The problem with making a movie out of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix; in the fifth installment of her seven part series, it seems that JK Rowling lost control of her own narrative. The book is stuffed with filler, and while it’s the longest book in the series to date, it’s also the one that could most have withstood some serious editorial hacking and slashing. In some ways that makes the book ideal for the big screen, since the art of adaptation is all about cutting away from the source material; in many ways it’s like cinematic sculpture. David Yates and one-shot Potter screenwriter Michael Goldenberg have successfully pared the unwieldy book down into something that works fairly well – well enough that this film places third in my personal best of Potter movies list.
The tragic events of the last movie, where a resurrected Voldemort murdered a young Hogwarts student in front of Harry Potter’s eyes and then tried to do the same to our hero, hang heavy over this film. Phoenix is a darker movie, both in tone and visuals, and its somberness begins right at the start, as a dejected Harry sits alone in a deserted playground, teased by Dudley Dursley, who has grown up to become a nasty little chav. There’s not much time to dwell on Harry’s adolescent anger, though, as the plot plunges directly into high gear: protecting Dudley from Dementors, Harry breaks the underaged wizarding rules and is expelled from Hogwarts. Only a last minute appeal by Dumbledore keeps him enrolled, and Harry is immediately whisked away to London, where he discovers the titular secret society, made up of many of the helpful adult characters of the last four films, who are meeting to figure out a way to stop the rejuvenated Voldemort.
This just adds to Harry’s angst; he wasn’t invited to the club, even though Ron and Hermione were. And things keep getting worse for him and his fellow students: the Ministry of Magic is trying to pretend that Voldemort is still dead and is painting Harry as a self-aggrandizing liar. The new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, Dolores Umbridge, is a seemingly sweet lady with a penchant for cats, but in reality she’s a sadistic, power mad bitch – the kind of person who seems to thrive in British boarding school faculties, if years of watching English movies teaches me anything. She changes the DADA curriculum so that the kids are studying only theory when they could most use actual self-defense, and then she begins encroaching on Dumbledore’s job.
As if the enemy from within isn’t bad enough, Harry begins having dreams about a nasty snake trying to get at something from within the Ministry of Magic. While the good guys are busy going at each other, Voldemort pursues his plans to regain power over the wizarding and Muggle worlds.
What I notice most from rereading that quick synopsis is how a person who had never heard of Harry Potter would be mystified by just about every second word. Order of the Phoenix is not an introductory movie; it relies entirely not just on your knowledge of the previous four films but also your devotion to them to the point where a character’s face in a newspaper clipping carries emotional resonance. Nobody gets introduced here, and the film doesn’t stop at any point to bring anyone up to speed. This is a movie that is made for the devoted, and there’s something very exceptional about that; too many sequels spend too much time covering old ground to ever get anyplace new.
On the other hand, Order of the Phoenix feels, to me, like a movie made with fans of the book in mind. There are characters who appear for the first time and never get properly introduced; I suppose that someone without a collection of Potter books on the shelves would have no problem going with the flow of all these new characters, but as a reader of the series I was frustrated, knowing who these people are and hoping they’d get a proper introduction or scene of their own. I wanted something more than nods and shout outs to fans. There’s no time for that, though – this is one of the shorter Potter movies, and Yates keeps things moving briskly, heading toward a final climax in the Ministry of Magic that has been of keen interest to fans of the books.
One of the problems with Order of the Phoenix as a book is that Rowling spent so much time making Harry an angry young man that we started to get sick of him. I found the choice to go there brave, but in the end I also felt that she overdid it. Goldenberg’s script gets Harry to that alone, angry place, but it doesn’t keep him there too long. As Harry rebels against Umbridge by starting his own secret Defense Against the Dark Arts course – called Dumbledore’s Army – he finds his place in the world as a leader. That is crystallized in the film much better than it was in the book, and the Dumbledore’s Army scenes are often quite wonderful as they bring in the ever-expanding secondary cast of Hogwarts students. And the streamlined aspects of the movie make the central thematic elements of Harry and friends realizing that the adults are often just as corrupt and stupid and blind as their peers come into sharper focus. The best aspects of Rowling’s book is that she’s less interested in puberty as a time to get horny and more interested in it as a time when young people take stands and become their own people.
But with so many characters and so much plot to get through, some of our favorites get perfunctory treatment at best. The wonderful David Thewlis is back as Lupin, but I think he may get only two or three lines in the whole movie. Gary Oldman returns as Sirius Black, but again I would have liked his scenes to be a little more padded out. Sirius is the closest thing that Harry has to family, and their scenes together are nice, but again… too short. I
wish I could say something about Helena Bonham Carter as Bellatrix
Lestrange, but she’s in the movie for what feels like moments.
The biggest problem the film has is that it can’t quite seem to balance the humor and the growing darkness of the story. Yates manages to create many wonderful, creepy images and moments, but the comedy bits all fall flat, with the exception of the strange Luna Lovegood, a new character who most people think is mad. She and Harry have a bond in that they’ve both been near death, and Harry’s growing isolation is mirrored by Luna’s daily existence. Yates understands this character, as does the charming newbie actress Evanna Lynch; Luna’s story goes from one of askew humor to being very touching. Her loyalty to Harry and the gang is actually quite lovely.
I love how the series has kept using the same actors again and again, letting the kids grow up in front of our eyes. The main three kids remain mostly serviceable; I don’t think any of them are great actors, but you get the impression that a lot of the time they aren’t even acting anymore. Their very identities are caught up in these characters. The secondary characters present an interesting array: Matthew Lewis steps up to the challenge of Neville Longbottom’s first real emotional moments, while Katie Leung actually does a bang-up job as a Cho Chang caught between her grief for Cedric and her feelings for Harry.
The final battle in Order of the Phoenix is legendary among readers of the book. Yates stages the climactic moments, when Dumbledore throws down with Voldemort, amazingly. It’s the big screen wizard duel that you’ve always imagined, with these two powerful mages going at each other at full power. My favorite battle of the book, the one between the members of the Order of the Phoenix and Voldemort’s Death Eaters, is not as well done; the battle is sketchy and quick, and we never get the time to savor what’s going on. On top of that, there’s a piece of information that is weirdly left out: [swipe for spoilers] the archway that Sirius falls through is never explained in the film. In the book it’s described as a doorway between life and death, and I have always figured that because Sirius fell into it bodily, he could be resurrected in book seven (I’ll find out in a couple of weeks). In the movie it’s just this weird arch, and Sirius falls in and disappears. Why Harry even thinks he’s dead is not actually explained.
I’m not ashamed to wholeheartedly love these characters and their world, and I always look forward to our annual cinematic visit. Order of the Phoenix transcends the source material in many ways, and Yates has proven himself quite ably – I’m very excited to see what he does with the next film, which he is already signed to direct. But as is so often the case with the Harry Potter films, I left the theater wanting just a little more: some more scenes between the characters, a couple of extra moments here or there. This series is one that I have always felt would be perfect for the Lord of the Rings: Extended Edition treatment.
So what’s my personal order for the Potter movies? Prisoner of Azkaban is the best of the films, while being perhaps the most frustrating adaptation of the source material. Next is Goblet of Fire; it’s the best book, so the excellent story worked terrifically on screen. Order of the Phoenix is third (I would rate the book lower, incidentally), while the two Colombus films take up the rear.