Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
by Michelle Erica Green


I'm of a double mind about Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. To be fair, I may be of a triple or quadruple mind. My inner child, which went to see the movie with my sons on opening weekend, enjoyed it without reservation. But my inner critic began a running monologue as soon as I walked out of the movie theater. As a piece of movie magic, Chamber of Secrets has everything going for it, but this adaptation of J.K. Rowling's wildly successful second novel doesn't quite escape sophomore slump.

The Harry Potter franchise appeals to an incredibly diverse audience by taking some of the most popular literary archetypes and breathing new life into them. There's the young hero, orphaned and abandoned, who comes to learn of his magical heritage and emerging powers. There are his friends, the poor yet loyal and courageous best friend and the common yet clever and vivacious female foil. Kindly teachers and mentors provide education to counter the jealousies and manipulations of enemies both banal and deadly. At this stage, Harry Potter is still a child, so desire rarely factors into his world and, when it does, it's generally menacing; the overtly sexy characters are either silly or dangerous. His fears reflect traditional childhood terrors -- snakes, spiders, demons and death -- and his aspiration to live in a world where he feels esteemed and empowered is a fundamental human longing.

Still, at the allegorical level, Harry Potter doesn't run very deep. Unlike the children's literature of Madeleine L'Engle and C.S. Lewis, unlike retold Arthurian legends and Greek myths, the values of this franchise remain close to the surface. One can draw brief connections to several different ethical systems and popular fables, but there isnít the world-building scope of Tolkien, nor the mythic ambition of Lloyd Alexander. This doesn't make it any less entertaining; for me, at least; it's a relief to know that the magical creatures won't start turning into images of angels or Jesus in the final volume. But at times, the frenetic pace of the wizarding world, the succession of magical gimmicks and miraculous twists, can seem a bit excessive, as if meant to distract from the fact that, at the core, it's all just whimsy.

For someone unfamiliar with the novel or the first movie, the beginning of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets may be incomprehensible. We see Harry at home with the cruel and stupid Dursleys, receiving a brief visit from the house-elf Dobby -- who gives him a vague warning of sinister forces at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, then being rescued from his horrible relatives by three underage boys in a flying car. The boys, of course, are the younger Weasley sons, including Harry's best friend Ron, with whom Harry goes shopping for school supplies and meets foppish new teacher Gilderoy Lockhart. No mention is ever made of the previous Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, who died while trying to kill Harry in the name of archvillain Lord Voldemort. This may seem like a minor oversight to the legions of fans who know full well the role Voldemort plays in the series, but because so much background is taken for granted, the principals all seem weakly characterized in comparison to the previous film.

To summarize the plot: Harry returns to Hogwarts, learns of the existence of the Chamber of Secrets when he is accused of being responsible for opening it, seeks the true culprit, and has a run-in with a boy named Tom Riddle via a magical diary that provides a link to the school's past. It's an interesting enough story, though it lacks the immediacy of the threat in Harry Potter And The Sorcerer's Stone until the very end. Nearly everything done well in that first film receives an encore in The Chamber of Secrets, frequently more spectacular then the first time around. The train ride through the countryside to Hogwarts has been replaced by a trip in a flying car. The Forbidden Forest is not only dark and spooky, but full of huge, deadly spiders. Professor Dumbledore is still kindly and insightful, and Professor McGonagall is still archly witty. The Quidditch competition features broomstick flights that go over, under and around the bleachers while a tracking camera gives the impression that the viewer is following just behind the characters; for this sequence alone, it's worth seeing the film on the big screen.

Some of the casting choices work better than others. Daniel Radcliffe has grown into the title role very nicely, and Robbie Coltrane as the lovably oafish Hagrid provides the perfect combination of awkwardness and heart. Kenneth Branagh's Lockhart has a few bravura moments though surprisingly little screen time, like Emma Watson's Hermione, who spends an unfortunate stretch of Chamber of Secrets either Transfigured or Petrified. Several of the other young stars don't seem entirely comfortable in the skins of their characters -- Neville's panic never reaches believable proportions and Ginny Weasley, who plays a major role in the unfolding storyline, remains a cipher. Draco Malfoy's sneer lacks punch, or it may simply be that he diminishes in comparison with his power-hungry father, who has involved himself in Hogwarts affairs. I absolutely love Jason Isaacs' sneering, sexy Lucius Malfoy, who shares the nasty charm of Alan Rickman's menacing Professor Snape in a role that I wish were larger.

I watch Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets as a mom, as a lifelong fantasy fan, as someone who liked but didn't unreservedly love the novel upon which it is based, and as someone who generally favors close cinema adaptations of famous novels but who had her perspective altered (as did so many of us) by The Fellowship of the Ring, which transfigured modern fantasy filmmaking when it was released just a month after the first Harry Potter film. To take each of these subject positions separately:

As the parent of 9- and 6-year-old boys, Chamber of Secrets is a near-perfect movie, albeit a bit on the long side and with a tad more onscreen blood than absolutely necessary. Younger children in the theater were heard to cry and protest the spiders and serpents, but they laughed loud and long watching Ron spit up slugs, and everyone cheered heartily at the end. The historical murder of a student was handled with such tact that many kids didn't even seem to understand what happened to her. Fortunately my own children had read the book, because it's easy to get confused about the origins of Tom Riddle's diary and the film never explains why Ginny Weasley writes in it in the first place (because she's obsessed with Harry, natch!) But the plot details aren't as important as style anyway, and Chris Columbus' film has that in spades; he's done a wonderful job imagining what Rowling's world might look like to youngsters.

As cinema fantasy, the Potter films aren't as showy as the Star Wars franchise, and that's all to the good. Everything about Hogwarts is believable -- all right, sticklers may find that the Chamber of Secrets looks a bit too Victorian to be a thousand years old but, for the most part, the rooms and grounds of Hogwarts perfectly establish the setting for Harry's adventures. The wizard shopping alleys of London feel like real places as well; it's like getting a brief glimpse into a world that you always suspected might exist and that you really wish you could visit. The pixies, magical birds and talking hat are so convincing that you forget to wonder how the filmmakers created them and, if Dobby sounds a bit like a Disney sidekick, while the giant basilisk looks a tad like a sea monster from Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, at least these are familiar genre staples.

If you've read the book, you've already decided how much you love it and where it ranks in the Potter pantheon; for me, it's the weakest of the four, not least because the female characters have less of interest to do in this one than any of the others, but that's my personal bias. Adaptation is also a matter of taste, to some extent. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone came in for a lot of criticism for its lack of storytelling imagination -- many reviewers charged that it simply put the book into image form, without adding anything to the story or the audience's appreciation of the characters. When I first read those reviews, it seemed a strange accusation; if the filmmakers had made significant changes, undoubtedly there would have been fury from thousands of fans, even if some of the innovations were clever and imaginative.

But having seen Peter Jackson's vast reimagining of The Lord of the Rings, it's possible to envision a different sort of Harry Potter, particularly while watching this sequel in which most of the characters sound exactly as they did the first time around and most of the development seems to have been in the special effects department. We see Hermione get sniffly over Draco's insults about her non-magical origins as she does in the novel, but we don't really get a sense of how she feels about her Muggle background, nor do we see Harry and Ron relating to her as fellow outsiders, but just as the outraged friends they're scripted to be. We listen to Harry nervously declare his innocence in criminal wrongdoing and his fear that he may be descended from a dangerous wizard, but there's no real introspection about his proclivity for rule-breaking, no underlying terror that his mysterious powers may come from a very dark source. The film has a chance to take a risk, to improve in fact upon the novel, but it doesn't make the attempt. It is what it is, for better or worse.

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