Sunday, 16 March 2008

An Eighth Harry Potter Film

This month's announcement that Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows would be made into two films has provoked much discussion. There are those who think it is a cynical money-grubbing move from Warner Brothers, while others welcome the fact that a novel of this length will get more proper treatment and suffer fewer cuts than some of the other films. There are also those who simply do not want the magic to end.

Apart from the problem that by the time they get around to making Deathly Hallows II both Emma Watson and Bonnie Wright will be old enough to be married and pregnant, and some of the older actors may have retired or died, it's actually not a bad idea.

One wonders if, somewhere in the Warner Brothers vaults, complete versions of all the books exist, just waiting for the right moment to re-issue the whole series as 'director's cut' editions. This would, in part explain why Rick Mayle was credited as Peeves for several of the films, even though he did not appear. (IMDB has now removed him from the list of credits). However, his scenes, apparently, were made and must still exist somewhere.

One also thinks of other Hollywood stories. When David Lean made Doctor Zhivago in the 1960s, the story was that the whole mammoth book was turned into a screenplay and filmed, resulting in a film that ran some 24 hours. From that pile of celluloid, the existing film was carved. There is also the story about the 1970s films The Three Musketeers and The Return of the Three Musketeers. It was said that they shot both films as one film and then split the results in two. The controversy was that the actors had been contracted to make one film and had been conned into making two for the price of one.

Whether or not either of these stories is true, it does suggest that there is enough Harry Potter material on film to bring out new versions of the existing films.

Even if there isn't, you can bet that someone in Hollywood is already considering the possibility of bringing out a "new" version of the whole series - complete with every chapter and scene - for television.

We should live so long.

Saturday, 5 January 2008

A good year

A Year in the Life of J K Rowling has been showing over the past few weeks, and I encourage everyone who has an opinion of Harry Potter to see it.

While there are few surprises, what comes across is a very genuine, warm person who has worked very hard and is doing her best to come to terms with global fame and great wealth. On the evidence of the film, she is succeeding admirably.

Oscar Wilde once exclaimed 'Heaven save me from my disciples' and one can imagine J K Rowling feeling that way as she is surrounded by children with painted on lightning scars, girls dressed in Beaubaton school uniforms and pointed hats.

That's actually unfair, as Jo seems more at home surrounded by children than she does in the business meetings. She takes her writing seriously, but appears somewhat overwhelmed when it comes to films, theme parks and merchandise.

Her charitable work is also featured and it is something she obviously takes very seriously.

One of the most human and endearing scenes - apart from her tearfully revisiting the apartment where she wrote The Philosopher's Stone to discover a full set of Harry Potter books on the shelves of the new tenants - was when she sketched out the family trees with all the children of the Hogwart's children. She likened the activity to a runner running beyond the finish line and said that she needed to know how these things turned out. To me, this indicated her real concern for her readers and empathy with them.

J K Rowling seems to be a very private person who has been thrust into a very public life. Her husband speaks of her self-contained and private nature. Her sense of duty to her readers and Harry Potter fans motivates her punishing schedule of readings and book signings, and she seems to carry them out with good grace.

It's easy to be cynical and say, 'Well, she can afford to,' but the point is, she can afford not to, but does.

Sunday, 9 December 2007

Character Under Pressure

In all the books, Harry is a hero because he is able to dig deep into his sources of courage, wit and physical strength when he needs to. It is obvious that he is not a natural hero, nor is he fully comfortable with his fame. He knows that to some his fame is notoriety, and J K Rowling has done well to remind readers and viewers in the celebrity age of the difference between the two.

From his first confrontation with Voldemort in The Philosopher's Stone to his final destruction of him in The Deathly Hallows, Harry's efforts against Voldemort have been as much on behalf of his friends as in revenge for the death of his parents. While he has not tempered his actions - the stabbing of Tom Riddle's diary with the basilisk tooth was at once inspired and murderously violent - he is not given to blind, vengeful furies. His thoughts leading up to his actions are often impulsive and the product of rage, but when it comes to the crunch, he acts with a clearer vision.

In The Prisoner of Azkaban, we see Harry's more considered - if ultimately ineffective - treatment of Peter Pettigrew, insisting that he be handed over for trial and shipment to Azkaban, rather than being vapourised in the Screaming Shack.

Like all people with talent - whether musical, sporting, dramatic, literary or whatever - Harry, too, has his own favourite moves. That Voldemort hasn't learned this is a result of his own hubris. In the final confrontation, Voldemort is truly at bay. He is facing a Harry Potter that he believes to have killed already. His loyal aids are dead, including his favourite, Bellatrix Lestrange. Voldemort is, much like Macbeth, taking his last desperate throw, using all his remaining strength.

