Archive for July, 2007
First, the spoiler-free tidbit: while being interviewed by Meredith Vieira, Rowling began to talk tentatively about her religious beliefs. But she got no further than saying that her beliefs about death and the afterlife, and her struggle to believe, are imprinted all over Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows—then Vieira whisked her away to the next, much less interesting question. I wanted to hear about her struggles to believe, because that’s something I can respect. If she’s struggling, then she’s not merely accepting a bland, watered-down version of Christianity. Not that her professions one way or the other necessarily affect how I read her books (she has previously stated that she’s a Christian), but I am curious about her faith-struggles, as they probably reveal her deepest values.
Okay, now for the spoiler-ish material. SPOILERS! (Fortunately, I can’t accompany them with the annoying little dllllling! that prefaced the spoilers on Dateline.)
Most significant: Rowling revealed the entirety of the original last line of the book, which was going to be something along the lines of “Only those whom he loved could still see his lightning scar.” (Remember hearing her say how the last word of the book was going to be “scar”? Well, there it is in context.) Argh! Why didn’t she keep it that way? That’s so much better than “All was well.” Nothing is ever completely well, not on this earth. Rowling said in the interview that she changed the line because she wanted to emphasize that, for Harry, the battle was over. I think we could have picked up on that on our own . . . Of course, I’m fascinated by Harry’s scar in the last few chapters and how it is and isn’t like the scars of Jesus’ wounds. When Harry is in King’s Cross (whack! whack! goes the symbolism) Station, in a sort of afterlife-limbo, his scar is gone. Unlike Jesus, Harry’s “glorified” body does not include the signs of his sacrifice. After his “resurrection,” however, the scar is back. I like the original last line because, while Jesus’ friends (well, at least Thomas) only recognized him by his scars, it’s only Harry’s friends who truly see his scar, and thus, him. It kind of dances around the Christ-figure stuff, while still remaining distinct (as it should).
Also interesting: Rowling’s pre-publication comments that one character who was going to die had received a reprieve, and two more characters had died instead, led me to believe that all three of these deaths or not-deaths occurred within Deathly Hallows. Nope. It was Mr. Weasley who was saved from the chopping block, and that was back in Order of the Phoenix, when he ended up almost dying. Rowling said that, given the lack of good father figures in the books, she couldn’t bring herself to kill the best father among her characters. Of course, so much in the Harry Potter books revolves around parentage. As soon as Lupin asked Harry to be godfather to baby Teddy, I knew that both he and Tonks were doomed. Rowling does like symmetry, and it was obvious that Teddy was destined to be a parallel to Harry (though growing up in a happier time). Interestingly, given that he is presumably raised by his grandmother, he could also be a kind of parallel to Neville.
To others who watched the Dateline interview: what struck you as most memorable?
July 30th, 2007
When I first heard that Robert Zemeckis was directing a film version of Beowulf, I had visions of Grendel offering our Geatish hero a box of chocolates, followed by a conciliatory hug. When I learned that the film was going to be in 3-D motion capture (like Zemeckis’s freaky-looking The Polar Express), that didn’t help matters. And the casting announcement that Angelina Jolie would be playing Grendel’s mother? Please. I know she’s now adoptive mother to half the world, but she’s hardly monster-mama material.
And then I heard that Neil Gaiman would be working on the script. Neil Gaiman, who once said, “the big problem with authors is you can’t train most of them. We don’t train very easily because we’re like otters. You know, a dolphin you can train. You can say, ‘Do this, and you’ll get a fish.’ With an otter, if it does something cool and you give it a fish, next time it will try and do something cooler.”
With Neil Gaiman on board, I became intrigued. I checked out the just-released trailer (coinciding with 20 minutes of the film being screened at Comic Con), and it seems motion-capture has come a long way since The Polar Express. It also looks like it veers away from the original story a bit, which could be interesting. In the trailer, Grendel’s mama is being all seductive, which doesn’t seem like it would occur after he’s killed her son (which is when the battle between Beowulf and Grendel’s mother takes place in the literary work). Is there some sort of Morgan-le-Fay/Arthur thing going on, in which Grendel is actually Beowulf’s son? Or maybe this conversation does occur after Grendel’s death, and seduction is just Step 1 in Grendel’s mother’s plan for killing Beowulf.
Well. I guess I’ll have to see it to find out.
Also, you have to visit the official movie web site just to hear Beowulf say, “I am here to kill your monstah.” It had me rolling on the floor. Not quite the intended effect, I think, but oh well.
