Harry Potter?

I want to comment on HP in general, but I need to be careful not to offend any of you HP-lovers out there.

I haven’t read any of the books, so what I’m commenting on are the stories and characters as they are presented in the movies. I hate to mention the obvious, but it does seem like the books vs. movies is setting up a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t paradigm. If you’ve read the books, the movies will seem too short, with not enough detail, and won’t match your imagination of the settings and characters. If you haven’t read the books, the movies will be incomprehensible.

We watched all the previous movies this weekend, with the exception of the first one, The Sorceror’s Stone, which I have seen (mostly) before. Of the four, I think I liked #3, the Prisoner of Azkaban, the best, because it has the most complete story (about Sirius Black), and it has the best example of “black” humor in the series. It might have been directed by Tim Burton.#4, the Goblet of Fire, has a distinctive and useful structure that the others lack, because of the competition and its three tasks — the movie is clearly divided into 4 parts, which helps it immensely.

After viewing these DVDs, we went to the Order of Phoenix movie on Sunday morning.This was not the worst movie I’ve ever seen (I’ve seen some pretty bad ones), but it was close to the worst of the 4 Harry Potter movies of the weekend. It did have one redeeming value, the performance of Imelda Staunton as Professor Umbrage, the teacher from hell, someone with which I have had some personal experience.

Otherwise, the movie was perfectly and completely incoherent to me — I didn’t have a clue what anybody was talking about, references to “prophecies” etc. that were meaningless to me. Also, the stories from the movies are clearly emulating Lord of the Rings. The Dark Lord amassing an army, not just of evil wizards and sorcerors but bad creatures of all kinds? Um, this story has been told before.

One thing I really don’t like about the stories (as presented in the movies) is that Harry seems passive to his fate. Magic is used to cover up banalities in the plot. Even though Harry seeks to solve mysteries (particularly the death of his parents), he is never really imperiled, but always rescued by some use of magic. Hence, the magic “car” rescues him in one scene. He’s rescued by his future self in another scene. Harry is never allowed to use ingenuity or creativity to get out of scrapes. This is the opposite of heroes from the pulp stuff I read as a kid, Nancy Drew and The Hardy Boys, who put themselves in danger again and again only to figure out how to escape. One admired their ingenuity.

As others have noted, this last installment of the Potter series (the movies) barely mentions Hermione and Ron at all, and yet the wrap-up is “evil doesn’t know friendship or love.” Well, the movie doesn’t show us much of that, either. And by the way, what exactly was The Order of the Phoenix?

Thumbs down.

29 thoughts on “Harry Potter?

  1. Sorry about the long paragraph – the return key will no longer start a new paragraph in WordPress (for me).

  2. I’ve never understood the mass hysteria for Harry Potter. It’s not terrible – but it isn’t deserving of the massive attention and fanfare.

  3. I like the books — as children’s books go, they’re smart and interesting. Azkaban was directed, I believe, by Alfonso Cuaron.

  4. As I said, I haven’t read the books. The movies themselves started out just being fun, with magic and fun effects.

    There’s nothing fun about the latest one. Harry seems morose and tormented.

    Imelda Staunton seems to be having a great time, playing a mix of The Queen and Margaret Thatcher.

    But these movies have become increasingly deadly serious, a problem I also have with the Lord of the Rings movies, which started out great fun and ended quite stultifying.

  5. D., I think that’s partly a reflection of what’s happening to Harry — puberty.

    But yes, the book of Order of the Phoenix actually made me dislike Harry quite a lot.

    The Order itself is the group of people who were organized by Dumbledore to fight Voldemort: see here.

  6. Yes, I know. It isn’t made clear in the movie.

    Harry is Frodo. Voldemort is just Sauron. Dumbledore is just Gandalf. The “Order of the Phoenix” is just “The Fellowship of the Ring.” Sirius Black is just Aragorn, etc.

    Doesn’t anybody else see this?

  7. Book 5 was easily my least favorite of the books, but I’m sure I’ll go see the movie anyway. Harry’s a complete snot throughout most of the book. It’s hard to blame him, considering all that he lives through, and yet, I do.

    You really should read the books – no time like the present, now that the 7th (and final?*) book is coming out. They are much more satisfying. Hermione is my favorite character, although she’s a bit different on-screen than in the pages.

    * Yeah, I know what JKR has said, but how many times has Stephen King said he wouldn’t publish any more books?

  8. Pfft.

    The Order of the Phoenix is 870 pages long.

    Of course a 2 hour movie is going to suck/ be incoherent.