Harry, however, has passed to a new plane where he is no longer afraid of death, having faced it. There is nothing more Voldemort can do to him, and he knows it. His knowledge of the prophecy, and his awareness of the nature of the transference of the Elder Wand, gives him the serenity of mind to realise that all that is necessary in the final exchange is his own, tried and proven, spell, Expelliarmus!.

It is enough to defeat Voldemort. Harry has proved he not a killer, but one who uses his wits as well as his magical abilities. He has not been corrupted by his experiences, and this is why his friends, Hermione, Neville, Luna, all the Weasleys, and others have remained loyal to him.

Wednesday, 24 October 2007

When books are written

It’s curious that no one suspected Dumbldore was gay. We saw him on the first page of The Philosopher’s Stone and in the final chapters of The Deathly Hallows, and no one caught on. Not a whisper of suspicion; not a hint of scandal.

Dumbledore’s age has never been clearly explained. His friendship with Nicolas Flamel suggests that he, too, might be extraordinarily old. However, when he speaks of his parents, his sister, and his – still living – brother, he seems more bounded by the conventional three score years and ten.

So what are we to make of J K Rowling’s Carnegie Hall revelation?

This is a much more knotty problem than might first be supposed, because it raises the question that everyone who majored in English Literature will be well aware of: when does a writer (or other artist) let go of his work?

Received wisdom acknowledges that there are more things in the creative artist’s mind surrounding a work than make it to the page (or canvas). Given that, it’s a logical step to assume that there is legitimately more to be said about a work than has actually been made public. And this is where the debate begins.

There are those who maintain that once a work has been published, the author has no further legitimate input. Who knows what Shakespeare said in the pub after the first performance of Hamlet? Or what Michelangelo said in the bistro after Julius II had inspected the Sistine Chapel ceiling?

And that’s the point: Whatever J K Rowling says about her characters from 21 July 2007 on doesn’t really matter, because they don’t change the books. Should the books survive, it’s doubtful that her comments will be anything more than a footnote in someone’s obscure dissertation.

This does not prevent writers from having some fun, and perhaps this is what Jo is doing. William Faulkner (does anyone actually read Faulkner anymore?) was notorious for this. A visiting writer asking about a character in his interminable Yoknapatawpha series was told, “Well, his uncle was a bit that way. He ran off to join the circus when he was twelve. . ." The young writer went through the whole series again, but there was no uncle and no circus; just an old man having some fun.

So, is Dumbledore gay? Probably not, actually. Someone would have discovered it long before J K Rowling decided to have him come out of the Room of Requirement. Besides, I always thought he was rather sweet on Professor Sprout.

Thursday, 4 October 2007

Harry Potter and the Spirit of Youth

Harry’s indomitable spirit is one of the keys to his appeal, and the appeal of the books. He is a real adolescent, moving from insecurity, to anger to adulthood, and along the way becoming determined, witty and even crusading.

Harry’s sense of justice and moral indignation is familiar to all teenagers who read the books – and to adults who remember this period of their lives. Things that are unfair outrage Harry. He is impulsive, and as Dumbledore rightly recognizes, needs the cool head of Hermione to keep him in check.

At the same time, Harry is a lover of tradition. He is uncertain of change – the exception being his conviction that anything is better than living with the Dursleys. To Harry, Hogwarts and Dumbledore are inseparable, and this is reinforced by his rescuer, Hagrid, who steadfastly maintains that Dumbledore is the best headmaster Hogwarts has ever had. This is most clearly demonstrated in The Chamber of Secrets when Harry’s loyalty is sufficient to summon Fawkes, the phoenix.

However, as Harry matures through the books, he is able to see the other characters in more than the black and white terms of childhood. J K Rawling underlines this when she comments that people aren’t all good or all bad. It is this, of course, what makes life tricky to understand, as our childhood notions would very much like to put people in tidy boxes.

The mutability of the Malfoys from absolute villains to disenfranchised parents concerned for their son, is an obvious case in point. Also critical is Peter Pettigrew’s instant of hesitation that allows Harry to escape.

Dumbledore’s eulogy for Cedric Diggory at the end of The Goblet of Fire is something of a climax to the series. He is praising those qualities of youth that Cedric exemplified, and his phrase, “fierce friend” speaks volumes about the nature of youth.

