This will be a six-part retrospective on the Harry Potter film series, covering films 1-6 (I think most Potter fans can remember the one that came out eight months ago...). This essay will be covering Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.
In my humble opinion, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is the worst book in the seven part series. It is obscenely long, endlessly padded, and painfully frustrating. Yes, the frustration thing is intentional, as we're supposed to empathize with Harry as the original 'order of the phoenix' ignores him, as Dumbledore inexplicably avoids him, and as Dolores Umbridge torments him. But the book is nearly 900 pages long, and the original novel plays out like one long waiting game before what is sure to be a massive climactic event and/or revelation. As we all know, there is a big climactic event, but the revelation is halfhearted (wait... so Voldemort watched Gargoyles in the 1990s?) and undermined by an even more tantalizing reveal (that Neville Longbottom is actually the chosen one) which is shot down moments after it is introduced. But the longest book is the second-shortest movie at 138 minutes (behind the series finale, which runs 130 minutes, although it's technically half of a single book). Making his series debut, David Yates and screenwriter Michael Goldenberg (taking over for Steve Kloves just this once) trim every drop of fat from the overlong text, shaping a lean and potent bit of pop fantasy that is easily one of the best films in the series.
Unlike pretty much every other movie in the series (other than probably the finale), this Harry Potter movie has a major antagonist who is front-and-center from the very beginning of the film. Imelda Staunton, as the new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher Delores Umbridge, has more screentime in this film than most of the other adult actors have in the whole series combined. While the book had endless moments of Harry's frustration at the world around him, Yates and Goldenberg are able to more potently present his anger and sense of betrayal with a few choice moments in the first act. And while Harry's journey to the Ministry of Magic took a whopping 150 pages in the novel, Harry is attacked by the Dementors, expelled from Hogwarts, rescued by his friends, and cleared of all charges in just over fifteen minutes. That leaves the rest of the film to focus on the battle of wills between Harry and his wizarding friends and the authoritarian grip of Umbridge.
What stands out about the film (and the novel as well) is the fierce political overtones. The majority of the Harry Potter series has basically stayed in the realm of 'racism and genocide are BAD', this fifth entry dives into a host of politically-charged issues. I do not follow British politics as much as American politics, so I could only see the American parables on display. The ways that Umbridge uses her post from the Ministry of Magic to deflect any criticism and undermine her opponents should be familiar to anyone who has followed post 9/11 political discourse. The film openly mocks an (American or British?) educational system that 'teaches to the test' while making sure the children do not actually learn how to think, it exposes its younger readers to a British (or American?) bureaucracy is not always on the side of righteousness, and it of course becomes yet another parable aimed at those who refused to believe in the Nazi menace until it was literally staring them in the face (once again, Voldemort is not Osama Bin Ladin, he is Hitler).
But putting aside specific politics, the film is a powerful story of Harry discovering that the adults and authority figures that he has counted on may not be there for him. This isn't a case of one rotten apple making mayhem inside the walls of Hogwarts, but a world where the adults that Harry depends on (Dumbledore, Hagrid, McGonagall, Sirius Black, etc) are unavailable or untrustworthy. The core lesson that Harry Potter learns this time around is that the adults that he once idolized (including his parents, natch) are in fact flawed and error-prone human beings. Harry can no longer depend on Dumbledore to swoop in and face the day or say just the right thing. Harry Potter must finally take proactive steps to become his own hero. And that is where the film shines, in its development of the various young wizards who have generally existed merely in Harry Potter's shadow. The second and third acts of the picture are among the strongest in the series, as the various members of the young supporting cast team up so that Harry can teach them the tools they will need in the eventual war against the Death Eaters.
