Tuesday, July 19, 2005


Minority Report -- part I

In which a sore-headed member of the tiny minority who are unimpressed with Harry Potter goes and alienates, well, pretty much everybody...

I'm not some sort of grown up snob who is unwilling to read children's and "young readers' " fiction. I loved Holes, and I've read The Prydain Chronicles by Lloyd Alexander about a dozen times since I was ten.

I read the first Harry Potter book a few years ago, because several of my adult friends told me how great it was. There were at that time, perhaps, 2-3 books out and Pottermania (I prefer to call it "Potterzeebie") was in full swing. I thought the book was okay. I mean, I finished it. But I wasn't interested enough to read another one.

Harry Potter struck me as a Hollywood screenwriter's approach to the fantasy genre: instead of going back to the original source material (Welsh legends or whatever) and doing her own take, J.K. Rowling knocked off the other novels -- Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, and yes The Prydain Chronicles -- with a healthy dose of Tom Brown's Schooldays (classic Brit young readers' novel about a boy at a boarding school) and Star Wars thrown in for a twist.

Rowling is workmanlike with the gimmicks (e.g., Quiddich) and spinning out plot for her characters. As are Hollywood screenwriters.

What I didn't like so much about Harry Potter is the same thing that I always found to be the big hole in the middle of the Star Wars series. In The Prydain Chronicles the protaganist, Taran, is an ordinary boy with human shortcomings who has to find his own way through a world infused with magic relying on his own character and the help of his friends. His lack of magical powers is a continuing source of frustration and disappointment to him, and the "special power" that emerges in him is the power of striving in spite of that.

In The Lord of the Rings the Hobbits had certain qualities, but not magical ones. It too was a story in which the protagonist had to reach inside and find special fortitude in his seemingly ordinary character.

In contrast, Star Wars gives us Luke Skywalker, who has no particular quality or virtue of his own, but by chance inherits "the force" from his parents. And the film is hampered by the fact that Luke was played by Mark Hamill, undoubtedly one the lamest actors of his day, whose only qualification seems to have been good hair. Hamill the actor constantly appears lost and overmatched, wandering through the films like a deer in the headlights, boosted only by his prefabricated role. The result is to place at the very center of the original Star Wars Trilogy a character who, when you think about it, bears a striking similarity to George W. Bush.

Whatever strengths J.K. Rowling has as a writer and storyteller are, for me, offset by the fact that she opted for the Star Wars route. I'm not saying you can't write a good fantasy tale about someone with magical powers, but at least make them work hard, or give them some kind of internal demons to struggle with. Or else, don't pretend that your protagonist who effortlessly acquired magic is virtuous. To me, the Harry Potter character is as interesting as a trust fund baby with no emotional problems.


One big difference though.

In Star Wars, only Luke and a select few have the force. In the Potter world, everyone has magic. It's not special and doesn't put him above anyone else. And he does poorly on subjects that he doesn't concentrate on, well in others.

He was saved by Deus ex Machina in early books, but as they progress it becomes increasingly common for him to handle his own problems.

He's not as shat upon as Taran (By the way, have you ever read Susan Cooper's "The Dark is Rising" series, along the same lines), but he is, with the exception of his scar, fairly ordinary.

Not much like Luke at all.

(Note: She does steal Star Wars plot devices though. Dumbledore is quite clearly based on Obi-wan).
I guess the Q is what pulls massive audiences into the trance of being completely enthralled with something.

It's the same Q as why certain people have charisma. The mistake, I think, is to focus on the spectacular traits (or lack thereof) of a person, book or movie instead of focusing on the traits of the audience whose deep needs the person/text/movie satisfies.

My husband wrote a paper on something similar many decades ago("Call it Charisma" -- on the psychoanalytic roots of charisma) and it's always been one of my favorites because it completely flips you into a different mode of studying the phenomenon of mass appeal.

Bottom line -- don't look to the text, study the masses.

BTW, I am not especially enthralled with either Star Wars nor Harry Potter.
Paul: Haven't you forgotten about the Muggles?
"don't look to the text, study the masses."

This makes no sense. How can you study the appeal a book has to the masses without examining both? There have been plenty of books that havn't appealed to the same masses. There must be something different about these ones.
Muggles are there, but the world's are seperate. Once you're a wizard, for the most part, the muggle world no longer matters.

While violence occasionally spills over into the muggle world, and some eltist wizards are outright racists towards muggles (although more often towards wizards born of muggles, as they never interact with muggles), the Harry Potter universe is largely self contained.

Most importantly though, Muggles do not know that wizards exist. We are all well aware of the Bush's, Kennedy's, and Hilton's of the world. Luke's powers may be impressive to Han. Vader's powers are certainly impressive to all those who had their tracheas crushed. But in the Potter world, no Muggles are in awe, or jealous, or hateful of wizards because they do not know that they are there.

What's the point of being a well to do trust fund kid if no one knows it?
Simply stated: look at both, the text and the people reading it. It may not be the most brilliant piece of writing, but the appeal is there. It meets a need. That's all. It's not a profound point, it just expands the discussion beyond "is the text so great?"
I disagree. Keep reading Harry Potter. The books get exponentially more sophisticated as they go along, and as the story develops, Rowling reveals that Harry really isn't that special after all. He's a mediocre wizard with outsize problems and only one great skill - quidditch - that doesn't really benefit him all that much.

Rowling rewards readers' trust in that a lot of the seeming-problems and inconsistencies in the first books (esp. 1 and 2) are integral pieces of the same overarching plot. It's difficult for the adult reader to appreciate the first few novels until they've read the later ones, because the first ones are very basic and seemingly flat.

Whether a novel should stand alone or be so critically dependant on later books in the series is a different question.

I can't disagree with you about Rowling ripping off story elements, but I don't mind seeing stories I like told in different ways. I'll never claim Rowling is an innovator, but I think she's a great storyteller.
I also read the Lloyd Alexander books over and over. I don't know if it was use of myths as sources, good mix of plot and character, sometimes quirky dialogue, who knows, but they apparently were enjoyed by many others too. (Or maybe it was that I'd read "Cricket" magazine, which Alexander contributed to, and was thus more receptive to his style.) I liked the books so much that I wrote to the author, twice, proclaiming my childhood plan to become an author. He kindly wrote back with encouragement, and typed and signed his own notes.
D-Day: Well put. That's one of the more persuasive arguments for reading on. It does sound more interesting that HP is a mediocre wizard.

Doesn't your nickname create anxious raised expectations for each new day?

Anon 11:04: Thanks for that story. Lloyd Alexander sounds like as much of a mensch as it seems from his books.
In answer to your question: I wish I could say that I earned the name as a hotshot lawyer and each day brought the start of new and major litigation. Alas, I'm just a Harry Potter-reading first-year associate and the nick is as banal as first initial-last name.

Thanks for responding to my comment; I've been enjoying your blog for a few weeks now.
http://www.narniaresources.com/alerter Very cool desktop alerter that has regular updates on the new Narnia movie. Ijust installed and it is VERY cool!
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