Of translations, wartime snogging and the absent Eileen Prince

 

By Catrin Achrya a.k.a. JGS

 

 

The Czech language has sixteen translations of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven”, not counting four additional free paraphrases. All of them are, in some sense, excellent. And none would satisfy an Anglophone Poe purist.

 

What does “The Raven” in Czech have to do with “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince”?

A film adaptation of a novel resembles a translation, in that it translates between different modes of expression. And it resembles a translation of a poem, in that emotions and connotations are at least as important as semantic content. Every translation/adaptation uncovers a part of the bone structure while discarding some of the flesh.

 

The poetic translator’s dilemma is to what extent to adhere to the strictly literal semantic content, emulate the musical qualities of the text with its rhythm, tonal contrasts and similarities, and capture the emotional gist of the poem in an attempt to re-create it in the target language. One problem is that every reader, even the translator, is an individual, and two individuals do not necessarily agree in their experience of a work. Yet the translator has to make his choices and interpretations public, and so does the screenplay writer. To transfer a novel into film means to capture the narrative, philosophical and emotional gist in order to express it in a very different medium, through images, actions and sounds rather than descriptive words.

As the screenplay writer and the director choose to define the gist of their “translation”, they are in fact discarding a whole gamut of other possible choices.

 

Which is where their intentions and the audience’s expectations may collide.

 

"We are who we are. The sum of the lack we have," as Alan Rickman once put it in an interview about "The Winter Guest".

Who we are determines how we receive a story: our individual system of lacks, hopes, needs and expectations defines our experience. Those are the snags, hooks and loops that capture bits of the narrative flow as it runs through our mind, and we collect the captured pieces to make up our own reading of the story.

Our cultural background, of course, influences our personal “catch”:

Swedish critics tend to agree on the opinion that, to be believable, the Gryffindor teens in HBP ought to be darker, more troubled, more rebellious, more sexually aggressive, more self-centred – joining forces and working alongside the grown-ups against the Dark is claimed to be an Enid Blytonesque fiction.

My own reading and film appreciation, weaned and raised on “The Good Soldier Schweik” and “Firemen’s Ball”, leads me to sigh with relief at the absence of solemn, bombastic treatment of Dumbledore’s death. The sight of the reading glasses abandoned on his desk, of Ron sitting on the stone steps of the Astronomy Tower, of Fawkes leaving Hogwarts forever, of the raised wands united in a single “Lumos”, is quite enough to bring tears to my eyes and a lump to my throat. Meanwhile a majority of fans voice their disappointment over the strong emotional opportunity wasted, as many of them have looked forward to witnessing Dumbledore’s funeral on the big screen. (On the other hand, after reading “Deathly Hallows” I was not satisfied until I had written a funeral scene for Severus and given myself the chance to mourn him properly. Yes, it is about the lack we have.)

 

We fans of fantasy worlds, be it the Middle Earth, Potterverse or even Discworld, make a large emotional investment when reading and re-reading the books where “our” world was created. In looking forward to a film based on the saga, the promise of a visual representation brings us the hope to re-live the pleasure and satisfaction in a new, different mode. And we are disappointed quite in proportion to our emotional investment when a film version does not live up to each fan’s individual expectations.

 

There is nothing strange, freakish or immature in those hopes, expectations and disappointments. Perfectly sensible, academically proper literary scholars can get into veritable battles over adaptations of “War and Peace” and whether it is the 1956 King Vidor or the 1967 Bondarchuk version that most faithfully captures the “true spirit” of the novel.

 

The ultimate answer is, of course… impossible. You connect, more, less, or not at all.

Believe it or not, barring interference by certain greedy pigs, the movie makers mostly do their best to give us a valid vision of the story, although they have a slim chance to compete with the personal images and interpretations that you, I and all the other fans have made up for ourselves when reading the books. The best we can do in return is to make an effort to watch the film “innocently”, take a deep breath, order another pint and have another go at explaining why we feel about it the way we do. With a bit of Ravenclaw spirit, we may even learn a thing or two about our fellow fans, about ourselves and about different people’s understanding of books and films.

