Harry Potter - Plot & Narrative

Thoughts On: Harry Potter

This is not a post on a singular film, but on the tone of the series in general.


With Fantastic Beats And Where To Find Them coming out, the Harry Potter films have been on T.V a lot, and I've been catching quite a few of them. In rewatching these films I've picked up on a paradigm, a paradigm that accentuates an idea of joy in these films, a paradigm of emphatic likeability - an idea that translates, quite simply, into a great filmic experience. This paradigm is an approach to the concept of plot, not through structured goals, but world building. To understand what I mean you simply have to recognise what I can only describe as an How Did We Get Here? Effect. This effect is the product of story telling with great implied longevity, with the precise compounding of space and time. This effect occurs when you're about an hour or so into a movie and you start to consider the beginning. A great example can be found in The Prisoner of Azkaban or The Sorcerer's (Philosopher's) Stone. You can be immersed in the time traveling sequence...

... or in the game of chess...

... and have a quick flash back to Aunt Marge floating into the night...

... or Harry waking up in a closet under the stairs...

... and be hit with a profound idea of... wow... that's the same movie? The How Did We Get Here? Effect if you'll have it. This effect is produced by having such strong arcs of character and story that when you get near the end of their evolution you can barely picture the humble beginnings. You see this throughout each film, and of course, the entire series as a cohesive piece. How this effect is achieved is apart of what we initially touched on. If you compound your narrative, not with plot points and beats, but with the nuances of the world you have built, you manipulate the perceived space of the film, augmenting it, having the audience believe they have seen a lot more in a 2 hour period than they usually do. You can also achieve this with character. To understand this you could of course look to the Potter series, or, we can turn to other classics such as...


In these films character arcs are so strong we almost don't recognise the characters of the final scenes...

... as those who were in the first:

This is a mark of great story telling. It demonstrates control and a dedication to your narrative. Though this is not the only mark of great story telling, it is a significant one, one that imbues a film with a nuance, an almost magical quality.

However, whilst we're mainly talking about character evolution here, I believe an understated and somewhat overlooked factor in films - in screenwriting/making - is world building. This is is where the Harry Potter films shine through as a magnificent example of how to build worlds cinematically (note, not build cinematic worlds, but, build worlds cinematically). I could possibly cite here Star Wars, Star Trek or The Lord Of The Rings, but I see Harry Potter as the best means of talking about this idea of world building inducing the How Did We Get Here? Effect. Not only is this effect demonstrated over so many films, but it is done in a way that is so poignant, so resonant, and quite possibly poetic. It's essentially the use of magic that conjures up a feeling of... magic. And I suppose that is somewhat poetic. Either way, I won't begin citing the myriad of nuances hidden throughout the films here - this would be a process that would not only be incredibly arduous, but principally wrong. The beauty of the hidden details is in how they make us feel, that we pick up on them when watching the film, not hereafter. However, I do want to demonstrate the overall paradigm. The general plotting of the Harry Potter films is there to facilitate the showing of new spells, characters, beings or certain aspects of the world. That is not to say that in writing these films/books Rowling or any of the screenwriters had a list of suggested places or things to show. They may have worked the extravagant ideas in as to push the narrative forward, or to build a better set-piece. But, either way, what we have throughout the Harry Potters are what seem like extraneous details - details a philosophy of story telling best summed up by Back To The Future or Die Hard would seriously question.


The scripts to these films are notoriously air-tight. Every line, every second has a narrative purpose driven by an idea of structure. The proposal of having a lady blow up just because in an opening scene, of inserting quidditch matches, awkward dances, random teachers and lessons, mystery trolls and forest dwelling creatures, such and so on--the proposal of these things to a screenwriter with Die Hard or Back To The Future under their fingers would seem preposterous. These are fun details, but segments so easily seen as utterly tangential. In actuality, Die Hard and Back To The Future also hold the How Did We Get Here? Effect. But, this is a different kind of effect. It's centred on pacing, not narrative composition. Die Hard especially crams so much action into (for a film) so little time, giving you so much information that you have to be dragged along with the plot, leaving you to question how on Earth you got to this point. It must be said though, I love both Back To The Future and Die Hard -  Die Hard With A Vengeance is probably my favourite example of this take on the effect though.

This is not to say that the plotting found in Die Hards or Back To The Futures is bad, just that the style and so subsequent experience is different. Coming back to Harry Potter and world built How Did We Get Here? Effects, we essentially see so many extraneous parts of the Harry Potter world built into the narrative for the plot of the film to weave its way around as to produce a cohesive narrative. That means that when you really analyse the purpose of scenes you can see their connection to others, and the fact that they whilst they may seem pointless at first, they are there to build upon character and to work in a sensory pacing - essentially ensuring you feel the magic of the world.

I really admire this kind of filmmaking for many reasons. The main reason though is linked to an older philosophy of cinema. Film obviously used to be a lot slower than it is now in terms of plotting and editing. But, from Ozu, Tarkovsky and Kubrick...


... Ozu especially, we see a respect of the image and of time, we see great examples of slower pacing and editing choices. Tarkovsky and Kubrick alike would be entirely comfortable to linger on inertia, on slow action, because they knew it held poignancy and power. Ozu had a similar, but much deeper approach in his direction. He would allow his entire narrative to be focused on seconds, on characters, on simple images and sequences. Tokyo Story is the best example of this as the slow pace and succinct focus are there to imbue each scene with character for the sake of family - the major theme of the film. This kind of filmmaking is incredibly atmospheric, and it demonstrates both control and respect. The control is of the writer, director and editor, and it is over the pacing of the narrative. They supply great characters, interesting imagery and stitch it together in a way that is seamless, seamless to a point of suspension, suspending you in cinematic fantasy - a kind of magic. Their respect is fundamentally of the audience. They assume we want to pay attention, that we have the capacity to concentrate, sit still and absorb not just consume a film. Faster paced films aren't in turn disrespectful and lazy. I'll say this again, I love Die Hard With A Vengeance (even though it's not the best example of a structured and fast paced film) and films alike. It's simply that films such as Tokyo Story, 2001 or Nostalghia represent a different shade of cinema.

