Harry Potter and the Enduring Image

By Debbie

On Friday night, the Potter-generation daughter and I arrived for the first showing of the Deathly Hallows finale at the Arts Picturehouse. First, that is, not counting the pointless and cortically-taxing 3D screenings. As we settled into J14 and 15, it quickly became clear that we were the only Muggles in the cinema. To our left, a couple of broomsticks were being jabbed excitedly in the air; down at the front, someone in full Gryffindor dress robes was semaphoring to some house-mates at the back; meanwhile the girl on our right had enthusiastically painted her face to resemble a … well, it was hard to say what. As the film started, the buzz showed no signs of abating and the bludger on my left felt compelled to supply a supplementary soundtrack of sighs and groans. I myself am a habitually solitary film-watcher and my tolerance for disruptions is low. I could feel myself getting irritated and began to think my first-night booking triumph was turning out to be a bad mistake. But by the time we’d reached the interior of Shell Cottage, the film had cast its spell, and everyone had settled down.

We emerged two hours later having thoroughly enjoyed it and feeling able to agree with the general critical consensus that the filmmakers had done a fine job in bringing the sequence to a fitting climax. The task before them – weight of expectation aside – was extraordinary. Even with fewer than half the pages from the final volume to cover, there was so much to fit in, so many plot complexities to get across. But it was artfully done.

Inevitably, innumerable details dropped away, and even significant characters could not be afforded more than a fleeting moment on screen. Fred and George Weasley: about five words between them. Arthur Weasley: seen but not heard. Percy Weasley: reportedly making a brief appearance, though blink and you’ll miss him – as it seems I did. (You could see why the Harry Potter virgins discussing their experience for the benefit of Slate were baffled by the preponderance of ginger-haired people in the film.) Inevitably, too, Harry, Ron, Hermione and the rest are clearly imposters; they are not my Harry, Ron and Hermione. Inevitably, there are issues to be taken with certain aspects of the interpretation: the daughter and I agreed that the most serious problem was with …

[look away now if you don’t know what happens at the end]

… Harry’s final confrontation with and extermination of Voldemort. Their textual battle of words turns into a visual battle of wands, despite Dumbledore’s foreshadowing mention of words in the ‘King’s Cross’ scene. And worse, Voldemort finally dies not because of Harry’s ironic use of the Expelliarmus, but – apparently – because the final Horcrux had been destroyed by Neville. I fully understand the need for action and symbolism in film adaptation; the replacement of the shrieking shack with the boathouse, by contrast, was inspired. But this was a net loss.

[OK, you can come back now]

That said, I liked it. I really did. But all of this made me wonder why exactly we should turf out on a damp Friday evening to see this film in the company of the bludgers when, snuggled up with the book, we may take a moment to savour the repentance of Percy Weasley (our Percy Weasley), picture his sheepish expression, set the event in the context of his chequered career at the Ministry, and then share with the Weasleys the feelings of relief and joy at the prodigal’s return. No opportunity for that sort of thing in J14 and 15. And indeed, research evidence points to the fact that the very practice of reading affords deeper reflection involving connections with many different parts of the brain.[1] So assuming that we are capable of reading the book for ourselves and assuming also that we are not simply hopeless addicts who will take any Potter shot going, why do we seek out the film experience? I can think of lots of reasons: music, for example, must play a massive part. I’d be genuinely interested to hear your thoughts, and here are my musings so far.

As part of my research, I’ve been looking at theories of imagery and the nature of the images in our heads. It turns out that there are two kinds. There’s the retrospective image that lodges in your memory as a result of visual perception. This sort of image is rich in detail and bears virtual exploration. Then there’s the introspective image that pops up in your head in response to a verbal cue. This is generated in quite a different way, from commonly coded abstract information. Hence this introspected image is more elusive, like something glimpsed out of the corner of your eye; turn to look and it vanishes. So the Percy that pops up in your head after viewing some squiggles on page 487 is just such a spectre. But the Percy that pops up after you saw him on the screen, if unlike me you were lucky enough not to blink at the wrong moment, will for very good reasons seem more real. I think the difference between the two is illustrated by the fact that sometimes we know a screen character just doesn’t match the image in our head, yet when we try to look at the one in our head, it’s hard to conjure anything quite that distinct. On the other hand, when an screen character chimes with our own image, it’s not that we really imagined that actor in the part, just that somehow his or her image seems to fit some unarticulated co-ordinates. So, although the mind’s eye can see characters and situations to a certain extent, we are just not as convinced by its images as we are by perceptual ones. So with perceptual images, we don’t have to expend so much effort in the suspending our disbelief – a vital factor in our enjoyment of novels, plays and films. We can thus relax a little more and quite literally enjoy the scenery. And then enjoy it again afterwards in the form of retrospective rather than introspective images.

So, to turn the question around, if films can be enjoyed in a way that books can’t, why bother with a book? According to research by psychologist Keith Oatley recently highlighted by journalist Philip Hensher, [2] people who read novels are better equipped to deal with people and situations in real life – probably because they’ve met them in books. But would that be true of films? As a piece of pure speculation I suggest not, precisely because the fuzzy, more abstracted, less rigid introspective images created in our heads by novels can be much more readily drafted in when we meet an analogous character or situation in our own real life. Interestingly, Hensher illustrates his point by discussing how novelists have done so much better than academics in addressing that most fundamental question, what is it like to face death. And being reconciled to one’s own death is ultimately what Harry Potter is all about. I thought the film brought that out rather well.

1 See, for example, Maryanne Wolf (2008) Proust and the Squid: The Story of Science and the Reading Brain.

2 Philip Hensher (2011) Fiction Takes You to Places that Life Can't. The Independent.

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