 

--- --- ---

 

Across the square from the building where we lived when I was a child, there is a mediaeval tower fronted by a famous astronomical clock much admired by tourists. On the opposite side, a piece of wall connects to the tower – instead of forming a building, the wall simply stops, as if a giant had ripped it off like a piece of cardboard. Where the main building of Prague’s Old Town Hall should be, there is only a grassy patch, more or less neglected as time goes by. The building was one of those bombed in the final days of the Second World War, the violent ending of the seven-year-long Nazi occupation.

 

Almost every street in the city centre has a plaque to the memory of someone killed in the May 1945 uprising. Today, those plaques do little more than collect dust, but in my childhood they had honour guards of schoolchildren in front of them on every national holiday. By simply asking grand-dad what they were doing there a three-year-old would learn what war was: death and destruction next door, down your street, in your back yard.

 

The opening sequence of “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” (HBP) evokes precisely that. Seeing my favourite London landmark, the bridge that I have crossed many times on my way to and from The Globe Theatre – most recently on the evening before the HBP screening – brutally and realistically ripped apart by the Dark forces has not just the pleasant thrill of a pop-corn action movie: it is a genuinely terrifying image of a piece of home being destroyed.

 

My mother was a teenager during the war, studying music and having her first love affair. Doing those things was what kept her sane. I go to IMDb and look up David Yates, English, born 1963. Close to my own age, might he too have grown up with eye-witness stories of the war, the Blitz, the destruction, the ways you sought normalcy under extreme circumstances by doing homework, playing sports, having a love affair?

 

Many of the choices in HBP seem to drive home this parallel. All of the familiar world is under attack: Diagon Alley, Hagrid’s hut, Hogwarts’ Great Hall, even The Burrow: all the safe havens, all the idyllic magical places go up in flames or are reduced to rubble and shards. Ultimately no safe spot remains where to hide, Slughorn-like, and pretend that it is not happening; no-where to rest, recover, take a break. Just Fred and George giving Voldemort the finger among the boarded-up ruins of Diagon Alley in their small, shrill theme park of rebellion.

 

Similarly, the quidditch and the teenage romance stand out in contrast with the surrounding chaos and destruction. In real life, wartime existence is not about going out and performing feats of heroism to bring down the enemy. It is about day-to-day life in spite of all, with all the ordinary motives, needs and pleasures, just as natural and necessary as in peacetime, but rendered both harder and more poignant by the lacks and dangers surrounding you. Getting a snog matters the more as tomorrow you may find a pile of debris where the girl’s house stood yesterday. Watching a show or playing a ball game is a moment of respite, a parenthesis of defiant normalcy, in the face of the enemy. It is a reminder of the things that are worth fighting for and a promise of what will return when the enemy is beaten. So the frivolous Windmill Theatre in London never closed throughout the war – and in HBP they go on playing quidditch at Hogwarts.

 

Forget “Independence Day”: shove an episode of “Foyle’s War” in the DVD player. In Nazi-time Europe, as in Potterverse, there is a war on, destroying people and places that we have taken for granted as safe havens. Even The Burrow burns down with the Weasleys helplessly looking on. Yet people are human, private lives go on, in the face of terror and destruction: just like the hormonal shenanigans of Hogwarts’ sixth-years.

 

--- --- ---

 

Experiencing Alan Rickman’s interpretation of Severus Snape is like watching an accomplished researcher reconstruct an ancient palimpsest. Gradually the bright, overly obvious surface picture becomes transparent, uncovering the subtle, complex pattern beneath it. Where the deep pattern cannot be discerned, the artists sketches shadowy outlines inviting the reader/viewer to fill in and create possible connections according to her own imagination.

 

Once again we become experts at legilimency, reading the character’s thoughts and feelings from signals that are barely there. Bellatrix is a child that enjoys pulling the wings off flies: the three terms of the Unbreakable Vow that she forces on Severus are like three cruel turns of some torturous tool, his reactions discernible through horribly, painfully subtle shifts in his facial expression, hinting at a mental weight that would have crushed a weaker, less determined man long ago. The two sisters busy with their own agendas, only you, the spectator, notice, understand and empathise.

