The Nexus of Pop-Culture Fandom


Arresto Momentum: A Look Back at the Harry Potter Series

Written by: Tony Lazlo, CC2K Staff Writer

CC2K’s Tony Lazlo brings you another unwieldy recap of a major movie series. This time, it’s Harry Potter — with a look back at the books, too!


My friends and geek confidantes are all familiar with the trajectory of my relationship with the Harry Potter books: It tracks a deteriorating orbit from the stratosphere of delight back down to earth. Oddly enough, down to earth is exactly where the latest Potter film, Deathy Hallows, part 1 (hereafter HP7.1) needed to go to work on any level.

Which it does. Work, I mean — on some levels, at least — and not surprisingly, the penultimate Potter movie includes a roll-call of previous actors and images from the long-running series, all of which made me look back wistfully over my own experience ingesting (and sometimes inhaling) the Potter books and movies over the last 10 years. Here follows yet another overlong recap of a major literary or cinematic series, but in this case, I plan to include a measure more cultural memory than I usually do.

And don’t worry — I’ll keep my personal anecdotes brief, and I will deliver a review of HP7.1 in all this mess.

Arresto Momentum and The Shouting of Gibberish

But before I launch into my thoughts on each of the Potter movies, let’s talk about the concept of arresto momentum and how it relates to this article.

My friend and fellow CC2K staff member Rob Van Winkle has long been the voice of reason when it comes to the Potter novels. No matter how popular they got, he steadfastly offered a valuable, critical perspective of J.K. Rowling’s series — and among his many criticisms, one stands out.

I don’t remember exactly where he said this, but I remember that Rob criticized Rowling’s use of magic wands and magic words in the series. I’m paraphrasing, but he argued that magic should be something you call on, something you summon, something that wells up within you. It should be more than waving a wand and shouting gibberish. (Rob: Let’s talk in the forums in case I miscommunicated the spirit of your idea.)

Indeed, compared to Rowling’s many other impressive creations and imaginative flights of fancy, her magic words stand out for how completely godawful and silly they are — when I don’t think that’s what she intended at all. Let’s go back and look at the trailer for the first movie, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (or Philosopher’s Stone, for our readers outside the States):

Jump to timestamp 1:26 to see the wand-waving and gibberish-spewing. “Petrificus totalus,” Hermione Granger says as she freezes an interloper in his tracks — Neville Longbottom, if memory serves — and here we see that my friend Rob Van Winkle was slightly mistaken.

They’re not shouting gibberish. They’re shouting English.

Despite the presumed antiquity of the magical world, the “magic” words Rowling employs mean exactly what they sound like. Rowling’s magic words sound like the kind of half-baked “Spanglish” that a ne’er-do-well language student might spout when unexpectedly called on.

“How do you say the door in Spanish? Um …– el door-o?”

That brings us to arresto momentum.

The best entry in the Potter film franchise remains Alfonso Cuaron’s Prisoner of Azkaban. I’ll talk more about it later, but among its many great sequences, the film includes a rousing match of J.K. Rowling’s quidditch — the high-flying rugby-lacrosse hybrid sport unique to her wizarding world. It’s still one of her best inventions, and director Cuaron shows us a game held in a driving thunderstorm, complete with bone-cracking hits and a whirlwind of action — one player even gets struck by lightning. Anyway, for reasons related to the plot, Harry falls off his broom, and as he’s plummeting to the earth, school headmaster Albus Dumbledore stands up and chants, “Arresto momentum.”

I wonder what the “arresto momentum” spell does?

OK, I’m being a little nasty, but I single out “arresto momentum” because it is a prototypical moment when Rowling’s failings as a writer invade and ruin what is otherwise a fantastic scene.

So at long last, let’s talk about the series.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s/Philosopher’s Stone
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

Anecdote about reading the books: I’m lumping these two movies together because they’re essentially the same incompetently executed, overlong, intermittently inventive cinematic blobs. I’m lumping these two books together because — as I’ve argued before — the first two books in Rowling’s series are essentially a warm-up for what was to come. At this point, Rowling was still writing quaint boarding-school adventures on the order of The Hardy Boys. It wasn’t until she wrote Prisoner of Azkaban that she really launched the halting-and-hectic magical-war series that her books would become.

I remember I was in rehearsals for Arsenic and Old Lace the summer after I graduated college, and I was burning through a lot of YA and children’s-lit novels. My reading that summer included Tuck Everlasting, The Neverending Story and The Phantom Tollbooth. I had just finished Michael Ende’s Neverending Story when one of my cast-mates tossed me the first Harry Potter book.

