Monday, July 18, 2011

A Treatise on Harry Potter

I was five years old when I read the first Harry Potter book, and to this day I picture Hogwarts as the house in which it was read to me; the house belonged to my friend, and it was a significant part of my childhood. It was an amazing house, and reading The Sorcerer's Stone in her yellow-painted bedroom of the three-story, renovated barn is one of the many happy memories I have from the house.

For a long time every book release was quite a bonding experience for her and her mother and my mother and I. When she grew out of it, it became an event that some other close family friends of ours and my brother and I did together, and it was the only time we'd get together. Book, and later movie releases, were bright spots in my mundane summers, where I could have an excuse to sit down and read for a week straight then reunite with childhood friends and stay up late talking and reading and analyzing every aspect of the series.

I was, for sure, as obsessed as anyone--and it's easy to see why. Harry Potter defined much of my childhood, and even to this day, as an "adult" to some degree, who can recognize the literary and filmic downfalls of the franchise, I cried when Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part Two in Imax 3D closed with a three-shot of Ron, Hermione, and Harry. For me, and for thousands of other people in my generation, Harry Potter has been a constant--as, for the class of 2011, who started Kindergarten the year the first book was released and who just graduated, has been school. The painfully obvious tagline--"It all ends Summer 2011--" poetically punctuates not only the end of a series I have grown up with, but the end of my time living in the little town where I was born and going to school with the same group of people.

Regardless of my emotional connections to the story, I wasn't as psyched about this release as other people were, and until I was actually sitting in the enormous IMAX theater, after having waited in line for an hour when I could have been home doing something productive, I didn't care to see the film at all--in fact, I never saw Deathly Hallows Part One. People have been going on and on about how a huge chunk of their childhood is ending, about how a little part of them died, about how it is, in fact, all over, and how much of an effect that is going to have on their lives.

For me, that feeling has long passed. While a lot of people--especially those a little bit younger (current sophomores, my brother's age,) who were five when the first movie came out--have grown up with the films as much as with the books, if not more, definitely see the movies as entirely a part of Harry Potter, I still can't.  I felt the way so many people are feeling now when we got the seventh book at midnight, and when I closed the back cover at one in the afternoon the next day. Equally poetically, it was the summer before I began high school--in a parallel to the story, I was ready to move on.

Of course, not many other people were--HP continued to define our generation, most clearly shown in a pep rally skit performed by my class, the theme of which was, of course, Harry Potter. I saw the sixth movie at midnight, and I, like everyone else, still find the best way to explain many things is to use Harry Potter analogies. ("you know, he said it Ron says to Hermione in the sixth book," or, "Maybe the little boy at the end of Turn of the Screw wasn't killed, it was just a Harry Potter kinda thing," or, "The only parallel to the rise of Hitler is Voldemort.") All in all, though, the franchise and the fandom became sort of a nuisance to me. I have things to do. I am a grown up lady and I won't bother myself anymore with this nonsense.

Not true, of course. But my cynicism of all things enjoyed by the masses has led me to be a lot more critical of the series, and, in turn, the movies.

Part of the brilliance of Harry Potter  is that, for my generation, the books aged with us perfectly. The Sorcerer's Stone is like a gateway book to a lifetime of reading for so many young kids, and The Deathly Hallows is a dark, dramatic, and complicated fantasy. This brilliance also becomes a bit of a downfall for the series, and especially for the poor characters. There's a massive disconnect that comes in the end of the fourth book. The first three stories are whimsical, spooky, and fantastic for children. There's a clear good vs. evil, the plot follows a formulaic, episodic model that's already familiar to the audience (summer, school, Halloween, Christmas, Spring sports, finals, and so on.)

By the end of the fourth book, I was eight, and kind of ready for the shock of an almost main character getting killed by the big bad guy. By the fifth, I was ten, and, even though it was traumatic, almost ready for the angst and death that marks Order of the Phoenix. Almost. What had been a fun and whimsical tale set in a fun and whimsical location was suddenly a story of political intrigue, of abandoned houses and prophecies and such, but still sprinkled with fun and whimsical things like pixies and bogarts and the like. Harry's frustrating and inexplicable angst was somewhat incongruent with the stories we knew.

The sixth book continued with the drama, but at least still at Hogwarts, to some degree; the seventh book could be part of a completely different series. There are two ways to look at this: one, the audience got to old for the fun and whimsy, the universe got so big that there had to be an epic fantasy/war book in order to get things wrapped up, and Rowling wrote the book long after the directors of the films had switched from the lighthearted Christopher Columbus to much darker directors and was being influenced by the style somewhat. This is one of many criticisms, and opens up a discussion about the simplicity of the plot and characters and the simplistic, unchallenging writing, the dependence on a franchise and strong fanbase, and the lack of vitality that the story has.

Alternatively, one can look at the entirety of Harry Potter as following a similar pattern--if with a more Disney ending--as Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart, or Greek Tragedies, or Film Noir--because, by the seventh book/movie, the entire world of the three main characters has completely crumbled. As in Things Fall Apart, the majority of the first part of the story is marked by episodic plots controlled by specific dates, dotted with dramatic adventures that make the characters grow some, but in the end, it is an outside force that the characters feel they need to singlehandedly defeat that entirely destroys their way of life.