July 28th, 2007
My post’s title is inspired by a recent essay in TIME Magazine: “Who Dies in Harry Potter? God.” This post will not address the issue of anyone else’s death in the book. In other words, it’s SPOILER-FREE as far as details, though if you haven’t read the book and you plan to, I do discuss the overall tone.
I am happy to report that, unlike in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, God does not die in the last volume of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. This is for the simple reason that God has never existed in the world of Hogwarts. (And, actually, this is the point of the TIME article, which, despite having an interesting premise, makes me wonder if the author has actually read the Harry Potter books. Or The Lord of the Rings. “Frodo was last seen skipping town with the elves”? Yeah, the Grey Havens are a real escapist lark.)
Now, saying that God isn’t in the Harry Potter books is not the same thing as saying the books aren’t Christian myth. After all, God never officially appears in The Lord of the Rings, the most thoroughly Christian extra-biblical myth ever written—and one that’s all the better for not being set in an explicitly Christian universe. Has Rowling succeeded in creating this type of Christian myth? Some readers of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows would say “yes,” including Meghan Cox Gurdon of the Wall Street Journal, who writes that Deathly Hallows “confirms something else apart from the well-thought-out-ness of Ms. Rowling’s moral universe: It is subtly but unmistakably Christian.”
Gurdon’s evidence? Some is thematic, involving “forgiveness and redemption” and “sacrificial love overcoming the powers of evil.” Other proof consists of visual images of crosses and direct scriptural quotations that appear on two tombstones in a churchyard in Godric’s Hollow: “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Matthew 6:21 and Luke 12:34) and “The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death” (1 Corinthians 15:26).
Tolkien would of course revolt at the idea of using direct biblical quotation in a work of myth, but Rowling’s world, as it is set in both our own world and a fantasy world simultaneously, is not bound by these same rules. However, the quotations were a bit jarring as I first read them, since the series has made no previous explicit references to any sort of religious text or belief. Maybe they wouldn’t have the same effect on someone who didn’t immediately recognize their source. Harry and company certainly don’t seem to do so; Harry even voices concern that the latter quotation echoes the values of the evil Death-Eaters (and, as usual, Hermione sets him straight on that score, though without referring to the Bible).
There are also patterns of action in the book that call to mind the central myths (and by “myths,” I mean narrative arcs, and not “untruths”) of Christianity, and probably deliberately so on Rowling’s part. I don’t disagree that she intended to create a subtly Christian myth. But even her overt references to Christian symbols show a limited understanding of Christianity. (I am not commenting on the quality of Rowling’s belief, because I am no fit judge of that—I’m merely speaking of her works.)
It’s hard to put my finger on exactly what’s missing. For Deathly Hallows actually shows some improvements in the ethics of Rowling’s world: Harry must make several crucial decisions that involve self-control on his part, and, for the first time in the series, he chooses rightly. There’s no nonsense here about how following his heart can save him, even if he makes an immoral or unwise decision. So maybe, given that he finally wises up, I should forgive Harry for all his prior stupidity—especially since forgiveness is apparently a theme in the book (I have to admit that I don’t see much of it there).
I’m pleased that Harry learns greater wisdom. However, something still doesn’t click. Part of the difficulty of analyzing myth-stories is that they either hit you or they don’t. Beauty-and-truth-together strike you so hard in the sternum that you lose your breath for a moment. There’s a sense of rightness, a feeling of “yes, that’s exactly the way the story had to go,” and part of that satisfaction is that it leaves you with a longing ache for more. Not “more” in the sense that you wish the author had written more or even in the sense that you’re sad the book is over, but “more” in the sense of being so close to the ultimate Beauty-and-Truth that the myth is pointing to.
Harry Potter has never hit me. I greatly enjoy the books, and I might even be pleased that Rowling has tried to create a myth at least consonant with Christianity, but my sternum remains untouched. I have no longing for whatever it is that Rowling’s books are trying to point to. (And, incidentally, a book does not have to be by a known-to-be-Christian writer in order for me to feel this pull. Jonathan Stroud’s Bartimaeus Trilogy does it for me quite nicely.)
Part of the problem may actually be a lack of imagination in the creation of Rowling’s world. I do not believe in authorial creation ex nihilo, but I do believe that humans are called, as beings made in God’s image, to be co-creators (or sub-creators, to use Tolkien’s term) with God. I’m not sure Rowling feels complete license to claim her identity as co-creator. Much of her material is derivative, though this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. A story doesn’t have to be told for the very first time in order to be compelling. But so many things in this last volume, more than in any of the other Potter books, seem pale shadows of Lewis and Tolkien.
