Thursday, August 21, 2008

She Who Must Be Read

Reflections on Rowling’s Harry Potter Series, at the Halfway Point, by a Luddite Muggle
It seems impossible, or maybe magic was involved, but somehow I managed to completely avoid the entire Harry Potter phenomenon up until about a year or so ago when the film version of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix was released. By ‘avoid’, of course, all I mean is that I didn’t personally read the books or watch the films. There IS no magic that could make any citizen of the Western world avoid this incredibly popular creative explosion entirely. The simple fact that there’s no need to even expand on their popularity, because everyone already knows all about it, says it all.

But, like just about everyone else who is a part of civilization, I eventually fell under its spell. I think I may have the most backward entry into the series ever, though. I entered the Harry Potter universe through the film just mentioned above. That’s right, I STARTED with the film version of the fifth novel. Huh?? Before then I just wasn’t convinced that the books would hold my interest. It’s not that I thought they weren’t good books. I didn’t really know how they would measure up in terms of literary quality, because I had never cracked one open. But I just didn’t take much of an interest in fantasy, wizards, spells, sorcery, wands, and all of that. I never even made it through the Narnia series. It just hasn’t really been my thing. It still isn’t.

So how did I decide to enter the story, and at the fifth movie? More or less by accident. I was going to the movies with a friend, and he is a huge fan of the series. Neither one of us ever get to go to the movies too often, and at that time Phoenix was just hitting theaters. He’d read all the books to date (the world was still waiting for Book Seven) and was saying that he really wanted to see the newest film, but he knew we couldn’t go because I hadn’t read the book or seen the other films. ‘So what?’ I said. I like going to the movies, and can usually find at least something to enjoy in almost any movie. I was curious to see what sort of job they were doing on the films. I suggested I would go to the movie with him if, over a burger beforehand, he would give me the world’s quickest primer on the first four Harry Potter novels. He did, and off we went.

Most of the films are wonderful, I think, and Phoenix was no exception. But this post is about the novels. You see, in the first few scenes of the fifth film, I knew I was going to have to go back and read every one of the books. In deciding I would not like the Harry Potter series because I wasn’t into wizardry-type stories, I had forgotten the simple power of stories themselves. A good story is a good story. It can be about anything, as long as its creator draws you into the unique world of it through believable characters that you care about. And it became clear to me – after it had already been clear to hundreds of millions of other people – that the entire Harry Potter universe boils down to one great, great story. It drew me right in.

Once I got into the novels, I learned what most others knew – that there is no getting out until you go all the way through. It’s a fantastic story set in a vivid and fully-realized fictional universe. The overarching concept of the orphaned boy with special abilities he doesn’t fully understand trying to get to the heart of the mystery of his own curious existence is certainly nothing new, it’s in everything from Oliver Twist to Star Wars. But it’s still a brilliant conceit, because it hooks our sympathies from the very beginning of the series, and never affords us the opportunity to lose our compassion for Harry Potter. Are you going to lose your sympathy for a kid that’s merely trying to find out why someone murdered both of his parents and what it means? Me neither.

For me, the funny thing about it all is that once I was drawn in to the story, by the circumstances and for the reasons I just explained, I could find, and continue to find, plenty of my own personal motives for continuing to unpack it. Of course I find the storyline compelling, but I find other aspects of this fictional series even more intriguing. Such as the amazing tale of how it got started in the first place, the well-known story of author Joanne Rowling’s fateful 1990 ride on a London train in which she conceived of the entire saga in one tremendous windfall of inspiration. Or the totally unpredictable phenomenon of its worldwide domination as the most popular fictional story in literary history. Or the absolute genius of Rowling’s plotting skills, something I think no one has even approached since Charles Dickens (more comparisons to Dickens come to mind which I may have to explore at greater length in a future installment).

Or, there are the more voluminous but equally interesting questions the series inevitably raises, such as: Is the whole series really unique, or just the cleverest-yet rehashing of old archetypes and myths? But aren't all novels like that? Are plot and story really superior to aesthetic quality? Does its British-ness make any difference? Does the fact that it was written by a woman have significance in terms of what the books know and and are concerned with? Why is the series THIS popular, when similarly-themed stories have been floating around for centuries? Does the story really have any religious implications, dangerous or otherwise?

All of these are fascinating ‘riddles’ to consider, and are freshly evoked every time this series of books comes back into the news, as it will again next year with the release of the film version of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.

I can’t hope to answer them now. But here I stand, at the half-way point through the series, having just completed the fourth book, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. It was published in 2000 to near-universal acclaim. I remember when it came out: I was working in New York City at the time, right across from what used to be the World Trade Center. If I’m not mistaken, it was the first time they had built up such a frenzy for the Potter books that they did midnight sales parties and people dressed like wizards to go get an early copy of the book. After it was published (not at midnight!) I went across the street to the Borders book shop that only months later would be buried in the rubble. I can vividly recall being astonished at the sheer GIRTH of the book. I knew next to nothing about the series, but it was hard to believe that young kids would go nuts over a book that could also be a door stop. At 734 pages, Goblet of Fire was just about twice as long as any previous Potter tome.

