Saturday, March 31, 2012

The Best English-Language Novels, 1900-2010

The adjective "best" in the post title is a bit misleading. The description "most significant" is probably more apt. Listed below are what are arguably the 300 most significant English-language novels and novellas published since 1900. The list was assembled from several "Best of" lists. Most of the titles included under the Group A through G headings can be found on one or more of the following lists:
Additionally, the following published lists were consulted, although a book had to be mentioned in more than one of them to rate inclusion in the A through G groups:
The groupings in Groups A through G were determined by descending number of mentions. Group A titles received the most mentions, Group B received the second-most, and so on. There were two exceptions among the titles: Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness and D. H. Lawrence's Sons and Lovers. The Conrad novella was elevated to Group B from Group C due to its status as perhaps the single most assigned English-language novel or novella in North American high-school and college English courses. (I also wanted a de facto top ten.) The Lawrence novel was elevated from Group E to Group D because the consulted lists skew somewhat against efforts prior to 1923, and he seemed by far the author most impacted.

Trilogies and other multi-volume works are not divided among the various groups. If more than one book in a multi-volume effort is deemed worthy of inclusion, then they are all listed under the same group heading.

The books under the Group H heading are my own personal choices. They were intended to name authors and works I felt were most conspicuously missing from the other groupings. Particular attention was given to prominent children's, young-adult, crime, horror, fantasy, and science-fiction novels. The only rule was that no author could have more than one book or multi-volume effort listed under the heading.

If one chooses to look at these listings as a lifetime reading list, the best approach is probably to work one's way down.

Happy Reading!

