Thursday, July 26, 2007

So I finished the last Potter book and felt the need to ramble about it

I’m one of those reluctant fans, motivated to read more out of my interest in pop culture than actual love of the Potter books. Actually, I first picked up the series out of intense peer pressure. At the time, I was at a business that employed a lot of working mothers – all of whom were under the impression that talking about Harry Potter for half the business day made them better parents - better parents who “had to send their kids away to Nana’s for the weekend” every time a new Potter book hit the stands.

So, you might see my anti-Potter bias going into the series.

My main complaint about the series as a whole is not much a complaint about the books themselves but more on the weight popular culture has given to them. My complaint is this – THEY ARE CHILDREN’S BOOKS. I don’t care if they are over 600 pages, they are still kid’s books and are not challenging and interesting the way good literature is supposed to be. And this is coming from a guy who will go on for hours about the artistic merit of comic books.

My not-so-secret belief is that the books are successful because people can read them in an afternoon. Can you normally plow through a 500+ page monster that weighs 8 pounds in a few hours? Of course not, which is why the Potter books are so special. (This is also my not-secret-belief behind the popularity of manga – where else can you read a 3,000 page book in less than an hour?)

Anyway, I have problems with the series as a whole – the pacing, the themes, the utter lack of sense, but I will go through the series book by book and discuss some high-level issues I have. And, no, I will not post any spoilers.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
This one is most obviously a children’s book. If I were eight, I would love it. As an adult, I think of it as episodic and not very exciting. The magic presented (like the Mirror of Erised) is often a painfully easy and obvious metaphor, and the obstacles Harry has to go through to get the stone seem too much like they came out of a Fun Time Activity Pack.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
This one actually made me angry in several places, because of the most annoying character, ever, Dobby. Every time he appears on the page, I want to throw the book across the room. If you are going to write a book where the theme is tolerance and redemption through races, it might help if you didn’t rely so heavily on old, awkward, painful racial stereotypes. Yes, I know all the bankers are goblins, but they are hook-nosed and greedy. Yes, I know the slaves are elves, but do you have to make them diminutive and dark-skinned, and base so much comic relief around how they are stupid?

And, if you are going to develop a storyline about how Wizards and Muggles should live in peace, why would you portray the only Muggle family – the Dursleys – as Roald Dahl caricatures of wickedness and evil?

This was also when I realized that there is not going to be any rhyme or reason to the books. The book is written like an Agatha Christie mystery, filled with clues and investigations and postulations. But the climax of the book just comes out of nowhere, doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, and is excused because - come on – it is magic!

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
Having had my will broken by the previous book, and having given up trying to find out the ending of the book really put me in a state of mind where I could just enjoy the story, and, you know what? It worked!

This is my favorite book of the series. I think here is where Rowling truly finds her voice and knocks it out of the park. The characters really come to life and the story is a lot of fun. At this point, I really enjoyed the climax of “The Harry Potter Trilogy” and had some hope for the rest of the series.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
Aaaand we go from the best book in the series to the worst book in the series. Having successfully mastered the art of writing really great children’s fiction, Rowling challenges herself by trying to write a more “adult” novel. The result is an awkward, adolescent book that is as misshapen and pimply as the main character’s peers.

Rowling’s pacing is really awful throughout, with overblown passages of nothing followed by too brief bits of action.

This is where the entire “school year as a dramatic arc” approach to these stories really hampers their progress and development. In every book, the story grinds to a halt right in the middle so all the characters can have a Christmas Holiday. Rather than letting the action flow from one event to another, the action is forced into a structure that does not support it.

Once again, climax of the book comes out of nowhere and can’t be predicted.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
This book is the “Christmas Holiday” of the series. Rowling has always said the series was going to be seven books long. I think it would have worked better as a five book series, with all the first two books combined into a single book, the third book remaining untouched as the second book, and the fourth through seventh books reduced to three books.

If Reader’s Digest condensed books get a hold of the Potter series, I think this book will suffer the most.

In all honesty, I can’t remember very much about this book. It was a lot of talking without saying much culminating in an ending that seemed oddly rushed.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
They say, “show, don’t tell” in writer’s classes, but the Potter series suffers when it “tells” one thing and “shows” something else. The series is supposed to be about whether Wizards should rule over Muggles. So you have a lot of rhetoric about how Muggles people, too, and we should all be equal and hold hands and love each other, but when you see scenes with Potter and the Dursleys, you can really see Voldemort’s point.

This is where I liken the Harry Potter books to the DaVinci Code. What I didn’t like about the DaVinci code was the fact that it told you that all these characters were geniuses (as much as a Harvard professor in “symbology” and forensic pathologist can be), but then the rest of the book consisted of all the characters acting about as smart as a box of rocks. Go through and count the “I don’t understands” and the “Let me explains” in the book and you will see my point. There were several parts of the book where I could pat myself on the back for being smarter than a Harvard Symbologist, just like there were several parts of the Potter series where I could pat myself for being less of a snob than the protagonist.

That little rant has nothing to do with the book, really, but by this point, I really wanted the series just to be over and done with.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows
Once again, my main problems with this book are pacing and theme. There is a portion in the middle that just slogs along. It is almost if Harry Potter has writer’s block – he spends literally pages wondering what he is going to do next.

Having said all of that, I was pretty amazed how Rowling could pull it out of the fire at the last minute. Dobby shows up and, to my surprise, is not annoying! Most of the characters, or more importantly, the caricatures, are given a bit of redemption and behavior that does not match what their two-dimensional previous appearances might suggest.

What I did not was that there were not one, but two chapters of pure exposition at the end of the book. Most of the books end with Dumbledore explaining everything, but I prefer my books with exposition at the beginning, not the end. It is like the opera Sigfried - Sigfried escapes a troll, kills a dragon, and walks through a wall of fire, wakes up the sleeping woman only to get... a lecture. I am glad I am not Sigfried, because I would have just walked off.

Parting Thoughts
Harry is one of the most inert heroes in children’s literature – he doesn’t really take a proactive role until the Order of the Phoenix book. Most of the action happens around him and to him instead of him struggling and working hard to get from point A to point B. It was difficult to relate to him because I was not born famous and pure-hearted. I would consider the series as a waste of time except for a whole lot of fun and charm in the book in the form of the two real heroes of the series, Hermonie and Neville.

Thank you, J.K. Rowling, for giving us those characters in particular. They were worth the time and effort put into reading your books.

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