9/03/2007

Harry Potter: The Boy Who Should have Died... or at least Matured!

Well, I finally sat down and read the last Harry Potter book. I am an odd mix of too-cool and too-geeky. I was too cool to buy or read the book when it came out, but I was too geeky to stop reading it when Rich let me borrow it!

In true Harry Potter fashion, it was a fun read. J.K. Rowling is enormously creative, and I enjoyed seeing the story come to its somewhat convoluted conclusion.

However, they certainly are not excellent books.

First, the number of key “coincidences” was ridiculous. The kids would be camping in some random woods for months, and then key characters would just HAPPEN to be fishing in a nearby stream, and would just HAPPEN to be having an important conversation about exactly what the kids needed to know. Rowling did not even bother to disguise the deus ex machina… she just dropped it in there multiple times.

Second, the flow of the stories (in all the books together) did not add anything to the characters. Think back to “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.” What were Ron’s main issues? Well, he was jealous of Harry and wanted to be the hero. And guess what happens in this book? Or consider the description of Hermione from way back then, when she was a bit prissy at times but would break the rules when need be for the good of the group. Anybody want to guess what she’s like in the final installment?

To be honest, even Harry does not change much. He still has (we are told) powerful emotional reactions to anything regarding his friends or parents. Actually, though, it’s a good thing Rowling blatantly TELLS us this is the case… I never actually felt it through the story.

I think this gets at my third complaint… J.K. Rowling seems to have only one method of story advancement- to make the story darker. So, in the beginning everything ends happily; but eventually things get darker and more painful, and then she finally kills a key character, and then it snowballs into multiple key deaths by books 6 and 7. Or the various plots need to be more epic, so larger and larger numbers of people become involved: which, of course, means that suddenly hundreds of students and teachers and warriors and creatures are all together at one time and place to fight hundreds of bad guys and massive creatures and the like. There’s nothing wrong with that type of plot advancement per se, but there is if it’s the only way in which the story gets better.

By contrast, as I mentioned, the characters do not get deeper, few serious twists are involved, people remain idiotic (spending MONTHS camping in the woods before they come to realizations the reader figured out with the same set of clues in less time than it took to finish the chapter), situations remain implausible (like Harry and Hermione living together for weeks in a tent trying to think of new plans and NEVER accidentally saying the name Voldemort), and we remain dependent on the timing always working out because…well, because that’s just how it goes.

Finally, the writing is cheesy. Rowling insists on telling us everything (such as “Ron said this darkly” or “Hermione pleaded, with a pained look on her face” or “Harry felt exactly the way he felt five years earlier waiting to hear if he would be kicked out of Gryffindor”). As I always complain, you can read 2 out of every ten words in the entire book and still get all the important stuff. The difference between Rowling’s book and true classic literature is like the difference between watching Gone with the Wind and The Little Mermaid. Sure, The Little Mermaid is exciting, lots of fun, and enormously creative. But at the end of the day, it is just a fast-paced cartoon, and does not include a serious, insightful, and deep look at life in the way The Once and Future King or Danny the Champion of the World do.

To put it simply, Harry Potter is a large bag of cotton candy in the grocery store of literature. It looks great and tastes sweet, but people seeking to enrich their lives and to grow in wisdom while reading escapist novels should look elsewhere.

Try books like The Once and Future King, Captains Courageous, Ender’s Game, Lord of the Rings, The Boyhood of Ranald Bannerman, or The Chosen.

If you are looking for kids books (though my sense is that adults defend HP more vigorously than kids do), stick to the Chronicles of Narnia, Maniac Magee, Roald Dahl books, Robin Hood, or other Newbery Award winners.

Rowling’s creativity is fun for a time, but as far as good literature goes it falls quite short.

9 comments:

gordan said...

I agree on the Deus ex Machina count. It got a bit repetitive, having Harry rescued at the point of death by a character showing up at just the right second. (A bit!)

But there were characters that got more mature/complex at the end, though maybe not the three main ones. Dumbledore, for instance, is a much richer character at the end, for instance, and there is the very satisfying emergence of Neville Longbottom. And you have to admit, Ron Weasley does mature a bit by the end, even becoming something of a leader in his own right. Even Voldemort changes from book one to the end, becoming a much more sympathetic villain.

Those are all minor points, though. I agree with the bulk of your assesment.

amanda said...

okay I agree with you. but I think the book generally gets kids reading. I mean what can you say to struggling third grader when he says I want to read the harry potter book and compare it to the movie. It generally gets kids motivated to read.

I thought the whole middle of the book was a bit dry, but I of course I needed to see what happens. I think that teenagers really do not mature until they much older. Neville really is character I would liked to know more about because he changed a lot from book 1 to book 7.

Anonymous said...

i dont agree with you. i think j.k. rowling wrote this brilliantly and just because you didnt like it, doesnt mean it was written bad. so i dont agree with you at all. j.k. rowling did a wonderful job!

