Conversation: So Long, Harry Potter

BY Molly Finnegan  July 15, 2011 at 2:48 PM EDT

The Boy Who Lived is now the movie franchise that has ended.

J.K. Rowling’s incredibly popular seven-book fantasy series about a young wizard named Harry Potter spawned eight films that have grossed at least $6.4 billion globally. The final film, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II,” was released Friday.

Ann Hornaday, movie critic for the Washington Post, talked to me by phone to discuss the impact of the film series and its final installment:

[Read the transcript after the jump]

MOLLY FINNEGAN: I want to start off with the big question. Eight films released over ten years, and they’ve all attracted huge box office returns. Sort of placing this in the history of film, what do you think are some of the things that made this series extraordinary or noteworthy?

ANN HORNADAY: For one thing, the books were already huge hits, and so there was this core audience that was built in for the films that they needed to be able to win. And they kept faith with those fans, in terms of the casting, and the production values, and just the detail, and the choices. You know, you can’t put everything in, so I think the choices they made of what to leave out, and what to put in, and what to compress felt very faithful. And I think there probably are fans of the books who quibble, maybe? Purists? But by and large, I think it’s gotten very high marks for being pretty faithful. And then along the way, of course, they garnered this other huge following, just for the movies themselves. And then they stuck to that quality and they— for my money, they really got better. I mean, generally sequels offer you diminishing returns. I mean, look at the “Star Wars” franchise—

MOLLY FINNEGAN: I was going to say, George Lucas’ three prequels.

ANN HORNADAY: Oh my goodness! Toward the end you just wanted to stop the pain. And it was, it was really painful to watch him, kind of, I think, trash that series.

MOLLY FINNEGAN: And the fans were irate, everyone was so angry.

ANN HORNADAY: As well they should have been, as well they should have been. Because that’s a really good example of, I think, of somebody not keeping faith with not the core fans. Here they did. The movies were just really well made and they never stinted. And they didn’t compromise. The quality control was just amazing to me. And then you had the most kind of uncanny X-factor, which were the kids, because they start at age 10 and they aged to age 21, and what are the chances that that’s going to go well?

MOLLY FINNEGAN: Right, big gamble. Yeah.

ANN HORNADAY: I mean anyone who has an adolescent in their household knows, like, you know, that’s a ticking time bomb right there. And here you have these three, really hugely attractive and appealing kids who went from kids to being just poised and terrific young adults. I think that’s what really struck me.

MOLLY FINNEGAN: Do you think we’ll see the kids in the future? Do you think they’ll sort of outgrow their Potter identities, as maybe Daniel Radcliffe has already started to try to do?

ANN HORNADAY: Yeah, that’s a huge challenge. I think oddly, strangely, I feel like Emma Watson has the best shot in a way, because I just think she has maybe physically transformed more than anybody else, at least in my eye. I mean, I suppose people could quibble. You know, this is an interesting parlor game. I think it’s interesting that Radcliffe especially seems to have really made a concerted effort with doing theater work and kind of doing indies You know, I mean, it’s sort of like he’s really— I think you have to manage that transition really carefully. I was struck by this in this last one, looking at him. He really has transformed. He is different and even though, you know, it’s been a seamless aging process with him as Harry, he’s just a completely different human being than he was when it started. I think that’s to his advantage. So yeah, I think take off the glasses and the wardrobe and the hair and I think he can do it.

MOLLY FINNEGAN: Another thing that everyone always remarks on is just the incredible cast of British actors, Oscar winners. Every movie we see a new but familiar face, trotting out in a long wizard robe. How do you account for how many amazing actors we see in these films?

ANN HORNADAY: You got to just chalk it up to really good taste on the part of the filmmakers and being smart about going for the cream of the crop. That’s a good question about the ins and outs of casting like this, but I dare say, that once you do get an Alan Rickman and a Gary Oldman and an Emma Thompson and a Maggie Smith on board, then it just becomes kind of like, who doesn’t want to do it? You’re spoiled for choice in terms of you can kind of get anybody you want. It just goes on and on and on. It’s become this great employment program for these wonderful British actors, many of whom aren’t 29 anymore. It’s just been really nice. It’s just been nice to see them used so well.

MOLLY FINNEGAN: Who, to you, are the standouts of that support cast?

ANN HORNADAY: I just think Ralph Fiennes has been amazing as Voldemort. As a matter of fact, it’s funny because I happened to be watching the “Nanny McPhee” movie, the sequel. And he has a tiny role in that and he just is fabulous in this one little moment that he has, that’s just chilling and fantastic. And he’s so good, it’s just easy to underrate him, and to kind of, you know, you just assume he’s going to be good. And of course he starts out like this kind of matinee idol type, and he still is, but then just completely transforms himself. And in this case, with the Voldemort character, just looking truly hideous, behinds tons of prosthetics and really turns in a performance. I mean, just, you know, it’s a really nuanced, deeply felt performance. Rickman was fantastic as Snape. Again, depth, nuance is there, especially that come to light in this last movie. I just don’t think there has been a weak link.

MOLLY FINNEGAN: Tell us about what you thought of the new film.

ANN HORNADAY: I thought it was great. Let’s do a full disclosure moment. People who read my reviews probably can tell that I haven’t read the books, which, you know, I will defend, you know, because I am judging these as movies. I am not judging them purely for their fealty to the books, because I just don’t think that’s fair. My job is to ascertain whether they work as movies, especially movies that can stand on their own. And honestly, I think a big part of the success is, will they appeal to people who haven’t read the books?

MOLLY FINNEGAN: Yeah, that’s the bigger test.

ANN HORNADAY: Are they so deeply in the mythology that they are completely— and they aren’t. You know, they are accessible, which I think is just all to their credit. So anyway, that said, you know, the last two have just been beautifully made and gripping and lots of adventure and emotion and gravitas. Especially these last two have been pretty grim. You know, they are basically war pictures and especially in the first part of this chapter, the three protagonists are so isolated and they are in these desolate landscapes and battlefields. And in this last one, it just seems like every mission that they go on is kind of fraught with life and death high stakes. There is not a lot of laughs, you know, there is not a lot of smiles. It’s interesting to me that people have glommed on so strongly to such a grave, kind of somber story. But that said, no, I think it’s great adventure and great spectacle and a lot of emotion and meaning. And as somebody who hadn’t read the books, I felt like I got it. I was invested. It didn’t lock me out. It’s a real homerun.

MOLLY FINNEGAN: I know you’re sort of feeling relieved that the series is over and now you can get on to other films, but do you think the series is going to hold up? Is it going to be one these classic things that we pass on to next generations?

ANN HORNADAY: My feeling is that it just has such strong resonance for this generation that has come of age along with these characters. And I was trying to think, gee, when I came of age in the ’70s, I just can’t think of anything that had that same force. “Star Wars,” I think, was important, but it wasn’t as if we were growing up alongside Luke and Leah, you know? I mean, it was a very involving story, but I just don’t think it had the level of identification that this has had with the people who grew up alongside the books and alongside the movies. And so, I think that kind of potency, that’s a once in a lifetime thing. That’s lightning in a bottle. But, just because they have been so well made, this classic hero quest with all the markers of those narratives, in that regard I think, sure, it will absolutely live on and it’s got this strength of this wonderful cast. And so yeah, I don’t see it diminishing.