Here at Doing In The Wizard we pride ourselves on only talking about two kinds of books: the newest, hottest releases and the obscure and little-known. Therefore, it makes perfect sense to cover a little book series you probably haven’t heard of by an author named JK Rowling.
…okay seriously, why now? Well, for one there’s a prequel movie series coming out and a sequel story that’s a play for some reason starting up next year, and between those and the new illustrated editions going into print international advisory committees have issued a category 6 Pottermania warning.
But the main reason is that I’ve been meaning to do this for a very long time, ever since I spotted similarities between the Potter and Kvothe books; that led to a wiki binge to fact-check some stuff, which in turn got me wondering how the books would actually hold up if I revisited them. At the same time there’s been a metric shit load of ink spilled both praising and damning this series, and I wanted to be sure I actually had something vaguely interesting to say. Also, I hadn’t actually read them in a long time and my memory of the series, particularly the earlier books, was pretty hazy.
Over the last several weeks I dipped back into the series, looking through detailed plot summaries and re-reading parts that I had forgotten. I also revisited the movies, so we’ll be talking about them as we go. When I was a kid and in my teens I was a fairly enthusiastic fan of the series (to an extent; I never fell head over heels for them like a lot of people did during those heady days), so a big part of the exercise was seeing if they still held up nearly ten years later.
With all that exhaustive research done, we can start answering a few pertinent questions: are the books any good, and to what extent? Do they deserve the fame they attracted? And just why were they so popular in the first place?
It’s going to be full spoiler territory within, so if you want to read these books and for some reason have not done so yet, go grab them. I believe Harry Potter paperbacks are abundant enough that the UN will, in the event that all the oil runs out, be able to keep civilization running for the next 100 years by burning them, so they should be pretty easy to find.
The Philosopher’s Stone
I can for some reason distinctly remember the first time I laid eyes on Harry Potter and The Philospher’s Stone (named Harry Potter and The Sorcerer’s Stone in the US because Americans are weird). My primary school held annual book days where they wheeled out some shelves stocked with a wide selection of books, including newly released ones, which us students could buy at massively discounted prices. It was fucking awesome.
During one of these I saw the cover of The Philosopher’s Stone, assumed it was one of those Johnny Quest style adventure stories aimed at boys and immediately dismissed it forever because that kind of book didn’t interest me at all. I didn’t actually read it until several years later, when the second and third books were out and the Harry Potter phenomenon was taking off. My Mom heard about the hype and bought it for me.
By this point I was just a bit too old for it, and some of the more childish elements chafed for a while, but once I got into the story I enjoyed it. I remember finding the central premise intriguing (I had no idea what the book was about before I started reading it) and being enthralled by the depiction of life in a boarding school, which was a novel concept for me at the time. Like I said, I don’t recall falling in love with the series, but I was evidently interested enough to go and acquire the next two in fairly short order.
There is an extremely high statistical probability that anyone reading this post is broadly familiar with the basic setup of the series, but if you’re like me and your memory of the specifics is hazy, here’s a quick recap:
There’s a secret world of wizards hiding in the cracks of non-magic (or “muggle”) society, urban fantasy style. Harry Potter lives with his asshole aunt and uncle after his parents supposedly died in a car crash shortly after his birth, except surprise! It turns out he’s got magical blood in him and a place reserved for him at wizard school, a fact he discovers on his eleventh birthday.
This situation isn’t quite as rosy as it sounds, because Harry’s parents were not, in fact, killed in a car crash; they were actually murdered by an evil wizard named Voldemort who almost took over Wizard World or whatever eleven years ago, and who was defeated when his attempt to kill baby Harry backfired for unknown reasons, leaving Harry unarmed except for a scar shaped like a lightning bolt. Harry is famous for ending Voldemort’s reign of terror, but some people aren’t so sure that Voldemort is gone for good and if he ever comes back Harry will be the first person on his hit-list. Or in other words take the classic changeling fantasy, stick it in a pot with a boarding school story of the kind that was once popular in children’s literature and some epic fantasy tropes, boil the whole thing vigorously and out pops Harry Potter.
That’s the setup of the series as a whole; this first book specifically chronicles Harry’s discovery of his wizardly nature and his introduction to the wizarding world, then moves onto him and his new wizard buddies trying to stop Voldemort (who of course turns out to not quite be as dead as everyone thought) from stealing the legendary philosopher’s stone and attaining immortality.
I’m going to make an absolutely shocking statement here, get your monocles ready: the first chapter of this book is close to perfect.
No, really! It’s got a fairly difficult task in that it needs to set up the somewhat unorthodox setting, explain the backstory, get across why Harry is going to be famous in eleven years and drive home what a huge threat Voldemort was and why Harry being involved in his downfall is such a big deal. Now add in the fact that middle grade novels have much stricter requirements in terms of pacing and getting the ball rolling fast so you can’t just drone on with exposition like in adult fantasy. And it genuinely pulls all of this off really well– this is one aspect of the book I had completely forgotten about, and I was pleasantly surprised at how deftly all the chess pieces are moved into position.
Focusing on Harry’s thoroughly non-magical uncle as he spots outbreaks of wizard revelry following Voldemort’s death is entertaining and intriguing, and it gets across quite nicely both the nature of the wizard world and the fact that something really important and momentous has just happened. Then the scene between Dumbledore, Hagrid and what’s-her-name the teacher manages to throw in a lot of information without getting too bogged down. And I really like this bit at the end:
Harry Potter rolled over inside his blankets without waking up. One small hand closed on the letter beside him and he slept on, not knowing he was special, not knowing he was famous, not knowing he would be woken in a few hours’ time by Mrs. Dursley’s scream as she opened the front door to put out the milk bottles, nor that he would spend the next few weeks being prodded and pinched by his cousin Dudley…
He couldn’t know that at this very moment, people meeting in secret all over the country were holding up their glasses and saying in hushed voices: “To Harry Potter—the boy who lived!”
Harry’s insta-fame upon entering wizard society could have been monumentally sue-ish, but this chapter does a good job of contextualizing it such that you really understand why people react to him that way, at least during this first book (it starts to get harder to believe during successive installments; you’d think the novelty would wear off eventually).
The next few chapters are kind of unusual in that the book takes its sweet time getting Harry to Hogwarts. The received wisdom in writing for children is often that you can’t slow down for even a second lest the kids get bored and start sexting on their Minecraft snapchats, so this is kind of a risky maneuver to pull off in a debut novel.
Aaaaaand then he does get to Hogwarts, and in stark contrast to my first reading I found myself losing interest.
Maybe it’s because I’m no longer of school age, but the boarding school shenanigans didn’t grip me this time around. Part of the problem is that Hogwarts is kind of an enclosed world unto itself, in many ways as strange compared to wider wizarding society as wizarding society is to the muggle world, so the book in its first half has to introduce two different fantastical settings in a row and it strains under the load.
The plot, when it shows up, is actually quite thin and basically amounts to “the dude Voldemort is possessing tries repeatedly to steal the Philosopher’s Stone, Harry and co stop him”. The word-count is padded with a whole lot of Stuff: Harry sparring with nemesis-to-be Draco Malfoy, the heroes suspecting the wrong person is behind the thefts, attacks on unicorns in the absurdly dangerous monster-infested forest that surrounds the school, a mirror that Harry visits to see his dead parents, etc. The book does actually manage to pull most of this together into a coherent whole by the end, which I was impressed with; pretty much the only part that feels totally pointless is a sub-plot about Hagrid hatching an illegal dragon in his cabin. Given that the book was repeatedly rejected by publishers for being too long, I’m surprised Rowling’s editor didn’t tell her to cut it.
One of the real strengths of the story is how it handles Voldemort: by not really showing him all that much except at the very end in half-corporeal form. Throughout the course of this post one of my main theses will be that Voldemort works far better off-screen than he does as a physical entity, and that’s in full effect here; Hagrid telling Harry about him for the first time is genuinely chilling, and there’s a real sense of dread around the dark years when he was active and the possibility that he could come back, even though we don’t really find out many specifics.
If there’s a major weak link in The Philosopher’s Stone it’s actually Harry himself. The guy is an utter cipher here, far more of a wish-fulfillment self-insert than an actual character. I said earlier that I like the way his fame was handled, but then you get into the fact that he’s got a giant stash of inherited gold in a wizard bank (my isn’t that convenient) and the sympathetic ear of two prominent members of staff, oh and also he’s super good at Quidditch for absolutely no reason at all.