It is here we see Neville Longbottom take the steps into true heroism, and it is here where we see Harry Potter finally step up and be truly proactive against the menace that has haunted him since birth. I could carp that Harry's decision to name the group 'Dumbledore's Army' is stupidity worthy of expulsion, but that's a source material gripe. I could argue that Cho Chang (Katie Leung) is a hopelessly dull love interest for Harry, but I think that is partially due to her being painfully underwritten and due to the unexpected chemistry that Radcliffe has with both Emma Watson and especially Evanna Lynch, who plays newcomer Luna Lovegood. Lynch takes a character that I barely remembered in the books and turns her into arguably the quirkiest, warmest, and just-plain coolest girls in school. Yes, she is a teenage hottie, but like Watson, it is the character she plays that makes her attractive as much as her physical appearance. Pretty much every time my wife and I watch the fifth film, we find ourselves yelling at Harry to go snog with the quirky, oddly alluring Luna as opposed to the painfully dull and lifeless Cho. Anyway, prurient digressions aside, the moments with Harry finally stepping up and using his experience to help other students, as well as his (all-too brief and edited from the book) private tutoring sessions with Snape, and the dynamic action finale, make up one of the stronger portions of the entire franchise.
The film also has the strongest climax in the series thus far, as we're treated to a wonderful battle royale with all of the 'good wizards' (MadEye, Lupin, etc) versus the 'bad wizards' (Lucius, Bellatrix, etc) with the lives of all of our young heroes in the balance. Yes, in the book and in the movie, Harry is incredibly stupid to take his young students straight into danger (the book has a nice internal monologue where he realizes he probably just got all of his friends killed). In fact I have to wonder, when Sirius tells Harry 'you've done great so far', is he being snidely sarcastic? But one cannot deny the thrill of seeing the All-Stars show up and save the day. And while the arbitrary murder of Sirius Black by Bellatrix (as required by law via casting of Gary Oldman) isn't quite the gut punch it is in the book (I blame the choice to drown out Harry's screams with music), there is a potency in seeing Lupin be the one to hold him back (since of course, Sirius and Lupin were best friends 'back in the day'). I do like that, like Diggory, Sirius does not get a noble or heroic death, but merely is casually executed from afar in the heat of battle. Oh, and Helena Bonham Carter should really work the line "I killed Sirius Black!" into every role she plays. What follows is something we've been wanting to see from the start: a full-on wizard battle between Obi Wan Kenobi and Darth Vader... err, I mean Dumbledore and Voldemort.
In the book (since, in the book, we don't learn what the prophecy says until after the battle), I distinctly remember thinking that maybe JK Rowling was going to throw us for a loop and have Dumbledore kill Tom Riddle right then and there. But it was not to be. Still, what plays on the page as a missed opportunity to really screw with readers' expectations plays onscreen as a wonderful bit of character-driven special effects work. And of course, the big battle is cut short when Riddle is able to enter and control Harry's mind for a brief moment. Like the second film, Dumbledore must again reassure Harry that he and Voldemort are not as alike as Harry fears, something that which is key to the sixth book but tragically completely omitted from the sixth movie. Anyway, the gigantic multi-part battle in the 'Room of Mysteries' is easily the action highlight of the first seven movies.
Ironically, the film's greatest flaw is perhaps the book's greatest strength. Like The Prisoner of Azkaban, we are expected to presume that Sirius Black is an incredibly important character to the Harry Potter mythos, but he is given shockingly little screen-time to justify that investment. Gary Oldman is given only a single major scene with Harry Potter (one of the better scenes in the film, where he reassures him that he is not bad, but rather a good person who has had terrible things occur). I sincerely miss the great moment in the book where Sirius attempts to balance his belief that James Potter was a good man and a good friend beside the knowledge that young James was a bully who tormented Severus Snape when they were both Hogwarts students (thus explaining why Snape has such loathing for the son of his tormentor). Again, without the Sirius Black character development, his impact on the stories (and the emotional impact of his untimely death) is greatly lessened compared to the source material.
The lack of Gary Oldman (and again, Alan Rickman) screentime aside, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix remains one of the best films of the series. It is a near perfect balance of school drama with the more far-reaching threat of Voldemort and his Death Eaters. It is a potent political parable and an acting treat. It introduces two classic characters (Lovegood and Umbridge) and finally gives our young supporting cast an active role in the proceedings. Director David Yates and writer Michael Goldenberg take JK Rowling's most bloated and least entertaining novel and cut it to the bone, leaving most of what worked and little of what did not. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is the best adaptation of the series, and (in terms of making a good movie out of a bad book) arguably one of the best adaptations of a popular novel since Clint Eastwood's The Bridges of Madison County.