This is an emotional moment for those of us who are emotionally attached to Harry&company. It mimics our own realization that the world is not necessarily all whimsy and fun, and somethings things to fall apart entirely. Ultimately, the whimsical, wizarding setting of the series is incidental; the stories are about death, what happens after death, dealing with the after life and with mourning; it is about a group of non-muggles who are still mortals, who cannot beat death even though they have infinite luxuries of magic and such. This is philosophically somewhat simplistic, but it hits home for the audience of adolescence who, developmentally, are realizing the idea of mortality themselves. Not only that, but it emphasizes the fleeting nature of adolescense and school; no matter how dramatic it may be, you may only be one white page labeled "epilogue" or one black screen titled "19 years later" away from a pleasant adulthood. Harry's life reflects our own in many ways, and while he says the well acted line that so easily could have been cheesey, to Voldemort, "Let's finish this the way we started it--together!" he says to us, the crazy high schoolers who so many times have banged our heads against a keyboard in sincere imiation of his puppet self, chanting "angst, angst, angst, " who grew up with JK Rowling and Harry&Co fixing our problems:"Let's finish this, the nonsense battle with the world that is puberty and public education, the way we started it way back on the first day of first grade--together!

Overall, the movie itself greatly exceeded my fairly low expectations. IMAX 3D was much more impressive than I expected, and I can now see it as being a tool for innovation in cinematography rather than a novelty tech toy. The combination of light and dark  and long and close-up shots was much better and more balanced than the usual (dark field. dark castle. black dragon. Emma watson. Field. Dragon. Castle. Emma. More Emma. Some castle. Field. Castle. Emma.) They didn't dwell too long on many things, the movie didn't feel drawn out as some of the others in the series do. Helena Bonham Carter had to act like Hermione, which was brilliant. The battle scenes and the epilogue, were, dare I say it, better for me in film form than in the book--again, possibly because Rowling had the films in mind when she wrote the seventh book (all the unecessary description in the epilogue does make it read somewhat like  a script.) The casting for the whole franchise is quite brilliant. I really enjoyed the whole audience clapping when Ron and Hermione kissed, and when Molly Weasley yells, "Not my daughter, you bitch!" I wasn't  even too bothered by the fact that Daniel Radcliffe is 22 and not 17, and that Harry Potter is the most pretentious character in modern film.

Actually, Harry Potter's pretentiousness did bother me, some. I suppose that's something that also plays to teenagers developmental tendency to be as egocentric as a four year old--three characters, your age, who probably fill enough types that you can relate to at least one of them, who are literally the center of the universe. The movies, especially, are very Harry-centric. Fair enough, he is the eponymous character, and, again, the center of the whole wizarding world. But still, there are some scenes--such as snapping the elder wand in half and throwing it into the lake as his average friends stare in disgust--where his haughtiness is just overwhelming. My favorite part of the movie may very well have been when Neville stepped in after Voldemort had allegedly killed Harry and said something along the lines of, "The forces of good don't simply cease to exist because Harry Potter is dead, you guys..." and everyone was like "wait, what....oh yeah! Stuff happened here before the kid was born too!" (Even though, to be honest, as soon as Voldemort said, "I've killed Harry Potter!" I really wanted  Radcliffe to just stand up and yell something like "Think again, bitch! Avada Kadavera!" [or, Voldemort style, ahhvahdah kadahhha!"])

 In my opinion, the most interesting part of the series is the backstory of Voldemort--again, and seriously, it is very close to the rise of Hitler, and feels similar to study--how is it that these villians that we hold in this special, "he who must not be named" spot, in reality or literature, come to be as evil and as powerful as they are? I'd like to see a film directed more around Tom Riddle, personally. I did love in the seventh movie when Harry called Voldemort Tom to his face...that was quite the scene.

The hype is still a little much for me, but again, I do have an emotional attachment. I'm glad that, in the future, even though I won't be able to say I saw any classic bands playing live, I will be able to say that I saw Harry Potter in theaters when it first came out,and got the seventh book at midnight, and lived through a phase of fandom that was, at the time, rivaled only by Elvis and The Beatles.  And I did cry during the film, not only at seeing Ron cry over his brother's body or at the first shot of Dobby's grave, but also when Olivander echoed his line from the first story, "The wand chooses the wizard," and whenever the main theme came in, and in the last shot of the three friends holding hands.

In an emotion that, again, poetically mimics that of Harry himself as he walks into the forbidden forest, I realized walking out of the gluttonous theater that while I am sad, I am ready for this part of mys life to be over--but I also know that it will not be. Literature and film are written about in the present tense, so any day that I want to relive a sleepover in my best friends bedroom in her old house, or the night I stayed up all night with an old pal finishing the series, I can pick up one of the easiest books to read, and Dumbledore and Dobby and Voldemort will still be alive, it will still be up in the air whether Hermione ends up with Ron or Harry, and the terrible epilogue will not yet have occured.

Also, does anybody really believe that WB and JK Rowling are going to stop sitting on that comfy pile of ever-growing cash created by the franchise? I think not.

1 comment:

  1. I very much enjoyed this blog! It made me happy, and it's super crazy how long these books have been out! Wow