In Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, the second book in J.K. Rowling's staggeringly successful fantasy series, the wise and gentle Professor Dumbledore counsels the young wizard that "it is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities." Unfortunately, while the penultimate film in the franchise follows the map Rowling laid out in print almost mile for mile, it robs Harry of the moral choice that demonstrates the heart of the story.
In very few cases is there any value in comparing a book-based movie to its source material. Rare is the film that can come close to equaling a novel's character depth and plot development, so the only fair thing is to approach a movie on its own terms. As pure big-screen entertainment, it's hard to argue against Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part I.
We catch up with Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and his best friends Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) in an environment very different from that of the previous six films. There's no more doubt over Harry's destiny-he is indeed "the chosen one" if for no other reason than because his murdered mentor Albus Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) designated him so. His duty to destroy Voldemort's horcruxes-six enchanted objects that contain bits of the Dark Lord's soul and protect him from death-takes Harry far from the comforting walls of Hogwarts.
Director David Yates deals with this change of tone skillfully. Though Harry and his friends occasionally delve back into the wizarding world, they spend most of their time wandering barren countrysides, rocky sea cliffs, and anonymous city streets. Visually, the effect is eerie and mournful.
Deathly Hallows is emotionally more grown-up as well. It's not only frightening elements like dementors, snake attacks, and murder that earn it a PG-13 rating, so too does a certain sensual dynamic. When a horcrux exacerbates the fears each of them already possesses, Ron imagines Harry and Hermione locked in a passionate embrace. The scene isn't particularly explicit (though from the shoulders up, the pair don't appear to be clothed), but for the first time a new and very adult reason for Ron's jealousy of Harry is revealed.
But while the humor, performances, and action will keep most viewers entertained, Yates is, if anything, a little too devoted to Rowling's vision. While covering the first two-thirds of the book, he hits nearly every plot point as if ticking off items on a grocery list. At times they fly by too quickly and rob certain scenes of their dramatic potential. That's why it's all the more strange that he chooses to drop entirely the text's driving moral narrative.
Is it a spoiler to discuss what isn't in a film? If so, consider this a spoiler warning. In the novel, Harry struggles mightily with his own obsession over the Deathly Hallows-three legendary items that grant their possessor power over death. They are the logical thing, he thinks, to defeat Lord Voldemort. Discovering that the Dark Lord is after one of them makes Harry even more urgent to track them down.
But, as in many biblical tales, logic (or what appears logical) doesn't trump obedience. As his closest friends remind him, Dumbledore didn't tell Harry to find hallows and enhance his own strength. He told him to destroy horcruxes and thereby weaken the enemy. It takes a powerful example of self-sacrifice to pierce Harry's conscience and set him back on the path his headmaster laid out for him.
In the film, Harry never makes a choice between horcruxes and hallows, between submission and self-will, because no choice is offered. The possibility of pursuing something other than Dumbledore's orders never presents itself.
So it seems fair to contrast Yates' version with Rowling's, because by robbing his hero of a choice Yates also robs his story of substance. Amusing and artful as it is, his Harry Potter is a lot of magic and mayhem signifying nothing.