Show & Tell: Cinematic or Literary?

Illustration by Jim KayA constant consideration that I feel compelled to make at each step of this project is exactly where to pull my inspiration from; what would be my best resource? Clearly, the Harry Potter series is an immensely popular world that nearly everyone is familiar with.  The problem is that sometimes we have two conflicting versions of this world that we are presented with: the one that we find in J.K. Rowling’s novels (considering both British and American versions, which differ) and the one we more recently have found in the movies.  This is an age-old debate that has raged since screenwriters and directors first began to adapt other media (like books) into movies. Which is better?  The Book  or The Movie?

In some cases, the conversion is relatively close, barring things that might have proven cinematographically impossible at the time of the movie.  In other cases, large amounts of content is changed to accommodate for the new format for the story or to make it appeal to a wider audience.   Movie always suffer from a loss of content owing to their more limited duration in comparison to a book.

This post is not really going to be a commentary on whether adapting books is a good or bad thing.  As a fledgling writer myself, I shudder at the concept of the vision in my mind’s eye trying to be interpreted by another person yet also thrill at the idea that my story and all of the wonderful things I’ve dreamed up might one day be projected across screens dozens of feet high, in hundreds of countries and languages.  All but the most dour and puritanical of writers would no doubt thrill as well as fear that prospect.

On the whole, the Harry Potter movies hew relatively close to the books, except perhaps in the most important aspect for me at this time: the concept art and visuals.  I previously mentioned how the Hogwarts Express itself looks much different in the movies than it is depicted in some illustrations from the books, specifically the Bloomsbury Edition released two years ago.  In the movies, we have a unique – although obviously realistic – steam engine and tender.  In the Bloomsbury Edition of the novel, it is something far more fantastical, something that clearly was physically infeasible or was too cost prohibitive to recreate.

Oddly enough, the locomotive used in the movies is most likely the exact same steam train J.K. Rowling had in mind when she first penned the Sorcerer’s Stone.  The Bloomsbury Edition version is based upon The Cavalier, a Norfolk & Western Railway J Class 4-8-4 Northern Type steam locomotive used between 1938 and 1959.  Beyond being wildly anachronistic –  since Pottermore indicates that the Hogwarts Express was obtained a full century before The Cavalier was running – the steam train itself is too large for the gauge of the British railway system.

Another example is the places that the train will travel, even if they are not directly connected to the train.  Concept art for Hogwarts, Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley – all actual locales that would require sets or on-site locations – are equally fantastic and sometimes otherworldly, possessing unrealistic or physics-defying architecture.  Clearly, the movies had more realistic locations, more traditional buildings that tend to replicate Old English or Germanic styles of architecture and construction.

For my project, I’m constrained in some unavoidable ways to use the cinematic vision, specifically in relation to the Hogwarts Express.  However, I do not have to contend with actors or functionality as much, so plan to try and reproduce as much as possible the vision in the books as a preference over that of the movies.  A prime example will be the jumbled, quilted look of the Diagon Alley shops and the alien architecture of the parapets and keeps of Hogwarts Castle.
However, one thing that the movies do well that the books sometimes are less successful at are providing a constantly improving and refining template for the appearance of some places.  In the books, Hogwarts is described a handful of times, then rarely mentioned again.  This is not poor writing; it is simply not necessary in a novel to continually tell you how the building looks, unless you’re introducing a new area or altering an existing one.  By contrast, every time a scene in the movies is at Hogwarts, they have to show it, to reinforce where the action is taking place.  This provides far more visual material to build ideas from.

Furthermore, some locations in the books work with a minimal description in terms of the how.  When recreating it, these set-pieces are unfortunately lacking enough description and recognition for a casual observer to know what they are seeing.  For instance, 12 Grimmauld Place just ‘pops’ into existence in the book, an affect of the Charm placed upon it by Dumbledore during the first rise of Voldemort.  It is unique in the story because of this fact, but is otherwise indistinguishable from the surrounding buildings.  In the movie, 12 Grimmauld Place very literally squeezes itself into being (a fact that brings substantial discomfort to my wife), which is a very striking and recognizable event that is easy to reference visually.  While I would love to use the books as my template for this location, there is simply no easy way to make it special enough to be easily recognizable.  However, having an apartment building that periodically stretches itself out to accommodate an extra building?  That is striking and exciting.

I suppose the best way to describe my approach on whether to adhere to the movies or the books for reference would be this: I will attempt to employ the style of the literary Harry Potter while using the design from the cinematic version of the world.  As I previously said, there are a lot of striking visuals from Pottermore and the Bloomsbury Editions of the books that would make for a very unique and very attractive display.  However, the movies have some equally exciting design and visuals that will make for some very interesting features as well.  These will also lend an easier sense of recognition for viewers, another aspect that can only improve the enjoyment of the display.

In the end, I’ve going to use the movies as the ‘box’ into which I color, but use the books and some of the more charming and unique illustrations to give what I create more flavor.  You could even say they are my palette.  As an example, I’ll make my Diagon Alley similar enouh to the movies to be recognizable.  However, the movie version isn’t overly unique, looking very much like a group of modernized Old English storefronts.  The Bloomsbury illustrations are much different, befitting a random collections of shops from a wizarding world, complete with haphazardly stacked buildings of various design and decor.  Melding the two should make for a visually appealing and magical appearance while still hitting enough points of reference to be recognizable.

Ultimately, I do want this display to be something that the average person will be able to connect with.  When I post images of my work on this blog, I want the viewer to have that ‘a ha’ moment and be able to recognize what I’ve created.  However, this display is also going to very much be an expression of my wife’s and my sensibilities and style.  This is an extended gift for my wife, a love letter of sorts so it will always be an expression of that love and of her specific outlook and preferences.  I think that’s perhaps the best part of this project, how intimate and personalized it will become.  It’s definitely what inspires me to constantly be working on this daily.

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