It's now December 2007 and I spent the past four months reading the Harry Potter series. It started out as a favor for my friend Dan, who needed someone to talk about the books with, and evolved into a lengthy and very nice distraction from real life, my job, etc. I waited such a long time to read HP not because I expected them to be lame or childish, but because of how popular they were. I deeply distrust the whims of the general public and pop culture, even though I agree with them more often than not. It's a quirk of mine -- for example, after The Matrix, Memento, and Fight Club became "big," I developed temporary negative feelings about them, even though I ultimately loved all three movies. But anyway, I was busy reading other books and HP wasn't at the top of my queue, that is until Dan bought me books 1 and 2 for my birthday. Shortly after that I finished reading Naked Lunch and I desperately needed a break after that adventure.
I've heard that one critic described the series as two trilogies linked by book 4, The Goblet of Fire. I tend to agree with this. The first three books are distinguished by the fact that everything works out each time. Nobody dies, although they do come close (Harry's parents are already dead when the story begins, but we learn about that event throughout the series). Villains and unlikeable characters are either vanquished or humiliated, while Harry and friends triumph. All three books follow the same exact formula to a fault.
Book 4 changes the game immediately and irreversibly with the before-your-eyes murder of Cedric. It's the first time anything so consequential occurs in the whole series, and not the last. Because Cedric has been present and visible in earlier books, and is developed rather than just thrown forward as a red-shirt before his death, killing him off so suddenly and violently sounds a wake-up call to us: Rowling isn't playing around. From here on, the deaths hit closer and closer to home and get more painful. In the words of Clarence Thomas's grandfather: "The damn vacation is over!"
To me, book 5 (Order of the Phoenix) was the best of the series. It's the most difficult to read because it's so depressing and ok, "dark," but the plot arc is the most powerful and emotionally resonating. Rowling piles on the irony: an observant reader can figure out early on that Sirius Black will die later in the story, but none of the characters, much less Harry, seems to get this. The longer Sirius spends out of prison and the more he tries to get on living his life, the more obvious it is how much he's lost during his years at Azkaban, and that he can never get back to normal. His bitterness magnifies his characteristic recklessness. Simultaneously, as Harry grows to care more and more for Sirius as a surrogate father, he himself is increasingly alienated from his friends and peers and becomes the classic teenager, immune to the advice and reason that he needs to protect himself and Sirius. Voldemort brilliantly plays on Harry's greatest vulnerability (and greatest weapon against him), his passionate concern for others, to move Harry and those for whom he cares most into a trap. Harry falls for all of it, largely because he is a teenager, not a coolly rational adult like me. As you read it, you can't believe Harry could be so thick and stupid, always taking the wrong risks and making the wrong moves and ignoring the advice and the tools that could help him the most -- but was I any different in high school? Not really. On top of all that, the Department of Mysteries was wonderfully creepy, and we get to see Dumbledore duel Voldermort, one of the best scenes in the whole saga. Professor Umbridge was a magnificently tangible and monstrous villain, worst of all because she was so real. I know I've met people like that in my life, but I can't put my finger on who they were or when I knew them.
Book 6 is the opposite of book 5: Harry is now the boy who cried wolf and nobody listens to his warnings because, hey, look where his paranoia got us last time. But this time, he's right. Malfoy is up to something evil after all, but because everyone knows Harry and Malfoy hate each other, no one believes it. Ratcheting up the pain even more, Rowling kills off Dumbledore, a wise move. By book 6, Dumbledore has become something of a Superman figure, always there to save the day, always bailing Harry out, always possessing the answers and the power to set things right, and always standing behind Harry when others doubt him or when the government and media smear him. Without Dumbledore, there's more room in book 7 for serious challenges and for Harry and his friends to find out what they're really made of. Harry's final quest and victory would be much less meaningful if he'd had Dumbledore to hold his hand. The Half-Blood Prince and The Deathly Hallows go together like The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi: after one, the follow-up can't come soon enough. Book 6 of Harry Potter at last shows the reader what and who Voldemort is, sets up the incredible task of defeating him that fills book 7, and warns us that Harry will have to do it on his own.
