Tuesday, September 06, 2011

The Death of Villains (Or "Does Mundane Work for Movies?")

My dear husband gave me a great gift on a rainy Labor Day: a couple of hours to myself and a ticket to Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Part 2). Though I suspected I was the only person in the crowded theater who was making this film journey for the first time (considering the movie has been out since July) I didn't mind. I was just very happy to finally see the film, which pleasantly surpassed my expectations.

I'll save my longer review for later, but for now, I just had to ask this question: what is up with the death of villains in movies? Have you noticed that real baddies can't seem to just die like normal people? They have to go out in a blaze of pyrotechnics. Maybe this has always been true, but I'd never found myself quite so aware of it as I was yesterday. Even as I marveled over some of the astounding visual effects, I found the back of my mind wondering why they chose to make these deaths look the way they did.

There were three "bad guy" deaths in a row in the final battle of Hogwarts (I'm assuming here that you either know who dies because you've read the books, seen the films, or perhaps just don't care either way...so consider yourself spoiler warned).

Bellatrix dies first. She's terrible -- the torturer of Neville's parents and the murderer of Sirius Black -- and the filmmakers have given her huge amounts of screen time, mostly because Helena Bonham Carter is so good at playing a manically deranged character. The death effect here? Wave after wave of magic spells hit her until she's suspended in mid-air, frozen like the cartoon coyote just before he realizes he falls, and then she shatters. Literally shatters like glass, or even more precisely like ice, into a million little pieces. An interesting effect given her coldheartedness.

Nagini the snake dies next. I won't go into the weirdness of how they handled that scene (so differently from the book) but at least in the end the right hero walloped off her head. And she sort of disintegrates in a swath of black smoke. Fitting because of her magical qualities (no mere snake here) and interesting because the smoke reminds you of ring-wraiths and dementors and all sorts of other evil fantasy creatures. Not to mention the smoky instruments in Dumbledore's office that gave us one of our first subtle clues to the snake's importance to Voldemort.

Speaking of Voldemort: the big bad guy falls last. He too shatters, though instead of an explosive shattering, it's more a falling to pieces. As he and our hero battle, the curse he attempts to kill Harry with is pushed back up through his wand (a la Goblet of Fire graveyard scene, or so it appeared to me) and then pulses through him instead. He is sort of eaten from the inside-out by fire, killed by his own hand. We see him cracking -- and it really does look like cracking, especially with his bald, white head looking so egg-like -- and then he falls to pieces. Visually that's interesting, given the fact that he has been in actual "pieces" for so many years, having given up bits of his soul as he continued down the path of evil and tried to pursue immortality. And the effect was also interesting: we see the pieces flaking apart, like onion skin or burned parchment, and then raining down in ashes (sorry to go into such gory detail, but the visuals were quite arresting).

Okay, it's all interesting and symbolic and all that, but is it necessary? I know, I know...films have to show us what novels can tell us (and allow us to create in our own imaginations) but I've always been sort of fascinated by the way Rowling writes Voldemort's death. There is something almost...well...boring about it. I don't use that word lightly ~ she beat me to it, or close enough. She seems to understand that death coming for Voldemort is enough, all by itself, without it being symbolic, dazzling, unusual, bizarre, poetic-justice death. He is human, after all...though he kept forgetting that fact and kept losing more and more of his humanity. But in the end he's just human -- a broken, lost man who "fell backward, arms splayed, the slit pupils of the scarlet eyes rolling upward. Tom Riddle hit the floor with a mundane finality, his body feeble and shrunken, the white hands empty, the snakelike face vacant and unknowing. Voldemort was dead, killed by his own rebounding curse, and Harry stood with two wands in his hand, staring down at his enemy's shell."

Note that in the moment when he hit that floor with a mundane finality (and can't you practically hear the thump?) Rowling refers to him by his actual name, not by his fearful, grandiose, self-chosen moniker. In this moment we are reminded, with a resounding thud, of his humanness, his frailty, even his lostness. And it works powerfully. It just works, in all its minimalism, the way it should.

But does mundane work for movies? Would the same things that come across on the page come across on the scene if they played the death that way? Those were the kinds of thoughts flitting through my mind as I watched the spectacular battle effects in HP7.

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