effort to be (or at least appear) Great again, got involved in, but the parallels evoked by The Hour are hamfisted and not a little smug – and most definitely not as clever as the writers seem to think… and that is ignoring some of the more tin-eared anachronisms in the writing. (I am by no means a stickler for 100% historical accuracy, but some effort should be put in maintaining the illusion of past times.)

Page Eight was perhaps not as guilty of clumsy allegorisation, but that’s only because it wasn’t set in the past. Its parallels to recent and current events weren’t subtextual (albeit in 96-point, bolded, underlined and italicised font, as in The Hour), but they were no more incisive or illuminating for that. As soon as Hare strayed from character drama into politics, his script felt like so many Guardian editorials mashed up into a one-and-a-half hour statement on Britain’s behaviour during and after the WMD affair. Do I think they had a point in their indictment of how Blair and his government behaved? Absolutely. Do I think they added anything worthwhile to the discussion? Not really. Other cribbing from recent events (such as Rachel Weisz’s brother, a clear Rachel Corrie stand-in) were as blunt but unproductive – and that’s not even getting started on the ill-advised Spring-Autumn romance that the script develops between Weisz’ and Nighy’s characters, that the film only barely pulls off without major embarrassment because of the acting of its two leads.

So, Auntie Beeb, in case you’re reading this (yeah, right…): next time round, keep the great actors – but put some money aside for better scripts. Don’t be too self-congratulatory, don’t be too clumsily eager to go for relevance, if you risk ending up trite and obvious. Don’t think you’re smarter than you are, because you risk yourself looking dumb and your audience feeling patronised. Check out other recent British TV drama, such as Low Winter Sun. Tell your authors not to write opinion pieces on modern politics thinly veiled as drama. You’re there 90% of the way – now make the effort and get the plots and writing right as well.

(… writes the guy who doesn’t even pay a licence fee in the UK.)