Group A
  • F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
  • Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita
  • George Orwell, 1984
  • J. D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye
Group B
  • Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness
  • William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury
  • Aldous Huxley, Brave New World
  • James Joyce, Ulysses
  • Jack Kerouac, On the Road
  • John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath
Group C
  • Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man
  • William Faulkner, As I Lay Dying
  • William Faulkner, Light in August
  • E. M. Forster, A Passage to India
  • William Golding, Lord of the Flies
  • Joseph Heller, Catch-22
  • Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises
  • James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
  • Malcolm Lowry, Under the Volcano
  • Toni Morrison, Beloved
  • Philip Roth, American Pastoral
  • Salman Rushdie, Midnight’s Children
  • J. R. R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, Book One: The Fellowship of the Ring
  • J. R. R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, Book Two: The Two Towers
  • J. R. R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, Book Three: The Return of the King
  • Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse
Group D
  • Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart
  • Paul Bowles, The Sheltering Sky
  • Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange
  • Joseph Conrad, Lord Jim
  • Don DeLillo, White Noise
  • Theodore Dreiser, An American Tragedy
  • Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms
  • D. H. Lawrence, Sons and Lovers
  • Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird
  • Jack London, The Call of the Wild
  • Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian
  • Carson McCullers, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter
  • Henry Miller, Tropic of Cancer
  • Margaret Mitchell, Gone with the Wind
  • George Orwell, Animal Farm
  • Walker Percy, The Moviegoer
  • John Updike, Rabbit, Run (The Rabbit Tetralogy, Book One)
  • John Updike, Rabbit Redux (The Rabbit Tetralogy, Book Two)
  • John Updike, Rabbit Is Rich (The Rabbit Tetralogy, Book Three)
  • John Updike, Rabbit at Rest (The Rabbit Tetralogy, Book Four)
  • Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five
  • Robert Penn Warren, All the King’s Men
  • Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited
  • Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway
  • Richard Wright, Native Son
Group E
  • Martin Amis, Money
  • James Baldwin, Go Tell It on the Mountain
  • Saul Bellow, The Adventures of Augie March
  • Saul Bellow, Herzog
  • William S. Burroughs, Naked Lunch
  • Willa Cather, Death Comes for the Archbishop
  • Willa Cather, My Ántonia
  • Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep
  • Joseph Conrad, Nostromo
  • Don DeLillo, Underworld
  • John Dos Passos, The 42nd Parallel (The U. S. A. Trilogy, Book One)
  • John Dos Passos, 1919 (The U. S. A. Trilogy, Book Two)
  • John Dos Passos, The Big Money (The U. S. A. Trilogy, Book Three)
  • William Faulkner, Absalom! Absalom!
  • F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tender Is the Night
  • Ford Madox Ford, The Good Soldier
  • E. M. Forster, Howards End
  • John Fowles, The French Lieutenant’s Woman
  • William Gaddis, The Recognitions
  • Robert Graves, I, Claudius
  • Henry Green, Loving
  • Graham Greene, The Heart of the Matter
  • Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God
  • Henry James, The Wings of the Dove
  • James Joyce, Finnegans Wake
  • Ken Kesey, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
  • Rudyard Kipling, Kim
  • D. H. Lawrence, The Rainbow (The Brangwen Sisters Duology, Book One)
  • D. H. Lawrence, Women in Love (The Brangwen Sisters Duology, Book Two)
  • Ian McEwan, Atonement
  • Toni Morrison, Song of Solomon
  • Vladimir Nabokov, Pale Fire
  • V. S. Naipaul, A Bend in the River
  • V. S. Naipaul, A House for Mr. Biswas
  • Flannery O’Connor, Wise Blood
  • Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow
  • Jean Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea
  • Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping
  • Philip Roth, Portnoy’s Complaint
  • Muriel Spark, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
  • William Styron, Sophie’s Choice
  • Evelyn Waugh, A Handful of Dust
  • Evelyn Waugh, Scoop
  • Nathanael West, The Day of the Locust
  • Edith Wharton, The Age of Innocence
Group F
  • Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
  • Kingsley Amis, Lucky Jim
  • Sherwood Anderson, Winesburg, Ohio
  • Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale
  • John Barth, The Sot-Weed Factor
  • Max Beerbohm, Zuleika Dobson
  • Arnold Bennett, The Old Wives’ Tale
  • Elizabeth Bowen, The Death of the Heart
  • Samuel Butler, The Way of All Flesh
  • A. S. Byatt, Possession
  • Peter Carey, Oscar and Lucinda
  • Willa Cather, O Pioneers!
  • Joseph Conrad, The Secret Agent
  • Don DeLillo, Libra
  • James Dickey, Deliverance
  • E. L. Doctorow, Ragtime
  • E. L. Doctorow, World’s Fair
  • Theodore Dreiser, Sister Carrie
  • Lawrence Durrell, The Alexandria Quartet, Book One: Justine
  • Lawrence Durrell, The Alexandria Quartet, Book Two: Balthazar
  • Lawrence Durrell, The Alexandria Quartet, Book Three: Mountolive
  • Lawrence Durrell, The Alexandria Quartet, Book Four: Clea
  • Ford Madox Ford, Parade’s End, Book One: Some Do Not…
  • Ford Madox Ford, Parade’s End, Book Two: No More Parades
  • Ford Madox Ford, Parade’s End, Book Three: A Man Could Stand Up—
  • Ford Madox Ford, Parade’s End, Book Four: Last Post
  • Richard Ford, The Sportswriter (The Frank Bascombe Trilogy, Book One)
  • Richard Ford, Independence Day (The Frank Bascombe Trilogy, Book Two)
  • Richard Ford, The Lay of the Land (The Frank Bascombe Trilogy, Book Three)
  • E. M. Forster, A Room with a View
  • John Fowles, The Magus
  • Jonathan Franzen, The Corrections
  • William Gibson, Neuromancer
  • Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows
  • Graham Greene, The Power and the Glory
  • Dashiell Hammett, The Maltese Falcon
  • Ernest Hemingway, For Whom the Bell Tolls
  • Aldous Huxley, Point Counter Point
  • John Irving, A Prayer for Owen Meany
  • John Irving, The World According to Garp
  • Christopher Isherwood, The Berlin Stories
  • Henry James, The Ambassadors
  • Henry James, The Golden Bowl
  • Thomas Keneally, Schindler’s List
  • William Kennedy, Ironweed
  • D. H. Lawrence, Lady Chatterley’s Lover
  • Doris Lessing, The Golden Notebook
  • Sinclair Lewis, Babbitt
  • Sinclair Lewis, Main Street
  • Norman Mailer, The Naked and the Dead
  • W. Somerset Maugham, Of Human Bondage
  • Cormac McCarthy, Suttree
  • Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons, Watchmen
  • Iris Murdoch, Under the Net
  • Flann O’Brien, At Swim-Two-Birds
  • John O’Hara, Appointment in Samarra
  • Anthony Powell, A Dance to the Music of Time, Book One: A Question of Upbringing
  • Anthony Powell, A Dance to the Music of Time, Book Two: A Buyer’s Market
  • Anthony Powell, A Dance to the Music of Time, Book Three: The Acceptance World
  • Anthony Powell, A Dance to the Music of Time, Book Four: At Lady Molly’s
  • Anthony Powell, A Dance to the Music of Time, Book Five: Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant
  • Anthony Powell, A Dance to the Music of Time, Book Six: The Kindly Ones
  • Anthony Powell, A Dance to the Music of Time, Book Seven: The Valley of Bones
  • Anthony Powell, A Dance to the Music of Time, Book Eight: The Soldier’s Art
  • Anthony Powell, A Dance to the Music of Time, Book Nine: The Military Philosophers
  • Anthony Powell, A Dance to the Music of Time, Book Ten: Books Do Furnish a Room
  • Anthony Powell, A Dance to the Music of Time, Book Eleven: Temporary Kings
  • Anthony Powell, A Dance to the Music of Time, Book Twelve: Hearing Secret Harmonies
  • Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49
  • Thomas Pynchon, V.
  • Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged
  • Ayn Rand, The Fountainhead
  • Philip Roth, The Counterlife
  • Philip Roth, Operation Shylock
  • Philip Roth, Sabbath’s Theater
  • Salman Rushdie, The Satanic Verses
  • Christina Stead, The Man Who Loved Children
  • Robert Stone, Dog Soldiers
  • Kurt Vonnegut, Cat’s Cradle
  • Edith Wharton, Ethan Frome
  • Edith Wharton, The House of Mirth
  • E. B. White, Charlotte’s Web
  • Thornton Wilder, The Bridge of San Luis Rey
  • Tom Wolfe, The Bonfire of the Vanities
  • Virginia Woolf, Orlando
Group G
  • James Agee, A Death in the Family
  • Margaret Atwood, The Blind Assassin
  • L. Frank Baum, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz
  • Saul Bellow, Henderson the Rain King
  • Judy Blume, Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret
  • James M. Cain, The Postman Always Rings Twice
  • Erskine Caldwell, Tobacco Road
  • John Cheever, Falconer
  • John Cheever, The Wapshot Chronicle
  • Philip K. Dick, Ubik
  • Joan Didion, Play It as It Lays
  • J. P. Donleavy, The Ginger Man
  • Daphne du Maurier, Rebecca
  • James T. Farrell, Studs Lonigan, Book One: Young Lonigan
  • James T. Farrell, Studs Lonigan, Book Two: The Young Manhood of Studs Lonigan
  • James T. Farrell, Studs Lonigan, Book Three: Judgment Day