In spite of my lack of sternum-response to Rowling, I will give her credit for creating, in Deathly Hallows, a vivid example of the intersection between history and myth. Tolkien always insisted that the two categories were not mutually exclusive, which is how orthodox Christians can accept the Bible as both history and myth simultaneously. To say that the Bible is a mythic work is not to make a comment one way or the other about whether it is factually true. It is simply to claim that the story operates at that grand and beautiful sternum-whacking level. That it is also factually true makes it that much more impressive.
So, while I’m not comfortable comparing Harry Potter to Christ, I will compare Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows to the Bible . . . in one, very limited sense. For me, the most compelling thing about Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is how it makes World War II into myth. Again, this is not to say that Rowling is denying the real horrors of World War II. As in the Bible, history and myth are not incompatible. (There. Comparison over.) Rowling’s skill in myth-icizing World War II is indeed impressive. She does not make Voldemort into a symbol of Hitler, or anything that facile. Harry is not Churchill. But the whole book is permeated with the aura of that historical moment: at one point, Harry and friends even try to tune in to a secret “Resistance” radio station that must continually change its access password. As one might expect, the Purebloods’ hatred of Muggle-born Wizards has overtones of the early Third Reich, though again, this is skillfully done, in a way that does not deny the particularity of the Jews’ suffering.
The World War II aspect Rowling captures most successfully is probably Britain’s self-identification as the only nation really standing up to Hitler and also paying the cost of that stand. The book’s extended battle scene, which is far more satisfying than any of the climactic scenes in any other Harry Potter book, has that sense of desperation that binds a community together in bravery. And there is a cost to be paid. But that cost is a very human cost, even when the story takes on some of the trappings of Christian myth.
In his “Who Dies in Harry Potter? God” article, Lev Grossman argues that the revolutionary aspect of Rowling’s novels is that “magic comes not from God or nature or anything grander or more mystical than a mere human emotion”—this “mere human emotion” being love, in case you missed the theme of Dumbledore’s sermons in every single book. In other words, Rowling’s world is supposedly more human, and therefore less supernatural, than those fantasy worlds of her predecessors.
To me, however, Rowling’s world is not human enough—and that’s actually why it’s not supernatural enough. Think about the real World War II, which, along with World War I, shook Western Enlightenment confidence in the goodness of rational men. Yet, in the World War II-influenced landscape of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Rowling seems to want to throw us back into a world where good people are good and bad people are bad, for no other reason than that the “good” people don’t torture or kill others (though sometimes, actually, they do). Anyone living in the world with half a conscience knows it’s more complicated than that. Imperfect human nature is a mix of twisted desires and stunningly selfless goodness, and no one is completely without either.
Yet, again and again, Dumbledore tells us that Harry is “innocent,” when we all know very well that he’s not. None of us are. He may not have parceled his soul out into Horcruxes, but, if he’s human, his soul is already divided. Many readers know this, in spite of what Dumbledore and the narrative voice insist. In fact, I think it may be why so many of us are more intrigued by the figure of Snape, who, at least, the novels acknowledge as having a complex—that is to say, human—nature.
Jenny Sawyer has an interesting piece in The Christian Science Monitor, in which she attempts to explain Snape’s appeal in both moral and narrative terms. She writes, “Rowling has publicly expressed mystification over her readers’ fascination with Snape, even suggesting that his appeal is simply ‘the bad boy syndrome.’ Instead, her readers, whether consciously or not, have tapped into something that Rowling herself may have failed to recognize.” That something, for Sawyer, is the “need for a protagonist who genuinely struggled to define—and do—the right thing”; I don’t agree with that exact diagnosis, but I do think she correctly identifies Snape-ophilia’s roots in the issue of struggle. However, I would say that Snape is a more satisfyingly human character than most in the Potter-verse because his inherent divided nature is acknowledged, rather than pushed under the rug, as it is with Harry, even in this last tome.
Once again in Deathly Hallows, after all Harry has been through in the way of temptations, clumsy exposition informs us that he is “selfless” and pure and loving and wonderful. Any hint of evil in him is suddenly due to external causes.
God does not die in Harry Potter. But the messy glory of human nature sure takes a hit.
July 27th, 2007
Because, although I finished reading Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows last night, I’m much more shocked by something I just discovered while reading a review of Harry Potter 7 on Slate: children’s fantasy writer Lloyd Alexander died this past May. Somehow I missed hearing about it. He was 83, he had cancer, his wife died just a couple of weeks before him. Those are the bare facts. But they don’t capture the amazing scope of Alexander’s many novels.
