Dissecting Harry Potter

I've been listening to the first Harry Potter book (read by Jim Dale) as I drive to work in the mornings. It's been awhile (no, I'm not one of those avid fans who rereads the books every six months. Not avid about Harry Potter, that is. I am an avid fan of C.S. Lewis. I've read the Narnia books so many times, I've started forcing myself to wait five years before I go through the books again).

My memory of early Harry Potter (the character) was of someone who had been put down, sat on--poor kid living with that horrible family who force him to sleep in a cupboard. I think this viewpoint was reinforced by Daniel Radcliffe's rather gentle persona. Not that I thought Harry Potter acted like a victim, but I definitely thought he had been victimized.

Listening to the tape, however, I was struck by how aggressive Harry actually is in the books. He is a self-confidant kiddo with an edge to his tongue, the kind of kid who would (in different circumstances) make sotto voce comments that get other kids laughing. I don't think this is an implausible characterization by Rowlings. He has been neglected by the Dursleys but not actually, abused (yes, yes, I know emotional abuse can be a horrible thing but one gets the impression that the Dursleys ignore and grumble about and even fear Harry more than they actively go after him). Harry's father was, we learn later, a rather aggressively confident person himself. And I decided that, given Harry's intrinsic personality, it probably was just as well that he got sat on for eleven years. Unrestrained sarcasm coupled with ebullient self-confidence would have made him a misery to be around (not to mention the whole Harry Potter celebrity stuff) if he'd stayed in the wizarding world after his parents' deaths.

I have no idea if Rowlings intended this kind of character insight in the early books. She may have intended it later (where she gave us sneak peeps into Harry's dad's life). I know people say she had the whole Harry plotline/universe figured out from the beginning, but the books have an uneven feel to me that don't correspond to seven fully fleshed out outlines. Rowlings may have a general idea of where she is going, but I never got the impression that she knew what she was going to do with, say, Snape in the early books.

And I wonder how many character insights actually come more from the fans than from Rowlings: fans reading their opinions about Harry, Hermione, Sirius, etc. into the narratives. There's nothing wrong with that. As Jane Espenson stated about an Angel episode, Thank goodness for the fans. They do all the hard work of coming up with explanations that make sense of the scripts' flaws. In fact, I would argue that it is the ability to do this that attracts fans to certain works. Rowlings has created more a series of myths or fairytales than a group of novels. Myths and fairytales can be played with, molded. Fans have more room to work out their creative desires. We decide whether Harry is best understood from a Jungian or Freudian or whatever perspective. Which is, frankly, a whole lot of the fun.



Anonymous said...

Yea, its unfortunate how much the filmmakers decided to cut out. For some reason I never did (and still havn't, maybe i should soon) read the first two books, so the movies flow fine and dont contradict previous expectations. However I have read all the others, and the differences in the general tone of the story is quite different, especially Harry's interaction with the Dursleys.
An example being in the third film, his home life was merely a footnote to the story, like the filmmakers only put it in because they had to to connect that he went home for the summer.
But in the book, there was real feeling in everything that was going on, and you could feel Harry's rage when he fled the home. I was very surprised how they portrayed Sirius in the third film, throwing out insanity and indeed teh desire to target Harry, while in the book everything regarding Sirius was carefully phrased in that it looked/sounded like he was targetting but at the end when everything is revealed the reader realizes "Hey, ya know he really wasnt after him, he was just standing there and never portrayed hostility at all....".

Of course the book to film conversions are all plagued by such butchery, which is a shame, because not only do they butcher the story (most times, there are some exceptions) but the films also ingrain images of the world (settings, character looks, etc) so that the reader can't go back and really imagine the book's better world without always relating back to the film's portrayal of those elements (which is why i'm thankful that the film version of one of my favorite books, Ender's Game, never really got off the ground. I dont think I could see the book the same if I always went back picturing Ender as that kid who did Anakin in the first SW prequel, or even worse that kid from Sixth Sense, the two top child actor choices when the film was in full casting whatever).
But I guess its not ALL the fault of the filmmakers because they have the pressure to keep films at no longer than 2hrs, thanks to that stupid census that said people can't hold tehir bladders more than 2hrs when sitting still in a movie theater, or whatever the actual terminology they used. But still, nothing irritates me more than a dman good book ruined because they had to cut 40% of the content to fit the playtime, I for one love 3-4 hour movies, its just we're all so ingrained in our current structure that it'll just continue....and our only hope is for every film to come out with extended editions like the Lord of the Rings dvd versions, thus restoring the true film. But i dont think that'll happen either because then people would give criticism for theatrical versions being incomlete/watered down versions or whatever. Could work with the LotR dvds cause those movies were already longer than teh standard movie, so they didnt need to comprimise almost at all (there was some, much to my disappointment. I dont want to see Sauromon fall from the tower, I wanted to see Sharkey's subjugation of the hobbits!!).

