Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Well done, Mr. Potter: Uncollected Thoughts on The Boy Who Lived


Though the final book came out more than four years ago, the capstone (for now at least) on Harry Potter couldn't be placed until the final movie premiered. And here we are. Harry Potter is such a phenomenon that it's difficult to get any kind of perspective on it. From a publishing perspective, it was a once in a generation event, perhaps even a singular one. From a cultural standpoint, it cut across all traditional demographic lines. From a commercial angle, it is probably the most profitable artistic work in human history not named Star Wars. So to try to reduce The Boy Who Lived into a single essay or editorial seems foolhardy. Instead, here are some uncollected thoughts:

1. This will probably be the last book/series of books that are so conspicous out in public. Not only were the volumes themselves big and recognizable, but they were printed. Future mega-sellers will be consumed in large part on e-reading devices. I've often wondered if the public consumption of the Harry Potter books contributed their wild success, publicizing and legitmizing children's books for adult consumption. 

2. In many ways, Harry Potter represents the final integration of geek culture into mainstream culture, perhaps even becoming mainstream culture itself. Importantly, the first Harry Potter movie came out in 1999, 28 years after Star Wars premiered. I think the first generation of cultural geeks that Star Wars produced had a major influence on the fate of the Harry Potter franchise; not only were the children of Star Wars ready to consume fantasy themselves, but they could sanction their children to do the same. The generational pressure against genre that often exists was considerably lessened by the flowering of nerdom that had reached maturity by the late 90s. 


3. Many have said that Harry Potter's heirs are Twilight, True Blood, and the other vaguely occult franchises of late. While thematically that probably is true, I think the psychological legacy of Harry Potter is best seen in something like GLEE---just replace "magic" with "musical theater." Whatever else Harry Potter did, it dramatized the universal strangeness of all children and adolescents; weird became the new normal. Not just in the I-can-turn-into-a-cat kind of way, but Harry, Hermione, and Ron were misfits within a sub-group of the peculiar. The enforced hegemony of Slytherin pure-bloodism was the opposite ideology of the polyglot alliance of the good guys. Voldemort wanted not only power, but sameness. 

4. One of the stranger sub-texts of Harry Potter was its slavish adherence to the idea that people cannot change. At the age of 11, you are sorted by a sentient head-piece. Those who are not sorted into Slytherin simply cannot be bad (this takes the teeth out of some of the later plots when we are supposed to wonder, weakly I should say, if Harry can be partly evil). Your possible futures are severely curtailed. Indeed, many of the great villians in Harry Potter became villianous by trying to be something they were not: Voldemort changed from his original name, Queryl took an alterted personality, Barty Crouch Jr. polyjuiced himself into Mad-Eye, Gilderoy Lockheart was an out-and-out fraud, and  Dolores Umbridge ingratiated herself to the head of Hogwarts though she had no credential to qualify her. The same "be who you are" affirmation that leads the the acceptance of difference has a curious, though not inevitable manifestation here: it's not just that you should embrace who you are, but you put yourself in great peril if you try to change your station. 

5. The house-elves are the Jar Jar Binks of Harry Potter

6. While Harry Potter may not have created a generation of readers as some might have thought it would, I do think it proved that written story-telling will continue to be a vital part of cultural lives. Any medium that can spawn something like this is very much alive. Here's how you tell if a genre/medium has reached museum-stage: it is unable to produce a mass market hit. Ask yourself, when was the last time everyone was talking about opera or epic poetry? This leads me to wonder about the status of some more contemporary forms. Is there a visual artist alive that most culturally fluent people would know? I can't think of one. Poetry is equally barren. Mikhail Baryshinikov might have been the last great dancer and the import of his medium will probably die with him. This is an interesting litmus test for the health of a form, I think.

7. For all the overt inclusivity of Harry Potter, the main characters of the stories were all white. Cho Chang was the major ethnic character. Think about that. And she fell for the wrong guy and squealed (albeit under duress) on the Order of the Phoenix. 

8. Draco Malfoy turned out to be the most interesting character. People who don't want to say one of the big three was their favorite character pick Snape, but Snape didn't change, he was a good guy from before the story started. Only Draco, of all the characters, had layers and ambiguity. 

9. Ralph Fiennes is the only actor I can think of who was largely unrecognizable for much of the time in his two career-defining roles (the other being The English Patient).