Anonymous said...

I do not agree with you at all. Especially the part about the writing being cheesy and JKR having to tell the readers everything. It's the detail JKR puts into the story that makes it good. It allows you to form a picture in your mind of what the characters are looking like and feeling. It is the magic that we readers feel when we read harry potter. And as you said that the characters in the story just so happen to have everything work out for them? it's a fictional story. it was written this way because JKR wanted it all to work out. Do you just want everyone to die? Do you have no love for the world of Harry Potter at all? The series is beautifuly written and will be a literary classic someday just like "Gone With the Wind" is today.

le0jay said...

Your post leaves me with the feeling that you actually DID only read every few words per sentence. Just because the writing style or the narrative conventions do not exactly match the classic formulae, it does not mean that they should be dismissed out of hand.

How can it be said that the characters did not develop? Of course Ron and Hermione have the same strengths and insecurities they had when they were children; they are coming of age, and part of that is facing your old fears. Ron confronts and defeats his inferiority complex, and Hermione gets out of her habit of following rules for rules' sake, and becomes much more a woman of action. And what about Dumbledore? The story of his troubled youth highlights several important factors. For instance, that wisdom is not inherent in people; Dumbledore, brilliant though he was, was almost as misguided and self-important as Voldemort when he was young, but learned humility and responsibilty through hard, costly lessons. This also underlines the strenghts of Harry's character; the boy who, for all the hardship of his life, is kind, loyal, humble, courageous and, most improbable of all, still 'normal'. Harry shows no trace of the pretence or arrogance that other great wizards have had at his age (ie. Dumbledore, Voldemort, James and Sirius), despite his unique place in the wizarding world. It's actually one of the best and most well thought-out pieces of characterization I've yet come across.

Anyway, I could go on for ages about various aspects of the books that you have unfairly criticized. However, I simply urge you to look deeper when reading Harry Potter. What makes the books so great, the reason for the Harry Potter "phenomenon", is that Rowling has taken the magical and the fantastic and made them not only believable, but relevant. Despite the obviously vast difference between the wizarding and the Muggle worlds, the central themes of the story are fundamentally human; love, family, war, the power of choice, strength of character, death and how people deal with it, coming of age and, what I consider to be most important, recognising what really matters in life and acting to protect it.
All I can say is that the Harry Potter novels have far more to give than you have taken from them. Do not be fooled by the hype and the figurines; though it appeals to many, this is something that has real substance to it. I advise you to read them again, and this time, try not to constantly compare them to your old favourites.

Raeja said...

I wonder sometimes, whatever happened to the age-old art of willing suspension of disbelief?

True, unbelievable coincidences occur so frequently in the Harry Potter series, but the best stories are ones of high improbability. Would you be more satisfied with the series if the characters fell victim to the most likely endings? Would it be more satisfying if they suffered the odds instead of beating them? Legends exist because they don't happen just every day. Miracles exist because they're an inexplicably amazing and rare opportunity which only occurs once in someone's lifetime, if that. I don't personally want to read about the average day of an average Joe, because chances are it'll be damned similar to my own day. I want something improbable, borderlining the impossible. I want to, if only for a moment, believe that somewhere, to someone, it might just be able to occur. Then I'll snap back to reality upon finishing the prologue.

Even if you refuse to look deeper into the story to try to understand the complexity that other readers perceive, you're still reading fiction. The overall story doesn't exist to convince you that it's likely, it exists to convince you that the improbable and the impossible can still exist in mind and memory, even if you'll most likely never see it occur in real life.

If you want a story that cynicism is able to believe then stick to biographies. The rest of us will be happy to suspend reality for the sake of an amazing read at the very least, deus ex machina be damned.

Anonymous said...

honestly there is a certain something about the harry potter books that i find almost beautiful. maybe it's the fact that they started me reading books as a child in the first place. it may be "a large bag of cotton candy" as you so eloquently put it,but sometimes the things that are the sweetest can be the most enriching.
I love classic literature just as much as the next bookaholic,but if given the choice of top 100 books Harry Potter would always be in my top five. Way before gone with the wind.
These books can teach us a lesson,can give us wisdom if you read into their themes properly. The world is a far from perfect place and i think that HP demonstrates that profound truth.
Finally good writing is never cheesy. Any one person that is truly interested in literature likes to feel from the author's description that they can see what is being described,hear what the characters are hearing,even feel what they feel. It's truly the mark of a good writer when one can close their eyes and see in vivid detail what the author describes. JKR does all those things.

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Anonymous said...

I'm sorry, but did you really read the books? Your complaints don't apply to the Harry Potter books I've read nine times each, and your examples don't match the complaint. I disagree with everything, and basically, I pity the fact that you didn't see the true magic in the books. It is the deepest series I know of, and that is why the books are so popular.