Ok its late so i'll cut my rant here ^.^


Kate Woodbury said...

Well, I actually am a big fan of cuts between books and movies. I am a firm believer that the film is a completely separate medium/product which ought to echo the director's vision more than the writer's. That is, the book and the movie should each stand alone. The Harry of the movie isn't exactly the same as the Harry of the book, but I don't consider that a bad thing.

Of the movies, I consider the 3rd Harry Potter film to be the best precisely because the director's vision is so strong. I rewatched the first film recently. It is beautiful to look at but, with the exception of the excellent Fiona Shaw, rather dull, and I think that is because it was trying too hard to be like the book. The 3rd film, on the other hand, has this blow-you-away atmosphere that pervades the entire movie from the huge clock to the long views of the castle. The idea of time (changing time, fading time), replete with dead leaves and Fall colors, is all over the place. Thematically, it's very nearly perfect.

I do agree that the biggest difficulty for book to film productions is that while the director should have his/her own vision, the film should retain some flavor or appreciation for the book (after all, the book was the catalyst). I think, considering how closely Rowlings is involved, the Harry Potter movies do this. But I have seen movies that didn't. For instance, I Robot was a disappointment for me. A perfectly respectable movie but not very Asimovy. (On the other hand, I doubt Asimov would have cared so long as they paid him.) I thought the recent Willy Wonka was a failure in this regard. On the other hand, I far and away prefer Walt Disney's Mary Poppins to the books' version (the book MP is just so mean).

I am a fan of the miniseries, especially for stuff by Jane Austen, Bronte, etc. I really enjoyed the most recent Pride & Prejudice but a miniseries is really the best medium for that particular transformation.

BTW, according to Orson Scott Card's site, Ender's Game is being optioned. However, it's been being optioned for about twenty years now. I'll believe it when I see it. (And yeah, I would opt for casting older than the current child stars.)

OSC's site is www.hatrack.com.

Anonymous said...

I agree, film and books are seperate mediums, however the point is slightly different. Normal movies are original works meant for film exclusively. When a book is taken and converted to film, 98% of the time (I cant think of excuses for the 2% but i didnt want to say 100% cause thats a definate, and there could be exceptions i'm not aware of) a book is converted to a film BECAUSE of the book's success, which is driven by the original vision of the author. It is not something to be taken and reworked into something different just because of a medium change spurred by potential profits. While I understand there must be cuts and such, things like changing the entire tone of how a character is portrayed (using Sirius in book 3 as an example here again as its the most drastic example in the films I noticed) is just an atrocious violation of the true vision people loved.
Again, I havnt read the first book yet, but it's not particluarly fair to compare the first book to anything else in a long running series. The first had a great deal of world building to do, not nessecarily focusing on character development or tone, but more towards building the setting for everything and every character. The later books then never had to do that so they could easily focus on character development with some intricate plot developments without delving into explaination of why the magic world is like this or that. Stylistically the third was good even with its changes from the book, but that was because the story from the book was so dark/deep/whatever in the first place, it allowed for that.

I love miniseries as well, mostly because a miniseries (at least one done well) is simply a long movie that has some breaks in the middle, eliminating the whole reason regular movies couldnt go that long, the lack of breaks. They have the time to portray the full story without having to cut out really anything (unless they're low budget! O.O ), though the "cliffhangers" between the parts could be troublesome if they had to be engineered. Still, miniseries are my favorites when done right (oh how i wish Children of Dune had twice their budget, or at least used their budget for better actors instead of costume designers......it coulda been so much better than it was, even with the relatively actionless/political nature of it...).

And yea, I hadn't checked Card's site for a while because there would be zero news but having checked now i saw that after all the stuff that happened it seems Card himself is writing the screenplay, and the best part they decided not to do casting until it was completed (very good reason too, kids grow up during the time takes to write it..hehe). I just hope they use complete unknowns for the roles, dont want some characters locked into previous expectations. Also helps that the CGI of today is so breathtaking that it won't make the battleroom look like a huge compositing joke.


Eugene said...

I've become convinced that Ender's Game could best be done as anime. Voices of a Distance Star echoes many of the same themes (to the extend that if you can't do it better, don't bother). It is a subject that anime has long experience with, culminating perhaps with Hideaki Anno's psychological deconstruction of the post-modern warrior child in his fantastically bizarre Evangelion, and Akitaro Daichi's stark journey into a child's heart of darkness, Now & Then, Here & There. This article explains why cartoons do this so much better: "The satirical cartoon world is essentially a philosophical one because it reflects reality by abstracting it, distilling it and presenting it back to us, illuminating it more brightly than realist fiction can."