Film adaptations of popular novels are always difficult to pull off. In the realm of fantasy, success is especially tricky, because usually, the imagery and atmosphere created by the book are lost in the journey to the screen. This is especially true when millions of children have near-religious devotion to the book.
In most cases, a half-baked adaptation can result in poor box-office returns, a collective slaughter by critics and eternal infamy on the fan-boy internet movie sites. However, with J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” series, engrossing tales of wizardry and magic through the lens of adolescence, one does not have to worry about such problems. Hordes of 10-year-olds with parents in tow would flock to these movies if they consisted of Harry and his chums playing ping-pong in the Gryffindor common room for three hours.
However, although the movie will be beloved by children, the newest chapter in the saga, “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets,” does not capture the quirky details and ambience of Rowling’s novels. Although it is better and scarier than the first film, “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” “Chamber of Secrets” still feels like the “Cliff’s Notes” of a children’s literature classic.
The film begins with Harry Potter getting ready to return to the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry for his second year of training. After a long summer with his dull and cruel relatives, he is anxious to get back to his friends and to the place he considers his real home. However, strange things are afoot. Harry has not received a single letter from his friends; a fearful and self-flagellating house-elf named Dobby (a CG character who is more Jar-Jar than Yoda) sneaks into Harry’s room to warn him about an impending disaster that will occur if he returns to school; and when Harry and his friend Ron Weasley try to board the train to Hogwarts, platform nine and three quarters is blocked. Despite these ominous signs, Harry is determined to make it to school to continue his training and face whatever challenges await him.
Except for a tumultuous arrival at Hogwarts involving a stolen flying car, it is business as usual at the remote castle. The position of Professor of Defense Against the Dark Arts, a position that changes hands at least once per book, is now being filled by Gilderoy Lockhart (played masterfully by Kenneth Branagh, “Dead Again”), a narcissistic wizard with a toothy grin and a best-seller called “Magical Me.” Harry also continues to fight with Draco Malfoy and continues to absorb the wrath of Professor Snape (Alan Rickman, “Die Hard”).
The real story begins when rumors of the mysterious Chamber of Secrets, created by a wizard named Slytherin who thought that Hogwarts should cleanse itself of so-called Mudbloods (wizard children born of regular human parents), begin to surface. The gossip is that the chamber, which houses a terrible monster, will be opened by the heir of Slytherin, supposedly a student at Hogwarts.
“Chamber of Secrets,” like “The Sorcerer’s Stone,” had to be pared down from the full-length novel, and there were some egregious errors made in the editing process. Snape, the ill-tempered potions teacher, is not given enough screen time. This is an unfortunate trend in the film, for most of the adult characters’ roles are curtailed in favor of including every little adventure of Harry, Ron and Hermione. This adversely affects the pacing of the film, making it somehow simultaneously feel like it jumps around and drags. The film also skimps on screen-time for the benevolent giant Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane) and Professor Dumbledore (played by the late Richard Harris).
The reason “Chamber of Secrets” eventually falls short, however, is not the actors. 13-year-old Daniel Radcliffe, whose voice has dropped an octave or two since we last saw him, is decidedly un-nauseating as Harry, and he manages to create and maintain a very likable character. His co-stars Rupert Grint and Emma Watson (Ron and Hermione) handle their roles well and help to restore the good name of the child actor. Additionally, the three burgeoning wizards seem more comfortable with each other this time around and seem more like actual friends.
The major flaw of the movie is that it fails to reproduce the Roald Dahl-like eccentricities of the books. In her novels, Rowling borrows (and in some cases, outright steals) from many different sources, including Dahl, C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series, Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” and many more. But this, in and of itself, is not a problem. After all, George Lucas pillaged several mythological sources for “Star Wars” (believe it or not, Luke Skywalker is not the first protagonist to come to terms with his lineage).
The real problem is that while the books are entertaining, if derivative, re-workings of classic stories, the movie is even one step farther from the source, and except for a scene involving some killer spiders, the eerie and unique atmosphere that Rowling creates with painstaking detail is abandoned for a squeaky-clean glossing-over of the books.