10. For someone with such an astounding imagination, Rowling had a horrible time writing compelling dialogue, especially with expositional dialogue. I don't think a lack of language skills is to blame, her nomenclature was both witty and evocative; I think it was the heavy-lifting she asked her dialogue to do. Unlike Tolkien, who built history and mythology into the prose, Rowling always had to have someone explain stuff to Harry, usually Hermione. The close third-person narrative point of view meant that other characters had to say baldly what they were thinking and feeling in order for the reader to know their interiority at all. The most compelling characters were those who said little and withheld (Draco, Severus, Dumbledore)

11. Why exactly do we like Ron Weasley, again?

12. Unlike Star Wars or The Lord of the Rings, and yes we have to add Harry Potter to the trinity, we get the sense in the epilogue to Deathly Hallows that evil has been finally and truly vanquished. The final "all was well" make subsequent works hard to imagine, leaving the kiss-your-sister hope of prequels our most probable thin hope for more adventures in this flawed, compelling, and magical world. 

26 comments:

  1. I agree with observation #1.  Generally, publishers will begin to lose the i-saw-people-reading-it-on-the-subway sales because an e-reader or pad advertises its manufacturer, not the media being consumed (however, I do see services like foursquare letting you broadcast what your reading in your present location and those in the same location will be able to see it - sounds creepy, but have you checked out lal.com?)

    As for the Harry Potter franchise, I've not read or watched any of it.

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  2. I will reread this and answer more thoroughly later, but I feel like I should note that the first film came out in 2001 (not 1999) and, as to the question posed in #11: we don't. :]

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  3. Alexandra JacunskiJuly 14, 2011 at 8:22 AM

    I have a really long and nerdy comment to add to this when I have time. :D

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  4. Alexandra JacunskiJuly 14, 2011 at 8:23 AM

    I do! but more on that later.

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  5. I'm still so totally confused about why Harry Potter is such a phenomenon. I read the first book and it was just..meh. Like you said, the dialogue is not the best. It's cliche-tastic. Maybe they get better as the series progresses? And then the movies all look the same...boy wizard almost-but-doesn't-actually battle his nemesis, who is a slightly asthmatic guy without a nose. For what, seven movies? Eight? I saw the first three and then was just. Done. I'm glad it's over. I do agree with your #3 point- Twilight and True Blood? Not the heirs of HP. HP crosses the gender boundary in a way the other two never have and never will. 

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  6. Rowling's writing improves vastly as the series progresses. For me, personally, I read the first book when I was 11 or 12 or so, so I grew up with the series. If the first book were to come out now, I don't know if I would have been into it. Looking back the first couple of books aren't as enjoyable as a 24-year old with more developed literary tastes (not to knock anyone who might, though, I'm a big proponent of read whatever you want and don't let anyone give you any guff about it).

    That said, the last book is cracking and I'm expecting to really enjoy DH Part 2.

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  7. I was late to the HP craze, and while I am a fan, I am not one of the more "crazed" ones out there. I only read the books when they were given to me in grad school by a classmate who was focusing on children's lit and was utterly shocked that I had not read them.  She admitted that the writing started out rough, but that it grew as the kids did.  She was right. Each book gets better, as does each movie. I hope this holds true with the last.

    Why do we like Ron? It's the whole underdog/sidekick thing.  He's necessary. He's the heart of the whole thing. For me, it's the same sort of dynamic that  Frodo and Sam Wise Gamgee.  Ron, while not as innocent and utterly likeable as Sam, is the one that enables Harry to stay on course.  If he weren't there to help, then he wouldn't have made it. As is seen in the 7th installment (book and movie), Harry and Hermione on their own don't get too far.

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  8. I suspect that the reasons for its popularity will always remain a mystery (which is one reason I didn't try to reverse-engineer those reasons). If I had to guess, I would say that the immersiveness of the world Rowling created is the core of the appeal, with secondary and tertiary reasons that in combination made the thing explode. 

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  9. The dialogue only gets better because by the fourth or fifth book everything doesn't have to be explained in dialogue. But by that time, we are already 1500 pages in. 1500 pages of wooden dialogue and the thing still became enormous. I can't get over that. 

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  10. I suspect a Ron-throwdown is coming. My point is not that we don't like Ron, but rather why exactly. I always wanted more Neville and less Ron (in fact, if I were re-booting the series I would put Neville in Ron's place). Much more interesting backstory, motivation, and character arc. I think Rowling sort of realized this and gave Neville the hero moment in the last part. As for Ron's big moment in the first DH movie, that happens almost in spite of Ron rather than because of him. 

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  11. Thanks for the correction. Don't know how I screwed that up. 

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  12. The replacement for that, if there is one, might be social media. In fact, more people can "see" what I am reading when I talk about it on Facebook than anywhere else. 

