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Monday, August 1, 2011

The Deathly Hallows, Part II: A Palimpsest?

palimpsest is a page from a scroll or book from which the text has been scraped off and used again. The original writing was washed off using milk and oat bran. However, with the passing of time, faint remains of the former writing sometimes reappear such that it can be read and interpreted.

A number of ancient works have survived only as palimpsests. The best-known in the legal world was discovered in 1816 by Niebuhr and Savigny in the library of Verona cathedral. Underneath letters of St. Jerome and Gennadius they found an almost complete text of The Institutes of Gaius, probably the first student's textbook on Roman law. And about about sixty palimpsest manuscripts of the Greek New Testament have survived.

The term has been broadened and applied in different contexts. For example, it has been used to refer to a plaque that has been engraved on what was originally the back. In planetary astronomy, the ancient craters on icy moons of the outer Solar System whose relief has almost disappeared and have left behind only a trace, are known as palimpsests. And the opening credits of the film version of The Name of the Rose describe the film as "A palimpsest of the novel by Umberto Eco," which (if you read the book's introduction) is something of a palimpsest itself (or at least Eco wants you to think that it is).

I'm unaware of anyone who has referred to the second part of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows as a palimpsest of the book by the same name, but it strikes me as an apt description. Like all movies it has its own logic and narrative but a trace of the book remains and is detectable. Luckily for Harry Potter fans, especially fans of the books, the final movie does better than most movies in terms of staying "true" to the spirit of the book. It obviously couldn't keep every scene, conversation, and thought in a two-hour and ten minute movie, but it adheres relatively closely to the book's story line and intentions. Its retelling of "The Princes's Tale" (Chapter 33 in the book) is brilliant movie-making (and should win Alan Rickman an Oscar), and I think the movie's version of "King's Cross" (Chapter 35) does a better job in explaining what happened on the night Harry got his scar than the book does. I would've preferred that the final confrontation between Voldemort and Harry had included some of the verbal jousting that is in the book, but you can't have it all.

I think it is no surprise that the ratings of this final installment in the Harry Potter movies ratings (see Internet Movie Database (IMDB) and Rotten Tomatoes) are not only higher than any of the other Harry Potter movies, but higher than most movies, period. Not a bad way to end the series.

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