Harry Potter & The Cinematic Tone Poem


Last night I spent twenty minutes looking through my DVD collection for something to watch. It was late enough in the evening that I could watch half of a movie before falling asleep. Just something on the screen. Steady images and even-tempered sound.

I watch movies like I listen to albums, to help me reach the mood I want to be in and with the evening just about over, I wanted something to calm me into the dark. No explosions or mad-cap adventures and no bright sunlit scenes with raging music cues and dynamic visuals. No flickering screen.

There’s nothing worse (yes there is) than sitting in a darkened living room, relaxing on a couch, body slowed and eyes faintly shutting while the characters on screen have quiet conversations in a moonlit wood — and then the screen burns white with explosions, voices shout and the dynamic audio range peaks straight into an outdoor day-lit setting.

I wanted a steady pace, a visual version of a musical drone. A Steve Reich-ian minimalist blanket of sound and visual. Something that creates a mood and sticks with it.


Harry Potter & The Prisoner of Azkaban

‘Harry Potter & The Prisoner of Azkaban’


I opted for ‘Harry Potter & The Prisoner of Azkaban.’ A Harry Potter film has become my standard late-night viewing. Most scenes take place at night or in the gloom of Hogwarts or an overcast day. Visually not too many sequences are edited in a jarring manner — they don’t go from zero to sixty in one cut.

They roll along at a gallop, with slow crescendos of not much consequence.

The dialogue rarely goes above room level talk, and usually hovers above hushed whispers. The music rarely swells to any great heights and if your television’s volume is set at a good level, in fact all you will hear is the music and most sound effects and dialogue barely register.

These reasons might seem like negatives against any film – visually monotonous and a lack of dynamics, but they are exactly what I look for in my late night viewing and why I watch Harry Potter films.

I don’t find the overall story arc of Harry Potter very compelling or too interesting on its own. Each film deals with the same central issue, will Lord Voldemort return and kill Harry Potter? This claim is repeated in each film with smaller plots scattered throughout, but overall, Harry not dying is the big deal. It’s a thin premise for even one film, but repeated throughout more than six features the heart of the story becomes secondary, getting lost in all of the wonderfully realized magical elements of Hogwarts and its many cartoonish teachers, students, and monsters. This is what makes these films worth watching and re-watching. They’re simple stories covered in a tapestry of wide-eyed fun and magical circumstance.

I want to doze off and watch Harry face off with giant spiders. I want to see the challenges from ‘Harry Potter & The Goblet of Fire‘ and the feasts in the great hall float about, shadowed images scored by John Williams.


Profesor Lupin from 'Harry Potter & The Prisoner of Azkaban'

Professor Lupin from ‘Harry Potter & The Prisoner of Azkaban’


Hagrid from 'Harry Potter & The Prisoner of Azkaban'

Hagrid from ‘Harry Potter & The Prisoner of Azkaban’


I’ve watched each Harry Potter film in the theater and later bought the DVD. I’ve re-watched the series countless times, yet I still don’t buy into the forced drama of the relationships between the characters in the world of Harry Potter.

Each character is a constructed type that fall into one of these categories — who’s done Harry wrong, who’s helped or not helped Harry, or helped or not helped Harry’s parents, who loves who and who knows the secrets or begat the secrets of Hogwarts. There could be more, but they’re all strains of the same virus.

All of those things that you are told make a great script, most are absent from the Harry Potter films. It’s full of simple dialogue, thin characters, a weak plot, and an overall feeling that nothing is of much importance, yet the genre and the visual style it inspires create experiences worth repeating over and over.

It all comes down to what the viewer wants from the experience. What I want from watching Harry Potter is probably not what others look for. My goal is to lay in the darkness of my bedroom, tucked in, and fall asleep to a steady stream of similar images that won’t shatter the moment. I think of a movie as an album – no one really complains when their favorite band’s albums don’t have drama or high stakes, they just want the mood it creates. That’s what I’m looking for. A mood sustained.

There is a bar in San Francisco, on the coast, that caters to surfers. The interior is built like a cabin, dark and warm. The televisions that hang in the corners play surf videos on repeat throughout the night. Images of waves and surfboards cutting water, surfers falling into the roiling deep of the ocean towards the coral. No story. No characters. No purpose other than to emit and create a feeling in the viewer.

It’s all a matter of taste. I don’t enjoy crime dramas or thrillers. I’m not big on films that market solely in ‘twists and turns.’ It doesn’t hold much interest for me. Once the twists and turns are revealed, what’s left? Why would I watch it again? I just want a mood. A world I can exist in for a few hours that’s better than my own. Children’s films do this quite well and the trade-off is usually a heavy-handed plot with a few life lessons thrown in for sake of the brain’s being molded by the experience.

Truth is, if I were given a script that was for a film like I’m looking for, I wouldn’t be able to recommend it. I’d have to tell the writer to try again, build the story, give the characters high stakes and make sure we care about what happens to them. The spec scripts I read need to appeal to producers, the people with the funding, they need to gain the attention of festivals and contests. Making a ninety-minute meditation piece isn’t going to make anyone any money, and for a large portion of the writers out there, that’s what it is about.

I know that if I ever want to see a movie that is perfect for me, I’ll have to make it myself with the knowledge that I might be the only one with any desire to watch it.


2 thoughts on “Harry Potter & The Cinematic Tone Poem

  1. I miss bars like the one you describe in San Francisco! I think some older films had more of a “mood” carry through. The King’s Speech did a good job, I thought, of conveying a gray, overcast, Depression-era Britain that we don’t usually see in the sunny countryside castles on English PBS series.

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