Evil Villain of Literature or Savior of The Written Word?
by Alex Carnevale
The Harry Potter series
by J.K. Rowling
Slammed by literate haters–most notably A.S. Byatt–J.K. Rowling’s series of massive bestsellers is likely to be around for a few generations. The book’s widely popular formula of wizard rising through the school with hottie and fug best friend at his side has convinced millions of children the world over that Ralph Fiennes is evil and that powerful wizards may also be gay.
The haters are either jealous, as in the case of Anthony Holden and the like, or they have forgotten entirely what it was like to be a child, as in the case of Harold Bloom.
The movie versions have ranged from “OK, I might watch again if I saw it on TV” to “this is fucking terrible”, and they really don’t convey the best fun of the books. Of all things that these novels are, they are most of all pageturners, and the screenwriters were less concerned with pacing than getting the details right.
Rowling can handle both, and that’s what has made these books into a phenomenon.
I realize it must be frustrating for someone like Byatt, who is a huge talent and a far better writer than Rowling, to see her achieve fame and fortune, but life’s not all about fame and fortune.
“Touch Too Much” – Hot Chip (mp3)
The reason these books have reached such a large audience is because they’re fun to read. This fact seems to have escaped many of our writers working today.
How I would rank the books:
1. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Book Four
My personal favorite of the series for the way in which it greatly expanded the scope of the first three books, and threw in an awesome Quidditch Cup and Triwizard Tournament for good measure. The most meticulously plotted of the seven, and it was downright thrilling to see Harry finally thrust into the fray of events for what was really the first time. The only thing that holds Goblet of Fire back is that very little of it ended up mattering in the final analysis, but it’s still the best book on its own.
“I Want Love” — Elton John (mp3)
2. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Book Three
Really showing for the first time what Rowling could do in terms of plot, Azkaban is a fine murder mystery in its own right. Much more could have been done with the character of Sirius Black, and the aspects of the Black family history that Rowling gets into in the final volume hint at what might have been made of this. Adapted into the worst of the films so far, this one is funny and sad in equal parts, considering what happens to some of the principals involved. I’d rather read the last one again, but for what it accomplished and the people it brought to the series, this is a strong No. 2.
3. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Book Seven
A slow beginning (I loathe Grimmauld Place and that bastard elf Kreacher) led me to abandon this one for awhile, but when I finally came back to it this Christmas, I breezed through it. Deathly Hallows was clearly written for the movies in mind, from the awesome Gringotts set piece to various parts that are actually scary to the film’s awesome final battle, Deathly Hallows took the two best concepts in the series (The Chaucerian Deathly Hallows and the splendid invention of the horcruxes) and ran with them. The backstory, concerned as it is with the posthumous remembrance of Albus “Gay” Dumbledore, is freakin’ brilliant. It is a little belabored and overlong? Sure, but so is this entire series. Also, an awesome ending that stands alone quite well. Its penultimate twist is one fascinating bit of storytelling that I didn’t see coming, too.
Everyone and their mother wants to direct this one. I may start up a campaign to get Spielberg to direct it, it is so perfect for him in so many ways.
Sidenote: I thought the Dumbledore is gay stuff was absolutely awesome, I just wish she had included it in the book. It’s actually a perfect note in the Dumbledore story, and it’s too bad we’re not at the point in our society where she could openly acknowledge it without her book getting banned everywhere.
4. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Book Five
Rowling took the longest to write this one, and as much as it’s concerned with the flat Dolores Umbridge and Rowling’s parallel hate affair with the media, it still holds up very well, suggesting she spent the extra time wisely. The idea of the army against Voldemort was pretty sweet, and my usual complaint that more could have been done with this is rendered mute by Mama Weasley’s awesome turn in the last book. With that said, I don’t even know how many members of the Order I can name, first of all, and secondly, having them work harder to foil the takeover of the Death Eaters would have been enjoyable, but something had to take a backseat, and there’s a lot of characters in this world. You can’t build up everyone into a super badass or super villain, it would make Harry look small in comparison to the adult magic.
5. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Book One
Originally conceived in a small flat, Rowling’s world is superbly crafted from the beginning. Critics who claim Potter is a rip-off are missing the point: nothing interesting had been done in the witchcraft genre in some time, and all the stuff she steals is great, that’s why she stole it.
“I’ll Believe In Anything You’ll Believe In Anything” – Sunset Rubdown (mp3)
6. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Book Six
My least favorite of the later books, Prince is needlessly convoluted and the battle at the Ministry of Magic isn’t that interesting, nor is the prophecy that they find within it. I think Rowling could have done a lot more with the Ministry, and I hope the special effects guys go crazy when they finally make this one into a movie. This book just didn’t need to be that long. In its favor is the key death at the end that comes as something of a shock.
7. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Book Two
Set up a lot of the history involving Harry’s father that would be replayed over and over again, but the main magical elements here remind me a little too much of The Golden Compass, however unfair that is. The story isn’t much, and since this book and Prince are thought of as a pair, it’s no surprise I didn’t like either.
As children’s literature goes, Potter is more artfully done than most. It’s more engaging than most of Ursula K. LeGuin, it has all the fun parts of Madeleine L’Engle, it’s almost funnier than Roald Dahl. Is it as good as the best of what has been done for a younger audience has to offer? Perhaps not, but that’s no slight. The fact of its broad appeal is a striking yes in favor of it. It can be read as feminist, anti-racist, anti-elitist. On the level of plot and unfolding expectations through narrative it compares favorably with any long series ever done.
It is in favor of lots of things everyone ought to be in favor of, most importantly of treating people well. It is so good that this is our mass literature, it is great that children here and abroad are reading it, and I am sad to see the series come to an end.
Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording.
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