Illustration by Harold Robert Millar from Edith Nesbit's The Enchanted Castle, 1907
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was always going to be the toughest book in the series to adapt to film. J.K. Rowling was in the advanced stages of World-Builder's Disease when she wrote it - it's a common but sadly uncurable affliction that comes from toiling tirelessly under the weight of years of character development and exploration of a single imagined setting. The novel Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is at once an exercise in abundance and spareness, delving into the history of Harry Potter's world and mythology while allowing the characters to stagnate in an oppressively static situation as they hide from the forces of evil. It's a book that is immensely rewarding for the dedicated Harry Potter fan, but the note-perfect adolescent character study and magical archeology at its heart are decidedly un-cinematic.
It doesn't help that, by necessity, the book had to be split into two halves in being adapted for the screen by writer Steve Kloves (who, I think, has single-handedly made this franchise a success instead of the steaming pile of garbage it easily could have been). Kloves makes the best of the material, as always, but it's definitely an uphill battle. The Deathly Hallows has a weird pacing, omitting the series' key location (Hogwarts) entirely as it moves from dramatic and adventurous set-piece sequences to long stretches of Harry, Hermione, and Ron twitching and glaring at each other in a tent in the woods.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Part I gets its three big sequences out of the way within the first hour (the chase, the wedding, and the infiltration of the Ministry), leaving an hour and a half of character study for the remainder of the movie. I think the intent was to set up the confrontation with Bellatrix Lestrange as a big finale (followed by an ominous Empire-Strikes-Back-style denouement), but it doesn't make for much of an ending. It would have been nice if they could have abridged some of the more meditative sequences so that they could end the movie with the story's next big set-piece (the heist of Gringotts), but it wasn't feasible. The editing is already too close to continual jump-cuts in order to squeeze everything in, and the book simply wasn't built to be split easily in two.
Having said all that, though, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Part I is like the novel in that it is a satisfying immersion in the Harry Potter world for the true fan. The visuals are as good as anything in the series, with several issues staying fully formed in my mind hours after the movie ended - the empty Dursley flat with its tacky wallpaper, the quasi-Soviet styling of the new Ministry of Magic, the dirigible plums floating up serenely from the destroyed Lovegood home - I could go on and on. The special effects are also very good and seamless in most sequences, adding to the visual appeal. The principal performances are all quite good as well - Rupert Grint still lags behind his peers in the line-delivery department, flubbing a few key exchanges, but Daniel Radcliffe and Emma Watson are as good as you could hope for. Watson in particular is the acting highlight here, doing most of the emotional heavy lifting in the "squabbling in a tent" sequences. The supporting cast shines as always, and the music is on par with past chapters, but the whole movie is basically a teaser for the big show in the real finale. Has January ever seemed so far away?
"Electric Child of Witchcraft Rising" by the New Pornographers