But read it the kids did, and so did everybody else, and by this time even the critics were talking about the books being classics. Recall these remarkable superlatives from the New York Times book critic Janet Maslin in her review in July 2000:

Ms. Rowling, a kindred spirit to both Lewis Carroll and the pre-Jar Jar Binks George Lucas, turns out to be a fantasist who lives inside a thrillingly fertile imagination, mines it ingeniously and plays entirely by her own rules. Talk about supernatural tricks: she has turned this odds-defying new book into everything it promised to be. As the midpoint in a projected seven-book series, ''Goblet of Fire'' is exactly the big, clever, vibrant, tremendously assured installment that gives shape and direction to the whole undertaking and still somehow preserves the material's enchanting innocence. [….] This time she achieves her most lucid, well-plotted and exciting conclusion, complete with a spectacular wand-on-wand confrontation to recall Luke, Darth and their light sabers, enhanced by the identity-twisting tricks in which Ms. Rowling specializes. The book ends on a mournful note with the loss of one character, and with ominous, cliff-hanging hints of a next installment. Two things seem certain: it will involve giants and be awaited with justifiably bated breath.

I have been nothing short of amazed at my response to these books. For a very long time I didn’t have much interest, as I said before. But here at just over the halfway point to the end – three novels wait for me to read, the last two of which I know virtually nothing about save their titles – I am engrossed by them and fascinated by Rowling’s accomplishment.

It’s not the literary quality of the books. Rowling’s prose is serviceable at best. It’s clean, and can be occasionally elegant, but it’s not groundbreaking or beautiful or even particularly interesting, on its own. It gets the job done. It seems to me that Rowling has a novelist’s gift for details, but I wouldn’t even say she has great skills in writing dialogue.

Furthermore, some of the side characters are cardboard-stiff. Draco Malfoy, Harry’s foil, has been using the same twittering harrassment techniques since the first novel. He fails to evolve much as a character, unlike Harry, who is growing and learning and entering further into his own personal darkness with each new year, and finding the realities of life not as enticing or rewarding as he once may have thought. Malfoy’s no real threat to Harry; he’s not up to the job. Perhaps Rowling didn’t intend him to be a truly meaningful character, since we all know Harry has a REAL enemy, Lord Voldemort. This is to say nothing of Malfoy’s two cronies, identified as Crabbe and Goyle, who are nothing but thugs. They may as well be made of cardboard and propped up in the scenes they appear in next to Malfoy. In fact, they usually are. At least that is the case through Book Four. Professor Gilderoy Lockheart from Chamber of Secrets is a recognizable caricature of the egotistical fraud whose bark is far worse than his bite when things start to get a little messy. Rita Skeeter from Goblet is a thinly-veiled stand-in for the paparrazzi, and an easy target at whom someone like Rowling can gleefully hurl her bolts of lightning. Not that I can necessarily begrudge her the fun of doing so, but it doesn’t make the character any more genuine.

However, in terms of characterization, there is a noticable upgrade when it comes to the main cast. It might make for an uneven literary performance by English course textbook standards, but it is still to the books’ gain that Harry himself, Ron Weasley and his entire hardluck family, Albus Dumbledore, Severus Snape, Hermione Granger, and even Voldemort are all engagingly drawn and capable of inspiring strong feelings in us, one way or the other. Voldemort, to this point, has been seen little, and what we know of him reveals him to be more or less a purely evil spawn of Hell with a snake’s nose and terrible claws. Needless to say this gives him little in common with anyone or anything save a really, really awful mother-in-law. But once you’re done with Goblet of Fire, and particularly if you’ve seen Ralph Fiennes’ film-stealing cameo in the film version of same, at least you know you’re dealing with a genuine badass. Voldemort was cast off for dead and literally disembodied for thirteen years. When he finally arrives back in flesh in the conclusion of Goblet, he is not interested in putzing around. It may be ridiculous, but it is shockingly good fun to watch Fiennes scream, “I’M GONNA KILL YOU, HARRY POTTER!!!” One believes him!

But characters, prose, and suspension of disbelief aside - (wait, can you cast those things aside?? it's part of the debate) - it’s clear to me by the fourth novel that Rowling’s books deserve their tremendous success. That’s because they are sheer genius in the only game that really matters: storytelling. The plotting in these stories is magnificent. As I mentioned before, no one since Dickens has created stories that are so complexly plotted and deliver so much satisfaction as these plots come to their resolution. They can get very heady: The Prisoner of Azkaban gets particularly convoluted near its end. But so far, Rowling has managed to keep all of the balls in the air and she makes all the pieces come together exactly enough to keep you asking questions after reading each book, while giving you a satisfactory measure of thrills. Her command of the Potter universe is total and supreme. You never doubt the writer for a moment. This is amazing, when you consider the fact that everything in the stories is utterly unbelievable. As soon as you read that a cat has transformed into a witch in the opening chapter of Sorcerer’s Stone, all plausibility goes out the window. But at that same moment Rowling’s extraordinary imagination takes you prisoner. And she never releases you.

I think the reason for Rowling’s success in crafting these stories, which must have taken such a tremendous jolt of inspiration, only to be followed by years of hard literary labor – for writing novels, as some of us are learning, is very hard work – may be able to be traced back to the circumstances from which she brought the entire saga forth. Once upon a time, Rowling was a single mother on public assistance who had a dream and at least one other mouth to feed. She’d seen hardship in her own life, and even more hardship in the lives of others as an employee of Amnesty International as a young woman. She had a tremendous hunger to write stories and a terrific responsibility to find a way to improve the quality of her life for her child’s sake. I think somewhere in the midst of all that she must have made a firm decision: it’s now or never. My imagination is my only way out of this, and to fail is unacceptable. So she settled on the only course of action a writer can turn to in the end: to get to work.

As for what happened after that, I guess you might call it magic.

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