That youth should be dealt with honestly is one of the greatest sub-texts of the series. When adults do not, they succeed only in turning their children in copies, not improvements, of themselves.

Recognition of this is one of J K Rowling’s wisest observations and the way she communicates this to a youthful audience, one of her greatest accomplishments.

Sunday, 30 September 2007

Harry Potter and the Egalitarian Spirit

One of the little discussed aspects of the Harry Potter books is also one of the main keys to their success: the basic equality of the characters.

This is no mean achievement in that the main setting for the series is an English boarding school. However, Hogwarts is no ordinary boarding school, nor are the students in any real sense ‘ordinary.’ However, apart from some very basic distinctions, the world of the Potter chronicles is very much a meritocracy.

We know only a few things about the families of the children at the school: Hermione’s completely muggle. Her parents are dentists, and can be assumed to have a comfortable, but not extravagant living – they are British dentists, not American ones, and could even be employed by the National Health Service.

The Weasleys are certainly not wealthy, and there are many cruel remarks made about their “poverty” though they cannot be in any way said to be living in poverty. They have to work hard and make do, but they are still surviving on the salary of Mr Weasley alone – something that may not be true of Hermione’s family, both of whom work. The Weasleys are also pure-bloods.

Harry Potter himself has a muggle mother and wizard father, so in the three main characters, we have all the combinations. Harry does have a great deal of money and earns more from his achievement in the tri-wizard tournament, but he has little regard for money apart from the good it can do for other people. His experiences at the hands of the Dursleys means that he knows just how much generosity and kindness can mean to people who need it.

Of the other student families, we know very little. We know that Neville Longbottom comes from a well-respected family, but there is no evidence of wealth, and Neville is unprepossessing and often a source of good-natured amusement.

We suspect that the Malfoys are wealthy, and see that Lucius Malfoy buys the latest broomstick for the Slitherin quidditch team, but the Malfoys’s brand of snobbery is not based on money, but on power. The source of that power – apart from associations with you know who – is unclear, though Lucius seems to spend a lot of time at the Ministry of Magic.

Apart from these very sketchy inferences, the position of the students and other characters are largely based on ability and moral courage, rather than on inherited position or wealth. J K Rowling’s position appears to be that she considers character to be of more importance than either position or wealth, and we, as readers, respond to that attitude, finding ourselves admiring the virtues of honesty, loyalty, courage, friendship, dedication to duty, and love in the various characters, regardless how eccentric.

Just how J K Rowling gets us to admire and like characters as curious as Lupin, Tonks, Hagrid, Luna Lovegrove and others is part of her art.

Monday, 17 September 2007

Harry Potter and the Question of Religion – Part 1

This topic will be in several parts as the Harry Potter stories are laced with religious references, myths, stories and ideas.

I want to offer first a few thoughts about whether there is justification for religious outrage at these stories about witches, wizards, ghosts and other supernatural phenomenon.

Let me begin with a story about when I was a teacher. I was teaching at a girls’ school and had set a series of ghost stories as a class reader. The books had been taught at the school before and comprised a selection of Henry James, Somerset Maugham, M R James, Sheridan LeFanu, Edgar Allen Poe and tales by other well-respected writers. These weren’t driller-killer stories.

After one lesson, I found one of the girl’s mother waiting to speak to me.

“I’m not having my daughter reading this book!” she exclaimed. “We’re a Christian family and don’t believe in ghosts and other such supernatural things.”

I let her spill it all out, which took several minutes. When she had finished, I said:

“Very well. Let’s go see the head mistress together.”

“What? Why?” she asked in some surprise.

“To arrange to have your daughter withdrawn from the school,” I replied.

This stopped her.


“Because, if I can’t teach stories with ghosts, I can’t teach her Julius Caesar. I can’t teach her Richard III. I can’t teach her Macbeth. I can’t teach her Hamlet. If I can’t teach her those texts, there is no way that she will get her GCSE examinations, her “A” levels or get into university, so you may as well take her out of school now.”

The mother went home to reconsider and I never heard about it again.

Stories with ghosts and witches and magic are part of the wonder of the culture of the world. They are stories, and when regarded and taught as stories, they are fun and fantastical and provide much amusement, and some chills, too.

Regarded as such, they do little, if any damage to anyone. Like all things, they can be misused. Teaching that Harry Potter was a real boy and that the dark lord known as Voldemort does exist and is waging a secret war in a hidden world is something else altogether.

I’ll talk about evil in another article, but my point here is that read in the way that it’s intended, there’s little harm – and arguably a deal of good – to be found in reading the Harry Potter stories.