J.K. Rowling fans might be celebrating the release of J.K. Rowling’s new book, “The Casual Vacancy,” but I’m stuck in Hogwarts in a fit of nostalgia. In July, I reviewed the first part of Rowling’s world-renowned wizard series and its movie counterpart, “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.” Well, what better time to hop back on our brooms and check out book and movie No. 2.
“Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets” came out in the U.S. in 1999, one year after the first book. At this point, the books still very much was a children’s book, and the movie that came out in 2002 followed this style, as well. Everyone from the first movie came back (the last time this could be said for the franchise), and because of this, both adaptations feel like straight-up sequels to a popular first book: not much happens in the ways of character development (with some noted exceptions, including more insight into the background of the Dark Lord Voldemort), and all the audience really gets is a new adventure … which is not a bad thing.
In this installment, Harry gets a visit from a mysterious house-elf named Dobby, who tells Harry not to return to Hogwarts because something terrible is being plotted for the school. Harry, of course, ignores these warnings and gets into all sorts of trouble with Ron and Hermione. This year, Harry has to deal with a new air-headed, celebrity teacher who is obsessed with him (Gilderoy Lockhart, played rather entertainingly by Kenneth Branagh), an intensified rivalry with Draco Malfoy that spills onto the Quidditch pitch and a creature that turns whoever crosses it into stone. In order to discover who or what is terrorizing the school, Harry and Co. transform their bodies to spy on Malfoy, tangle with giant spiders in the Forbidden Forest and do battle with a giant serpent and another rendition of Voldemort himself.
While both the book and movie still have a very lighthearted mood, the movie feels a little too whimsical during some of the more serious moments in the plot. A recurring theme is the idea of “pure-blooded” wizards — those from all-magic families — vs. Muggle-born wizards — those who had no history of magic in their families. This topic is apparent in both, most evident in the monster, whose victims are nearly all Muggle-born, and in the dirty word Malfoy calls Hermione during one argument: “Mudblood.” The term is repeated a few more times in both cases, but in the book, the language and characters both tense up and give the impression that this really is a foul thing to call someone.
In the movie, nothing in the characters’ attitude or the aesthetic really changes. Sure, Emma Watson looks upset, Rupert Grint rushes to her defense and Robbie Coltrane is shocked such a word was used. But at this moment, it’s very clear that everything going on is being acted. A lot of this can be attributed to the fact that the actors are children, and a perfect performance should not be expected of 12-year-olds. But the reactions and the aftereffects (Ron’s curse backfiring and causing him to belch up slugs for a few hours) don’t come off as realistically as they do in the book. This issue pops up often in the movie, as many times, it seems as though actors are just moving from position to position and reading lines rather than actually performing. The kids aren’t the only ones guilty of this, either; I found myself groaning at a lot of scenes featuring the caretaker, Filch (David Bradley, a great actor who also appears in “Game of Thrones” and the most recent season of “Doctor Who”).
The movie also places too much emphasis on less significant moments in the story. With the run time at more than 2 and a half hours, it’s strange that director Chris Columbus decided to use so much time on CGI-dominated scenes such as Harry having to hang on to the door of a flying car or Harry and Malfoy chasing the Golden Snitch under the stadium bleachers (both of which, by the way, were not in the book). With so much time spent on these meaningless moments, scenes with real impact, including the final battle, get lost in the fray. The book knows what events to focus on and when to ramp up the epicness.
Perhaps the biggest difference, though, is the character of Harry’s best friend, Ron Weasley. The movie uses Ron almost entirely as comic relief, with Rupert Grint making a ton of goofy (but enjoyable) faces and constantly getting scared by everything. Rowling depicts him as a bit of a putz at times, but in “Chamber of Secrets,” readers get to see more of what really makes him tick. We see that he is afraid of spiders, but also that he is able to put that aside and not constantly whine in the forest. After sticking up for Hermione, it is Ron who explains to the group just what “Mudblood” means and why he is so offended by it. It sets the foundation for the eventual romance between the two, a relationship that remains one of my favorites in all of fiction.
This might be the least strong of the Harry Potter stories on both the book and movie fronts. But the book offers so much more in terms of character, making it much more worthwhile. And while the movies might be down 2-0 so far, changes in director and in the story’s direction will help even things out.