Harry Potter Retrospective Part II - "The Chamber of Secrets"

With the end of the "Harry Potter" film franchise quickly approaching, I've decided to dedicate The Soap Box Office to this wonder filled series for the next week. We'll call it the "Harry Potter Retrospective" because I really like the word "retrospective." Each day, I'll briefly take a look at one of the films, compare them to each other (and possibly the books, too), and delve into my personal experience with each. I invite you to join in the discussion as we prepare for the final chapter of Rowling's wizarding world.

"The Chamber of Secrets"

I went into "Chamber of Secrets" very similarly to the way I went into "Sorcerer's Stone." Again back from college for Thanksgiving break, my family bounded off for the theater and I tagged along, this time a bit more happily, however. In the year between these Thanksgiving viewings, I hadn't though much about the world of Potter. It had been nice for two and a half hours but "Sorcerer's Stone" hadn't sent me running to the bookstore to catch up on the series. But I was much more interested this time than I had been the first time around and maybe that's the point of the first two films after all, at least in terms of those who hadn't read the books: just keep them interested until this thing really takes off.

In my mind, "Chamber", both as a movie and a book, suffers from Sequelitis. It's always tough to follow up on a smash hit like "Stone" was, to build upon what worked without becoming redundant. Rowling spent too much time in this book rehashing what had already been said in "Stone", though I can't really blame her because you don't know your audience in book two of a long series. The majority of your readers will have read your previous installment but a larger number of people than you might think will pick up your second book without realizing it's a sequel and you want to hook those new readers as well and convince them to go catch up on book one. By the time the third book rolls around, especially if the series is a hit like these are, almost all of your readers will start with book one and move through the order. All that to say, I think the second book in a series is the toughest to write, save for the final volume.

By that reasoning, "Chamber" is by its very nature weaker in source material than "Stone" or any of the films that would follow. The film also loses a bit of the atmosphere from the book. It's not that the sets, costumes, landscapes, etc. are any worse; they're all incredible, just like I'd expect after watching "Stone." But "Chamber" as a book is about the opening up of the wizarding world and setting the stage for many of the things that take place in future volumes. The diary (which we later discover to be a horcrux) is a much more powerful piece of magic than anything introduced in "Stone." The ability to leave a piece of one's existence (again, we later discover this to be a piece of the soul) behind after death is a significant, heavy concept and one that far outweighs the wonderful charm of a cloak of invisibility, transfiguration, or even the sorcerer's stone itself. The depth and gravity that Rowling touches on in the book is somewhat lost in the film which at times borders on becoming boring.

I also think that, from a film standpoint, this is the only film that lacks a compelling villain. That may seem weird considering that the villain is essentially the same person in seven of the eight films ("Azkaban" has almost nothing to do with Voldemort) but this version of He Who Must Not Be Named is tame and dull compared to the rest of his incarnations. Tom Riddle just doesn't inspire fear as much as he seems like a snobby private school kid who needs a good thrashing. I don't think his powers translate over to Columbus' screen vision. I will say, however, that I think the reason for this is that "Chamber" is still a kid's movie and for Riddle to be as menacing as he needs to be, you'd have to stretch the boundaries of what you can put in a film aimed at eight year olds. There's also the matter of Dobby who was in Jar Jar Binks territory in this film and whose reception resulted in the complete banishment for all house elves in "Potter" movies until the seventh volume.

There are a number of improvements in "Chamber", however. The key child actors all upped their performances from the previous film and as a first time viewer, that was vital to me. I have always been willing to forgive kids for struggling in these roles; after all, they're kids. But I would say that the third, fourth, fifth, and so on installments in this franchise would have been a tough sell to me if Radcliffe, Grint, Watson, and the rest didn't show some growth in "Chamber." I was happy to note that the painful moments that pop up more than I'd like to admit in "Stone" get cut down upon significantly this time around. Likewise, Kenneth Branagh brought even more British professionalism to the screen; his casting as Gilderoy Lockhart was inevitably brilliant. In addition, the creatures and the special effects in "Chamber" are much better than what we were treated to in the previous film. The basilisk is a thousand times more menacing than Tom Riddle could ever dream of; Fawkes the phoenix is an excellent mix of animatronics and CGI; and the giant spiders...I watched "Chamber" a couple of days ago and as someone who suffers from a bit of arachnophobia, that scene still gives me the shivers. So creepy and so well done. "Chamber" also contains what was for me the first scene that really drew an emotional investment from me: Hagrid's return from Azkaban to the Great Hall is a touching moment and it has been known to water my eyes when I'm not being careful.

All in all, "Chamber" is the weakest of the franchise in my book. That said, when I saw it for the first time, it did nothing but stoke the flame of interest in the series within me. I still wasn't ready to commit to the books but I was legitimately disappointed when I found out that the third film wouldn't open until summer of 2004 rather than the fall of 2003. In that, the film did its job for me and countless others who needed a reason beyond the books to get excited for the upcoming films.

Rank in the "Potter" Canon: 7th of 7