There will never be another moment like this. If you’ve missed out on Harry Potter-mania, you have only a few scant days, but it is not enough. For the last 10 years, the mystery has been growing, the questions have been pondered, the texts poured over for the slightest clues. Imagine if The Lord of the Rings had been published in seven parts and you had to wait two years to find out if Frodo made it to Mount Doom. (Actually, LoTR was published over a one year period, but the waiting couldn’t have been this intense.)
At 12:01 July 21st, I’ll be buying my copy of HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS, and I’ll be sequestering myself from the internet until the last page is turned; and no, I won’t be jumping to the last page to find out what happens. If you read my post on spoilers, you know that — especially in my line of work — a surprise is a precious thing, and watching something that has captured the imaginations of so many unfold is a once in a lifetime thing. I’ve been reading Harry Potter for 8 years (a little late, admittedly), and J.K. Rowling has created an unmatched suspense. Perhaps only Charles Dickens, the great serializer had such a captive audience in literary history.
(Note: There will be movie spoilers in the jump, so please only continue if you have seen all the films.)
Even in nerd terms, there’s nothing to match Potter. Lost? It’s fun but don’t kid yourself — they keep moving the goalposts and changing the sport. Rowling has had the whole game in mind from the beginning. Experiencing the books as they grow darker and more mature has been a deepening thrill. I wasn’t very impressed with HARRY POTTER AND THE PHILOSOPHER’S STONE, admittedly. It seemed a charming kids book, with the springtime freshness of simple threats — a troll, a vampire, a unicorn. CHAMBER OF SECRETS (by most accounts the worst of the books) was much the same. But the magic of PRISONER OF AZKABAN is one of the rare trills of fantastic literature. Suddenly, it was clear that Rowling really DID know where this was going, and the sum was going to be greater than the parts.
GOBLET OF FIRE was a fine fantasy adventure; as Harry got older in each book his consciousness expanded, and his perceptions deepened, but often without knowledge, just the real real teenagers are. Death (and sex) entered the picture, and it was painful and sudden. ORDER OF THE PHOENIX is the one book where Rowling seemed to have lost her way a bit. In capturing Harry the sullen, angry teen she went too far in creating a meandering, even bloated tome that could have gone on a 100 page diet with no real loss.
But what am I saying? How could you lose any of it? This is all there is; there will be no more and you need every precious joke and aside. I suspect Rowling isn’t done with Harry’s world an will write more books in the canon, but this is her great tale, the one that has grown in the telling.
HARRY POTTER AND THE HALF BLOOD PRINCE set the stage with almost unbearable tension for the grand finale. The plots that had been running for years were all ratcheted up, leaving Potterphiles to debate for two long years.
Is Snape good or evil? Is Harry a Horcrux? Must he die to defeat Voldemort? Who else will die?
I almost wish it wouldn’t end, but like all good things, it must. A final chapter must be written. Much has been made of Rowling’s statement that characters will die — will Harry be one of them? It would seem against all the rules of good business to kill off one of the most beloved characters in literary history…but in some ways it would be the only fitting ending.
I’ve always been an easy mark for what I call “noble struggle” — the sacrifice of the brave, wise and beautiful so that order can be restored and life for the silent majority continue. If you are a fan of all-ages fantasy, then you know that The High King, The Grey King and The Silmarillion would be nothing without heroic death and tragic loss. These endings are the ones that stick, not the hollow “And they lived happily ever after.” that’s the way to put kids to sleep, sure, but there’s always a Stephen Sondheim around to go Into the Woods and show the quotidian lie at its heart.
No, death is the way to keep heroism pristine and exalted forever. Robin and Marion, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, King Arthur, Cuchullainn, Herakles and the poisoned hydra skin…tragic death is the most memorable.
Will Harry die? I don’t know…but I intend to find out. And I will find out the natural way — by reading a book and not reading a spoiler. I hope anyway!
Meanwhile, I still am amazed by Rowling’s skills as a writer. Her gifts are many; first, a clear lucid, lively prose style, even if she does over do it with the adverbs. Then, of course the vision to keep this sprawling other world in view for 10 long years and 7 novels, and to provide endless twists and turns you never saw coming. The Harry Potter books are popular because they combine fantasy with mystery. While at the end of every book Dumbledore does bring Harry into his drawing room to explain who did what to whom, it is never the whole story; a tiny line like Dumbledore’s “gleam of triumph” in GOBLET OF FIRE can provoke debate among Potter-philes for years.
I think the one element that really makes Rowling stand out, however, is her imaginative, almost Dickensian, characterization. While some of the characters are archetypes — wise old man Dumbledore, confused hero Harry, loyal friend Ron — many of the others are completely fresh. There has never been a character quite like the vain, posturing Gilderoy Lockhart; or Hagrid, the monster loving half-Giant, or Rita Skeeter, or Delores Umbridge or Luna Lovegood, or Dobby the House Elf. Even character who at first seem one dimensional — cruel teacher Snape or taunting bully Draco Malfoy — turn out to be not what you expected as the books unfold. This is the true mark of the imagination.