    I once read that JKR looks over the scripts and gives notes on what can’t or shouldn’t be left out.

    (This is why I watch the movies: to see if what I consider big pieces of the puzzle make it in.)

    I’m thinking that this time, she wasn’t consulted. At least not, as closely as she was before. (It might have been a case of poor timing – she was writing the seventh book) There were a number of big plot points and information left completely out. (100 Helens agree: The locket in Grimmauld Place is important).

    D. Fletcher, The Order of The Phoenix is the name of the resistance group that fought Voldimort the first time around (when Harry’s parents died)- it has been reconstructed to fight Voldibutt again.

    Part of Harry’s passiveness comes from his upbringing. The Dursleys are played for laughs in the movies, which softens how truly awful (Roald Dahl scale awful) they are in the books. Really, it’s amazing he has any spirit left by the time he goes to Hogwarts. He learned questions earned him beatings early on.

    You mentioned the magic car and the time turner. Harry would not have had access to either of these things, if not for his *friends*. (Ron’s family owned the car, Hermoine had special permission to use the turner for extra classes). The main point to HP is that he can’t do it alone – each of his friends has knowledge or skills or things that help him get out of the tight spots.

    Danithew, I disagree with you for one simple fact: These books have children (especially boys) reading again. In droves. Enthusiastically. As if they couldn’t live without it. I have worked in libraries pre HP & post HP. These books, that woman, has made a discernable difference in our world, and I, for one, am grateful for it.

    It may not be high art, but it is damn fine storytelling.

  9. *rolls eyes*

    Hello? He just saw Cedric Diggory killed in front of him? Then he’s promptly shuttled to a place where the people treat him like a cockroach, if they notice him at all. Then he goes all summer without a single letter from his friends and mentors because Dumbledore has forbidden it.

    No wonder he’s suffering PTSD. On top of the usual teenage angst crap.

    Ha, D Fletcher. True – simplistic, but true. Because Harry Potter is a hero’s journey, just as LOTR is a hero’s journey. That is the power of a good myth, that it recalls all the myths that came before, while adding something new.

  10. With the exception of Sorcerer’s Stone, the movies are more like detailed illustrations of the books than films that can stand on their own.

  11. One of the things that is strange to me, particularly in this latest movie, is the degree to which Dumbledore submits to so much nonsense.

    In general, though he is described as a powerful wizard, we seem to be seeing a headmaster who is not really in control of his school. It’s a bit bizarre just how dangerous the school environment really is … it makes for interesting storytelling – but every now and then I find myself asking “why would any kid’s parents send him/her here?”

  12. I’m not a big HP fan. I read the first book and loved it, and nothing else compared. My favorite movie was the last one (prior to current release) which came out ahead of time in China. I watched it in Beijing, and I’m not that quick atlistening, so I just giggled whenever I heard ‘harry pot’ (as he was called there) and tried to lip read & otherwise stay abreast of the ridiculously complex plot. And how alien Hermione & the redhead looked, contextually, next to the surrounding seated audience- tons and tons of Chinese teenagers. I was ushered to my assigned seat by a guy in uniform with a flashlight. It really harkened to the 50s. Except the single operating toilet for the entire theater.

  13. In a way, Harry potter is ceartainly ripped from the pages of The Lord of the Rings, and from Star Wars. At the same time, those works ripped off from previous works. I mean, “The Hero’s Adventure” is roughly what all those stories follow. I highly doubt that anyone could come up with an original idea that hasn’t already been done in myth. I saw a great documentary dealing with exactly that. Joseph Campbell acually goes to skywalker ranch to discuss the Power of Myth. It’s actually quite interesting.


  14. With the exception of Sorcerer’s Stone, the movies are more like detailed illustrations of the books than films that can stand on their own.

    This has become more and more of a problem as the series has progressed. The first three books were a reasonable length, so it was possible to make a movie that more or less followed the plot. I thought the third movie, Prisoner of Azkaban, did an especially good job of capturing the book’s spirit. With Goblet of Fire, and I can imagine also with Order of the Phoenix (which I haven’t seen and have no plans to see), the books are so long that the movies serve as some sort of shorthand for the books, like you tried to speed-read it but didn’t do a very good job. Scenes are ripped from the book, seemingly at random. I can’t see how anyone who hadn’t read the book could make any sort of sense of Goblet of Fire’s plot.

    As for the books, I do like them but I’m far from thinking of them as great literature. I’ve enjoyed all 6 so far and I’ll be reading the last one when it comes out.