“Check this out,” she said. “They’re huge in England.”

It turns out they were just about to get really huge in America, too. I inhaled the first novel, and I remember feeling disappointed, though not that I had finished the book. I knew that there were going to be seven volumes, but I assumed that only a small portion of the series would take place at Hogwarts. The setting so enchanted me that I couldn’t bear to leave it. When I realized that the entire series would unfold over each of Harry’s seven years at the school, I was delighted.

I remember running down to the Barnes and Noble near my school’s campus to find that both the second and third books were available (Prisoner of Azkaban had just dropped). I bought ’em both.

Anecdote about watching the movies: I distinctly remember being at a party in Hollywood with CC2K’s Red Baron, when we both decided to bail on the party to catch a midnight showing of the first Harry Potter. Bad idea, although having a couple of drinks in us helped us bear the boredom of the first Potter movie, which I forced myself to rewatch in anticipation of this essay.

I don’t want to waste any more inches in an already overlong essay, but the problems with the first two Potter movies are directly linked to:

• The disparity between the tone of the first two novels and the overall tone of the series.

• The presence of the Lord of the Rings movies.

Like I said before: the first two Potter novels differ markedly in tone from the rest of the novels. Again, Rowling was still writing a series that would fall neatly into seven volumes, in which the three kids would get into adventures during the school year, then wrap things up neatly before the summer. Because of this, the first two books are inescapably lighter in tone — and lighter in weight — than the rest of the series. Once the larger storyline starts to take shape in book three, Rowling’s summer-and-schoolterm structure rapidly loses credibility. Evil seems to take the summers off in Rowling’s magical world.

The presence of the long-awaited Lord of the Rings movies also contributed to the goofy, overweening tone of the first two Potter movies, as well as the ill-fated Chronicles of Narnia movies, but that’s a whole other essay. In any event, the marketers for the LOTR movies rightfully focused on the epic scope of Tolkien’s novels. But in the case of the Potter movies, the epic scope doesn’t kick in until the third chapter in the series. The advance marketing for the first two Potter movies wasn’t quite as tone-deaf as the Narnia movies, but the Potter movies themselves still suffer from a wannabe-epic tone that isn’t really warranted until Prisoner of Azkaban.

Or put simply: There’s no reason why both of the first two Potter movies had to be two and a half hours each, for Crom’s sake. An hour and 45 minutes would have been more than enough, and if you’re asking me, Chamber of Secrets — the book and the movie — shouldn’t even exist. But more on that later.

Arresto momentum moments:

Sorcerer’s Stone: There are too many to choose from, but pretty much any time they utter Rowling’s magic words, I’m reminded that the empress is naked. Petrificus totalus. Oculus reparo.

Oculus reparo. I mean, honestly.

Chamber of Secrets: I can’t even remember going to see this one, but I remember really liking Kenneth Branagh and wishing he could have taken on a more important role in the series. But as for an “arresto momentum” moment, I have to point toward how forgettable both this book and movie are. They’re both a rehash of the first volume, and Columbus’ inert direction drains the blood out of any potential drama. Jump to 1:10 in the following clip to see Draco call Hermione a “mudblood”:

This is one of those cases where Rowling’s instincts as a writer served her well. “Mudblood” is a heavy-duty slur in the wizarding world. It’s what “purebred” wizards call people with non-magical family members. In the book, everyone goes apeshit when Draco utters the slur. The word “mudblood” should carry the weight of the worst slurs from our world. Given the “master race” imagery Rowling introduces into the series, this scene should play like Draco called her a kike (or something similarly horrible) in front of everyone.

But nope. No blood, no balls. That has to wait until the next movie:

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Anecdote about reading the book: Like I said earlier, I read this one during the same jag that I read the first two volumes.

