Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix at 10: A Retrospective
By John Saavedra
Looking back on it ten years later, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix might very well be the breeziest of the Harry Potter movies. While it still clocks in at over two hours in length, the film moves very quickly, hitting all of the important beats of the 800-plus page book by J.K. Rowling without really lingering on any one thing. In fact, Order of the Phoenix is the second shortest Harry Potter movie after Deathly Hallows – Part 2 — which you could argue doesn’t count because it’s the second part of what’s really one huge movie. What makes Order of the Phoenix’s “short” running time all the more notable is that it adapts the longest book in the series.
Order of the Phoenix was David Yates’ first installment in the director’s chair, and he’d go on to direct the final three entries as well. For his first outing, Yates focused on being economical and efficient. Harry and Dudley are attacked by Dementors almost immediately after the title screen, and about five-ish minutes later, Harry’s arrived at Number 12, Grimmauld Place — the Black family home in London and the headquarters of the Order of the Phoenix. The organization created to fight Voldemort is explained succinctly in even less time.
I remember how the book explored the Order of the Phoenix and Sirius Black’s creepy house, how Rowling took her time unraveling the mysteries, letting a very angsty Harry discover the much larger mythology of the wizarding world that unfolded. But Yates is most interested in giving us as much information as possible before the final showdown between the Order and the Death Eaters. He does a pretty good job of giving us the important bits, but there are a few things that perhaps deserved a bit more attention, such as Snape’s Occlumency classes and Harry’s deteriorating mental state amidst Voldemort’s growing influence.
The book is necessarily dark. Harry’s going through a tough time after the death of Cedric Diggory and the return of Voldemort. Worst of all, neither the Ministry of Magic nor the wizarding world at large believe You Know Who is actually back. Not to mention that Harry’s largely kept in the dark about the resistance against Voldemort and ignored by Dumbledore throughout the book. Oh, and Harry’s 14, which means he’s stressed out as all hell anyway with self-doubt and raging hormones. In the book, Harry spends a lot more time pining over Cho Chang, for example, while their fling is pretty much relegated to a scene in the movie.
Yates’ adaptation is surprisingly light and hopeful. It’s not the tone I remember from the book — which I’d say is remarkable for its portrayal of a teenage boy growing up in the most unconventional of situations — but one that allows the movie to effectively deliver its shocking bits in the final act. Considering Harry is briefly expelled from Hogwarts, put on trial, and almost killed by Dementors in the first act, things are quite chipper. Even the movie’s main villain, Dolores Umbridge is a menace with a soft voice and bright pink pantsuits.
For all that’s changed in Harry’s world since the last book, it feels like business as usual for the young wizard — classes, O.W.L. exams, mysteries to solve. It’s almost surprising that Quidditch was cut from the movie altogether. Poor Ron never gets his moment in the spotlight as Gryffindor’s new star keeper.
Of course, underneath all the normalcy is something much more sinister, and Yates does a great job of showing how the wizarding world is slowly unraveling due to its willful denial of the truth. People like Minister of Magic Cornelius Fudge bow to fear rather than fact, and pretty soon Dumbledore, the world’s greatest wizard, is declared a traitor for his “fear mongering.” The Ministry takes over Hogwarts, directing it down a path of ignorance. Why should young wizards learn how to defend themselves when the Death Eaters are right at their doorstep? Not to mention the brief snippets of anti-muggle rhetoric throughout the movie (mostly from Kreacher). Yates treats the Order of the Phoenix like a transition piece that starts much like the past books but ends in a completely different, much more dire place.
In fact, Order of the Phoenix, like Goblet of Fire before it and Half-Blood Prince after it, is a movie in which the bad guys win. And it’s so much fun to watch them win, particularly in this installment, which delivers a mesmerizing third act inside the Department of Mysteries at the Ministry of Magic. Few things are as spooky as the long, dark hallways full of prophecies. Yates is so good at using light and shadow in these scenes that they almost feel like they’re out of a horror movie. Watching the cloaked Death Eaters slowly creeping out of the darkness with those weird golden masks that could belong to any number of slashers is terrifically spooky.
Besides the fight with the Dementors all the way in the beginning and the Dumbledore’s Army training sequences — which are quite fun, if a bit repetitive — this is the most action we get in the entire movie, and it’s well worth it, especially after all of the build-up with the Order of the Phoenix. It’s so great to finally see them face off against the Death Eaters and make quick work of the bad guys. Dumbledore’s also sort of absent from the movie, except in a few key scenes, until the very final duel with Voldemort, which again is stunning, although it’s over way too soon. But again, that gives way to the Exorcist-inspired possession of Harry by Voldemort. I almost expected his head to do a complete 360-degree spin. Of course, this is a kid’s movie so there’s nothing as gruesome as that.
The only time I wish Yates had lingered on something a bit more was during and after Sirius’ death. Almost no time is spent on Harry’s feelings toward the loss of his godfather. I think this is a symptom of the rest of the movie, though. Yates wants to give us as much story as possible before the credits roll, and there’s a whole meeting with Dumbledore to get through where, like in most of the past films, much of the year’s events are explained to Harry. (You would think Harry would just start asking Dumbledore up front what he’s in for this year…)
I wouldn’t call Order of the Phoenix the best Harry Potter movie, although it’s far from the worst. It’s a transition piece that successfully bridges the lighter first half of the series with the much darker second half. Most importantly, it sets up the stakes for Harry and the wizarding world at large if it doesn’t get its act together. Perhaps the most impressive thing Yates conveys in the finale is that, even after all the death and destruction, all of the characters seem to come out a little stronger for it, ready to fight again.