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  13. If you watch the first two movies, there are some black characters and they all hilariously  wear an ethnic haircut. One has an afro and another has cornrows as I can remember

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  14. This series has always been my comfort read. There's something really wonderful about a world where the lines between good and bad are pretty clear, and good prevails, for an aching heart or tired mind. For this kind of thing, an overload of expositional dialogue is not really a problem :-) And I like Ron because there isn't anything special about him, he's just the normal guy but that's what makes him so wonderful - he's us at our best.

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  15. I agree - the dialogue is definitely a little wooden at first. But I think we also have to remember that the first few books were written for a much younger audience (I was 11 or so when I read the first one and grew up with the books), and that as the books progressed, not only was the story developed and less in need of explanation through dialogue, but the readers were also getting older. I don't think the age of the intended audience entirely explains the wooden feeling of some of the dialogue, but I think it did have an impact on how much explanation was included in it. And while Tolkien did a much better job building it into the prose itself, I didn't know many kids who were reading Tolkien when I was 11.

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  16. I definitely agree about the comparison of Ron to Sam -- especially about how Ron helps Harry stay on course. Harry & Hermoine, for all of Harry's abilities and courage and Hermoine's intelligence and book smarts, don't get far without plain old Ron. He's the necessary sidekick.

    I think he's also important because of the family aspect. The Weasleys take Harry into their family, and through them he gets to experience what it's like to be part of that, something he can't have with his parents dead. He can't get that through Hermoine's muggle family, and Neville's parents are not exactly in good shape -- Ron is the only one that can connect him to that. And I think at least part of why Ron is loved so much is that the Weasleys as a family are loved so much as characters. They're the only family we can get to really see a lot of that's on the good side -- their counterparts being the Malfoys.

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  17. I also have a thing for goofy guys with red hair.  Twins creep me out, though, or I would probably have had a crush on George and/or Fred.  I would have liked there to be more Neville, sure.  At the same time, though, I don't think his shining moment would have been so bright had he not kind of lingered in the background. 

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  18. I think we like Ron because Harry likes Ron. This is the first person to really like him for who he was; to show Harry that someone else can be just as confused and awkward and angry. It gives Harry some insight into the shared misery of adolescence, rather than the personal misery of his own life.

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  19. ThepickygirlblogJuly 16, 2011 at 1:34 AM

    Number 8. Yes. Draco in the last book and a half and film and a half killed me. He was so incredibly tortured, and I loved the one true "gray" character in the middle of so much stark black and white. 

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  20. ThepickygirlblogJuly 16, 2011 at 1:38 AM

    I totally agree. Neville won that moment, and he grew into it. He was a nervous, quiet child who grew into the young man who wouldn't stay silent anymore. That scene crushed me - book and film.

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  21. I agree completely.  As an 11-year-old reading those books, I was completely immersed in this magical world.  When I read the earlier books now that I'm 24, the only reason I enjoy them is because I remember how wonderful they were then.  The writing definitely improves as the series progressed and I can't wait to see the movie.  Maybe this is more of a generational thing. 

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  22. I'm a bit tired of the "I don't get why Harry Potter became famous, it wasn't that great" mode of conversation. It implies that people who found pleasure in it bought into a collective delusion and only a few people with the guts to say that the emperor has no clothes see things for what they really are.

    The vagaries of pop culture ubiquity is simply that: vagaries. The wider cultural conversation that has been occurring over thirteen years is I'm interested in, ultimately, not some definitive assessment of whether it was "good" literature "worthy" of its outsized fame.

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  23. I'm not implying anything. I'm saying it. From the little I experienced of the franchise- and it was only a little- it's wasn't "good." And when people like things that aren't good, I have a right- and so does everyone else- to ask why. If that's not a conversation you want to participate in...why are you?

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  24. Why am I... replying to you? Because I also have the right to point out that such casual dismissal has played out in several different iterations over the years. It's tired. Commercial success does not legitimize literary consequence but it does legitimize cultural consequence, for good or ill. Harry Potter has become a common vocabulary for people across all swathes of readership, something that even I, whose first language is not even English, partakes in. Not a whole lot of people may agree with me here, but I don't think a binary judgment of good/not good is even enough at this point.

    There are several fair things to critique about J.K. Rowling's character development and worldbuilding. There's is even a lot of things to ask out about the level of popularity it enjoyed--like say, whether Rowling merely capitalized on the "quaint British boarding school fiction" genre and the legwork of precedents like C.S. Lewis and Philip Pullman. But there's something different about asking why something not good becomes popular and saying: "I saw the first three and then was just. Done. I'm glad it's over."

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