That last one was a step too far. The inherited money? It’s a clumsy solution, but I can see why you wouldn’t want Kvothe-style money issues hampering the fun child-friendly adventures. Dumbledore and Hagrid having Harry’s back I’ll accept since we find out later that they were both involved in the original fight against Voldemort with his parents, and it’s balanced out a lot by Snape having it in for him from the moment he sets foot in Hogwarts. But the Quidditch thing is just bullshit. Harry is portrayed as a lanky, kind of geeky kid who spent most of his childhood getting chased by bullies and who doesn’t appear to have ever played a sport seriously before and has never even seen a magical broomstick before his first lesson; there is literally no reason whatsoever for him to be instantly good at Quidditch, except for the vague suggestion that he might have inherited the talent from his father. Even Rowling seems to have realized that she went way too far here, as successive novels reinforce the idea that he’s a talented player but tone down the way his skill is described by others so that he no longer comes across as some kind of preternatural savant.
Unfortunately that’s not the only flaw when it comes to Harry’s characterization. On this re-read I was supremely disappointed with how Harry’s transition from muggle to wizard is handled, which is to say it’s not handled at all. He enthusiastically throws off every vestige of his old identity without a moment’s hesitation and retains essentially no connection to his former life apart from visiting the Dursleys every summer, which he can’t wait to stop doing.
Look, I get it; it’s the whole changeling fantasy thing, the fun of the scenario is that
you the protagonist discovers that you’re they’re secretly better than all the boring mundanes muggles around you them; but as an adult I want some kind of hesitation on Harry’s part, even if it’s something as simple as him missing computers or not being able to go to school with his friends.
But Harry doesn’t use computers. He has no friends. He has essentially no pre-wizard existence, so that he has nothing he needs to give up or sacrifice when he goes into this other world. And it’s not just Harry either; Hermione appears to have been living a thoroughly ordinary and happy childhood prior to discovering that she’s a witch, but there’s not a single hint that she feels conflicted about who she is or where she belongs. None of the Muggle-born children do, which is a huge missed opportunity since one of the main themes of the series going forward is prejudice against wizards and witches who were born to Muggle parents, and it would have added some depth to the scenario if said Muggle-borns had attitudes and cultural values that differed from the rest of wizard society due to how they were raised and struggled with how, or whether, to fit into a world where a vocal minority wants nothing to do with them.
Coming back to this first installment was also a little jarring in terms of tone. One of the series’ most well know attributes (and, I would argue, one of the reasons for its exponentially expanding popularity) is that it gets darker by degrees with each book, essentially growing up along with the initial wave of readers in a strategy that’s been copied numerous times since. It’s a pretty smart approach, but it does mean that the first book doesn’t really feel like it belongs with the rest once you know that the whole thing ends with a giant pile of secondary characters getting murdered in cold blood. That opening chapter I praised a minute ago has an odd Roald Dahl-esque feel that never really comes up again, and the climactic sequence where the main characters go through a gauntlet of challenges that let them show off their individual skills is a perfectly fine way to end a children’s adventure story but really doesn’t fit with the tone of the larger plot, particularly since it turns out there are way more secure means of magical protection that can’t be easily subverted by a trio of plucky eleven year olds.
I just got done writing a whole lot of paragraphs criticizing this book, so did I hate it? No, not at all. In fact I think it’s quite good as far as stuff aimed at younger readers go, and probably the best of the seven in terms of technical accomplishment. It’s fast paced despite taking its time to introduce its world, the plot fits together nicely and if the wish-fulfillment aspects don’t trip you up too much it’s easy to get swept along with the fantasy. The book conjures up a world that feels fully realised, the kind of world I’m content to stroll through and learn more about (in stark contrast with Generic High Fantasy Setting No. 46790), and despite Harry’s utter lack of depth the characters bounce off of each other well.
It also ends on a pretty dynamite mystery, with Dumbledore coming close to telling Harry why Voldemort tried to kill him but backing off at the last moment, which made me tear my hair out when I first read this. Little did I know that I’d have to wait four more books for the explanation, one of which would be almost as long as the other three combined, and that it would be extremely disappointing.
The Chamber of Secrets
I swear the cover of this book is the most English thing that has ever existed. Just look at Harry and his big rosy cheeks. I bet he’s chortling in that painting.
Anyway out of all the seven books, this is the one I remembered the least about. Apart from the very end where Harry fights the giant snake (which stuck out because it involves a giant snake) the entire book was a huge black hole. Having read it again recently, my recollection remains more or less the same.
All of the other Harry Potter books do some combination of pushing the over-arching plot forward or going into the backstory of Voldemort’s previous rise to power and how all of that ties into Harry’s life. This one doesn’t do any of that, instead focusing on ancillary stuff like the legacy of one of the Hogwarts founders, Hagrid’s backstory and what a young Voldemort (aka Tom Riddle) got up to during his school days. You could argue that that last point is important in the long run, but it’s not so important that we needed an entire book devoted to it. Chamber of Secrets is the only point where I start to wonder if this story really needed to be seven installments long.
But: the plot. We open with Harry back with the Dursleys for the summer and counting down the days until he can go back to wizard school and wiz it up with his friends (the fact that a half-dead despotic mass murderer tried to kill him at the end of his previous year doesn’t seem to have phased him). But a series of odd occurrences suggest that someone is attempting to prevent his return to the school, and when he does finally make it via flying car it quickly becomes apparent that not all is well at Hogwarts. Students are falling into catatonic half-paralysed states after being attacked by someone or something stalking the castle, and it’s only a matter of time before the attacks turn deadly. Could it be Slytherin’s Monster, a basilisk that, according to school legend, was stashed in a secret chamber (a chamber of secrets, if you will) by one of the Hogwarts founders after he went rogue? Does the Monster’s appearance signal that the fabled heir of Slytherin has come calling? Can Harry get to the bottom of all of this and stop Hogwarts from being shut down? What exactly is a Triple Smarties Gold Award and how does one obtain it?
The answers are yes, sort of, of course and some things are best left unknown. Although the task isn’t made any easier by the fact that Harry starts to exhibit rare magical abilities of a decidedly dodgy nature, which has a lot of people wondering if he might actually be Slytherin’s heir. Or it could be the incredibly violent dark wizard who was in Slytherin house, is descended from Slytherin and is obsessed with snakes, but sure, go ahead and suspect Harry.
(Do not come into the comments and tell me I’m getting the timeline mixed up or something. Do not. I will punt you so far over the horizon you’ll loop back around and hit yourself in the ass)
The big character through-line of the book is Harry doubting himself and wondering if he really fits in with his peers, as a lot of kids do at his age, mainly due to the suspicions of his classmates but also because in the first book the Sorting Hat almost put him in Slytherin. This doesn’t really work because while it makes sense that the other characters would start to get a little wary of Harry, we’re inside the dude’s head and we know full well he’s squeaky clean.
That’s… kind of all there is to it. Yes, the idea of an unknown monster stalking the castle is kind of cool and pulls the rug out from under the reader by taking this wonderful place that Harry discovered in the first book and suddenly making it dangerous, and the whole mystery-solving element is handled quite well, but there just isn’t much of anything going on here. Having established itself and gotten off to a fairly cracking start the series slows down and just spins its wheels, as if Rowling wasn’t really sure what she actually wanted to do with this world and story she had created. The book reads like a particularly weak instalment of a purely episodic series lacking in any connective plot, similar to previous big names in children’t literature like Animorphs or Goosebumps.
As well as not really doing a whole lot interesting on the story front, Chamber of Secrets also establishes a pattern that will hold true going forward: the extreme bungling of Slytherin house.
Slytherin is the Hogwarts house that Voldemort was in, it’s the house that arch asshole Draco Malfoy is in, it’s produced more dark wizards than the other three combined, its founder left a giant killer snake in the school for the lulz and 99% of the people sorted into it are portrayed as some combination of evil, stupid or cruel. Given the sheer number of notorious dark wizards that came out of it, including the most notorious one of all, you could legitimately ask why the house is even allowed to continue existing.
Rowling has claimed that Slytherin was never meant to be the “evil house” (she says a lot of things about the books that aren’t actually true, as we’ll see later), but for all that talk there’s only one Slytherin in the entire series who isn’t a complete asshole, maybe four if you’re being really generous and you count the Malfoys at the very end.
It’s a wasted opportunity because the idea of a school house that’s tainted due to its history is actually really interesting. What would it be like to be sorted into it? Would you be stigmatised for it? You could explore all sorts of fascinating ideas, like if the assumption that anyone in Slytherin is a closeted Voldemort fan itching for his return would lead to some of the students actually taking his side due to being ostracised by everyone else. Instead it’s just generic bullies and entire family lines that are portrayed as 99% evil generation after generation.