The Chronicles of Prydain are my favorites, of course, but the Westmark Trilogy and some of his stand-alone novels are also worth reading and re-reading. The Washington Post’s obituary sums it up well.
Lloyd Alexander loved cats and violins, and had a habit of creating long-nosed characters one suspected were based on himself. (His long-nosed bard of Prydain so infused my childhood consciousness that, when I met my future husband, who has a rather lengthy schnoz himself, the very first words that popped into my head were, bizarrely, “Fflewddur Fflam.”)
As a child, I once wrote to Alexander, and the gracious reply I received is still among my treasures.
So, if you’re looking for something to read now that Harry Potter’s saga is finished, try the Bard of Drexel Hill, Pennsylvania. Many of his books are more satisfying than Rowling’s, anyway.
July 22nd, 2007
Note: This post has no spoilers concerning Book 7, though it does refer to crucial events in Books 5 and 6.
Last week, when I posted my review of the movie version of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Dormouse asked a very good and very important question in the “Comments” section. I’ll repeat it here for those of you who may not have seen it:
Given that she [Rowling] has shown us over and over again that even her most “good” characters can have fatal and dangerous flaws and her most unpleasant characters can be truly heroic, how might she demonstrate “good” to your satisfaction? Aslan isn’t a real possibility in this universe. Indeed, I would argue that a Christ figure isn’t really an acceptable way to show human good in any non-allegorical story, as Christ is both human and more-than-human, and in a story about surviving in the modern world–magical or not–we only have Christ as an idea and a presence in our hearts and minds, and not sitting at our kitchen table, telling us how to be good. How do you demonstrate goodness if you are determined to keep your characters deeply human?
I replied that I’d have to think more about it, but that I could answer off the top of my head that what I was looking for wasn’t flawless characters, or even abstractly expressed principles of good and evil.
I’ve been thinking about it . . . and thinking about it . . . and talking about it. Then I came to a semi-conclusion last week, after listening to the end of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix on audiotape. I think my biggest problem with the morality of Rowling’s world is not that the greatest virtue is “love,” but that, in Rowling’s world, “love” is almost completely emotion-driven.
Yes, love in the Harry Potter books can inspire acts of self-sacrifice, but, as Pop Otter reminded me, even immature adolescents dream of martyrdom. Again, it’s an emotion-driven phenomenon. There are exceptions, certainly, most notably when Dumbledore seems at times to respond with mercy to students like Malfoy and former students like Snape and Voldemort, in spite of his personal feelings towards them. But then Dumbledore also shows favoritism towards Harry and does lots of other things that make me not only dislike but also distrust him.
Perhaps the single most irritating thing Dumbledore does is to exposit about good and evil, which is not his fault but Rowling’s. And here’s where I have to admit that part of my judgment on the moral universe of Harry Potter may be aesthetic. “Show, don’t tell!” chants the chorus of creative writing teachers in my head. Yet, volume after volume, Dumbledore tells us, with increasing long-windedness, why Harry has been able to withstand Voldemort’s attacks. And, can you guess? The answer is “love”! (At this point, the chorus of English teachers begins singing cynically, “All You Need Is Love.”)
For example, let’s take the passage from Order of the Phoenix that inspired this whole post (and also inspired me to wholeheartedly agree with Alan Rickman (Snape) when, in the movie, he sneers, “I think I may vomit”). Sirius has been killed, Voldemort has tried to possess Harry, and it’s time for Dumbledore to explain everything (after Harry stops shouting):
“Voldemort never knew that there might be danger in attacking you. . . . He did not know that you would have ‘power the Dark Lord knows not.’”
[That’s from the prophecy, don’t you know, because prophecies always sound grander with inverted word order.]
“But I don’t” said Harry in a strangled voice. “I haven’t any powers he hasn’t got, I couldn’t fight the way he did tonight, I can’t possess people or—or kill them—”
“There is a room in the Department of Mysteries,” interrupted Dumbledore, “that is kept locked at all times. It contains a force that is at once more wonderful and more terrible than death, than human intelligence, than forces of nature. It is also, perhaps, the most mysterious of the many subjects for study that reside there. It is the power held within that room that you possess in such quantities and which Voldemort has not at all. That power took you to save Sirius tonight. That power also saved you from possession by Voldemort, because he could not bear to reside in a body so full of the force he detests. In the end, it mattered not that you could not close your mind. It was your heart that saved you.”
