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Tuesday, August 09, 2011


Hufflepuffery, and Other Magic Digits

Well, the countdown clock for Harry Potter has begun. The final bell has rung, the final credits scrolled up the screen, and people have had their fond farewells. It's only a limited amount of time before the character becomes a vaguely recalled wisp of childhood, fondly remembered but too embarrassing to revisit.

But, Mr. Russell!, I hear you cry. Harry Potter was a worldwide phenomenon, enjoyed, read, and watched by children and adults alike! How can it possibly become little more than a blushing trifle of nostalgia?

And, maybe I'll be proved wrong. Look at the cache that Star Wars, another children's film embraced by both young and old, has enjoyed. Millions upon millions of dollars of merchandizing, innumerable take-offs and spin-offs, and the ability to pack convention halls with sweaty, geeky man-children. Star Trek may have had the documentary about fans who transform their lives, houses, and jobs to resemble their favorite escapism, but Star Wars is the go-to punchline for arrested development. And endorsements by Joseph Campbell aside, the story has not stood up to critical acclaim. It's got enough boffo, whiz-bang special effects to dazzle, but even at the start — more than thirty years ago — lead actor Harrison Ford infamously told George Lucas that, "[Y]ou can type this shit, but you sure as hell can't say it."

Harry Potter started off as tissue-thin, wish fulfillment escapism, notable for its copious irrelevant detail in world-building and its utter lack of suspenseful pacing. One can easily understand the appeal of the desire to find one's humdrum life transformed into a magical success, but the sheer hyperbolic stakes that Rowling set up in order to tell us who was good and who was bad were such gross exaggerations that she herself spent many books trying to correct them. Please consider the following summary of the beginning of book one:

Harry's aunt, uncle, and cousin are the most loathsome of trolls, eventually given the slightest of motivation (jealousy) several years after they'd already been rendered as little more than corpulent grotesques on page and on film. Because fat people are heartless and selfish! Oh, Jo, your penetrating glance into human nature knows no bounds! Instead of just living a contentious existence with his family, Harry lives in a cupboard! Under the stairs! Because Jo Rowling strives for realistic depictions of family situations. And which is why Harry's situations caroms to the opposite side of the spectrum with such spectacular subtlety: he is a secret celebrity, with a secret cavern of gold. A special group of magic people send him to a posh school, and even a magic wand with unique capabilities chooses him. Despite having never participated in this special wizard culture, Harry discovers he's really good at their special wizard sport, and gets promoted to the lead position, where he can win the game single-handed only he can catch the special wizard sport ball with it's realistic amount of game-altering points. He does this all on the most current, cutting-edge wizard broom, which — despite his untold riches — was purchased for him by a secret benefactor.

Sure, the books get better. But they take years to escape this sloppy, pedestrian origin. This childish (Not "child-like"; that's a quality. "Childish" is not.) collection of lists of stuff is fun on a Goodnight Moon level, where one enjoys pointing out all the stuff in the pictures, but it's not really a story. And it doesn't feature recognizable people. And in a few years, once the glamour has worn off, teenagers will be moved to revisit the series, to feel again the flush of fun that comes with comfortable familiarity. And they will find the first book hard-going, with its wearying reluctance to actually move to the plot along, its obsessive cataloguing of special! magical! versions of ordinary things, and its cut-out heroes and villains. And book two is even worse, if such a thing can be conceived.

And modern youth, young people having heard of the books and having been exposed to the hype, will quietly let the series die. They will start at the beginning and find an absence of charm befitting its reputation. They will abandon it in its early days, and the series will moulder and fade. Libraries with multiple copies of each volume, from each book's release heyday and the resulting voracious temporal demand, will suddenly get yards of shelf-space back. (See also, the box-office records for the final film: after getting it out of their collective systems, attendance dropped a whopping 72% during the second weekend. In anything else, that would have sent studio execs scurrying in alarm.)

Fans of Severus Snape, looking to trace his secret goodness back to its roots, will not find a through line that exhibits the signs of any plans for redemption. That doesn't really start until book three. There is an interesting story to be told about the Harry Potter series, and it's about how J.K. Rowling took what could have been a series of uninteresting, unremarkable, repetitious stories, and turned them into a series with a long-term plot and character development. She learned how to write, in public, and transformed slowly from a writer to an author between 2001 and 2009. If she were to write something now, it could actually be good; she has the potential, even if she has yet to demonstrate it. Certainly, the series ends with a maturity of tone, with an exhibition of the understanding of consequences, and many demonstrations of having exploded many of its own limiting conventions.

Me, I'm going to enjoy living in a post-Potter world by reading a little post-Potter literature. It's release day for the sequel to Lev Grossman's excellent The Magicians. The Magicians, like ...and the Sorcerer's Stone, is a book that didn't need a sequel. But unlike Harry Potter and The Publisher's Mistrust of an American Audience,* the first book was so well-constructed, so mature its outlook, and so knowing in its genre conventions, that I will gladly give the second volume a chance, to see if Grossman can up the game. I'm certainly willing to play.

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