And it's in this shade or realm of cinema that Harry Potter borderlines. The discussed films hold a philosophy of the image and of time in cinema that is not explicit and does not always hold direct reason. This means that with Back To The Future, you can pick out almost any scene and then point to another as to demonstrate or qualify why it is there. You can't do this with 2001 and you can't always do this with Harry Potter. However, Harry Potter, in comparison to something like Nostalghia or 2001, holds an incredibly strict plot - such must be said. The key point of comparison between Harry Potter and the films mentioned is in its approach to world building. It's a device used in the same manner Ozu deals with character and time in his films. There's essentially a conglomeration of details that form a point in these films. But, it's best to make a distinction here by referencing:

I've written in detail about the problems with this film (link here) but Batman V Superman is essentially a conglomeration of moments, not scenes. This produces a horrible experience as, not only is the film boring, but you just don't want to follow along, there is no immersive quality to the movie, no reason to watch or even pay attention. But, when you have a conglomeration of details, not moments, that form a point, not a 2 hour trailer, you hold in your hands the difference between a compounded sentence and a paragraph of random words. Harry Potter, like Ozu's films, demonstrate that plot doesn't have to be strong and the utmost focus for a filmic experience to work. Whereas Ozu uses details of character to make thematic points, Harry Potter uses world built details to make emotive points. By consequence, we are made to feel the magic of the Harry Potter world because we are allowed to spend time there. It's as simple as that.

What this idea double downs to will now bring in an idea of character. Good characters are concepts that are kind of incalculable - they are, at the least, very hard to explain. To construct believable things that somehow pass as a real people takes many invisible forces, takes many loose terms, ideas and approaches. But, there's one thing I'm sure of when it comes to character. To create good characters, you must spend time with them. It could be a three minute exchange of random dialogue, it could be a silent sequence of their everyday, it could be the subtle expression of their mannerisms over your narrative, but character (as a device) is all about demonstrating the crux of what your characters have to be, contextually, over time - time that allows an audience to recognise that. This is why so many love the likes of Tarantino, Spielberg, Pixar or Jeunet.


The best parts of Reservoir Dogs and Jaws are, to me, the sit down and talk moments.

Here we see character expressed through random dialogue (probably the best thing about Tarantino) or stories. These are quiet, focused moments of character - not really essential to plotting. With Pixar we see character expressed through silent cinema-esque moments best...

The opening to Up or Jessie's song demonstrates the expression of a character's everyday, their life in pockets of time that we can use to understand who they are. This can be used to set up plot points and so usually manifests itself as backstory, but done well, this is a very powerful means of establishing character. Lastly...

... mannerisms. Amelie Poulain is a quirky woman, but all of her quirks are presented in near silent form (as in Up or Tory Story) but not just in a segment or set-piece (the opening) instead across her narrative. The dotted aspects of her character, just as the laying down of all those mentioned, aren't really apart of the film's synopsis. When you think of the film, you think of the feelings you get from such moments of character. But, when you describe the film to others, you tell of bigger plot points, aspects you see as tangential to why the film is great. And it's in those last few words that we come to the crux of what I want to talk about with Harry Potter. When you insert aspects of a world that facilitate spaces for characters to simply be in, technically, and from a screenwriters point of view, you may seem like you're forcing in tangential, irrelevant moments, but to the audience you are forming the best, most relevant, most precious parts of the story. You don't fall into the world of Harry Potter because of a perfect 3 act structure, because there are concise beats, precise hero arcs. The world, the stories are so poignant because we are 1) allowed to be with well-written characters, and, 2) we are immersed into relentless fantasy.

What the lessons of Harry Potter then are, are of an approach to narrative (the entirety of your story) through the nuances of your concept, not the route of your plot (the specific beats or string through your narrative). When you have such a deep and complex idea at your finger tips, one like magic, you should be wanting to express that. The concept should be allowed to flourish into a film by which a plot should work around. This is what we see throughout Harry Potter. We are introduced to new spells, ideas and characters in each film and some are later revealed to be crucial plot points, but added to this we have the hidden magic in the backgrounds, small character scenes and fun moments. What all of these details that aren't entirely plot-centric build toward is a point of fantasy, a point of magic. Harry Potter is fundamentally a film about self-discovery, a coming of age, but through a nourishing world of hyperbolised joy, danger and threat - one that resembles the teenage formative years and a high school experience. This philosophy, this point, of fantasy and magic in Harry Potter is conducive to a much larger cinematic ideal. It's about formula and structure sometimes coming secondary to entertainment and artistry. It's about the audience and the film's concept coming before the screenwriter or studio.

In the end, through time, character and world building, and the exultance of such devices, a shade of cinema that is harder to approach, pragmatically immasterable, but immeasurably poignant, may be constructed. What this means is that an almost unspeakable quality of accentuated nuance is what is at the core of an idea such as cinematic magic. And you see this throughout Harry Potter - something to look for. Moreover, something we hopefully see in the upcoming Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them. The core question and worry attached to this film is then of magic, is of plot. Essentially, it's the Fantastic Beasts element of this film, not the implied journey, structure and plotting of And Where To Find Them, that we should be hoping finds its way onto screen.

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