And, “blech,” say I. Again, I admit that part of this reaction is aesthetic, and some of it is based on my personality preferences: to me, all sap is Stinksap. I do have a preference for the “hard” virtues involving self-control. I would prefer it if Harry could successfully close his mind, or actually use love/mercy to drive Voldemort off (which he seems to do in the movie). But I might at least be satisfied if we had some proof of Harry’s ability to love, proof other than “he likes his friends a lot” and “his mother died to save him,” which seem to be the only support Dumbledore mentions.
It’s not that I inherently mind Harry’s failure to exercise virtue—and here I must, as you all knew I would at some point, resort to an example from The Lord of the Rings. It’ll be short, I promise. For me, one of the most theologically significant things about The Lord of the Rings is that Frodo fails. He fails. Of his own willpower, he cannot make himself destroy the Ring. Enter Gollum, who nicely takes care of it for him. But Gollum is only there to bite with his nasty little toothses because, years ago, “pity stayed Bilbo’s hand” and because Frodo has continued to exercise that pity towards the creature that wishes him evil. In other words, yes, there is undeserved grace (brought about through unsuspected means), but it’s impossible to separate that grace out from the specific acts of mercy performed in the past by Bilbo and Frodo.
It makes my little theological heart go pitty-pat. It’s just so . . . right. Though pity and mercy can be initiated by emotion, acting on them requires one to go beyond emotion.
Once again, I’ve done a better job of complaining about what isn’t in Rowling than explaining how convincing good could be portrayed in her universe. But I’ve got to say that where I think she’s most convincingly portrayed the kind of good I’m talking about is in the character of Snape. I’m not saying Snape equals good, but he more frequently acts on good (acting on behalf of others in spite of his own personal preferences) than most characters in the series.It’s kind of like what Sirius says in the movie, that good and evil both exist inside everyone, but that what matters is which you choose to act on. Now, I haven’t seen that idea borne out much in the books, not even in Dumbledore’s exposition. More often, he mouths things about Harry’s inherent innocence and such improbabilities.
I’ve said before that in some ways I’m dreading Book 7, because I don’t trust Rowling to produce a satisfying conclusion. I do, however, expect Snape to die saving Harry, even though he profoundly dislikes him. I’m looking forward to that. And maybe, with Dumbledore and his exposition out of the way, Snape’s act of love—yes, I will say it—may be allowed to stand on its own merit.
July 19th, 2007
First of all, I’ve updated my review of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix–check out my corrected observations on Kreacher, Grawp, and Occlumency lessons with Snape.
Second, Porpoise drew my attention to a set of predictions for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows that claims Hagrid is almost certain to die–a claim based on an alchemical formula. According to said formula, apparently, the combination of black, white, and red signifies transformation. So far we’ve had the deaths of Black (Sirius) and White (Albus Dumbledore), so now we just need red (Rubeus Hagrid). The source is actually a little vague about whether this is from alchemy or tarot, but if it’s alchemy, it seems like a good theory. After all, Rowling knows a bit about alchemical history, as the British title Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone reminds us.
Third . . . have you ever thought lolcats were just too cute and fluffy? Then try LOLDEMORTS, courtesy of Dormouse! He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named as you’ve never seen him before.
July 17th, 2007
It’s Princess Di!
How do I know this with absolute, without-a-doubt certainty? Nope, it’s not that I have even the somewhat questionable Divination powers of Sybil Trelawney; rather, I have just looked up a disturbingly obsessive Potter timeline that informs me that Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone is set in August 1991–June 1992. Therefore, Book 7 will begin in the summer of 1997.
As Diana was killed on August 31, 1997, she will no doubt be the Muggle-death that sometimes begins Harry Potter volumes–little did we know that Voldemort was one of the paparazzi that fateful night!
The only question is: was she one of the deaths Rowling had planned from the beginning, or is she one of the two additional characters who will bite the dust in Deathly Hallows?
Seriously, the Harry Potter Lexicon timeline is amazing. And odd. I’d heard people say that Harry Potter was born in 1980, but I never knew the reason behind the claim. It all stems from Sir Nicholas de Mimsy-Porpington’s (a.k.a. “Nearly Headless Nick”’s) Deathday Cake, which appears in Chamber of Secrets. His cake states that he died on October 31st, 1492. According to Lexicon creator Steve Vander Ark,
“This party was to celebrate Nick’s five-hundredth Deathday, which means the 500th anniversary of his death. Add five hundred years to 1492 and you get 1992 [Y12], so the party, which took place on Hallowe’en night, took place in the fall of 1992 [Y12]. This reference is the only direct date given for an event in the Harry Potter books. It is from this single note that all the rest of the timelines of the books have been derived. By the way, an inconcistency found in book one, where Nick bemoans the fact that he hasn’t eaten in ‘almost four hundred years,’ has been remedied. The text of book one has been amended to say ‘five hundred years,’ which supports the Deathday Cake date as canon.”