  • F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Beautiful and the Damned
  • F. Scott Fitzgerald, This Side of Paradise
  • E. M. Forster, Where Angels Fear to Tread
  • Dashiell Hammett, Red Harvest
  • Mark Helprin, Winter’s Tale
  • Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea
  • Richard Hughes, A High Wind in Jamaica
  • Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go
  • Edward P. Jones, The Known World
  • James Jones, From Here to Eternity
  • John Knowles, A Separate Peace
  • Arthur Koestler, Darkness at Noon
  • Jerzy Kosinski, The Painted Bird
  • John le Carré, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold
  • C. S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
  • Bernard Malamud, The Assistant
  • Cormac McCarthy, All the Pretty Horses (The Border Trilogy, Book One)
  • Cormac McCarthy, The Crossing (The Border Trilogy, Book Two)
  • Cormac McCarthy, Fires on the Plain (The Border Trilogy, Book Three)
  • A. A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh
  • Toni Morrison, Jazz
  • Henry Roth, Call It Sleep
  • Philip Roth, The Human Stain
  • Philip Roth, The Plot Against America
  • Norman Rush, Mating
  • J. D. Salinger, Franny and Zooey
  • Upton Sinclair, The Jungle
  • Zadie Smith, White Teeth
  • Wallace Stegner, Angle of Repose
  • John Steinbeck, Of Mice and Men
  • Neal Stephenson, Snow Crash
  • William Styron, The Confessions of Nat Turner
  • Booth Tarkington, The Magnificent Ambersons
  • John Kennedy Toole, A Confederacy of Dunces
  • Alice Walker, The Color Purple
  • David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest
  • Thomas Wolfe, Look Homeward, Angel
  • Richard Yates, Revolutionary Road
Group H
  • Richard Adams, Watership Down
  • Djuna Barnes, Nightwood
  • Saul Bellow, Seize the Day
  • Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451
  • Pearl S. Buck, The Good Earth
  • Truman Capote, Breakfast at Tiffany’s
  • Orson Scott Card, Ender’s Game
  • Joyce Cary, The Horse’s Mouth
  • Willa Cather, A Lost Lady
  • Agatha Christie, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd
  • Arthur C. Clarke, Childhood’s End
  • Michael Crichton, The Andromeda Strain
  • Robertson Davies, Fifth Business
  • Junot Díaz, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
  • Thomas M. Disch, On Wings of Song
  • Arthur Conan Doyle, The Hound of the Baskervilles
  • Jennifer Egan, A Visit from the Goon Squad
  • John Fowles, The Collector
  • William Gaddis, J R
  • Nadine Gordimer, The Conservationist
  • Judith Guest, Ordinary People
  • Robert A. Heinlein, Stranger in a Strange Land
  • Frank Herbert, Dune
  • Patricia Highsmith, The Talented Mr. Ripley
  • S. E. Hinton, The Outsiders
  • Laura Z. Hobson, Gentlemen’s Agreement
  • Kazuo Ishiguro, The Remains of the Day
  • Stephen King, The Stand
  • John le Carré, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
  • Ursula K. Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness
  • Sinclair Lewis, It Can’t Happen Here
  • H. P. Lovecraft, At the Mountains of Madness
  • Bernard Malamud, The Fixer
  • Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall
  • Richard Matheson, I Am Legend
  • W. Somerset Maugham, The Razor’s Edge
  • Cormac McCarthy, The Road
  • Mary McCarthy, The Group
  • Larry McMurtry, Lonesome Dove
  • Henry Miller, Tropic of Capricorn
  • Walter M. Miller, Jr., A Canticle for Liebowitz
  • Lucy Maud Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables
  • Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye
  • Ngugi wa-Thion’go, A Grain of Wheat
  • Alan Paton, Cry, the Beloved Country
  • Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar
  • Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, The Yearling
  • Philip Roth, Goodbye, Columbus
  • J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (Book One)
  • J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (Book Two)
  • J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (Book Three)
  • J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (Book Four)
  • J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (Book Five)
  • J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (Book Six)
  • J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Book Seven)
  • Alice Sebold, The Lovely Bones
  • Betty Smith, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
  • John Steinbeck, East of Eden
  • Amy Tan, The Joy Luck Club
  • Jim Thompson, The Killer Inside Me
  • Jean Toomer, Cane
  • Anne Tyler, Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant
  • Chris Ware, Jimmy Corrigan
  • Rebecca West, The Return of the Soldier
  • Edith Wharton, The Custom of the Country