Chamber of Secrets is also auspicious for introducing us to Dobby, aka the Jar Jar Binks of Harry Potter. I don’t think he’s quite as irritating as some have made out– I found all of the quirky wizards in the fantasy novels we’ve covered way more annoying– but there’s no denying the fact that he grates on you fairly quickly, and he keeps fucking coming back in the later books.
Before we leave Chamber of Secrets I want to talk about an issue with the franchise as a whole, as it comes up for the first time here: the concept of blood purity and prejudice against both muggles and wizards or witches born to muggle parents.
One of the reasons I think these books were so popular is that they possess a quality I’m going to call non-obvious worldbuilding. The books contain all the stuff you’d expect from a story about wizards, but Rowling also went in several fairly directions that weren’t necessarily suggested by the subject matter and required a bit of an imaginative leap. The focus on death as a theme is one of them, and so is the blood prejudice stuff. Its presence makes the world seem a bit deeper and more alive.
But on the other hand, it’s also doing that thing where genre writers want to write about topics like racism or prejudice, but they don’t want to have, you know, actual racism or prejudice in their books so they make up some bullshit about oppressed elves or robots and it just makes it easier for privileged people to pat themselves on the back and decide that they’re totes not bigots because they sided with the downtrodden minority that doesn’t actually exist. It’s very easy to be a champion of equality when it doesn’t require you to examine your own thinking, or confront people in your peer groups, or accept compromises, or stick your neck out, or accept that inclusivity and tolerance might mean giving up privileges you took for granted, or actually doing anything at all.
This is all especially true given that whenever the Harry Potter books actually do veer anywhere close to race or sexuality the results are… well, we’ll get to that.
Oh, and the writing in this one is markedly less good. I always wondered if Rowling was having trouble adjusting to working under a deadline or something.
Movie Break: The First Two
I saw the film adaptations of the first two Harry Potters precisely once, when they came out in cinemas, and thus remembered basically nothing about them prior to embarking on this wondrous journey. Both of them were directed by Chris Columbus and are generally regarded by Potter fans as the worst two in the series.
Having briefly dipped back into them, that seems pretty accurate. I don’t think the problem is so much that the movies are bad as it is that they’re very firmly kids movies for kids, whereas the later installments were trying to be kids movies for adults; that produced decidedly mixed results, but it at least led to movies that are occasionally interesting.
Here everything is very rote and by the numbers, taking cues from the books without really changing anything at all. And the music blankets the entire film, accompanying anything the least bit magical with cloying John Williams tunes. There’s a general feeling that Columbus wanted to translate the books to the screen but wasn’t really interested in putting much of a creative thumbprint on them.
The Prisoner of Azkaban
The Prisoner of Ass-Cabin
The third outing gets back on track a little with the plot, although it takes until pretty much the end of the book and the overall significance of the events that take place aren’t entirely obvious except in hindsight. What you’re left with in isolation is some endearing characters and memorable villains, but nothing that feels very substantive (notably, this is the only book in which no version of Voldemort appears at all).
After magically losing his temper around a relative Harry flees the Dursley’s house and ends up back in Wizardville, where everyone is acting very odd around him. A notorious Voldemort supporter named Sirius Black has escaped from Azkaban (wizard jail), and for some reason it’s got the adults in Harry’s life extremely jittery. It’s not long before he finds out why: Black is reportedly obsessed with tracking Harry down and finishing the job his master couldn’t… and he was also the person who sold out Harry’s parents to Voldemort, which has some people nervous that Harry is going to do something stupid like charge off to get revenge (these people are very perceptive, as Harry does in fact do shit like this multiple times over the course of the series).
And hey, what’s the deal with that scary black dog he keeps seeing everywhere? Could it be the legendary Grim, a supernatural omen of death? No, the actual answer is way more convoluted!
This is the book where the series really starts getting a bit darker and more harder-edged; you’ve got the Azkaban guards– creatures called Dementors that cause paralyzing hopelessness and kill people by sucking out their souls– patrolling Hogwarts, the backstory gets a whole lot grimmer and the murder of Harry’s parents goes from being part of the Bildungsroman Fun Times to actually pretty horrifying once you know all the details. And there’s werewolves! And time travel!
After not doing a whole lot in the second book Rowling apparently decided that this one should have All The Plot, spinning numerous plates at once and trying to tie it all together into something coherent. And she comes close to succeeding, except a few really contrived coincidences let the whole thing down.
I always get the feeling Rowling was kind of obsessed with tying everything together and turning every single little detail into a puzzle piece; at times it works well, but often the authorial sleight of hand is plain as day. In this book Ron’s pet rat turning out to actually be a shape-shifting villain comes totally out of left field and is completely unnecessary. I think the thought process was “the guy turns into a rat, and he’s been hiding in rat-form since Voldemort’s fall, and Ron has a pet rat, so therefore” except no, that last step wasn’t needed. Couldn’t the protagonists just have encountered a strange rat lurking around the castle, and then at the end it would turn out to be the evil dude?
This is the book where Harry starts to feel less like a blank slate for the reader to piggyback off of and more like an actual character. Admittedly a lot of that is down to him being kind of grouchy– a trait that will continue to be prominent going forward– but there is some actual depth as well. Coming face to face with the man who betrayed his parents to Voldemort gives their loss a psychological impact that it never really had before; having Harry unknowingly follow in the footsteps of his dad’s group of miscreant friends lends some weight to the whole “taking up his father’s mantle” shite that we see so often in kid’s fiction; and the book introduces not one but two surrogate father figures (he’s already got a surrogate mother by this point), in the form of a sympathetic teacher and Harry’s god father, who he comes close to living with at the end of the book before events conspire to snatch that opportunity away from him. He starts to actually want things and wrestle with aspects of his life that are imperfect, which is a pretty low hurdle to clear but it’s one the previous two books didn’t.
More problematically, this is when Harry starts coming across signs that this wondrous new world he’s entered into is seriously messed up in a lot of ways, and fails to really react to that at all. Azkaban is described as this absolutely nightmarish place where most of the prisoners go insane from the baleful influence of the Dementors, which seems unnecessarily harsh to a wild extreme, and the very fact that Wizard Government is employing creatures like that doesn’t speak well of them. Additionally, at the end of the book Harry learns that his new favourite teacher Remus Lupin is a werewolf (although he would have figured it out sooner if he paid attention to the fact that the guy is named Remus fucking Lupin) and that werewolves, even ones like Lupin who go to great lengths to make sure they don’t pose a danger to others, are ostracized and discriminated against in wizard society.
Now, it’s true that the world Harry left behind also contains a lot of bad shit that he presumably ignores like most people do, but people tend to notice that sort of thing a lot more in settings they’re not familiar with; that’s why you get clueless jack-offs getting all smug about racism in other countries while ignoring what goes in their own back yard. You’d think at least some of this stuff would prompt some sort of negative reaction, but no. With the exception of the blood prejudice stuff (and even then not really) Harry just accepts that all of this exists. To be sure, he doesn’t like it, but there’s a difference between saying “I don’t approve of harsh prison conditions” and wondering why those conditions were allowed to exist in the first place. Again, that’s maybe not the sort of question that someone (particularly a thirteen year old) who had grow up in this world would think to ask, but it is the kind of moral judgement a newcomer would probably make.
(This continues to be a flaw going forward, but I’ll discuss it in more depth when we get to the fifth book, which explores the many problems of the wizarding world in more detail and likewise fails to really engage with them properly)
This is kind of the central paradox of the Harry Potter series. As the books go on they grow more complex and tackle more theoretically interesting subjects, but the execution is always to some extent lacking, and the further you go the greater the gap between Rowling’s ambition and her skill becomes.
Movie Break: Alfonso Cuaron saves the day
For the third movie Chris Columbus got the boot and was replaced by Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron, who later went on to direct Gravity (which I quite liked) and Children of Men, which was at one point one of my favourite movies (I haven’t watched it in a long time). Prisoner of Azkaban is the movie that put him on Hollywood’s radar; it’s widely regarded as the best Potter movie and I was very fond of it myself as a radical teen.
To my surprise, the movie totally holds up. This is the only one I rewatched in its entirety, and that’s because I was genuinely having a good time. Unlike the first two movies the script is smart about what it needs to adapt verbatim and what can be pared down or truncated, with the result that it goes by at a really fast clip.