What’s even more interesting is that Rowling and her franchise seem to have drawn their official timeline from the HP Lexicon. Again, here’s Vander Ark:
“According to sources at Warner Bros. who worked on the DVD of Chamber of Secrets, here’s what happened. The folks at Warner came up with a timeline. There is pretty strong evidence that the timeline they came up with was from the Lexicon–the master timeline and the day-by-day calendars of the first two books. They showed this timeline to Rowling. She looked it over and made one or two comments or little changes, then approved it.
That timeline now appears on the DVDs of Chamber of Secrets, Prisoner of Azkaban, and Goblet of Fire. You can’t get to it on your television; you need to put the second DVD in a computer’s DVD drive. Since it was approved by Rowling, it is considered to be official. . . .
How do I (Steve Vander Ark) know that they borrowed the timeline from the Lexicon? Because I had made a tiny, stupid little typo on my day-by-day calendar of the first book. I had accidentally put the first visit of Harry and Ron to Hagrid’s cabin on Saturday instead of Friday. I did that because I write Monday-through-Friday schedules all the time as part of my job, filling information onto week grids. The last square of the calendar I work on usually is Friday, so I put the visit to Hagrid’s cabin in the last square without thinking. That typo is reproduced in the ‘official’ timeline on the DVD.”
Well, I guess obsession pays off. Or something.
July 13th, 2007
Since she is still alive, I assume she must be desperately in need of money to allow this abysmal-looking adaptation of The Dark Is Rising to be made. It looks like the worst children’s book adaptation since Ella Enchanted, which made mincemeat (and imitation-Shrek mincemeat at that) out of Gail Carson Levine’s delightful novel.
Just take a look at the trailer. Or don’t. Up to you.
They’ve CHANGED THE SETTING TO AMERICA! For some books, this works fine (e.g., A Little Princess), but not The Dark Is Rising. It’s so dependent on its British setting. Since when did Herne the Hunter roam the forests of North America? And this immediately rules out sequels that have anything to do with the books, because the rest of the books in the series revolve around the Arthurian legend. We ain’t got no King Arthur here.
And the rest of it? The adolescent-crush emphasis, the cheap humor . . . arrghhh! I can’t go on. I’m going to go kick things now and then hug my book in consolation.
July 12th, 2007
Unlike many Harry Potter readers, when it comes to ranking the various installments, I enjoy Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix more than any other except the first book in the series. I agree that “Caps-Lock Harry” (as the brooding, shouting adolescent Harry has been nicknamed) wears on the reader’s patience, but I find him much more tolerable in Jim Dale’s reading of the audiobook (Dale doesn’t shout, for one thing). Most importantly, however, Order of the Phoenix ranks high on my list of Potter volumes because I think it’s the book in which Rowling most successfully shows the effects of evil. I’ve said before, probably so many times that my regular readers are ready to place a silencing charm on me, that I’m not impressed with Rowling’s depictions of good and evil. “Good” always boils down to some vague notion of “loyalty” or “friendship,” ungrounded in any deeper principle (and unaccompanied by virtues such as “honesty” and “trust”). And, since I believe that evil is not the opposite of good but rather its absence, it’s hard to paint a convincing portrait of evil unless you have first shown us the good.
However, in Order of the Phoenix, we see evil’s side-effects, rather than its head-on portrait. In one of the best scenes of the new film (which I saw today at 12:00 a.m.), Luna Lovegood reminds Harry that Voldemort partially accomplishes his purposes by sowing discord among his opponents. The primary source of friction in Order of the Phoenix? Disagreement over whether Harry can believe that Voldemort has indeed returned. Though I’m cautious about trying to find Christian parallels in the Harry Potter books, I am reminded here of Screwtape’s advice to junior devil Wormwood when he impresses upon him the advantages of keeping humans from believing in demons like themselves.
More than any other film in the series, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix has a central theme: the internal strife within the “good” wizarding community, and Harry’s resulting isolation. At times, the theme is even overly stressed, such as when Hermione repeatedly tells Harry, “We’re in this together.” In spite of a bit of hitting the viewer over the head, though, the film does at least achieve a unity that the others really haven’t (not even Alfonso Cuarón’s Prisoner of Azkaban, which is still my favorite of the films).