  15. I think that by the time she got to book 4, JKR had become so powerful that she no longer had to worry about what an editor might say. Which is sad, because a good one could have kept out a lot extraneous material from the last three, especially the annoying didactic and socially relevant parts happily absent from the first three.

  16. Good points all, Mr. Fletcher. Order of the Phoenix is the weakest of the films yet, and I think a lot of its problems are simply in its attempt to summarize a story that’s ever increasing in length and complexity. The films are pure merchandising now – DVDs to go with the toys and lunchboxes.

  17. I agree with Bill. Rowling is now so powerful that her editors either can’t or won’t touch her books, and the books are all the poorer for it. Better editing = better books = better movies.

  18. “Better editing = better books = better movies”
    This is a truism that is almost never true. Scott Fitzgerald’s masterpiece, The Great Gatsby, often cited as the greatest novel ever written, was practically written by its editor, Maxwell Perkins (he changed every single paragraph submitted by the author).
    It has never been successfully filmed.
    A great book and a great movie are completely different animals. Rarely is one the source for the other.

  19. That said, D., Ms. Rowling’s later books would be infinitely improved by an editor with the guts to cut. Though not universally true, at least generally better editing = better books.

  20. Just to play devil’s advocate, I’d present the example of William Faulkner. He is considered by many, including me, America’s greatest writer, and his novels were essentially unedited. I suppose you could make the point that Albert Erskine was a great editor because he was smart enough to just leave Faulkner’s manuscripts alone.

    The Great Gatsby is not the great novel ever written, BTW. Not even close. Just my opinion, of course.

  21. My issue with the HP series is that at a certain point making up all of this magic gets tiresome. Why do we need to make up things to illustrate human issues with relationships, hero quests, or growing up? By contrast, I am a big Lost fan. Hmmm. I think Lost treads well on teh balance of made up as it relates to real physical laws. Somewhere in the Prisoner of A. I got tired of being introduced to yet a new thing that I would have to understand to follow along with the plot. Perhaps it was her rise to fame and inability to listen to criticism or- perhaps the editors had just stopped working on it- no idea. But yeah, the dramatic tension, character building etc. was overwhelmed by the usual crutches of sci-fi genre, how we have to learn about the new weapon/tool/planet/natural law before the characters can use it.

  22. I would say that The Great Gatsby is the greatest American Novel ever written, and that is not the first time that sentiment has been expressed. Not even close.

    I think the reason it has not been successfully filmed is because its greatness is entirely dependent on its language. It’s not a great story, it’s just an extremely well written one.

    You can attribute as much of that to the editor as you like, but it does make it much more difficult to create a great movie out of it, unless you’re going to have the actor playing Carraway narrate the whole thing. In which case, it’s still not a great movie.

    The problem with the Potter series is just the opposite. Not well written (some would say rather poorly written), but a classic story told with great imagination. That has the potential to make a great movie, as long as you’re not trying to cram too much in. Unfortunately, each movie since the second one has had precisely that problem. Cuaron was successful at it, no one since him has been able to do it (probably no one could).

    The movies, by the way, are ruining at least one good effect of the books. My kids refuse to read the books before the movies come out because they don’t want to “spoil the ending” of the movie! Go figure.

  23. I do agree about the magic. Humans using magic to dispell their problems is… not human.

    Magic (in the HP books) should have been used to create problems, which are then solved by creative minds at work.

    Then you’d have a more compelling story.

  24. I actually liked Order of the Pheonix. It had its problems, but I liked the angsty teenager stuff. It felt real.

    To be sure, Pheonix is no Azkaban, but not many Hollywood movies are as good as Azkaban.

    I do agree that Harry Potter isn’t a very good protagonist. I like the story, but it’s not as compelling in a human sense as it could be.

    I think my biggest complaint with Pheonix is how the romance storyline was dumped. That had good storytelling potential. But they were too preoccupied with the bigger plot to tell the smaller, more human story.

  25. Order of the Phoenix was my favorite and my wife’s favorite. I haven’t seen the movie. (I’ve been pretty overwhelmingly disappointed with the films) But I can’t understand all the hate for this novel.

  26. To be clear, I’m only talking about the movies in my comment above. I haven’t read any of the books.

    I do find the movies to be coherent and self-contained. Overall, the movie franchise isn’t great, but I like it. It’s better than most of the other big franchises of the past decade.

  27. You ought read the books. I didn’t mind the second film but felt none of them held a candle to the books. It took some urging for me to read the books but I really came away impressed. The author managed to write something that works for adults and children which is quite a feat.

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