And then there’s Hermione, Rowling’s own Mary Sue. If there is one element where I think criticism is, if not justified, at least worth some consideration, it’s Rowling’s unexpectedly conservative idea of women’s roles. While there are great women wizards and Quidditch players, most of the women we meet are curiously second rate. Hermione is “The greatest witch of her of her age” according to Sirius and many others, but love problems in volume 6 leave her as flustered as any of the giggling, simpering schoolgirls who populate the rest of Hogwarts. In a way it’s endearing, in another it’s a glum assessment that girls will always go for love first and achievement second.
And then there are the movies. From here on out I’m going to be SPOILING things, so you may want to look away.
The only HP movie that was really any good as a movie is PRISONER OF AZKABAN. No Surprise, Alfonso Cuaron is a wonderful director, capturing evil omens, the wild, amoral forces of nature and magic, and our teenaged cast at the endearing cusp of adolescence. Chris Columbus’s first two Potter films are usually derided as bloated, but they did capture the springtime innocence of the franchise, and were so perfectly cast you can’t help but love them a little.
GoF and OotP are, sad to say, pretty interchangeable in my mind. Mike Newell (GoF) and David Yates (OotP and the upcoming HALF-BLOOD PRINCE) are workmanlike directors, without much real visual flair or individual vision. In a way it’s okay — Harry Potter movies are now like James Bond films, you don’t really need a Julie Taymor at the helm. (Indeed, it’s said that as the franchise has continued it’s become impossible to get A-list directors on it because so much of it is already set in stone.) I found GOBLET OF FIRE so unmemorable that I don’t remember a single thing about it aside from the nose-free look of Ralph Fiennes Voldemort.
ORDER OF THE PHOENIX is a little more mixed. The real standout is the art direction — the Dept. of Mysteries and esp. Umbridge’s kitten plate-filled study are great bits of business, and the costumes and sets are always first rate. Also first rate, of course, is the murderer’s row of great Brit/Irish thesps, from Maggie Smith on down to Emma Thompson, Michael Gambon, Brendan Gleeson, etc etc etc.
As for the kids…well they’ve grown into the parts. (Although Daniel Radcliffe clearly isn’t going to be a 6 foot leading man.) Ron didn’t have much to do in this movie, perhaps because of his lack of real acting chops, but who knows? I thought the acting was very underplayed, so much so that everyone seemed to be mumbling and I could barely understand some of the lines at least in the theater I was at. Better than broad overacting, I suppose, esp with all the truly great actin on screen. (Observe how the always-amazing Alan Rickman as Snape makes each and every syllable a n essay in barely contained contempt.) Emma Watson’s Hermione generally hits the right notes, and Radcliffe is holding his own, I think, although I feel sorry for that poor kid — being Harry Potter for the formative years of your life is bound to leave you with a scar or two, and his recent Details interview reveals that this is indeed the case.
Yates and screenwriter Michael Goldenberg streamlined OotP’s sprawling, unpleasant storyline briskly, and made some Two Towers like changes that were very necessary, but they still made a few cuts that puzzled me. I liked the way they brought the conflict between Harry and You-Know-Who to life in a way that was much needed, but a lot of subtext was lost. For instance, in the book the scene where Fred and George escape from Umbridge is played as the culmination of long servitude and suffering in a show in front of the undertrodden. The way it’s restaged here allows a more colorful set piece, but removes the emotional release.
However, the cuts in the battle at the MInistry of Magic seemed particularly grievous. How can you cut out a scene where Ron is attacked by a VAT FULL OF BRAINS??? This scene is one of the best literary fight scenes ever, and in the book, the kids are done real damage — broken bones, bad hexes. In the film they have a few scratches, but you miss the sense of real jeopardy and coming of age. Perhaps this was because of the PG-13 rating, but the big battle was definitely a letdown. (Yates is said to be a good actor’s director, but he doesn’t have much flair for action.)
But the magic still came through. The magic is too strong. I’m glad for those of you who enjoy the movies, but haven’t ben following the books. You’ve missed out on something incredible. In a few days when millions of Potterphiles around the world open the cover of HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS and begin to read, they will be experiencing a culmination of joy and sorrow, the ultimate in catharsis. You note that nowhere in here do I wonder if Rowling can pull it off. I suppose she could bobble at the last moment, like the incomparable Mariano Rivera in the 8th inning of Game 7 of the 2001 World Series. Noble struggle, tragic weakness. But I have faith in Rowling. She’s brought us this far; I know she’s going to reach the farthest shore.
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# Harry Potter Publishing Rights © J.K.R.
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