Saturday, November 13, 2010

Harry Potter And The Sorcerer's Stone

(I’ve decided to revisit the Harry Potter novels before viewing The Deathly Hallows, for the first time since The Deathly Hallows itself was first released. Instead of saving them for Stuff I’ve Been Reading, revisit the movies along side of them.. I expect half of this experiment to be a very pleasurable experience and the other half to not be. No points for guessing which.)

Must I give a plot summary? Must I relay a list of characters? Of course not. Rowling’s world has become for better or worse, ubiquitous. And like so many ubiquitous things it contains qualities we often forget.

For example, there is a deep and delightfully unexpected vein of absurdism that runs through the early Harry Potter books. Something that fell away as Rowling really became caught up in the greater machinations of her universe, and tapped into the real mythical darkness of the world she created. Its thick on the ground in book one though, and it’s easy to imagine the opening chapters in which the fantastical relentlessly intrudes on the stolid Mr. Dursely and his later war against the letters, as Gilliamations. In the first chapter to feature Harry (a nightmare of the bourgeois misery that suggests that had he not grown to be a great wizarding hero Harry would have become the next Johnny Rotten) it’s easy to imagine Mrs. Dursely played by Terry Jones in drag and Mr. Dursely given the full force of a pre weight loss Ricky Gervais.

It’s that certain, well winking would be the wrong word but sense of “Well what did you expect.” That allows Rowling to get us to buy into her fantasy world so completely. Paradoxically we’re able to take it seriously because she is so clearly having fun with it.

Though Harry Potter And The Sorcerer's Stone is lighter and certainly simpler then the rest of the series, it would be a mistake to claim that the book is weightless. Indeed Rowling has inherited what seems to be the birthright of all English Born fantasists; Neil Gaiman, Susan Collins, Tolkien, and CS Lewis, that of seemingly effortless weight. The Melancholy interlude that involving the Mirror of Erised, has a feeling to it that is almost ancient. Like her strongest, darkest writing: the journey across the river of the dead in book 6, the resurrection of Voldemort in book 4, the encounter with the curtain in Book 5, Rowling’s stories at their best, like the stories of those mentioned above, feel like stories people have been telling for a long long time

Many, led by Harold Bloom who I can’t help but feel really should have known better, attack Rowling on the basis of her writing. And while she certainly has her annoying tics, for example her apparent desire to be crowned Queen Of The Adverbs, the criticism of her writing seems to be missing the forest for the trees in two rather important ways.

1) She’s not a bad writer. Though her prose may not be the smoothest, it does its job of being descriptive without being merely declarative, and for the most part is light on its feet. Certainly we’ve forgiven lesser wordsmiths clumsier prose based on the strength of the world’s they’ve created (I’m staring straight at you Susan Collins.)

2) Though it is easy to forget, what with the embracing of the series by everybody not named Harold Bloom, several of Rowling’s books, and certainly this first one. ARE CHILDREN’S BOOKS. Let me reiterate. BOOKS WRITTEN FOR CHILDREN. However delightful and welcoming we as adults may find them the main purpose of their prose remains to be comprehensible and enjoyable to third graders.

Which makes me wonder how many of the book’s Critics have gone back and read a God honest Children’s Book lately. Sure there are a few writer’s more graceful. Neil Gaiman, Roald Dahl and Ursula LeGuin spring to mind. I may not much like were Phillip Pullman’s Dark Material’s ended up but he had a good thing going for about two thirds of the way through there.

But really that’s about it, and when you compare Rowling to most children’s books authors, even those like Lloyd Alexander and Brian Jacques whom I dearly love, I assure you, she writes with the grace and clarity of an Oxford Don.

In short, slight though The Sorceror’s Stone may be, it is not empty. And its light nature contributes to its considerable charm. Like all effective things that eventually mature, it is fitting and right that Rowling begins in innocence.

In regards to Harry Potter, it would be tempting to say that Christopher Columbus understands the notes but not the music, only he doesn’t seem to have a terribly firm grasp of the notes either.