Some critics have complained that this fifth film doesn’t have the “magic” of the earlier films, while some have claimed that, given the fact that Voldemort has just returned, the film doesn’t seem dark enough. I found the tone highly appropriate for the film’s themes. I liked (well, from an aesthetic standpoint) watching Voldemort work obliquely, as it’s how Satan most often works in the world, too. Sure, the grand apocalyptic confrontation we’re headed for in the seventh book may be more exciting (or it may not, given Rowling’s propensity to write disappointing climactic scenes), but the everyday struggle against smaller manifestations of evil is actually rendered with more complexity in Rowling’s work (and David Yates’s film).
I was also pleased to discover that angry Harry is rendered much more sympathetic on film than in Rowling’s prose–possibly because we’re not barraged with a stream of Harry’s self-pitying thoughts, as we are in the book. When we see him calling desperately after Dumbledore’s retreating back, we sense his feeling of abandonment more powerfully than we (or at least I) ever do in the novel.
Yates and new-to-the-series screenwriter Michael Goldenberg have made a good many changes to the plot that do help to streamline the movie, as well as to keep it centered on its theme. There’s one apparently superfluous diversion (Grawp), but I remember hearing rumors of a character who was going to be cut from the film who gained a reprieve because Rowling he insisted he was important later in the series (i.e., Book 7). My money’s on Grawp. At least, I hope he turns out to be significant, because otherwise he’s just a big waste of space. Literally.
(UPDATE: My latest issue of Entertainment Weekly informs me that Kreacher is actually the movie character saved by J.K. Deus Ex Machina Rowling for his important future role. Which makes me wonder . . . why then didn’t the film contain anything about his treachery? And WHY was Grawp still in it?)
Have some things been lost in the plot’s condensation? Of course. Again, most of the cut material isn’t really necessary, but several times I wondered whether someone unfamiliar with the book would be able to make sense of everything. And several of the missing elements seem particularly important to the story (SPOILERS to be found below):
- Dumbledore’s discussion of how the prophecy about Harry could just as well have been about baby Neville Longbottom—until Voldemort, acting on partial knowledge of the prophecy, determined the other part of it by choosing to attack baby Harry. It’s an interesting combination of fate/free will stuff, and I’m always in favor of anything about Neville, as I think he and Snape are the two most interesting characters in the whole series.
- Ginny’s conversation with Harry about what it’s like to be possessed by Voldemort (she has been; he hasn’t). In addition to better explaining what’s going on with Harry, this conversation lays the groundwork for their future romance.
- Snape’s motivation for kicking Harry out of his office and canceling his Occlumency lessons. In the book, this happens because Harry has, unwisely but deliberately, trespassed in the Pensieve where Snape has been keeping his private memories. In the film, he accidentally gains access to Snape’s memories while protecting himself against Snape’s efforts to read his mind. Since this is what Harry is supposed to be doing anyway, it doesn’t seem logical that Snape would throw him out. (UPDATE: Porpoise has now seen the movie too, and he pointed out that, as it’s presented in the film, Harry’s attempts to defend himself from Snape’s Legilimency aren’t supposed to involve his wand; he’s supposed to control his mind. So when Harry pulls out his wand and shouts “Protego!“, thus breaking into Snape’s memories, he actually is transgressing. Further support for Porpoise’s reading of the scene: as I’ve been re-reading Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, I’ve begun to suspect that Goldenberg, when screenwriting for Order of the Phoenix, drew inspiration from the next volume in the series. The relevant scene is on page 180, if you want to look it up for yourself. It involves Harry using “Protego!” against Snape when they’re supposed to be learning nonverbal spells in class. With this additional information, I withdraw my initial complaint about this point in the movie.)
- The night of the attack on Mr. Weasley, which is skimmed over too quickly. As soon as we learn that Mr. Weasley has been found (but before we know anything about his condition), Dumbledore whisks Harry off to an impromptu Occlumency lesson with Snape. Their apparent lack of concern over Mr. Weasley’s fate somewhat undermines the film’s insistence on love, friendship, and loyalty as the triumvirate of virtues.
Those gripes aside, though, I have to salute the filmmakers for including a shot of Hermione’s otter-shaped Patronus, the one component of the movie I was most eagerly anticipating. It gamboled very nicely.
July 11th, 2007
I think it’s safe to say that Ratatouille is now my favorite Pixar movie. I think it’s also safe to say that no Pixar movie will ever be my favorite animated Disney movie. To attain that lofty title, a film would have to surpass Beauty and the Beast, and unless some unforeseen ingredients manage to creep into the Pixar soup, that ain’t gonna happen (maybe I’ll elaborate more on the reasons in a future post).
