A Muggle’s Late Life Confession

Sirius Black.jpg

I've been binge-reading. Harry Potter.

When the books and the movies came out I noticed them the way one cannot help notice cultural phenomena. It’s there, it makes a splash. Being more inclined to watch popular movies than read popular books, I caugh some of the former. I saw much of the first movie, which featured whiz-bang special effects, like a wizard-school sport played on flying brooms and the usual digital monsters, and some snatches of later ones where Harry and his companions spend a lot time talking — about what I never caught on — wearing really nice sweaters.

There were major actors, like Alan Rickman playing his trademark sneering heavy, Maggie Smith, Emma Thompson and many more. There were wizards who seemed straight out of Lord of the Rings but weren’t. And there was that whole English public school ambience, except with lots of supernatural stuff. Basically I wasn’t interested. Fantasy is not a genre that appeals to me — except Game of Thrones, go figure. Besides, years of literary studies still held me in its grip and I gave popular literature wide berth.

But I changed. Age perhaps. Certainly boredom. First, I started to glut on thrillers. No boredom there. Having sated my appetite for perv Scandinoir, I set out looking for adventure and whatever comes our way. Lord of the Rings, why not? Not bad. Not fab either. And that’s when I plunged into Harry Potter — gently prodded by the lady Joyce, who holds my affections. To my surprise I liked the books. In fact, I thought they were very good. Where I expected nerdy cuteness — after all they were children’s literature — I found growing darkness, with no concessions to reassure the kiddies who were supposedly reading, or being read to, about these accounts of evil and mayhem. 

Don't expect likeable characters to live, I realized. J.K. Rowling litters her fiction with bodies with all the gusto of an Elizabethan playwright. Big prices are paid for any restoration of order. This ain’t Disney.

I wondered, if I liked these books so much, why was I so uninterested in the movies that I never followed the plot or the dialogue and wound up turning them off. The answer lay in technology. Sure, the tableaux were dazzling. Trouble is: too much so. Harry Potter movies are not the Transformers. They’re not even Avatar, a film experience that, though far from deep, integrates special effects deftly into the narrative. The effects are, in fact, distracting. They detract from the complex storytelling and from the themes of power, love and death interlacing in those stories.

Like all good narratives these books leave no loose ends. Everything plays a part. But in a movie, a flying broom eclipses a broken wand. A sneering villain is no match for a digital monster. And, worse, the temptation to leave special effects on screen while more subtle moves are afoot is too tempting for filmmakers, while a writer is forced to turn down the knob on fantasy when dialogue is called for. Great film and great writing can overcome these obstacles. But the Harry Potter films are not great. The books are.