Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Revisiting Harry Potter: The Criticisms

First, I'd like to wish my parents a happy wedding anniversary!

I don't know if it's a case of "cold and rainy, yay!" or if I really am starting to recover from the January groggies, but I was up and at 'em way earlier this morning than I have been lately, and I'm even moderately alert. It's a good thing I hit the grocery store yesterday, as we've got ice storm warnings now. It's hovering right at freezing and is raining, with the temperature dropping. Judging by the speed of the cars on the road going past my office window, I'd say the roads haven't iced up yet (and if they keep going this speed after it ices up, it will be highly entertaining. I may make popcorn.).

So, as I mentioned, since Christmas I've been re-reading the entire Harry Potter series, and since I never discussed the seventh book at all, I'll address the whole series now. That means there will be spoilers for the whole series, but I figure that since it's been a year and a half since the last book came out, if you care, you'll have read it by now.

I think I was more critical in this read-through than I have been in the past, especially in the earlier books that I'm more familiar with. I'd read criticisms about the writing, and this time, when I wasn't necessarily so caught up in the story that the words themselves became invisible, I have to admit that I noticed that the writing was a bit clunky in places, especially once things got to the point that they quit editing because they were rushing the books into production. I would say that the writing in the third book is the strongest because she had obviously grown as a writer since the earlier books and she was still being edited. For the most part, I would say that Rowling's writing style is mostly invisible -- the words don't get in the way of the story or call attention to themselves, and they exist purely to tell the story. However, she has a few bad word habits, like having an obvious "pet" word in each book and using it repeatedly. It's one thing when it's a minor word like "just," but when it's something like "comprise" (and it's not even used correctly), it starts to jump off the page. Especially when it shows up about three times per page.

The biggest plotting weakness is a danger for either first-person or tight, sole-viewpoint third-person narration, and that's the tendency to indulge in a lot of "telling" near the end of the book, when the hero learns everything that was going on in the background all along by someone telling him what was happening. There's a lot of what I call "Shawshank Redemption" plotting going on, where all the events make total sense in the initial context, so that they don't jump out as clues the first time through, and then you find out what was really going on, and all those seemingly innocuous things take on an entirely different meaning in that context. Unfortunately, that tends to lead to a lot of "My evil plans, let me tell you them" scenes. The absolute worst was in the fourth book, where we had about a chapter of Voldemort telling Harry everything he'd been up to during that book, the previous three books, and for the ten years prior to the books starting. And then Harry got back to Hogwarts and we got another chapter or so of Barty Crouch Jr. telling everything he'd been up to during the entire book (a scene that was more interesting in the movie version, largely because it involved David Tennant bouncing off walls and feasting on the scenery instead of the book's monotone recitation). I suspect even Rowling realized she'd fallen into a pattern because after that she brought up the link between Harry and Voldemort so that Harry got glimpses into what the villain was up to throughout the book and we didn't need the recitation of evil plans, but then she fell into the pattern of having a chapter or so at the end of each book with Dumbledore explaining to Harry everything that had really been going on, or, as in the sixth book, getting someone else to tell the whole story.

The third book handled this best because the revelation of all the stuff that had really been going on was more of an active scene. There were more people involved, with even more people showing up throughout to change the scene and add their input, and the scene kept shifting on its axis, so that it went back and forth between who you thought was good and who you thought was bad, as well as constantly changing who was in control of the situation. As a result, there was a lot more going on than Harry listening to someone explain the whole plot. It was dynamic rather than passive, and Harry got to actually play a role in doing something and making decisions.

I really like the sixth book. It's pretty fun to read because of all the character stuff going on, but it struck me on this read-through how much it's essentially Harry Potter and the Book Without an Actual Plot. The through-line plot that actually drives the ongoing story of the series is kept as mostly a sub-plot and most of the action takes place in the distant past, with Harry observing Tom Riddle's life story. Nothing much really happens in the present, plot-wise, until the end, and that's where the only real action in the book is. Otherwise, I guess it's Harry Potter and the Raging Hormones, which is fun to read if you love the characters, but that's a lot of pages without much story momentum. So, I'm torn on that book. I wonder if there might have been a way to deal with the trials and tribulations of being a teenager while still telling more of a story. Then again, the school stuff was always my favorite part of the series. Yeah, bad wizard taking over the world, big scary snake, blah, blah, blah, but are Ron and Hermione ever going to get over their individual issues, fears and pride and admit that they're crazy about each other?

This sounds like I'm being very negative, but this is really the first time I've acknowledged that there were things I didn't like about this series. I have generally been a raving fangirl blind to its faults. Tomorrow I'll get into the things I liked.

And now it's a return to Amateur Dramatic Hour. There's a Shakespeare play that provides a lot of the inspiration for the Nagging Idea, so I need to read it, and I've found that the only way for me to really follow Shakespeare and get any meaning out of it is to read it out loud. I'm not really trying to act it full-on, but I am trying to get some characterization and inflection into it.

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