But the movie’s real strength is in the visuals. Cuaron gave the Harry Potter world a wilder, more gothic appearance that was far more interesting than either the books’ medieval aesthetic or the first two movies’ representation of such. It’s notable that every subsequent film would use the same approach, often retaining specific elements of the Hogwarts castle and grounds as depicted here.
The Goblet of Fire
We’re now sailing into somewhat tricky territory, in that my opinion is likely going to start diverging pretty heavily from that of both the supporters and detractors of the series.
Ignoring people who’ll try to tell you the Potter novels are perfect works of unparalleled genius (these people are wrong), it’s commonly asserted that the series started out strong and deteriorated as it went along; and of course others would say that it started out bad and just got worse from there.
Personally, I always liked books 4-6 the best, regarding them as a high point in between two mediocre sequels that failed to capitalize on a promising start and a lacklustre ending, and Goblet of Fire was always the one I liked the most. These books were never beloved favourites; they were comfort food, what I went to when I was bored and just wanted to read something non-challenging, and to a certain extent I think that status can blind you to a piece of entertainment’s flaws even more than childhood nostalgia.
See, I say all of this knowing full well that these books are riddled with serious flaws and stuffed with all of JK Rowling’s worst habits, and I really don’t want to give them a pass on anything just because I was fond of them a long time ago. At the same time, I’m not going to pretend to hate them if I don’t out of some desire not to go too soft on them. I think I should be able to toe that delicate line since the His Dark Materials trilogy was in a similar position in my prior reading habits and I believe I gave it a fair hearing back when I wrote about it, but we’ll see.
Book four opens with Harry being spirited away from his aunt and uncle’s house early to attend the Quidditch World Cup final with his friends. After the match the stadium-adjacent camp ground is attacked by a party of wizards wearing the garb of the Death Eaters, Voldemort’s followers, which understandably comes across as something of a bad omen since none of them have shown their faces since his downfall fourteen years ago.
Back at Hogwarts, the school plays host to the Triwizard Tournament, a competition between Hogwarts and two other European wizarding schools whose students have hi-larious comedy accents. Only final-year students over the age of seventeen are supposed to be eligible for entry, but on the selection day Harry’s name comes out of the titular goblet alongside three others. It seems very much as if someone wants him dead, and they’re using the tournament to facilitate their plans.
(Spoiler: Voldemort is behind it)
If you were paying any sort of attention to that plot summary an obvious question might have come to mind: why doesn’t Harry just refuse to compete in the tournament? This is a question the book resolutely refuses to answer.
I mean, it tries. We get some guff about how putting one’s name in the goblet is a “binding magical contract” but we never actually learn what that means; is the goblet going to sue him if he doesn’t compete? Is he going to die? What if he went to the three tournament events but then just gave up as soon as they started, would that satisfy the conditions of the contract?
Once he does well in the first competition he does actually start to savour the challenge and makes an earnest attempt to win, so fair enough, but that doesn’t explain why he goes along with the opening event when he firmly believes that he’s at best going to make a fool of himself in front of his entire peer group and at worst be killed by a dragon. All of the Hogwarts teachers are completely against the idea of an underage wizard taking part, and the staff of the other two schools are understandably outraged that one of their competitors is getting two shots at winning. And on top of all that, someone else entered him into the competition without his permission. There is literally no reason not to disqualify Harry the moment his name comes out of the goblet, but everyone just shrugs and acts like he has to not only compete but actually try his best to win.
If it seems like I’m making a big deal out of this, it’s because it’s just one example of a noticeable sloppiness in the book’s plotting. Another, more glaring example is that Voldemort’s plan (and the steps his spy at Hogwarts takes to carry it out) is this labyrinthine nightmare that relies mostly on luck and a series of coincidences that neither party could possibly have controlled or seen coming, and which couldn’t possibly have worked the way it’s depicted. It’s so ludicrous that the villain spends about four solid pages at the end monologuing under the influence of truth serum to explain how it all worked, a clear case of an author writing herself into a corner and solving the problem by demolishing the corner with a sledgehammer.
Goblet of Fire was the first book published after the series had well and truly rocketed to global popularity and the accompanying massive sales figures, and it’s commonly asserted that Rowling had by this point earned protection from editors. I don’t know if there’s actually any evidence for that claim (people seem to assume this of any author who crosses a certain threshold of success) so I won’t present it as fact, but what is clear is that this book marks the point where Rowling, for whatever reason, started tackling levels of complexity that she just wasn’t equipped to handle.
So why do I call it my favourite of the seven when it’s got such huge problems? To be fair, the plot isn’t quite as much of a trainwreck as I’m making out. There’s no excuse for how lazy and slapdash Harry’s entry into the Triwizard is, but the stupidity of the villain plot only becomes apparent at the very end when the book makes an ill-advised attempt to bundle it up with an ongoing sub-story about events from Voldemort’s previous rise to power, so it doesn’t actually damage the overall experience nearly as much as you’d think. And if I’m being completely honest, the whole thing is so absurdly over the top that it loops around to where I find it kind of delightful instead of frustrating, like a piece of vital machinery that explodes violently but you don’t mind too much because the explosion was really fun to watch.
For everything Goblet of Fire does wrong it also does something else well. The extended sequence at the Quidditch world cup is a nice breather from Hogwarts and serves to remind you that there’s a wider world out there just as the plot is going to put it into serious peril, and when the action does move back to Hogwarts the inclusion of the Triwizard tournament as an on-going story element gives the school shenanigans a much-needed freshening up. This comes with the added bonus of writing Harry’s regular Quidditch activities out of the story, something I wish had been made permanent (Rowling herself apparently even got sick of writing the matches after this point).
Unfortunately all of these positives are counter-balanced by some shaky characterization. In particular, this is the book where it becomes apparent that Ron and Hermione as supporting characters aren’t actually going to have much going on (the next volume introduces some new side characters that would have made far better sidekicks). Ron’s main character arc is that he spends a quarter of the book feuding with Harry for extremely contrived reasons that make them both look like assholes, while Hermione starts a deluded and obviously futile campaign for house elf rights.
Let’s get into that a little bit.
Of the many ways wizarding society is deeply flawed, the wizards’ mistreatment of and prejudice towards non-human sentient creatures is probably the most poorly handled, and a big part of the reason why is the depiction of house elves (which have a lot more in common physically with traditional elves, as opposed to wispy Tolkien elves). See, Hermione gets upset at the way these creatures are kept in what essentially amounts to slavery, their quality of life and treatment entirely dependent on the benevolence or lack thereof of their owner. Everyone else insists that this is a foolish lost cause, because while there are a tiny minority of Elves who desire freedom and the right to enter employment under negotiated contracts, most of them actively enjoy being slaves. This viewpoint turns out to be broadly correct.
Now, I am willing to concede that the house elves genuinely are not meant to represent anything in real life and that no commentary was intended on JK Rowling’s part.
When you’ve got a story element in your book that can, with absolutely no modification, be read as a defence/justification for either classism or slavery, that’s really not very fucking good regardless of what you intended. If you’re writing a children’s fantasy series and you find yourself putting the words “they like being slaves” into your characters’ mouths, maybe stop and, I don’t know, get a fucking clue.
The whole debacle also makes a lot of the characters deeply unsympathetic. Our heros’ lack of engagement with the plight of the house elves makes their supposed opposition to other kinds of non-human discrimination like prejudice against werewolves seem hollow; this even applies to Dumbledore, who makes a point of treating Dobby well and drawing up a fair (from Dobby’s point of view) contract with him when he comes to Hogwarts, but turns a blind eye to the dozens of other house elves who work at Hogwarts as indentured servants. Because, see, they like being slaves.
The house elf liberation thing is one of the few points where Hermione gets to have any personal interest or inner life that isn’t Being Clever, and the fact that it’s mostly used to make her look ridiculous is pretty disappointing. I guess it was supposed to be an example of the fact that teenagers tend to have a lot of passion and can often throw themselves into grand causes without necessarily understanding what they’re talking about, but that doesn’t really work when she seems to have some perfectly valid points that everyone else just refuses to listen to. The take away from all of it seems to be that Hermione was justified in protesting the abuses that go on under the system of house elf servitude, but in calling for that system to be completely dismantled she was being naive and unrealistic. Which, now that I think about it, is a lot like how the other problems in wizarding society are handled.
Movie Break: Whatever
The Goblet of Fire movie was directed by Mike Newell.
That’s… all I really have to say about it. I remember this being completely uninteresting and unremarkable in pretty much every way, except that it had a weirdly grey and boring visual style.
Oh wait, I do have more to say about this movie: it marks the first time I noticed that blockbusters were starting to seriously over-inflate their action scenes.
During the first Triwizard event Harry has to steal a golden egg from a dragon’s nest. In the book he summons his broom, flies around a bit to goad the dragon into leaving her vigil over the eggs, then swoops in and yoinks the prize. The scene as described appears to take a few minutes at most.
In the movie the same basic situation plays out, except the dragon breaks free of the chain keeping it in the arena and chases Harry around the castle rooftops in an extended scene that goes on for way too long and quickly becomes boring. It’s obvious that someone decided the movie needed a big action scene with lots of spectacle, but it ends up being way less tense and exciting than the much more modest version described on the page.
I feel like this is a major problem in big blockbusters these days. Instead of a simple car chase every movie has to have five cars chasing five other cars along a collapsing highway while a passenger jet explodes overhead; it’s not enough to have a dude punch another dude, instead he needs to punch fifty dudes twenty times each.
For all its other flaws, The Force Awakens noticeably steered clear of this Hollywood excess, with even the big action set-pieces being relatively short and to the point.
The Order of The Phoenix
AKA The Really Long One
The fifth entry in the series opens with a fifteen year old Harry listlessly hanging around the Dursley’s, waiting to find out what the newly-resurrected Voldemort is doing. After a Dementor attack that nearly kills him and his cousin he’s spirited off to the decrepit London home of Sirius Black, which is now serving as the HQ of the Order of The Phoenix: a secret society run by Dumbledore that fought Voldemort during his first rise to power, and which has now been reinstated to oppose his return.
The “secret” part is particularly important this time around, because the Ministry of Magic isn’t thrilled with Harry and Dumbledore claiming that Voldemort is back; in fact, inept Minister for Magic Cornelius Fudge has decided that it’s time to eliminate Dumbledore as a political rival, and step number one is to take over Hogwarts.
The first four books were all leading up to Voldemort’s return, which presents an obvious problem: where do you take the story once he comes back? Having the Ministry become an antagonistic force is an interesting move, and it helps to somewhat break down the simplistic good/evil dichotomy the series trades on (but only somewhat– we’ll get to that later) by introducing a faction that’s opposed to the heroes largely due to incompetence, pettiness and narrow-mindedness as opposed to cackling villainy.
In practice, the actual execution of this plotline is kind of bungled due to one character: Dolores Umbridge, the Ministry agent who gets assigned to the revolving-door office of Defence Against The Dark Arts teacher. Whereas Fudge’s general personality and previously-established bluster fit with his actions in this book and the way he gets jealous of Dumbledore the moment an actual crisis comes up, it’s not really clear what’s motivating Umbridge apart from sheer sadism. I can see what Rowling was going for– basically think the person who eagerly carries out a genocidal dictators plans because they think it will be good for their career rather than out of any actual belief in the rightness of those plans– but the book goes out of its way to turn her into a cartoonish, hateful caricature.
Unfortunately that same treatment is also applied to Voldemort’s Death Eaters, who finally get some solid page-time here and are subsequently revealed to be a pack of sneering Saturday morning cartoon villains. There’s a lot more to say on the topic of Harry Potter’s simplistic morality, but I’ll leave it until the discussion of the next book, which gets into the topic of Voldemort’s backstory.
One aspect of the book that was much-discussed (and which we’re going to discuss some more right now) is Asshole Harry. The beginning of the book sees our hero shouting at his friends, getting all bitter and resentful over not being made a prefect, and generally just being kind of a huge dick. He calms down a bit once things get going, but still snaps at people and has a few angry outbursts for the rest of the story.
A lot has been made of this, with some people even asserting it as evidence that Harry is some sort of sociopath, but I’ve never had a problem with it. I think it’s important to keep in mind the context: Harry a) is 15 and at an age where moodiness isn’t exactly uncommon, b) was nearly murdered by the person who killed his parents a scant few weeks ago and c) witnessed the death of a fellow student, an incident that’s left him grappling with nightmares and what seems like PTSD. Under the circumstances I find his behaviour completely understandable. No, it’s not very likeable, but teenagers can often be difficult and not everyone reacts to grief in ways that are easy for other people to deal with. The fact that he gets called out several times for taking his frustrations out on his friends indicates that we’re obviously not supposed to find this behaviour any more sympathetic than the characters.
…which is more than can be said for Harry’s other big character development: romance. In handling this topic the book drives straight off a cliff.
The short version: there’s a girl in the fourth book named Cho Chang who Harry fancies, before he can work up the nerve to make a move she starts going out with the other Hogwarts champion, he’s killed during Voldemort’s resurrection plot (this is the death Harry witnesses), next year Harry asks Cho out after she joins his secret Defence Against The Dark Arts society, they go on one date but it turns into a huge disaster because neither of them are over the other guy’s murder and it turns out they’re not actually all that compatible to begin with. It sounds like a decent depiction of doomed teenage romance, and I did like how the slow realization that they actually have almost nothing in common was handled, but it’s here where the Asshole Harry thing goes too far.
The way Harry responds internally to Cho’s grief makes him seem extremely unsympathetic, and unlike with his other behaviour he’s never made to face up to that fact. I can easily see a fifteen year old boy responding to the situation the way Harry does, but in this case it crosses a line to where you really need to see the story explicitly tell him that he was being insensitive and disrespectful. That other show never drops.
It doesn’t help that Cho has almost no characterization besides weeping copiously and acting really irrational and jealous over Harry’s friendship with Hermione. Once their budding romance falls apart she essentially exits the series until a scene late in the final book where she pops back up to re-affirm that she thinks Harry is a cool dude after all.
And of course, this leads us into the racism angle.
I’m reluctant to talk too much about this because it gets into territory I’m not remotely qualified to discuss with any sort of authority– if you do some googling you can find plenty of material by people who have far more standing to speak on the topic. What I will say is that the Harry Potter series is extremely white: there are maybe six or seven POC across all seven books, all of them in minor roles, and this is in a series that has tons and tons of named, fairly fleshed-out side characters. Those few that do appear are cliched to varying degrees.
This is actually a problem across the board, JK Rowling’s characterization relying heavily on stereotypes and generalizations (I’ve been told this applies to a degree to her adult fiction as well). Which is fine when she’s reducing aspects of her own culture to tabloid-newspaper caricatures, but unfortunately she also gives other cultures the same treatment, usually by applying stereotypical traits to a character who is the sole representative of their race or background. I don’t feel that there was any excuse for this back in 1998 when the series launched, and it certainly hasn’t become any more acceptable in the time since.
I wouldn’t find the books’ failure in this regard quite as irksome if not for the fact that a contingent of vocal Harry Potter fans are convinced (and are very passionate about convincing everyone else) that the books are shining beacons of equality and feminism. To an extent this is par for the course with fandoms in general– people tend to want to believe that the things they like are progressive and that the things they don’t like aren’t– but the level of… let’s say “enthusiasm” with which the point is argued in the Harry Potter fandom seems extreme to me.
(And before we move off this topic: yes, I saw that a black actress has been cast as Hermione in the upcoming play. I think it’s cool and I’m glad they did it, but it doesn’t change anything I or anyone else has said about the bungling of POC characters in the series. Now, if the books get a reprint down the line and we see POC Hermione on the cover illustration, that would be interesting)
Character stuff aside, how’s the actual plot? Pretty good, as it turns out. Order of The Phoenix is semi-infamous for being a gigantic doorstopper by the standards of children’s literature (at 257,000 words it’s almost as long as the first three books combined) but it’s nowhere near as padded or slow-pace as its length would lead you to expect; there are two superfluous plot elements involving Ron getting into Quidditch and Hagrid keeping his giant half-brother in the forest (the fourth side plot involving Hagrid interacting with dangerous creatures on school grounds– I think Rowling ran out of things to do with him after the first two books) but apart from that it all hangs together nicely, culminating in an extended dungeon crawl through the Ministry’s Department of Mysteries that shows off a lot of really eerie and mysterious magic, in contrast to the usual pig-Latin stuff we get everywhere else in the series.
Umbridge’s poor characterization aside, the stuff with the Ministry interfering with Hogwarts works well and is exciting to read. Going back to our original question of why these books were so popular, I think Rowling displays a real knack for encapsulating aspects of growing up and school life in fantasy trappings in a way that doesn’t come across as too obvious or pandering (the depiction of exam stress in this book is absolutely true to my memories of preparing for the Junior and Leaving certs in school), and fifteen is about at the age where authority figures starts to seem like unreasonable tyrants and where acts of fairly petty rebellion feel like epic struggles against tyranny (see also every single YA dystopian novel ever published), so I can see why the Harry vs. Umbridge story appealed to the target audience. Even as an adult it’s still fun to read.
This particular aspect of the plot also does something important in terms of Harry’s characterization: it starts to chip away at the fantasy. Even at its most dangerous, Hogwarts for the last four books has been this wonderful fantasy realm for Harry where he can be the person he was always meant to be and find a real home for the first time in his life, but all of a sudden life at school becomes downright unpleasant to the point where he doesn’t want to be there any more.
The book comes close to really pushing this angle for all it’s worth, but unfortunately chickens out at the last minute. Asshole extraordinaire Severus Snape hates Harry largely because he didn’t get along with Harry’s dad James when they were both in school; for the previous four books Snape has been taunting Harry with how conceited and arrogant James was, and after sneaking a look at Snape’s memories through Magic Harry discovers that this assessment of his dad’s character is more less 100% correct, as he witnesses James mercilessly bullying a teenage Snape. This absolutely shakes Harry to his core, to the point where he starts wondering if his dad forced his mother into marrying him because he can’t imagine how she could ever end up with such a gigantic asshole.
Then Harry goes to his Dad’s friends desperately looking for some sort of explanation for all of this, and we run into problems because the book seems to believe that he’s given one even though he isn’t. Essentially, they wave the matter off with “everyone’s an idiot when they’re fifteen, he grew out of it”. Which to an extent is fine– I’m certainly not suggesting that James Potter the adult should be forever shamed by his actions as a teenager– but I feel like more could have been done with this. Like, for example, having Harry reflect on the fact that he himself has been kind of an asshole lately. The whole incident just kind of gets swept under the rug. Harry’s opinion of his dad goes right back to what it was before, rather than changing in any meaningful way.
While we’re criticizing the story I might as well get to one of its most bungled elements, as well as one of the most poorly handled aspects of the entire series. The back cover of Order of The Phoenix promised to finally reveal why Voldemort tried to kill Harry, and the explanation is… because of a Prophecy! Because Harry is the Chosen One!
Okay, it’s very slightly more interesting than that glib summary makes it sound, in that the prophecy could have applied to more than one person and is to a large extent self-fulfilling, and Voldemort only acts on it the way he does because he only has half of it. But still: after all the mystery and buildup introducing a Chosen One aspect (Harry is literally called that in the last two books) is an extreme let down, as well as being completely pointless. The Death Eater’s MO is to kill people if they refuse an “offer” to join the cause, and it’s part of the prophecy that Harry’s parents have already refused to do so three times and joined the Order of The Phoenix instead, so couldn’t that have been the motivation behind the family’s destruction? You’d have to fudge it a bit to explain why Voldemort was after them personally, but surely that could be accomplished fairly easily.
Part of my problem with this plot development is that having introduced a prophecy, the book goes out of its way to un-prophecy the prophecy as much as it can. The prophecy is self-fulfilling! It only applied to Harry because Voldemort interpreted it as applying to him! Harry would have wanted to kill Voldemort anyway for Justice and shit! Essentially what we’re told is that yes, there’s a prophecy, but it’s actually not really all that important and things probably would have worked out much the same even if it had never existed. Which raises the obvious question of why the prophecy exists in the first place.
The series had always skirted around various stock fantasy tropes and ideas, but i introducing prophecy as a central element of the plot Order of The Phoenix dives head-first into cliche– despite what all the “ah, but you see, it’s really self-fulfilling” obfuscating would have you believe.
The Half-Blood Prince
The penultimate book starts with the wizarding world in a state of panic. Voldemort’s return is public knowledge, the corrupt leaders of the Ministry have been ousted and the new regime are taking the threat seriously. Relations between the Order of The Phoenix and the government are still strained, though, due to the heavy-handed tactics being used in the fight against Voldemort and also because the new Minister is a big poopy head (more on that in a bit).
When Harry arrives in school for his sixth year he’s recruited by Dumbledore for an important mission: delving into Voldemort’s background and origins in the hope that it will reveal a strategy to counter his quasi-immortality and finish him once and for all.
A while back I touched on morality and the simplistic depiction of the villains in the Harry Potter books, but I saved the real bulk of the discussion for this book, since it’s where the problems become most pronounced. In The Half-Blood Prince we get to discover Voldemort’s back-story, as well as the reason for why he’s so evil. And that explanation is really stupid, as it turns out.
So basically Voldemort’s descendants were great and powerful wizards with a notable penchant for dark magic; this was revealed in the second book when we found out he’s a descendant of Salazar Slytherin, but here we also discover that by the he was born the family line had descended into extreme poverty and obscurity. To make matters worse, Voldemort’s mother was a Squib (a witch or wizard born without the ability to perform magic), which regularly enraged her abusive father. One day Voldemom slipped a handsome muggle of high class a love potion and conceived a son under these extremely dubious circumstances. Eventually the spell was either broken or allowed to lapse in a moment of remorse, and Voldemort’s dad fucked off back to his mansion. Voldemom delivered baby Voldemort (or Tom Riddle, as he was known then) to an orphanage and swiftly died from illness.
By the time Dumbledore visits the orphanage to invite an eleven year old Tom Riddle to Hogwarts, he’s already evil, having discovered his powers unusually early and using them to terrorize and control. He’s also convinced that he’s inherited some sort of special destiny, has a raging superiority complex and is obsessed with the idea that death is something only the weak have to suffer through. At the age of eleven. When he later tracks down his family and discovers that he got his magic from his dead mother and her inbred poverty-stricken relatives it cements these ideas even more, setting him down the path that would lead him to become Lord Voldemort.
Which isn’t quite as shallow as “he’s evil because he was born evil”, but it’s almost as bad. When you try to drill down to what actual circumstances caused his turn to the dark side things quickly get sticky, because Voldemort and Harry have so many parallels that you can’t really pick anything out of his backstory that doesn’t also apply to Harry. The book itself makes a big deal out of the fact that Harry had his parents for the first year of his life, whereas Voldemort didn’t, but are we seriously going to trot out “because he’s an orphan” as an explanation for his villainy? And anyway, Harry didn’t remember his parents and knew as much about them as Voldemort did his, and he grew up in arguably worse circumstances being constantly belittled and neglected by the Dursleys. The orphan thing as well as the discovery that he was the heir to a once-glorious heritage might be more compelling, but it doesn’t explain why he’s already evil at eleven fucking years old.
If it seems like I’m harping on that last point a lot, it’s because it demonstrates how little the villains in these books are fleshed out as actual characters. It’s not fair to say that Rowling splits her cast into absolute good and absolute evil: characters on the “good” side of the equation are allowed to have a variety of flaws and failings, or to just be not very likable. The problem is that that nuance isn’t applied to Voldemort, his Death Eaters and anyone like Umbridge who the books decide are beyond redemption. With the sole exceptions of Snape (who was never a villain over the course of the series and the Malfoy family during the last book, the villains are to a man snarling, cackling sadists who do evil things because they like being evil, to the extent that you start wondering why any of them would ever want to work together.
The only real middle ground in terms of characters who are aren’t on the side of either the villains or the heroes (so functionally speaking Voldemort or Dumbledore) is Cornelius Fudge the Minister for Magic, and curiously this book keeps that dynamic going despite Fudge getting thrown out of office. Dumbledore and Harry both end up immediately taking a dislike to his replacement, for reasons that seem kind of petty. It’s true that the government under his watch begins taking some heavy-handed measures like imprisoning someone who was clearly acting under mind control and… well actually that’s the only nefarious thing they ever do. It really comes across like the actual reason Harry and the Good Guys turn against him is because he asks Harry to play up the whole “Chosen One” angle and swing round the Ministry every once in a while to reassure the public.
On the one hand yes, I can see why you wouldn’t want to do PR for a government whose actions you don’t agree with, but on the other hand surely having the entire magical government of Britain working to take down Voldemort instead of like twelve people and a secondary school principle would be to everyone’s advantage? Wouldn’t it be better to have an army of anti-Voldemort agents tracking down and destroying his magic immortality talismans instead of just Harry and one old man? Wouldn’t the current government, however imperfect, be better than a nightmarish dictatorship controlled by a genocidal murderer?
Despite these difficulties I did find the revelations of Voldemort’s history intriguing and interesting to read about. My memory of this book was a lot of long conversations, but in fact the story makes what amounts to gigantic dumps of exposition a lot more palatable by having Harry and Dumbledore experience various memories first-hand through wizardly means.
The other big plotline is Harry coming to suspect that his arch-enemies Malfoy and Snape (who turns out to be the titular Prince) are working for the Death Eaters to achieve something nefarious at Hogwarts. Over the course of the previous five books he’s suspected them both of working for the baddies multiple times; this time he turns out to be right, but no one will believe him.
The real interest here doesn’t come from Harry (who actually spends the book not doing a whole lot except failing to dig up incriminating evidence) but Draco Malfoy, who gets a much-needed shot of character development. As the book opens he’s been han ded an extremely important mission by Voldemort and is happy as a clam about the situation, but thanks to the prologue we the readers know that Voldemort doesn’t intend for Malfoy to succeed and gave him the job mostly as a way to punish his father, who severely bungled an attempt to nab the prophecy at the end of the last book and was arrested as a result. As the story goes on Harry catches little glimpses of this parallel storyline, which reveal that the plan isn’t going well and Malfoy is coming to the slow, crushing realization that he’s in way over his head, trapped between the worry that he’ll be caught in an attempt to carry out his mission and the certainty that he’ll be killed if he fails.
One of the questions the books hadn’t engaged with up to this point is why anyone would want to join Voldemort, unless it was for petty personal reasons like a desire for power. In Malfoy we get a look at the sort of person who’s practically been groomed from birth for the role, born into enormous privilege, spoiled from early childhood and fed a steady diet of poisonous wizard-supremacy dogma. Then he finally gets the chance to join The Cause and discovers that the people he’s grown up idolizing are far more terrifying than he ever imagined. The breaking point comes at the end of the book, when he’s about to complete his mission by assassinating Dumbledore only to discover that he can’t bring himself to commit murder.
This is all frankly way more compelling than anything in Harry’s own arc. If Rowling ever wanted to knock out a remix in the style of the two Twilight “from another perspective/gender-swapped” variants she could do worse than tell a highly condensed version of the series from Malfoy’s perspective. And maybe edit the ending so he doesn’t name his son Scorpio.
Half-Blood Prince culminates in a scene you may be familiar with from a profusion of memes based around a particular phrase:
(Googling for Harry Potter memes brings up a lot of weird shit, by the way)
Over the last few books Harry and co have discovered that asshole potions teacher Severus Snape has a decidedly murky past with the Death Eaters; Harry is suspicious as hell of him, Dumbledore insists he’s totes trustworthy because reasons, everyone else reluctantly goes with it but Harry is like “no he’s up to something”. Half-Blood Prince appears to confirm that Harry was right. The prologue seemingly establishes that he’s been working as a triple agent all along, pretending to work for Dumbledore by pretending to work for Voldemort while actually working for Voldemort by pretending to work for Dumbledore pretending to work for Voldemort. Then at the end he completes Malfoy’s mission by killing Dumbledore before taking off with the Death Eater squad that broke into Hogwarts as part of the plan.
The first time I read this I totally bought all of this. In hindsight, the fact that it’s established in Order of The Phoenix that Snape is highly skilled in the one ability that can counter Voldemort’s mind-reading powers should have been a bit of a clue.
The entire ending is pretty exciting, featuring students and teachers battling dark wizards in the corridors of Hogwarts and a named side character getting mauled by a werewolf. Following this up with Harry declaring that he’s skipping out on his final year at school to depower and take down Voldemort just cements the feeling that Shit Has Gotten Real.
The problem is that it’s gotten a little too real– I always thought it was a mistake to have both this book and the grand finale end with a big battle at Hogwarts. The school has been firmly established as the bastion of the good guys, Dumbledore’s domain and the one place Voldemort can’t attack
except for all the time he totally does. For the castle to come under assault should signal that the heroes’ darkest hour has arrived and their backs are against the wall, which is the sort of thing that can really only happen in your story once.
And with that, it’s time to talk about the final book in the series. But first:
Movie Break: David Yates Begins
The Order of The Phoenix movie marks the point where director David Yates took on the reigns of the franchise; he’d go on to direct the remaining three movies and is also helming the Fantastic Beasts movie, so he’s basically the main man when it comes to Harry Potter films. I gather that fans generally look favourably on him and tend to regard the final four movies as, if not a high point than a highly elevated plateau.
I’ve always found his output to be a mixed bag. On the one hand he wisely keeps most of the visual style established by Cuaron in the third movie while adding an interesting 1940s-esque “Blitz-era London by way of Henry Selick” aesthetic to the wizarding world that isn’t really suggested by the books, and which gets away from the somewhat boring medieval style. He also had a knack for knowing when to both add new scenes and make substantial alterations in order to take better advantage of the cinematic format; for example, Dumbledore’s funeral is replaced with a rather touching scene where all of the students and Hogwarts staff raise their wands together to dispel the Death Eater symbol hovering in the sky above Dumbledore’s body, which is a lot more memorable.
On the other hand I always found that the movies under Yates took on a lot of weird flaws. Peripheral events from the books are awkwardly inserted in the form of mumbled asides, characters tell jokes and then stand around awkwardly while the scene continues for several seconds too long, and the acting across the board takes on this stilted, wooden tone. I’m convinced that last point in particular must be down to Yates since it affects the entire cast, from the teenage actors to accomplished veteran thespians.
Because of that I find myself feeling very cold on the Yates movies. There’s a lot of good ideas in them, but they’re let down by the execution.
The Deathly Hallows
I still can’t get over how stupid that cover is.
Long-running series of anything have a notable tendency to fall down at the end, because as it turns out it’s a lot easier to build up all of these characters and plot arcs and themes than it is to bring it all to a satisfying conclusion. At the same time, fans’ expectations and excitement tend to be at their peak when the finale rolls around, so the writer’s work comes under the most intense scrutiny just as their gets really difficult.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows falls right into this trap. It’s not a complete disaster by any means, but it is a sloppy, deeply inconsistent ending with massive pacing issues.
Following on from the events of Half-Blood Prince, Harry now knows the secret of Voldemort’s quasi-immortality: six magical items called Horcruxes, which contain fragments of his soul. If they were all destroyed he could be killed once and for all, and Harry (joined by Ron and Hermione) has dedicated himself to seeking them out instead of returning to Hogwarts for his final year.
Before the quest can kick off Voldemort and his followers launch a surprise coup, toppling the Ministry in one fell swoop. All of a sudden the Order of the Phoenix is an underground resistance movement and Harry is the most wanted person in the wizarding world. And then the main characters faff around with tents for ages and eventually the book ends.
Sorry, I got a little punchy there.
The frustrating thing about Deathly Hallows is that on paper (no pun intended) it seems like it should work. All of the big mysteries that have been bubbling away in the background are answered, character arcs and romances come to their natural conclusions, Harry and Voldemort square off one more time, there’s a giant siege of Hogwarts in which tons of characters die. All good stuff.
And it doesn’t work. There are numerous reasons for this, but the big one is that way too much plot is left to be resolved in a single book. At the end of Half-Blood Prince Harry set out to find and destroy four Horcruxes (two of them were already destroyed) and kill Voldemort; the beginning of Deathly Hallows then introduces three more McGuffins in the form of the titular objects and also gets into Dumbledore’s backstory, and a whole lot more besides. Deathly Hallows keeps introducing needless complexity right up until the end; one of the final chapters starts getting into the back-story of two of the Hogwarts ghosts for some fucking reason.
All of that is compounded by the fact that Rowling tries to keep using the Hogwarts story format (have the characters pootle around going about their normal lives while stumbling on mysteries and nuggets of adventure every so often, until eventually the story reaches some sort of climax) even though it doesn’t actually work with the characters on the run and not in a central location. What this means in practice is that there’s a ton of dead air in the first half as Harry, Ron and Hermione wander around in the countryside trying to keep their heads down and having no clue where they’re supposed to go next. I get that this was meant to suggest a sense of hopelessness and despair, but that’s an idea that could have been conveyed far quicker.
Once the story picks up it suffers from a lack of focus and a sloppiness that was never present in the earlier books. For example, we find out that one of the Deathly Hallows is a special invisibility cloak; then it turns out it’s specifically Harry’s invisibility cloak that he’s had since the first book, and they can tell there’s something special about it because it never runs out of invisible-ness like normal cloaks. Except the idea that invisibility cloaks run out of juice has never been mentioned before. The entire business with the Hallow cloak seems to have been inserted just so there’d be three of them, and then the business with Harry’s cloak written in because introducing yet another new McGuffn would have strained the already-strained confined of the narrative.
A lot of the story feels like it was built with this sort of post-hoc rationalization, which is a level of messiness that makes me wonder if by this point Rowling had gotten sick of the whole thing and just wanted to get the last book over with instead of taking the time to actually plot the story out properly. There’s a sense of enjoyment in the earlier books, a feeling that the author loves these characters and this world and wants to spend time with them, that’s missing here.
Of all the unnecessary fat packed into the book, the revelations about Dumbledore’s history are the most pointless. Basically, it turns out that in his youth Dumbledore was besties with Grindelwald, a sort of proto-Voldemort whose defeat at Dumbledore’s hands had been mentioned several times over the course of the story. It turns out that both of them once espoused wizard-supremacist views quite similar to Voldemort’s ideals before they had a falling out over an incident that involved the death of Dumbledore’s sister.
I have a problem with this plot element for several reasons. The fact that Dumbeldore was a bit of an asshole decades before the beginning of the story isn’t actually as shocking or revealing as I think it’s supposed to be, particularly since by this point he’s rejected his old opinions as firmly as anyone possibly could. Much like with Harry’s dad, the end result is that everyone ends up thinking Dumbledore is as just as much of a swell guy as he was before, and the guff with his dead sister is so inconsequential I didn’t even remember the character existed. The entire business is meant to be this big Growing Up moment where Harry discovers that his idolized father figure was actually a flawed human being, but the story chickens out on actually going through with it.
Things pick up once he siege of Hogwarts begins. Romantic sub-plots come to fruition, there are exciting plot twists (Harry has a fragment of Voldemort’s soul in him! Snape was in love with Harry’s mom and has secretly been a good guy all along!) and some beloved characters are shockingly killed.
Then the final confrontation between Harry and Voldemort is a confusing mess where Harry wins because he rules lawyers Voldemort on the subject of wand ownership mechanics. Cut to 19 years later and everyone is married and have had kids with stupid names.
That’s about all I have to say about the book itself, but there’s another topic we need to discuss. Some time after the book’s release Rowling announced at a fan event that Dumbledore is gay and had been in love with Grindelwald, which got a lot of people in a tizzy for various reasons. Now, the contention is often that she made this up after the fact, and to be completely fair I don’t think that’s true– she apparently told David Yates about it when one of the movie scripts mentioned Dumbledore having a past relationship with a woman, before saying anything in public, so it seems that it wasn’t some sort of on the spot whim.
However, that doesn’t make the situation any less infuriating. In fact it’s arguably worse, because if Rowling came up with the idea of Dumbledore being gay during the early development phase of the series as she’s claimed, then why is that never mentioned? The last book spends a lot of time talking about his friendship with Gindelwald, wouldn’t it have made sense to mention that Dumbledore was actually in love with him?
Things get even worse if you consider another statement Rowling has made about homosexuality in the Harry Potter books, which is frankly far more irritating than the Dumbledore thing. During an appearance on a fan podcast she claimed that in the wizarding world sexual orientation isn’t as big a deal to bigots as blood status, which would seem to imply that homosexuality isn’t as taboo in Wizardland as it is in the real world.
So then why aren’t there any gay characters in the books? This world is more tolerant of homosexuality, but you’ve got this massive expansive cast, including tons of teenagers hormoning it up and exploring romance for the first time, and every single one is straight as an arrow except for one guy whose orientation is so non-obvious that the author herself had to confirm it? What the fuck?
If we were talking about any other author you could argue that they might have wanted to make the story more diverse in terms of sexuality, but were prevented from doing so by the publisher. Rowling doesn’t get that excuse; by the time the series was halfway over it had already reached the sort of meteoric success that buys you a huge amount of bargaining power. If she wanted to have gay characters, she could have had them.
To my mind this goes beyond a mere writing flaw and becomes a moral failing on Rowling’s part. The Harry Potter novels are one of the most visible and popular entertainment properties in history, having visible gay character would have done wonders for representation and possibly shattered the taboo against depicting LGBT characters in children’s entertainment.
Long story short, when you’re given a megaphone that can reach the entire world, what you choose to say with it reflects on you as a person.
Movie Break: The Continuing Adventures of David Yates (or, An Unfortunate Trend is Established)
Eight movies? But there are only seven books! WHAT IS GOING ON
So someone at Warner Bros. looked at the gigantic stacks of cash-money the Harry Potter movies were making, realized they didn’t have any other big franchises, and had a lightbulb idea: why not split the final movie into two parts and keep the Potter money party going for one more year?
As you may have noticed, a lot of other studio executives noticed and it’s now the done thing to split up the final installment in your series of adaptations regardless of whether the source material had enough content to actually warrant it.
In the case of Deathly Hallows I’m actually going to say the decision was somewhat more justified. Like I said, the book is crammed with too many plotlines, and having four hours to work with instead of two and a half at the most lets the story breathe a lot better. In particular, the first movie largely focuses on the Deathly Hallows themselves while the second tackles the bulk of the Horcrux-destroying and the battle of Hogwarts.
Part 1 is by far the stronger of the two. It’s a slow, surprisingly meditative story that features some really gorgeous cinematography as Our Heroes traipse through desolate fields and forests in an attempt to keep under the notice of the New Voldemort Order. The movie really pushes the dystopian overtones, conjuring a potent atmosphere of doom. The problems with Yates’ direction are still present, but otherwise I’d say this is the second strongest
Part 2 is a lot less successful, largely due to problems inherent in the story being adapted. David Yates’ knack for switching up parts of the book also fails him badly here, as the final fight with Voldemort is in some aspects tightened up (the granular mechanics of who owns the Elder Wand and the requirement that you have photographic recollection of the end of Half-Blood Prince is severely lessened) but also has a whole lot of pointless spectacle added in as Harry and Voldemort wrastle and fire magic at each other for ages, in contrast to how they each only use a single spell originally.
Voldemort’s actual death also feels anticlimactic compared to how it’s described in the book, and Yates made the weird decision to have Voldemort and the Death Eaters explode into ash when killed instead of just, you know, dying. This feels like a particularly strong misstep considering how Voldemort’s entire Thing is that he fears death, so ending up as a mere corpse at the end is the ultimate sign of his downfall.
So let’s get back to those questions.
Are the books any good?
Philosopher’s Stone is a genuinely well-constructed and exciting children’s fantasy novel that I’ll go to bat for as a quality book. The next two are saved from total mediocrity only by happening to take place in the world established by their predecessor.
Books four through six objectively suffer from huge problems in plotting and characterization, but even accounting for nostalgia I think they tell both interesting stand-alone stories as well as a compelling on-going plot. They’re basically airport novels: very readable in spite (or maybe because of) not actually being very well written.
Book seven is a mess. There’s really nothing more to say about it.
Do they deserve their success?
In a sense this question is kind of pointless; most things that achieve Potter levels of fame and monetary success do so because of a vast array of factors came together at the right time, many of which the creator themselves had little control over. Given how much luck it involves, asking if properties like this deserve their success is kind of like asking if someone “deserved” to win the lottery.
But let’s turn the question around a bit and turn it into one that’s a bit more useful: do the books deserve the acclaim they’ve been given? After all, the Potter books aren’t just popular– they’re also frequently showered with praise by mainstream reviewers and critics, and have attracted a fanbase that will insist that the books are masterpieces. And I’m going to say no, they don’t even come close to being close to deserving that sort of praise.
But there’s a flipside to that answer. The books’ massive success has attracted a huge amount of scorn (says the person who just spent 15,000 words picking them apart) and I also find some of the criticism on the furthest ultra-negative end of the scale to be over the top. I’ll never argue with anyone who thinks the books are terrible, but are they The Worst Ever? Hell, are they as bad as some of the bullshit adult fantasy that’s been featured right here on this very blog? Not even close.
Why were they so popular?
I’ve touched on this topic a number of times, but to summarize: they take familiar, easily digestible fantasy tropes and wrap them up in the Boarding School Story genre that was once extremely popular and therefore presumably appealing to a mass audience, the world is interesting and makes a superficial show of coherence and depth, the over-arching narrative runs on Big Intriguing Mysteries that keep your attention, and the tone got darker as the audience grew up with the books.
So that’s that. You may assume that now that the definitive opinion has been published the franchise will quickly fade into obscurity, its purpose served, but I have a feeling that won’t happen. Warner Bros. are obviously invested in keeping the movie franchise going until the end of time and between shepherding the play into existence and writing the Fantastic Beasts movie it seems JK Rowling isn’t finished with her creation. I’d bet a modest amount of money that we’ll eventually see new books published.
Here’s what I’d like to see happen: give the franchise to a better writer. Let another author take the reigns. That’s pretty much the only Harry Potter related anything that would actually excite me.
Apart from this, I mean.