Anecdote about seeing the movie: I was fortunate to see this one on opening night at the Chinese Theater in Hollywood with a gaggle of geeky, Harry Potter-loving friends. I could instantly tell that the prodigiously talented Alfonso Cuaron had had a positive influence on the series. In fact, let’s jump ahead to the latest movie, HP7.1, and consider something I said earlier — that getting down to earth was what the series’ final volume needed. Well, looking back at all of the movies, I think the initial dose of earthiness was delivered in Prisoner of Azkaban. Let me explain:

Over the course of the movies, the filmmakers’ design philosophy dramatically shifted away from the warm, candlelit, theme-park gleam of Chris Columbus’ first two movies. The shift happened with the release of Prisoner of Azkaban, and with the shift came a deluge of danger, grit, multiculturalism, and most important: imagery from our world — the muggle world, in Potter parlance. All of these elements conspired to ground the wizarding world in imagery that made it feel slightly more familiar — but wonderfully different. A dash of earth helped Prisoner of Azkaban bloom. Here’s what I’m talking about:

Go back and watch the first two Potter movies — if you dare — and then pop in the third one. You’ll instantly notice that the entire geography of the Hogwarts’ campus has changed. Indeed, only starting with the third movie can you even call it a campus. Hogwarts gains a quadrangle, a bridge and a clock-tower. It feels less like a theme-park attraction and more like a prep school — just as it should. Instead of the lush, green flatness of the Columbus movies, the color-saturation of the campus has fallen a few dozen percentage points. Meanwhile, the terrain has become treacherous — instead of moseying out to Hagrid’s hut, students have to risk a rickety stone staircase to get down to the hulking groundskeeper’s home.

In addition, Curaon and his team sprinkle Prisoner of Azkaban with myriad other dangerous delights: A magical hotel housekeeper knocks on a door, only to be greeted by a blinding, ear-splitting howl. Harry draws his wand on the loutish Dursleys, and they shrink in fear. Hermione decks the shifty Aryan rich-boy Draco Malfoy in one of the series’ greatest stand-up-and-cheer moments.

But let me single this out: During many important stretches of Prisoner of Azkaban, our three heroes are wearing their street clothes — jeans, sneakers and sweaters — instead of their more wizard-y school robes. It’s a small detail, but by adding just a little bit of grit to the movies’ cinematic vocabulary, Cuaron and his team successfully built the foundation upon which the rest of the movies have relied. It’s worth noting that for the final four movies (and two more directors), they haven’t departed from any of the design touchstones introduced in the third film.

Rowling also gives us the best “guest star” in the series: Remus Lupin. In the first volume, Rowling establishes a pattern for the series: Every year, Hogwarts has to hire a new teacher for the Defense Against the Dark Arts class, and Rowling fills that slot with a “guest star” character in most of the books, and it is through these guest stars that she lays bare an ongoing “arresto momentum” quality of her books:

How the hell do these kids ever learn anything?

I’m exaggerating, but for most of the series, we never get any idea of how anyone actually learns to perform magic. Like Rob Van Winkle argued — it seems like everyone just waves wands and shouts gibberish. But with the Lupin character, we get one of the few truly satisfying presentations of what magic — and teaching — actually look like in the wizarding world. Lupin teaches Harry one crucial spell — the “patronus” charm — which demands that Harry recall a powerfully happy memory when he casts it. Witness part of David Thewlis’ excellent performance as Lupin in this memorable scene:

Remember earlier when I said that Rowling’s series benefited from the addition of earthiness and more muggle-bound imagery? I submit that Lupin is another such representation of that ideal. Not surprisingly, most of Rowling’s characters look unusual — they’re wearing robes or other Ren-faire attire — or they behave in an eccentric manner. That’s all well and good, but I like that Lupin just looks like a guy. He teaches his class in a shirt, tie and long coat. Furthermore, there’s nothing flashy about his personality. He’s simply a well-conceived and well-presented character.

I would also argue that Prisoner of Azkaban is the only entry in the Potter film franchise that actually qualifies as its own standalone movie. All the rest — including HP7.1 — are simply lavishly mounted presentations of their source material. Sometimes that’s good. Other times it’s bad.

Arresto momentum moment: I already mentioned the scene with Dumbledore in the quidditch match, but one other scene stands out, and it happens during another otherwise good scene with Lupin. During one of his classes, he explains how to deal with a magical shapeshifter called a boggart, which assumes the form of your greatest fear. You dispatch it by conjuring an image of something funny.

You also wave your wand and shout gibberish. In this case, the offending gibberish is Rowling’s vaguely classical-Latin-sounding incantation “riddikulus.”

Yep. Riddikulus.

Now, most of the actors pronounce this lackluster magic word with the appropriate flair — think “ree-DI-koo-loose” — but then Rupert Grint steps up and blurts, “ridiculous.”

Watching that cringe-worthy moment, I wonder if Cuaron shot a bunch of takes with Grint in a futile effort to get the correct pronunciation out of him, only to give up and let his lazy acting into the final cut.

Anyway, moving on: