Hello and welcome to In Too Deep Harry Potter vs Star Wars, where I finally decide which one of these franchise is better.
Now a year or so ago James Daniel Walsh wrote this infamous statement: â€œStar Wars is the cultural mythos of our generationâ€, to which I argued that while it was true for his generation, my generation’s cultural mythos was Harry Potter. Now, a year of putting it off, I’m finally going to sit down and analyse both of these franchise. So without further ado…
Now last time we had Les deliver a simply brilliant blog about the impact Star Wars had on the film-making world. And while I’m a bit ‘eh’ on some of the details, I conclude overall with the assessment. The original Star Wars film did a lot to change film-making… BUT, I think Les sold it short. Because while as much as we hate the prequels, they did a lot as well. However, did the prequels do more than the Harry Potter film series? Lets find out.
Now I’ll give Les everything he said about the original Star Wars films. Well-researched, well-argued, and there was never really a doubt in my mind the impact Star Wars had. It did change the film-making world. Had Star Wars not been made would something else have come along instead? Possibly. Or, more actually, only possible in the case of multiple things. Something would have come along to boost up the special effects, something else would have advanced the field of sound effects, a third something would have done good sound mixing etc. The point being that there would have been several little things that advanced the technology, rather than one big defining moment in film history. So were these things inevitable? Sure, I’d argue that they were. Some things would have come along to do them. But one thing did more than multiple smaller things, hence why Star Wars deserves its credit. But, that’s in terms of the original Star Wars films? What did the prequel trilogy bring to the table?
For you see, I’m often surprised that when this argument comes up, no one points out that Star Wars Episode One: The Phantom Menace was likewise revolutionary when it came to one simple point: Jar Jar Binks, one of the first CGI characters to ever be integrated with live-action successfully. Now from memory Casper beats him by a few years, but by and large Jar Jar was right at the forefront of this technology (and is more important than Casper because, since Casper is a ghost and all, they could cheat and not have to bother making the character interact with the people on screen the same way they do with Jar Jar). Jar Jar showed that you could have a CGI character interact with the live-action scenes in a way that people found believable. Now I could note all the other CGI characters but, since Jar Jar has the most screen time, it’s easier to stick with him (that and another reason I’ll get to in a moment). Now some of the younger readers probably don’t understand the revelation it was to have a CGI character in a live-action film. The simplest way of explaining it is thus: Go and watch Toy Story 2 (released the same year as Phantom Menace) and compare that, visually, to Toy Story 3. Suddenly you’ll notice the almost black and white difference between the visuals. Toy Story 3 is leagues better than Toy Story 2. And at the time, Toy Story 2 was a breakthrough in CGI animation. Toy Story, the first completely CGI-film, had only been released four years ago. Even the concept of CGI was only just being created in 1973, four years before Star Wars, where the big draw of Westworld was that the â€œdigital image processingâ€ technique allowed us to see the world from the robot’s point of view (though Star Wars did actually have CGI in it for the trench run briefing sequence, so it was already getting ahead of the curve in that regard). But the first film that one could easily recognize as being ‘CGI’ would be Tron in 1982, and the technology closely resembling what eventually helped build Jar Jar coming in around 1991 with Terminator 2: Judgement Day. But Star Wars Episode One was the first film to really take CGI and run with it in a big way, having thousands of shots in CGI. Up to this point CGI was still relatively new, especially when compared with today. So Star Wars once again gets ahead of the curve, pushing the envelope before anyone else. But why did I choose to talk about Jar Jar specifically?
Because it’s a damn shame that people are so quick to write these films off because they’re poorly written and, in turn, ignore all the good that came from them. If we didn’t have the prequel trilogy, it’s unlikely that the special-effects heavy world we find ourselves in would have come to being. A lot of franchises owe it to the creation of CGI for helping them put their fantastical worlds on screen, but one of the biggest boosts of this was good old fashioned Star Wars. Now in this case it’s harder to say whether this boom would have existed if the prequels weren’t made, because no doubt other films around the time were pushing the envelope (Titanic being the nearest example), but Star Wars definitely helped popularize it. So while I agree with what Les said about the original trilogy, he did leave a very massive gap where he didn’t acknowledge how much the prequel trilogy impacted the film-making world as well.
But, for all the praise, there must be a condemnation. Or, in this case, a slight disagreement. Les brings up some good points about Harry Potter, yes, but I feel the need to build off what he already set-up. Because while Star Wars and Harry Potter both had huge impacts on the film-making world, both had impacts in wildly different directions. And while Star Wars did a lot on the technical side of things, Harry Potter did a whole lot more on the commercial side of things.
For, you see, before Harry Potter came out there was literally nothing like it. There’s a simple way of showcasing its power: Name for me one other film franchise before it that told one large story over a bunch of individual movies and kept the same continuity throughout? The Roger Moore James Bond movies kept the same lead actor for seven movies in a row, but they weren’t seven movies closely tied together. Each movie was clearly its own stand-alone movie, meant to be watched without heavy reference to what came before or after (â€¦ except Moonraker, but only because it’s a blatant remake of the previous film, The Spy Who Loved Me). Likewise while the concept of the trilogy certainly existed before and after Harry Potter, none had spanned this long. Even something like Star Trek, which had the original cast for six films, was merely the continuation of the TV series on the big screen. Likewise while there were comedy movies starring the same actors/characters (Costello and Abbott for example), they were never telling one overall story. And herein lies the real success of Harry Potter: It’s essentially a BBC miniseries placed on the big screen. It’s a 20 hour story that happens to be split into eight separate entities. The fact that it’s not one big 20 hour film is purely out of convenience then anything else (and profit… and sanity… but you get the drift). The same way Harry Potter is just one really long story split into seven books, it is likewise one really long story split into eight movies. Nothing had been attempted on a scale like this before. Taking a bunch of actors and keeping them together for an entire decade? Especially when the leads are kids? Madness, total madness. And yet it exists. But since Les already covered this, lets look at the other things this film franchise did. Namely, three huge things that we’re still seeing the impact of today:
The Fantasy Genre: Now one might argue that the Lord of the Rings films weren’t a direct result of the Harry Potter films (since Peter Jackson started work on it before the book was released), but it is a funny coincidence that both the first Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings films came out in the same year (and, as I put it to my Dad, Lord of the Rings was just â€œgrown-up Harry Potterâ€ when I first heard about and saw it). But it’s from both these films that the fantasy genre gained a foothold that lead to great shows such as Game of Thrones today. Had Lord of the Rings existed on its own, it would have been a hit, sure, but it wouldn’t have relaunched the fantasy genre. Rather it’d have been seen as a separate thing, an impressive movie on the scale of Ben Hur. But, thanks to the one-two of the two films coming out simultaneously, the fantasy genre got the boom it needed. Without Harry Potter, we probably wouldn’t have Game of Thrones. After all, Game of Thrones is taking the same concept Harry Potter did but applying it to the small screen. A generation that grew up reading the fantasy genre of Harry Potter is eager for more grown-up fantasy work, leading to the existence and population of the Game of Thrones TV series. Likewise the Narnia chronicles could only exist because the Harry Potter paved so much of the way beforehand (even if the films did end up sinking under the weight of their own symbolism). The fantasy genre was reborn anew with the creation of the Harry Potter films, with the effects still being felt today.
The Expanded Universe concept: If Star Wars was the game-changer of the 70s, and Harry Potter of the 00s, it’s with little doubt that I can say that the Marvel Cinematic Universe is the game-changer of the 10s. Hell in twenty years time I’ll no doubt be arguing with some young whipper-snapper who claims that The Avengers and co had more of an important impact on the world than Harry Potter (and he’ll probably be right, but more on that on another day). Marvel presented the idea of having viewers watch separate movies and pay attention to the continuity across all of them, rather than having one individual film series. But this wouldn’t have happened if it wasn’t for Harry Potter setting up the idea that large-scale stories can be told over multiple films. Harry Potter proved that audiences would come back time and again for stories such as these, despite their ‘inconvenience’ when it comes to creating them. As such, this is in turn feeding into the greater world in general. We’ll touch on this more when we talk about the future of both franchises, but Star Wars has been big to promote the idea of a Cinematic universe to rival that of Marvel’s. They plan to have side-films that relate to the overall trilogy and show greater expansion to the Star Wars universe. An idea taken from Marvel that was first created by Harry Potter, which in turn was helped created by the existence of Star Wars. So in a way, Star Wars has come full circle by following the trend set by Harry Potter in the first place.
The large-scale franchise: Now this is where it gets tricky. One will quickly pop up to argue that Star Wars is a franchise, what with its six films and its impact in pop culture. And while that’s true, there are two separate sides to this. Star Wars the films and Star Wars the franchise are two different concepts, ones we’ll explore at a later date. To put it simply: The Star Wars Holiday Special is not a Star Wars film, it just happens to be a rather unfortunate misstep in the franchise’s history. So how does this differ from Harry Potter? Well as of time of writing, there are no ‘side-projects’ of the Harry Potter franchise. Oh sure, this will change in a few years, but as of now (and when the films were being conceived), everything was done under this one franchise umbrella of Harry Potter. Everything tied back to the films being one large story that had yet to even have a conclusion, rather than individual films that spun off from them. In fact for the longest time Harry Potter had no expanded universe to speak of (which I’ve either talked about before or will talk about, depending on the order I post these). The Star Wars films created the franchise. The Harry Potter films are the franchise.
The Two-Part Sequel: Now this is one where one could heavily debate whether Harry Potter invented it, or popularized it. After all the Matrix had the same idea in the early 2000s, of splitting a film in two in order to tell a grander narrative. And the idea had existed before that with the likes of Back to the Future 2 and 3. So the idea of filming one film and splitting it into two was not a new idea. However, Back to the Future 2 and 3 are clearly two different films. There’s a nice, logical divide between the two of them. Even Star Wars follows this logic with The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. Clearly these two films can be taken as separate entities. Sure the events of the fifth lead into the events of the sixth, and the fifth ends on a cliffhanger of sorts, but one would hardly say that both films are designed to be watched back-to-back with no gap in-between. There’s quite a clear gap between the Star Wars films that isn’t in the last two Harry Potter films. And ever since Harry Potter has done it we’ve seen the idea been picked up and run with. The final Twilight movie got split into two, the last Avengers movie is going to be split into two, The Hunger Games final movie was split into two and so on and so forth. It’s actually quite a ballsy move: Taking one story and spreading it out in order to tell a more coherent tale, even if there’s a wait in-between the individual parts. And no doubt Star Wars itself will adopt this trend when it splits one of its later movies in half. So once again, Harry Potter is influencing the way Star Wars is going to be made in the future.
Now I think it’s important to note that, while we’re talking about the film series of both franchises, we need to address the prequels again. I’ve mentioned before how they paved the way for technical achievements, but conveniently side-stepped the biggest flaw in them: They’re narratively terrible. Watching them back as an adult it’s clear why these films are so disliked, even if the kids in the audience are perfectly happily to gloss over the boring stuff and remember the lightsaber battles instead. Despite all the successes the films have technically, the story-telling aspect let them down. Which is where Harry Potter comes in. Star Wars Episode One sits right in the middle of the first Harry Potter book coming out, and the first Harry Potter movie coming out. In fact we already had the first three Harry Potter books when the first prequel movie came out, so we were already hooked on Harry Potter. And when we youngings did go see Star Wars… See, I’m always in the camp that liked the prequels because they were made for my age group. They were made for kids. But that’s part of the problem: They were disposable pulp that was quickly forgotten about until the next thing came along. Harry Potter was still a big part of our lives, at least in terms of books, and the films were getting ready to come along and hook us in. Star Wars never had a hold on my generation the same way it did in the past, nor did it impact us as much as Harry Potter. The prequels now get held in contempt, a mistake that shouldn’t be counted, while Harry Potter is still fondly remembered by my generation. The kids of my day (of which I was one) were far more eager to see Harry Potter than they were to see Star Wars. So despite the good the prequels did when it came to pushing the technology, it failed to impress culturally.
But that’s just the films of the last few years. Join me next time as I look at the future of both the franchises to see what is going to come of them. If you disagree with anything, or have anything to add, feel free to comment. Till next time.