Friday, March 30, 2012

Movie Review: The Ides of March

George Clooney directed, co-produced, co-wrote, and co-stars in the politics melodrama The Ides of March. The setting of the story is a presidential campaign, and Clooney’s best move was to cast himself as the candidate. His charisma is firing on all cylinders, and he makes the candidate’s ability to inspire supporters effortlessly convincing. Clooney’s worst move was to put the tired script into production. The protagonist isn’t the candidate; it’s the campaign’s number-two operative (Ryan Gosling), and the picture is about his transition from idealism to cynical ruthlessness. He and the other campaign officials are unconvincingly written; they seem far too rigid and earnest to function well in the mercurial environment of politics. The intrigues inside the campaign are uninspired and overly histrionic. Those involving the press, a rival campaign, and a valued potential endorsement never rise above the perfunctory. Clooney has assembled a first-rate cast (besides himself and Gosling, it includes Philip Seymour Hoffman, Evan Rachel Wood, Paul Giamatti, Marisa Tomei, Jennifer Ehle, and Jeffrey Wright), but he doesn’t give them much worth doing. Even the dialogue is flat. The directing is unimaginative; Clooney shoots the script as if he were making a play on location. There’s no attention paid to creating the urgent, chaotic atmosphere of a political campaign. The picture looks professionally made, but as an entertainment it just lays there.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Movie Review: Morgan!

Morgan! (called Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment in the opening titles) is a London-set romantic farce that was produced around the same time as Georgy Girl, and it has dated even worse. Director Karel Reisz and scenarist David Mercer have the same basic goal as the Georgy Girl filmmakers, which is to adapt the style of the French nouvelle vague films to commercial comedy. And as in Georgy Girl, the effect of mating that material with the existential aesthetic of the French is ludicrous. Of the two, Georgy Girl is the easier to take, largely because it has a plot. Morgan! is little more than a collection of slapstick setpieces that wouldn't have been out of place in a Three Stooges short. The ostensible story is about the efforts of a pathologically childish working-class artist (David Warner) to woo back his upper-class ex-wife (Vanessa Redgrave) before she marries her new beau. However, there's little in the way of dramatic construction, and the naturalistic manner of the film works against the humor of the slapstick and other farcical elements. The filmmakers seem engaged in a futile effort to make stalking, vandalism, and kidnapping funny. The picture has a number of '60s "with it" touches, such as the Warner character's fascination with Communist leaders and imagery, but they're strictly decorative. The same is true of his interest in gorillas and other apes--the cutaways to clips from African wildlife documentaries, Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan films, and the original King Kong never connect to anything more than pretension. Karel Reisz and cinematographer Larry Pike do a superficially capable job of staging and shooting scenes in location settings; it would be interesting to see them use those skills with compatible material.


Fiction Review: James M. Cain, Mildred Pierce

James M. Cain is a rather disreputable author. His name is all but synonymous with sex-and-violence noir melodrama, and while many find him compulsively readable, he doesn't exactly inspire reverence. (Cain's male characters don't embody adolescent masculine ideals the way Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett's do, and that may account for those authors' higher statures.) However, Cain's 1941 novel Mildred Pierce rises far above the level of pot-boiler. It's the work of a first-rate writer of prose fiction. The story is set during the Great Depression, and the title character is a middle-class divorcée who goes from near destitution to up-from-the-bootstraps success as a restauranteur. It's hard to say what is more impressive: Cain's fast-paced, no-frills prose, his ability to craft incident and character into a full-bodied narrative, or his absolutely stunning eye for social detail. That said, he also gives his talent for lurid sensationalism a good deal of play. There's plenty of grit and sex, and most of the novel's juice in its latter sections comes from its fresh reworking of the femme fatale scenario. The good man isn't brought down by his misplaced love for a wicked, manipulative woman. Rather, Mildred is undone by her devotion to her daughter, a haughty, conniving minx who uses sex as a weapon to get her way. It's not a great novel--for all his ability, Cain lacks poetic daring and dazzle--but it's an extremely satisfying one. There have been two noteworthy film adaptations, in 1945 with Joan Crawford (review here), and in 2011 with Kate Winslet (review here).

