Sunday, July 22, 2007

Oh no! Not Harry Potter Again!

Confession No. 1: I've never read a Harry Potter book. I tried, I really tried. My friend Colin in Germany, a man in his 70's and very well read, thinks the Potter books are the best thing since strudel. So I tried the first book, which was subtitled The Sorcerer's Stone in the United States because the publisher thought Americans were too stupid to understand that The Philosopher's Stone is an important ingredient for alchemy. Or maybe because it was because they considered it just a children's book until adults got interested. I tried to read it, I really did, but the characters and the plot never grabbed me. Perhaps it was because I opened it on a flight to India when my mind was on more exotic matters.

Confession No. 2: I went to see "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" last night, the fifth film of the now seven-book series, and I missed many of the good lines and references because (1) I am growing more deaf by the day, and (2) my memory is so poor that I've forgotten many of the characters and events referred to. It's like a continuing soap opera, and if you missed the beginning it will be all ancient Greek to you (one of the 63 languages into which the novels of J.K. Rowling have been translated, along with Hindi and Latin). The consensus of opinion seems to be that the books are better than the movies (isn't that always the case?). And so if I'd read the book it would all have made perfect sense.

What interests me more than the stories, however, is the Harry Potter Phenomenon. After the movie, I walked across to the Bookshop Santa Cruz where preparations for the midnight sale of the final installment of the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, were in full swing. Over two hours before the deadline, the store was packed with adults and (mostly) kids dressed like professors of wizardry, villains, and students at Hogwarts School. There was a variety of amusements to keep the fans occupied before the cartons of books, stamped "Do Not Open Before July 21, 2007" were torn open and books distributed to the 1,800 who had paid in advance and now had to wait in line until the witching hour. One teen arrived over 15 hours early. My suspicion is that the publisher (Scholastic Press, a respectable house specializing in educational books) and the bookshop were responding to the Harry Potter phenomenon rather than generating it. The scene in Santa Cruz, at the Bookshop and also at Borders down the street, was repeated all over the world, in India and Thailand as well as in England and France (where an English translation of an earlier installment topped the book charts for a time, a feat unheard of before Harry).

What can I say that hasn't been said. J.K. (for Joanne Kathleen, because the publisher wanted a unisex name) Rowling, a Scottish writer in her early 40's, conceived the story in 1990 and published the first installment ten years ago. Her books have sold over 325 million copies worldwide and she is now the wealthiest living author, richer by far than the Queen of England. Teens buying the book early this morning have grown up with her characters and identify with their coming of age saga. Adults, perhaps, are nostalgic for a simpler time, when good and evil were clearly defined and the path to heroism was paved with good intentions. Harry's world is one in which the magical coexists with the mundane world of the Muggles (you and me without any extraordinary powers), but just outside its ken. To get there, you take the train from platform 9 3/4, inbetween 9 and 10 (but only seen by a wizard's eye).

But, as many commentators have observed, the older Harry and his cohort become in the novels, which each cover a year at Hogwarts, the darker the plots become. Just like growing up. When we're young, life is like a fairy tale (and we know how drowned in psychological significance these can be). As we mature, life becomes more complex, more suffused with nuance. Decisions are harder to come by. Nothing is as simple as it once seemed. In "The Order of the Phoenix," Harry is angry much of the time. The experiences he has, in the world and at school, border on the absurd, and he is forced to make sense of them, which means to deny truths he took for granted. What you see is NOT what you get. Harry has his first kiss, and we know that the 16-year-old is awakening to his own sexuality. The movie and the final book, according to its reviews, show a mysterious connection between Harry and his nemesis, the evil Lord Voldemort. I think it's not too far-fetched to believe that Rowling may be telling her readers that evil might be the shadow side of good and not the absolute antithesis.

Right-wing Christians and their army of true believers are terribly upset by Harry and the idea that well-trained your wizards might battle evil to a standstill without the intervention of God and his lieutenant, Jesus Christ. These are the same folks who are threatened by Halloween and even by the personification of goodness in Santa Claus at Christmas time. The John Birch Society, which saw Commies under every bed during the 1950's and 1960's, apparently is just as vigilant now about wizards and magicians. Certainly the story encourages a healthy disrespect for authority. In the new film, Imedlda Staunton (nominated for an Oscar for her performance in "Vera Drake") portrays an evil bureaucratic villain who is equal parts Jackie Kennedy, Margaret Thatcher (Rowling's stories and their filmed versions are very British) and George Bush (am I stretching too far?). The message is clear: "Question Authority" (or you might die).

How the younger readers will react to the accumulation of death in the Harry Potter saga is another question (and there were plenty of prepubescent fans at the late-night buy-the-book party yesterday. Rowling has confessed to an fascination at a young age with the writings of Jessica Mitford, a socialist activist and author of The American Way of Death, an exposé of funeral practices. Her oldest daughter is named Jessica. When Rowling was writing the first Harry Potter installment, her mother died. She once told an interviewer, who asked about her mother:
My books are largely about death. They open with the death of Harry's parents. There is Voldemort's obsession with conquering death and his quest for immortality at any price, the goal of anyone with magic. I so understand why Voldemort wants to conquer death. We're all frightened of it.
While researching the Potter Phenomena, I learned about the death of Dumbledore, head of Hogwarts, in book six, and before The Deathly Hallows was released, spoilers were posted on the internet which revealed who dies at the end and who is saved. Suffice it to say that someone's favorite character is sure to meet an untimely end. In some places around the world, counselors were at the ready to speak with children traumatized by this. Clearly, we are not dealing with a normal pop culture phenomenon here.

A friend today, as I have in the past, turned up her nose at the entire Harry Potter phenomenon as something akin to hula hoops or maybe even Pet Rocks. A flash in the pan. But ten years of Harry is not a flash, and teens today are measuring their youth by Harry just as some of us did with J.D. Salinger's Holden Caulfield, as well as the songs of Bill Haley, Elvis and the Beatles, or perhaps movies like "Easy Rider" and "The Graduate." Young people today, so the story goes, don't read. Certainly the students I taught five years ago had a general aversion to books and reading. But now Harry Potter has brought a whole generation back to the book store and the library. Will they graduate, with Harry, to some more substantial reading, perhaps Melville or Kafka? That remains to be seen.

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