But Let us take a moment to give Christopher Columbus a little credit, before taking the brickbats to him. Oh don’t worry the Brickbats are coming, Just have a little pause. Columbus did pick a cast, and build a world that was strong enough to support 8 films. That’s not nothing, looking beyond the excellent adult cast he picked, Maggie Grace, Alan Rickman, Richard Griffiths (even if I keep expecting him to turn to Harry and growl "I mean to have you boy even if it means burglary!") and above all Richard Harris who is by far the superior Dumbledore, grandfatherly wise with hidden reserves of strength, to Michael Gambon, who I’m convinced based his characterization off of a studio note that read merely “Drunk. Surly.”

Columbus also managed to pick a look for the world and tone for the style that also managed to last about ten years without becoming an overwhelming embarrassment to itself.

This too deserves some credit.

Unfortunately Columbus set another template, one that would end up sinking all but two of the Harry Potter films.

Simply the problem with the Potter films is that they’re not really adaptations at all, but summaries. And not very interesting ones at that. Instead of pruning and choosing the scenes to develop for maximum narrative and thematic affect, we get bastardized thirty second clips of everything in the book. Rhythm is for pussies.

It’s hard not to imagine Columbus directing with a checklist in hand as the maximum amount of scenes go by with the minimum amount of impact. No matter how strenuously John William’s subtle as a hate crime score (eerie title theme notwithstanding) insists that everything IS MAGICAL!!! DID YOU HEAR ME I SAID YOU’RE FEELING A FUCKING INNOCENT SENSE OF CHILDLIKE WONDER!!! GODDAMN MAGIC!!!

Scenes in the book that came off as poignant, like the encounter in the mirror. Or darkly resonant, like the first sight of Voldemort drinking the blood of the slain unicorn, instead come off as completely perfunctory.

There is as much cinematic joy to be gotten out of watching Harry Potter And The Sorcerer’s Stone as there is out of reading the book’s Wikipedia page.


Budd said...

I agree with your assessment. I always knew something was wrong with the movie, but never figured it out on my own. I think I have only seen the first four and didn't really care for any of them.

Her writing does improve through the series, but I imagine you will point that out with each book.

Matt Keeley said...

Re: Your brief mention of Lloyd Alexander: I haven't read him for a while, but I wonder if he didn't somewhat tone down his style for his YA books? In addition to writing some wonderful children's books, he was also a translator of Sartre.

When the book started appearing, I was in middle school; I was a fairly early adopter of the series. I very distinctly remember reading book three in the British edition. Family friends had visited the UK and bought the new book, in the dark days before simultaneous release of new HP books. In any case, I sort of grew up with the books, reading them through middle school, high school, and college. There are very few authors I have read as *consistently* as Rowling.

Just about everyone of my age that I know has read the Harry Potter books. I think our generation was lucky – our big shared reading experience was actually good.

No comments on the movies. I've read all the books, but have seen at most forty minutes of one of the movies. I'm sure they're great and all, but I like to keep the images I have in my head. Peter Jackson's films still intrude into my imagination when I read Tolkien...

Bryce Wilson said...

@ Budd: Spot on. But what I found strange when I went back to read it, since I kind of swallowed the conventional wisdom of Rowling = Inadequate.

But she really wasn't that bad. I mean she's not Nabokov or David Mitchell. She's not elegant, but she's just fine.

@Matt: Right on Matt. I agree, we got really lucky. There but for the grace of God goes Twilight.

That's fascinating about Alexander, I had no idea. Especially since he and Sarte were as far as I could tell pretty opposite philosphically.

Like I said, I love Alexander and Prydain. And you're probably right that he toned down his style. And the way he did somethings like weaving Welsh mythology into the fabric of his story was very elegant.

But what struck me going back to visiting the books not too long ago, was the way he handled exposition. Basically anytime he needed to get something across he'd just have a character speak until all the information he wants has been delivered.

It can go on for PAGES.

You're not missing anything in regards to The Harry Potter movies. I'd encourage you to keep your embargo. Only two of them really work, and one of them sort of does in fits and starts. But it's nothing worth usurping your imagination over.

Neil Fulwood said...

Amen to your shout out for Richard Harris as the Dumbledore. As much as I respect Michael Gambon, he's clearly phoning in his performance in the Potter flicks and pocketing the paycheque.