Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Revisiting Harry Potter: What I Loved

I think I really impressed my agent with how on-the-ball my blog readers are. Y'all had given me the heads up on the screenwriter announcement long before the film agent forwarded the Variety article to my agent. In fact, my e-mail to my agent asking if she knew about it arrived just before the film agent's e-mail. I had known they were in talks with a screenwriter, and I knew who it was. I just didn't know that it had become a done deal. Even though it was an announcement of something I already knew something about, seeing the announcement was really exciting. I never imagined there would be something about me in Variety! It pretty much distracted me the rest of the day.

Now, though, it's back to reality, even though it's sort of a snow day. All the school districts around here are closed because we got a fair amount of rain last night while the temperatures were in the 20s. It's still not above freezing, but the ice seems to be melting where the sun is hitting it. Unfortunately, my front porch and front walk don't get direct sunlight, so it's like an ice rink out there. I just got an e-mail saying there would be choir tonight, but I will wait to see what conditions are like before I go. If the walk is still icy, I'm not going anywhere, and after the melting, if it goes back below freezing after dark, it could get really ugly. The icicles are pretty, though. I have a tile roof, which means the icicles are perfectly spaced along the eaves.

So, now that I've criticized the Harry Potter series, I'll talk about what I liked, and I'll have to narrow it down to a few big things. I was probably predisposed to like it, since I love whimsy, I love things that butt the magical world up against the real world, and I've always had a thing for books taking place in British boarding schools. But here are some specific things I particularly loved about the series (and there will be spoilers here for the whole series):

I loved the detailed plotting, the way something that seemed like nothing turned out to be major later, like the way there was all that talk in the very first book about how impossible it would be to break into the bank, and then in the last book they had to break into the bank (and I wonder if that was planned all along, or if all the talk about how impossible it was became an inspiration to make the characters have to do it), or like there was a throwaway line in the fourth book when Ron makes a wisecrack about how it's too bad Draco's mother loves him (because she wouldn't let him go to the more far-away school), and then Draco's mother's love for her son turned out to be the deciding factor that was the turning point of the whole thing. That really gave a sense that Rowling knew where she was going with the series and had a plan. It also meant that each time I re-read the earlier books, the most recent book would have changed my perceptions of them, so it was almost like getting an entirely new book.

I loved the characters and the way the children grew from 11 to 18 over the course of the books in a fairly believable way. Our three main characters seemed like real kids. They may have been good and brave and managed to save the world from bad magic, but they also complained about doing their homework, got into the kind of silly spats real kids get into, went through growing pains, had teachers that were out to get them, dealt with bullies, learned to realize that their favorite teachers weren't necessarily the best teachers, and a whole host of things that were easy to relate to. One of my tests of good fantasy characters is if they'd be interesting to me even if you took the magic out of the mix, and I think these would be. I've already talked about how Hermione is basically me from that age, but I also had a lot I could relate to in Ron and Harry. I even liked the adult characters, and the fact that their relationships to the kids changed as the kids got older. I think the fact that the adults were real characters and not just Charlie Brown "Mwa mwa mwa" people may have been part of the reason these books went so far beyond the child/teen audience. They were books about people of all ages that just happened to be told through a child's perspective.

I liked the sense of innocence. The kids may have been expected (especially as they got older) to do some pretty adult things (like saving the world from bad magic), but socially, they were allowed to be kids, something that's pretty rare these days. These were teenagers to whom a kiss was a big deal. There wasn't any peer pressure for rainbow parties (Mom, you don't want to know), sex, drugs or heavy alcohol use -- the kinds of things a lot of young adult authors throw in to try to make their books "relevant" or "contemporary." Rowling didn't even attempt to be edgy. I think that's going to prove to be a good call for the potential timelessness of the series. Although she ended up placing them specifically in time in the last book with the grave marker giving actual dates, there's a sort of timelessness to the wizarding world, and by making no effort to give the kids "contemporary" touches, I think she kept the books from being something that will seem dated ten or twenty years (or more) from now. In fact, future editions could even change the dates on that grave marker, and it wouldn't really have to change anything about the rest of the series.

I must admit to cackling with glee when I got near the end of the last book and realized that it was turning out to be the most overt Christian allegory since The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, especially given the over-the-top fear response to these books by certain portions of the Christian community (what I have sometimes called the East Texas Taliban). I'd had a sneaking suspicion things were heading in that direction from the start because I'd noticed a lot of symbolism and imagery, but I wasn't sure how much I was reading into it because of my own worldview. And then, just to make it very clear, Rowling admitted to it all in the big NBC interview. I love the validation of the fact that fantasy is not automatically anti-Christian. So, yeah, I found it highly ironic that all those religious groups were burning something that actually was in support of their beliefs. I'm equally impressed with the way that I think you can still enjoy the series on the surface level without taking the theological approach.

Most of all, though, I loved the sense of community that built around these books, and I'm not talking about the fandom factions online, the wizard rock, the conventions, or any of that stuff. There was just something cool about reading something at the same time as a lot of other people. I had jury duty the Monday after the release of the fifth book, and that created an instant bond as so many people in the jury pool room were reading the book. I've been able to get into conversations with airplane seatmates about these books. Just before the release of the last book, I was in the middle of a re-read of the earlier books and had one with me when I took the train downtown. Half the people in my car were reading one of these books, and when the train stopped abruptly between stations, someone commented that it looked like the Dementors had stopped the train, and the whole car got a chuckle out of it. How many books are there where you can make an offhand (and even a little obscure) wisecrack relating to a book, and everyone around gets it? Wouldn't it be lovely if books could permeate society like that more often? If reading a new book on release day became as big a deal as seeing a movie the day it comes out -- and more often than just one or two series?

No comments: