A squidgy hero. A derivative plot, unpolished writing. Still, Harry Potter will have a place in cultural history that a glossier Twilight franchise can only hope for, says Poorva Rajaram
FINAL MINUTES of Last Harry Potter Movie To Be Split Into Seven Separate Films’. That was just a headline from the fake newspaper Onion. Like many Onion headlines, it’s scarily close to the truth.
The last Harry Potter movie releases on 15 July. Not everyone is willing to believe that we have seen the end. With good reason. For the past 14 years, there has been one Harry Potter event or another. So, it’s easy to believe some ingenious marketing professional will squeeze more books, movies, videogames, starlets or toys out of the franchise.
Even if you deny Harry Potter’s self-replicating capacity, you might intuit that the goodbye is slight. Harry Potter is not going anywhere. Fifty years from now, a cluster of Potter movies is likely to be marketed with retro-silkiness. Rowling’s energetic anti-bigotry message might be smoothed over into “Look! Broomsticks”. But Harry Potter’s future cultural canonisation is a given.
There are and should be all sorts of objections to Harry Potter: the gauche hero-versus-villain plot, the uneven language and pacing, the awful promotion of Britishness and the magical motifs unimaginatively taken from other books. Realistically, though, the Harry Potter books are as complex, potent and ambitious as mega bestsellers can afford to be.
They could have been worse. They could have been Twilight.
The first Potter book was released in 1997. After three massive successes, it became clear that Rowling could write anything in the subsequent books and just the pre-booking would ensure they were bestsellers. But, scaling down or losing steam wasn’t an option for her. Her writing felt even more like a site for personal artistic struggle with plot, scale, character resolution, fantasy, depicting morality and ambition. Even the finished products had a work-in-progress quality — they weren’t heavily edited or taut. Rowling stood in contrast to a cerebral, second-guessed variety of children’s writing. She was always less manipulative and didn’t try to hide doubt from children.
The first book was agreeable; the second atmospheric; the third affecting; the fourth tingly; the fifth long; the sixth pubescent; the seventh unbounded. They weren’t always smooth, but they had enough going for them. The books contained all the gimmickry of magic, an underdog protagonist to a reluctant hero story and bombastic plotlines that overran their perimeter.
At the heart of the Harry Potter charm was something else, something very British: boarding schools. Structurally, the seven books cover seven years at a boarding school. Indian readers can draw connections back to Enid Blyton. The school setting also produced a sumptuous aesthetic experience: candles in the Great Hall, a snowy Hogwarts building, musty libraries, a picturesque village tavern with butterbeer (as if it was written for a movie that would inevitably have a John Williams score).
Rowling’s boarding school was different. Children weren’t there solely to be gentrified. And even though Parvati and Padma Patil confused us, we Indian readers noted the racial diversity. Should Rowling have gone further? Should she have written about more lesbians? Or had a black protagonist? Either way, a non-elite boarding school in Britain was a remarkable enough first step.
Unlike Enid Blyton, children in Rowling’s school weren’t solely there to be gentrified. Gentility took a beating with Rowling’s humour
Rowling also produced another thrill (worth its weight in page-turning): a squidgy central character. Harry was hubristic, bad-tempered, whiny, patronising and enraged. He also managed a little self-awareness at the end of each book — enough, perhaps, for millions to queue up for the midnight release of the next. His roller-coaster emotional topography (more teenage than ever), became the perfect breeding ground for Rowling’s themes, always politely labelled “dark” by the press.
Thankfully, the books were not consistently self-serious (sometimes a requirement for young adult writers who want to pull off tormented). Gentility takes a beating in Rowling’s humour — the Dursleys, Gilderoy Lockhart, even Dolores Umbridge. These caricatures are made more potent by Rowling’s personal story. She wrote the first book as a single mother living primarily on state benefits. She pits the entitled and malevolent Malfoy family against the scrambling and benevolent clan of the Weasleys. And you can guess which family had that killer combination of grit, substance, good humour, humility, sympathy and unfailing generosity.
