Saturday, July 14, 2007

Harry Potter and the Unbearable Weight of Expectation

It’s a scary time for Harry Potter lovers. Like die hard fans in the days before the big game, we wait in nervous anticipation. We long for the day to arrive, but find ourselves in fear of the unknown outcome. Conversations, arguments and even betting fill the blogosphere, attempting to predict what may be, though it is completely out of our control. These discussions offer the illusion that we are somehow participating in the end, rather than just waiting for it, but they also help mask the biggest fear of all. Not that the book ends in tragedy, but the fear that we may be utterly disappointed, Phantom Menace style. For six books Rowling has managed to keep the magic going. In our hearts of heart we pray, “Please Lord may she not crap out on the seventh.”

I find myself in a difficult place with Harry Potter. As a librarian, particularly as one responsible for buying the stuff one finds on the shelves, I have an ingrained skepticism of The Phenomenon; books that rocket into the stratosphere of popularity, boosted less by quality than by marketing juggernauts. And Harry Potter is a marketing juggernaut. It’s become a carefully crafted cash cow with every kind of officially licensed swag to go with. When it finally goes on sale it will be available at every grocery store, gas station, and Costco™. If you are inclined to be suspicious of anything with a billion dollar marketing budget, than Harry Potter is custom made to make you cranky.

But, as a reader, I love Harry Potter. I have loved the books ever since I opened one up ten years ago and first read about The Dursleys of number four Privet Drive in a town called Little Whinging, and their nephew, one Harry Potter, who was required to sleep in the closet under the stairs, along with the spiders. I’ve followed his tumultuous path to adulthood and, as with any kid who grows up before ones eyes, I’ve become invested in the outcome. I’d like to see him grow to adulthood and find a satisfying career, possibly as an auror, or even the future headmaster of Hogwarts. I’d like to see his friends Ron and Hermione get sorted, have a few frizzy red headed children over whom they argue constantly.

There are those that fume at the popularity of Harry Potter among adults, insisting that it is a sign of the infantilization of culture or the decline in educational standards or merely a harbinger of the end times. I prefer to think that the story’s popularity among people of all ages harkens back to a time where tales were told to amaze an audience, regardless of age or station. Dickens was not imagining an audience of nine year olds when he wrote Oliver Twist, originally published as a serial in the daily newspaper. Mark Twain was not thinking of generations of fifth graders searching for test answers when he wrote Huck Fin. Neither Kipling nor Stevenson sat down to write “kids books”, and literature is a better place for their results.

Of course, there are perils that remain, for readers and for Harry. There’s a chance that our boy may not make it. Perhaps he will lose so much in the attempt that any victory over the forces of darkness are hollow. Though there are many heartbreaking possibilities, it’s hard to imagine what Rowling could do with the story which would be a genuine disappointment. She’s proven that she pulls no punches, and accepts that life often has more bitter than sweet. A total victory over the power of darkness without any collateral damage would be lame, but unlikely. Suddenly transforming the last half of the book into a dry lecture on the obsolescence of God would suck (Phillip Pullman, I’m talking to you sir!). If Harry Potter fans are lucky, then the biggest disappointment we will experience this month will be the latest film installment, Harry Potter and The Order of the Phoenix, which is, truly, the first real let down in a film series that has thus far ranged from fine to extraordinary.

It’s true that the makers of this film had a lot to overcome. Phoenix is the darkest and most emotionally complex of the novels adapted so far. It also follows on the heels of the two best films of the series so far. The films peaked with Harry Potter and The Prisoner of Azkeban, a fast paced thriller which still gives us much of Rowling’s emotional complexity. The heart of the story, an elaborate maze involving time travel, shape shifters and the horrifying Dementors remains fully intact. Room is made for lovely details expanding our appreciation of the magical world, including the Knight Bus and more details of Diagon Alley and Hogwarts. Time is given to expand our appreciation of two of Rowling’s best adult characters, Remus Lupin and Sirius Black.

Goblet of Fire jettisons most of the emotional complexity of the book but in exchange gives us a rip roaring, non-stop adventure film, which still manages to convey the heartbreak of the first profound tragedy of the series, the death of Cedric Diggory, as well as the true, creepy, thrilling horror of the rise of Voldemort. I tend to be an apologist for film adaptations of novels, defending against charges that “they changed the books”. Books and film are completely different media, and they do different things well. Inevitably in a film adaptation some complexity of plot will be lost, some characters dropped or telescoped together. Goblet of Fire is an example of doing this well but somehow Order of the Phoenix has managed to eliminate not only the emotional complexity, but most of the action as well.

When I think about some of the material they had to work with (The headquarters of the Order of the Phoenix, infested with dark magic; The Ministry of Magic; Mr Weasley’s near death and recovery at St. Mungo’s Hospital; The horrible, wretched, evil Dolores Umbridge; Harry’s teenage arrogance and rage; The Hall of Mysteries; Harry learning that even when the world’s most evil wizard is after you, it is still the people who love you the most who can cause you the most pain; Harry ignoring his friends warnings and, as a result, getting them seriously injured and his uncle killed.) the dark, bland, simplistic story they’ve presented on screen is, well, it’s a shame.

My mother asked me yesterday what my prediction is for the final Harry Potter and I told her honestly that I did not have one. I’m not the sort of person who reads the last page of the book before I start. Even if I could guess the end exactly, I’d like to experience it from first page to last unburdened by my own expectations. This is impossible of course, but I like to try.

If I have a hope it is that, when I arrive Friday evening to pick up my copy (yes, I am one of those people who will be there at the stroke of midnight), what awaits all of us is piles of books each as thick as the New York yellow pages. I hope the last book is longer than War and Peace (1400 pages), or at least as long as Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (750 pages). I do want to know the end, but it’d be nice if it took a good long while to get there. I know I will read the first half to three quarters like a woman possessed, at which point I will start turning the pages with mixture of anticipation and sadness, knowing that the closer I get to the answer, the closer I am to The End.

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