 

Like Rickman’s Snape, Gambon’s Dumbledore speaks volumes through a look, a tilt of the head, a few steps. And Tom Felton, as Draco, finally gets an opportunity to show that he has been learning from the masters. Jim Broadbent does for Slughorn what Imelda Staunton did for Umbridge in "The Order of the Phoenix": turn him into a full-fledged grown-up character. In truth, as much as we all dream about being a Harry Potter or a Severus, how many would, in real life, not turn ourselves into an arm-chair when faced with the threat of Death Eaters?

But, as fictional Dumbledore relies on Snape, the real-life film makers rely on Alan Rickman to accomplish the impossible again and again. Of all the virtuoso British actors involved in the project, AR has the heaviest load to carry, the most material that is not made explicit in the screenplay but that the spectators need to know in order to understand what is going on.

 

Sometimes the lacuna is simply too large. Not even the most skilful wizard can uncover the full content of a palimpsest with crucial pages missing. In the case of HBP, the plot hole is big enough to fly a thestral through. And, typically, cruelly, ironically, Severus Snape is the character suffering from the omission.

– Why, why in the whole wide world would young Severus call himself a prince?!?

Those unfamiliar with the books are not given the slightest clue.

 

The novel’s Half-Blood Prince is a brilliant, troubled young man, finding refuge in identifying himself with his mother’s strong wizarding heritage. It is one of the key motives of his attraction to the racist, elitist Death-Eaters, strongly evocative of the authentic Nazi movement. His story is, in fact, a powerful warning against the dangers of chauvinism, racism, segregation in our very real Muggle world.

As the film provides no information about Snape’s background, we are left to speculate if the bullied teenager simply indulged in immature fantasies, referring to himself by grandiose invented titles and eventually joining another gang of bullies to get back at his tormentors.

 

This dumbing-down of the character reminds me of the Occlumency incident in the “Prisoner of Azkaban”. In the novel, the highly competent, intelligent, experienced teacher respects his student’s/opponent’s powers and puts potentially dangerous memories away for storage in a safe place.
In the film version I see an arrogant, emotional, dunderheaded Snape underestimate Harry’s powers and leave himself open to a highly predictable attack that he himself has provoked. Snape’s character is short-changed by the screenplay, for no obvious reason other than to postpone the introduction of the Pensieve – and possibly to provide a suitably Hollywoodish personal confrontation between Harry and his suspected “nemesis”.

 

It is sad to see Severus, but also Alan Rickman, reduced in this way. AR’s exceptional ability to express the unsaid is a unique asset when adapting a novel for film. “Perfume” comes to mind: as I read the novel I was mourning the way it captured the social and philosophical spirit of the period, a feature that I was convinced would have to be omitted from the film. Imagine my delighted surprise when I realised that precisely that dimension was personified by Richis’ appearance and actions, expressing the main abstract ideas of the novel with great accuracy by means native to the film medium. In the Harry Potter saga, thanks to AR, Professor Snape is alive and multi-dimensional, but he could have been so much more.

 

Human brains have special cells dedicated to “mirroring” emotional expressions and so enabling us to interpret them. Actors may not be aware of the theoretical background, but the best among them manipulate our mirror neurons with admirable impact and precision. When a film works well as a whole, as HBP often does, its other aspects support and strengthen this impact. There are images of heart-wrenching hidden drama, as in Spinner’s End and in the Astronomy Tower, and of sheer visual and vocal poetry, as in the Vulnera Sanentur sequence. Besides, Severus’s physical appearance in HBP is simply the stuff that fan fiction is made of.

AR’s performance certainly sensitises me to Severus’s mental states and hidden emotional dimensions. Not only as a part of a very enjoyable film, but as a welcome companion when reading the books and inventing my own derivative stories.

 

Many years ago I had imaginary friends – Athos, Cyrano de Bergerac and a few others – who helped me think clearly about right and wrong or simply kept me from ever feeling lonely. As I grew up, I sometimes felt nostalgic for the sensation of their presence. To my huge surprise, Severus appeared by my side a few years ago, and he shows no inclination to leave anytime soon. Having watched HBP only confirms once more that he is close at hand,

 

Welcome back, Severus; make yourself at home ... et mentis mei vulnera sanentur.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

(Lund, Sweden, July 2009)