I've heard from many people that the books get "darker" as they go. I don't feel that way. I think the books get more "normal" as they go. In a good story, there is a credible threat, genuine stakes for the major characters, death, struggle, and adversity. All of these are in greater supply as the series progresses -- as they should be. If books 3-7 were as easy as book 1-2, I would've stopped after 3. As it is, I think books 3 and 5 are the most "dark" of the series because they're the most heartrending. In both, there are overwhelming forces threatening to break Harry: the dementors in book 3, and Professor Umbridge in book 5. All seven books have elements of the macabre, of course, which I loved, but none of them save book 3 with the dementors takes it very far. In book 6 we get zombies, but only in one scene.
I sensed a distinct size-of-government theme running through the Harry Potter series. In none of the books is the government our friend; more often it is the enemy. In books 5 and 7 the government attempts character destruction on Harry, and every one of its laws, rules, and regulations, rather than maintain order or slow down the bad-guys, merely makes it harder for the good-guys to do anything to fight Voldemort. The underage magic ban (think underage driving, drinking, etc.) repeatedly causes problems for Harry, most notably in book 7 when he can't even use magic to move himself to safety, knowing that Voldemort will try to kill him the moment of his emancipation. Harry ends up using two out of three "unforgivable curses," which carry minimum life prison terms, during his battles with the Death Eaters. The Death Eaters, obviously, have no problem using such dangerous magic. In book 5 the government essentially seizes direct control of Hogwarts, banning Harry from activities like teaching his peers how to defend themselves from evil. How can the government do this? Well, Hogwarts is apparently a public school, and even wizards and witches pay taxes, so the Ministry of Magic owns the school. Indeed, it's because of the government's ineptitude and corruption that Voldemort can regain power in the first place, and eventually he just takes control of the government itself, too, giving him almost unlimited tools to isolate and hunt his opponents.
I also thought it interesting, in light of the modern gun control debate, that in the magical world essentially everyone age 11 and up carries a wand capable of greater violence and mayhem than any one handgun, and the only thing to check these powers is the threat of terrifying punishments. The attitude toward regular humans in the books is not that we're more evil or less evil than our magical counterparts, but that we're boring and handicapped. I appreciated the absence of oblique preaching on nuclear proliferation, mass extinction, and war that Rowling could have injected, extremely easily, into a series depicting a race of wizards living among us in secret.
Voldemort was a fantastic villain. Being evil and looking like Dracula are one thing, but his story and motivations make him gripping. He has a great "tragic flaw": an obsession with his own legacy informing both his cruel actions and his foolish mistakes. He creates horcruxes as backup souls from which to rebirth himself should he die, but the horcruxes must be in important, legendary magical objects and hidden in places notorious to his epic life: making the horcruxes easy to find. Upon hearing the prophecy of a final conflict between himself and Harry Potter, he becomes obsessed with bringing the battle about again and again, destroying himself again and again because in his hubris he believes he must ultimately win (and the prophecy is made true by his actions). Usually an antagonist is supposed to believe what he's doing is right, but I was satisfied that Voldemort's background supports what kind of person he is.
My favorite characters -- Snape, Sirius, and Mad-Eye Moody -- all wind up dead. I didn't expect any of them to make it to the end, though. I don't know how Rowling did it: from even the first installment, though Snape is charmless, you get the impression he was put upon as a kid and is taking out his bitterness on the next generation, rather than having been, like Malfoy, doing the bullying himself. Even when he slew Dumbledore, I still suspected there was some good in him and I wanted to believe he'd come around at the very end. That isn't quite what happens, but we do get to learn all about his humiliating boyhood exploits in unrequited love, which rang true to me. Who could have imagined the nasty old professor was actually a romantic hero? I approve.
And so, here come the movies. I'm skeptical about them. I rather liked the way the characters looked in my imagination. So, just for self-indulgence and amusement, I'll list here how I pictured various characters, who I saw playing them, before I inevitably forget. I'll omit characters where I fabricated their appearance (that includes Voldemort).
So there you have it. When I read, I almost always have to place a face on most characters, and a familiar face helps. I avoid assigning the parts to real people I know. From the movie posters it looks like Voldemort has normal human eyes in the movies instead of the red snake-eyes -- a grave error in my opinion.
I think very highly of the books. The first two are children's books for sure, but the rest are for everyone. It's a long, long read, not without some slow and repetitive bits, but I wouldn't have it any shorter. They are genuinely good books. Rowling may not be the next Henry James, but I believe it was the great Harlan Ellison who said a writer's first job is to entertain, not teach. Entertaining people is hard, and Rowling manages to do it for thousands of pages; she's earned her money seven times over.
All work © 2007 Eric Ford-Holevinski