Monday, March 19, 2012

Movie Review: Hanna

The director Joe Wright is known for tony literary adaptations such as Pride and Prejudice and Atonement. With Hanna, he tries his hand at a pulp adventure story. The title character, played by Saoirse Ronan, is a teenage girl who has been raised in isolation by her father (Eric Bana) in the subarctic Finnish wilderness. The father is a former CIA agent, and he has been training Hanna since birth to be the perfect spy and assassin. After he feels she has come of age, he sends her out in the world, where she becomes the target of a senior CIA operative (Cate Blanchett). The journey is one part mission and one part road to self-discovery. Much of it is Hanna coming into her own as an indomitable killing machine, a aspect of herself about which she becomes increasingly ambivalent. The film is a glossily incompetent mess. The screenplay, credited to Seth Lochhead and David Farr, from a story by Lochhead, doesn’t give Hanna’s odyssey a clear purpose, and there’s no urgency as a result. The picture treats the Blanchett character’s designs on Hanna as a mystery, but there’s no suspense there, either. One isn’t made to feel what’s at stake if she did nab Hanna, so it’s hard to work up much concern. The thinking appears to be that since Hanna and her father are the “good” characters, and the Blanchett character and her agents are the “bad” ones, then that should be enough for the audience’s engagement with the chases and the confrontations. Matters aren’t helped by Wright’s flabby direction. He shows little interest in pace or drama; the scenes function as an excuse for empty flamboyance. He's very fond of intricately edited montage and extended traveling Steadicam shots. Each are strikingly executed, but one would be a lot more impressed if Wright managed to enhance the story with them. (He would also do well to avoid single-take shooting in action scenes; his fight choreography is abysmal.) The disinterest in effective storytelling extends to his handling of the actors. The only performer who makes an impression is Blanchett, and it’s the wrong kind: her sleek villainy is so cartoonish one can’t help giggling. The elegant cinematography is by Alwin Küchler. The Chemical Brothers provide the annoying electronica score.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Movie Review: Take Shelter

Take Shelter, written and directed by Jeff Nichols, is a potent, affecting film. Michael Shannon gives a richly felt performance as a working-class Ohio man who is faced with the onset of clinical mental illness. It begins to manifest itself in a series of nightmares: oil raining from the sky, assaults from loved ones, and apocalyptic storms. But he cannot shake the dreams after awaking, and he becomes increasingly obsessed with expanding and outfitting the tornado shelter in his backyard. The film doesn’t once flinch from the real-life consequences of the character’s behavior. Nichols and Shannon take the viewer inside his terror at his psychological decline, and much of the narrative's power comes from watching him gradually undermine the various pillars of his life, including his relationships with work, friends, and family. The film’s major flaw is that it is far more intelligent than imaginative. The hallucinatory dream sequences aside, the picture feels trapped in the mundane. Nichols seems far more concerned with evoking pathos than finding poetry or catharsis in the story. The film is harrowing, but it is not especially edifying; there’s just too much pain and not enough artistry. One may feel compelled to leave before it is over. The luminous Jessica Chastain is a forceful, grounded presence as the Shannon character's wife.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Movie Review: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (Film Two)

The screen adaptation of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, the second in J. K. Rowling’s series of Harry Potter novels, is a comedown from the first film. The director, Chris Columbus, has long had a weakness for hectic staging, overdone slapstick, and cartoonish overacting. The first third or so (almost an hour) is a Columbus film in the worst sense. The noisiness is more annoying than usual, because it undermines pleasant memories of the first film. The picture doesn’t improve much after it settles down and gets into the main story, which deals with a deadly threat to the Hogwarts School's less than full-blooded students. The screenwriter, Steve Kloves, capably streamlines the plot, and the individual scenes are deftly written, but Columbus can’t build any momentum. The various setpieces seem more about illustrating the story than telling it. The anti-bigotry theme of the original book isn’t effectively dramatized, either. It’s a toss-up whether Rupert Grint or Kenneth Branagh is the worst served among the actors. Grint’s skittish, insecure Ron Weasley was one of the more enjoyable characters in the first film; here, he’s Don Knotts as a British tween. Branagh would seem ideally cast as the showboating narcissist Gilderoy Lockhart, but the performance is painfully overscaled. He often needs a director to tell him no, and one is certainly reminded why. As for Robbie Coltrane and Emma Watson, the stand-out performers in the first film, they're not bad, but they don't make much of an impression. One will be relieved when the film is over.

Other Reviews of Harry Potter Material:

Novels by J. K. Rowling