Thursday, July 26, 2007

This Wizard Business

I haven’t been keeping up on Harry Potter since I read the first book and saw the first movie in 2001. In an earlier e-mail incarnation of these postings, I offered my opinion. I now submit it again edited, but still held.

I’ve read the book. Seen the movie. Now my report on the matter.

When I finally read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, a few short weeks ago, it was already sagging under its fame. Thanks to the juggernaut of modern post-movie Hollywood (they haven’t made films or movies in decades; it’s all product spinoff now.) we have not a fine children’s book that’s transcended its intended audience like Alice in Wonderland or Winnie the Pooh, but the phenomenon of ballooning expectations, punctured by oversell.

While initially enthusiastic, I finally found the novel entertaining, but rushed and perfunctory. J.K. Rowling draws her inspiration from two English storytelling traditions: the schoolboy novel (Tom Brown’s School Days) and the sturdier, enchanting tradition of the fantasy (Tolkien, C.S. Lewis). But her voice is modern: straightforward and spare. She seems to take for granted the wizard world that Harry enters and so, it seems, does Harry and everyone else. It’s meant to be whimsical and sometimes it is funny, but in rushing to tell a breathless story, Rowling misses something I need in any alternate universe story: a sense of being there: that feathery touch of poetry that seduces me into believing in Harry’s world as much as my own.

For example, just what does Hogwarts School look like? We don’t get much of an idea as Rowling sums up Harry’s first look at this supposedly wonderful place in a brief and uninspired paragraph: No sense of landscape, drama or awe. The book never feels “as real as a dime,” to quote Dashiell Hammett’s description of M.P. Shiel's The Lord of the Sea, another adventure classic.

True, I’m being a Muggle about a book aimed at preteen boys, who may be bored by that much detail (Full disclosure: at eleven years, your correspondent was attempting, badly, to read Dr. Zhivago).

But this does raise a question: how have the Harry Potter books managed to leap into the warm embrace of grown-ups, many of whom presumably remember Alice in Wonderland and The Hobbitt?

I’m not an expert on the English whimsy/fantasy tradition (I prefer their supernatural tales) but I do remember that sense of “being there” in The World of Pooh. Like I could look out my window and see A. A. Milne’s furry befuddled creatures wandering right through my snowy back woods in Lake Mohegan, New York. A recent re-reading of those tales poignantly confirmed my nostalgia. Milne’s stories are short, but the sweet details of Pooh’s universe are chosen right, supported by E.H. Shepard’s vivid drawings and watercolors: A remarkable feat for a book written seventy-five years ago for an audience younger than young Potter’s.

“Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” never got that close. It reads more like a Hardy Boys adventure, and really, who among you has ever re-read them and cried like babies? I finished Harry Potter with a shrug and hurried on to The Fellowship of the Ring which, whatever its problems, creates a world as real as Hammett’s dime.

In that respect, the spectacle recently rolled out by Hollywood genuinely tries to bring Harry Potter to visual life. It does conjure up some of what Rowling’s prose missed. Especially impressive is how the wizards douse the neighborhood lights during the opening. The special effects for the Quidditch match are shaky, but the film makers imagine it well and cleared up my confusion about this Polo on Broomsticks.

The film was shot at numerous old English schools, so nothing looks like a set. It all feels rightly British, thanks especially to the adults in the cast including Richard Harris, Maggie Smith and the transcendentally evil Alan Rickman, whose Professor Snape deserves his very own movie. The second Rickman bounds onto the screen like Basil Rathbone or Vincent Price on steroids, the movie springs to magical life. Too bad they didn’t make more use of him. (Never mind the kids; they’re *all* terrible: Next to them, Haley Joel Osment looks qualified to play Hamlet.)

Finally, the movie suffers from the very Harry Potter phenomenon itself. J.K. Rowling was understandably fiercely protective of her creation, and as are its millions of readers. But the film makers wind up chained by the material. With a mob of fans armed with torches and pitchforks ready to storm the set at the first sign of tampering, there wasn’t much they could do with Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone except shoot the Classics Illustrated version. They include only a lame wisp of the amusing dragon incident, when they should have cut it altogether. The ending lacks suspense (The only surprise is that main villain Voldemort looks amazingly like, of all people, Lee Van Cleef!)

In a sense, it’s a shame that Terry Gilliam, who was touted as the original director, didn’t get to turn his wizardly eye on Harry Potter. But that may have resulted in his burning at the stake and the reduction of Warner Brothers studio to rubble, no matter how well the movie stood on its own, which all good adaptations must do.

REMINDER: The blog will be on vacation until August 12! Thanks for stopping by!

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