First of all, let me say how much I enjoyed Ratatouille, as I did The Incredibles before it. There’s no question that writer-director Brad Bird is making today’s best animated American films. They’re visually stunning, and the plot and script display evidence of human thought, rather than being assembled by a committee intent upon bashing the message of “Just believe in yourself!” into youngsters’ heads. There are many moments in Bird’s films that genuinely amuse, rather than trying for pop-culture-savvy or below-the-belt humor.
And yet, in the days since I’ve seen Ratatouille, little lasting impression has remained with me beyond, “Gee, that rat had cute paws,” and “I’m hungry.”
Critics have been lauding Ratatouille almost unanimously—in part, it seems, because it prominently features discussions about art and criticism. Our rodent protagonist, Remy, is, we are told, an artist in the kitchen. He seems to know instinctively when a soup calls for chervil or tarragon. But is it instinct? Is it a “gift,” as some moments in the film seem to imply? What does it mean when Remy’s inspiration, Parisian (and human, though deceased) chef Auguste Gusteau, repeatedly voices his motto, “Anyone can cook”?
It’s clear that not just anyone can cook, because the young chef-wannabe Linguini never rises above miserable failure in his own culinary efforts. Apparently having the desire and the training (as well as “talent in the bloodline”) is not enough to make an artist. True? Sadly, yes, as many an aspiring artist has no doubt realized. Linguini’s story is a somewhat tragic one—or it would be, if it were fully explored. Instead, he is supplied with a brilliant rat in his hat.
Toward the end of the film, the acerbic food critic Anton Ego tries to clarify Gusteau’s motto: “Not everyone can be a great artist,” he says. “But a great artist can come from anywhere.” Perhaps Gusteau should have said it more clearly from the beginning: “Anyone who has the gift, even a rat who has the gift, can cook.” Those who don’t have the gift apparently can be placated by romance: Linguini’s artistic ambitions rather suddenly disappear as he becomes enthralled with Colette, the restaurant’s only female chef.
While the film’s message is a welcome relief from the aforementioned “believe in yourself” drivel, it still seems confused. Bird seems to want to celebrate the democracy of art, at the same time that he has to acknowledge that, realistically, the feast isn’t available to all. This is, indeed, a difficult issue for anyone to wrestle with—which is the reason I’d like to see it done more completely and honestly in Ratatouille.
But, you say, surely a kid’s movie doesn’t need a comprehensive and consistent philosophy of art! Well, first of all, Bird has said that he didn’t intend Ratatouille exclusively for children—a fact that should be obvious to anyone watching the film. Sure, children will enjoy it, for many of the same reasons that I did: bright colors, funny dialogue, and cute, fluffy rodents. But I think they actually would enjoy it even more if it dealt more fully with the pain of wanting to be an artist and not succeeding. Kids know what failure means. They face it every day, in some arena or another, and a chorus of “believe in yourself” isn’t going to help them know how to deal with it. All the more reason for a thoughtful, independent-thinking movie to step up to the plate and show someone wrestling with the realization that he isn’t an artist—at least not in the way that he had hoped to be. And once that realization dawns, perhaps he will see new, previously unsuspected gifts unfolding in the wake of the defeated dream.
P.S. I hope it doesn’t sound as if I’m advocating that movies deliberately insert a moral for kids about dealing with failure. Rather, I’m just irritated because it seems like this theme was already there in Ratatouille, and it wasn’t dealt with truthfully. Instead, there was more of the “family opposition to art” theme than there needed to be in Remy’s story.
P.P.S. Ratatouille’s “art” theme was also a bit confused in its treatment of commercialization. We are supposed to despise Gusteau’s successor Chef Skinner because he has used Gusteau’s name to market a line of frozen TV dinners (and several critics have seen here an allegory of Disney’s decline). Parts of the movie could read as an advertisement for the Slow Food movement. But our hero Remy dreams of becoming a culinary artist because he has seen Gusteau’s cooking show on television—a medium which, in the U.S. at least, is dependent upon the marketing of products. His secondary education comes through Gusteau’s cookbook, itself a kind of commercial product. Gusteau’s democratic theories about art can’t be spread without the aid of commercialism. The two arenas aren’t as separate as the film’s surface suggests.
P.P.P.S. The presence of grumpy critic Anton Ego in Ratatouille makes it a dangerous enterprise to say anything negative about the movie, for fear of being labeled a snob. I’m undoubtedly a snob in some respects, but I hope it’s not snobbish to expect that an animated movie could, in fact, deal with the theme of art in as complex a way as the artsy-est independent drama.
July 5th, 2007