And if the books were still too serious for you, there was always Harry-Draco gay fan fiction online. Those who didn’t want to restrict their imaginations to Dumbledore’s sublimated gayness,wrote gay Harry Potter fan-fiction, which came to bountiful fruition in the early 2000s. Those who couldn’t get enough of Harry started to get enough of the boy wizard.
AS Byatt wasn’t amused. “Ms Rowling’s world is a secondary world, made up of intelligently patchworked derivative motifs from all sorts of children’s literature,” she wrote in a scathingly titled 2003 editorial, Harry Potterand the Childish Adult. Byatt was right. Harry Potter was a derivative. But, then again, millions of readers don’t hungrily devour books full of new, feminist-approved nomenclature.
The overlap between Harry’s world and ours, apart from ensuring successful books, meant Rowling didn’t have to construct her own magical other world. She merely imported quirky magical creatures, details and trivia and made sure the rest of her story was juicy. Mythological plausibility doesn’t matter when the protagonist has soul-searching angst over a bad snog.
AFTER 2001, many more adults and children experienced Harry Potter at the movies. No marketing stone was unturned for the ginormous enterprise. Daniel Radcliffe and Emma Watson are now poised to become the next generation of lead Hollywood actors because of their onscreen stints as Harry and Hermione. Their school years were spent on a movie set. Many teens the same age as Harry, experienced the movies conterminously with the books. Many discovered the books through the movies. It’s very easy to side with the books — they lend themselves to imagination, have richer detail and texture, give us a less decisive and clear-cut universe — but the simple fact is, the books now account for only a part of the Potter empire.
Also, Quidditch needed to be filmed. The sport has captivatingly cinematic dimension- defying qualities. While complaining about the apocalyptic tone of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows 1, New Yorker film critic Anthony Lane pinned down the fundamental draw of the movies: “I hate to remind the millions of fans, but didn’t this all begin with a bunch of kids buzzing around on broomsticks?”
Hollywood could not scrub death out of the movies. Rowling sawPotter as a meditation on death. People died. Voldemort kept trying not to
The filmmakers had forgotten about the early Harry Potter zaniness. They harvested the grimness of the latter books, easily inflated the stakes to give everything a louder, even more overblown good-versus-evil thrust. And, perhaps, they got an unholy pleasure by ironing the rawness out of Rowling’s texts. The cosmetic makeover was complete — Harry stopped being annoying. All the editing that Rowling had craftily avoided, took place on the big screen.
However, even the most talented and skilful Hollywood scriptwriters could not scrub death out of the movies. Rowling saw her stories as a meditation on death and sure enough, people died and Voldemort kept trying not to. Morbidity might account for Harry Potter’s implausibly high number of adult readers and viewers. But teens deserve more credit. They can lap up tales punctuated by death. Death is, after all, everywhere in young adult fiction.
The Twilight series also foregrounds death with its pale, undead characters. Vampires seem to be the neatly categorisable post-Harry Potter trend. Apparently, readers can’t get enough of philanthropic vampires who want to do the right thing by battling their primal nature. Somehow, Twilight is wispy, not penetratingly macabre.
Vampires weren’t always so dead. Buffy the Vampire Slayer kicked ass. The cult TV show’s vampires were pulpy and exuberant, not breathy and tortured. Vampires, it turns out, don’t only have to be vehicles for angsty teenage narcissism. The point is to aestheticise death, not stew in it. Twilight had a passable story — but its world is far less lush than Harry Potter or Buffy. But, vampires are, like, cool (and stuff ). Hence the flourishing Twilight replicas — Vampire Academy, House of Night, Blue Bloods. For now, the undead will continue to corner the young-adult market void until something more vivid comes along. Something with the force to transplant resistant readers. Something more like Harry Potter.
Twilight couldn’t make anything of its benign soppy lovestory premise. Harry Potter made plenty of its benign boarding school premise. If Twilight is undead, then Harry Potter must be very alive. There’s no point saying goodbye just yet.
Poorva Rajaram is a Correspondent with Tehelka.