Friday, July 22, 2016

Re-reading HBP and DH

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, the sixth Harry Potter book by J.K. Rowling, came out in 2005; the movie based on it, in 2009. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the concluding installment in the seven-book series, came out in 2007; its movie adaptation was split into two parts, released in 2010 and 2011.

At the time those books and movies came out, I was in the full flush of Harry Potter fandom. My first exposure to the series came in 2001, when the first HP movie (US title Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone), directed by blockbuster filmmaker Chris Columbus, was coming out in theaters. I was then a parish pastor, only a little more than a year out of the seminary, serving my first congregation in the Kansas City area. I had never read the books and really didn't know anything about them. One of my parishioners, a father of two small children (I baptized his third), with whom I shared a love of movies, asked me to have a look at the new Harry Potter movie and let him know whether I thought it would be OK for his kids to see it. I remember him enthusiastically trying to explain what the series was about; he had evidently read the books (there were four of them at that point; Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire had only recently come out) and thought they were pretty cool. So on his recommendation, I saw Sorcerer's Stone and was able to report that there was nothing in it that I would consider a spiritual danger to his kids; it was harmless fantasy, a little plot-heavy and episodic, with cheap-looking special effects but an impressive cast and a bit of spookiness, but mostly just kid-friendly entertainment.

I didn't actually notice at the time that I had just had my first encounter with a wizard who would capture my imagination in a big way. The penny didn't drop until sometime the following year, before the sequel film, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, opened in theaters. During the summer of 2002, a pastoral call led me to Yuma, Ariz., where I spotted a half-price set of paperbacks of the first four Harry Potter books at an Albertson's supermarket. It seemed like a good deal, and with the media already buzzing with anticipation of the second HP movie, I decided it was time for me to get better acquainted with the boy wizard. I read the first book, and was struck by what a perfect little specimen it was, successful on every level - even if, like the movie I only vaguely remembered, a bit loose and episodic in its plotting. I had recently read a bunch of Dickens novels, and it seemed to appeal to me on a similar level, with its teeming crowd of whimsical characters and a sense of something serious underlying its veneer of pure fun. I plowed rapidly through the second and third books, noticing the quality of their author's work seemed to mature noticeably with each volume, along with her youthful characters and the seriousness of the situation they were in. Book three, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, was a little less economical than the first two. And then there was Goblet, and I was just blown away.

As soon as I read it, I started reading the series over again. I made sure I got to the Chamber movie as soon as it came out. The HP movies, together with the Lord of the Rings trilogy, became the seed of my first DVD collection. And I began to do the fan thing, joining other fans in various online forums to discuss and analyze what we had read and seen, and to gossip and prognosticate about what was yet to come. I ended up becoming "Robbie Fischer," a regular contributor to MuggleNet, with a book review column, a fan-fiction column, and a bunch of HP-related editorials to my credit.

At the height of my enthusiasm for HP, I did some weird things. For one thing, I read one of the books in Spanish, and inductively learned a lot of Spanish that way. I alternated between watching the HP and LOTR DVDs, turn and turn about, in doses of arbitrary length (basically, a little each night before I was too tired to keep my eyes open), and to make things interesting, I watched them with English subtitles and Spanish or French dubbing, or in English with Spanish or French subtitles, and then with both dubbing and subtitles in Spanish or French, etc. Also, I bought a bunch of blank tapes and recorded myself reading all four books aloud (eventually adding the fifth, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, when it was released), and listening to the tapes during my daily commute and on long car trips. If I may be forgiven for saying so, I did a pretty good job reading them, acting out the characters' lines with distinctive voices and all. I put a lot of mileage on those tapes, and in the process, got to know the first four or five books almost by heart.

By the advent of Prince, I was living in the St. Louis area, no longer in the ministry, but I had connected with a couple other local fans. One of them actually dragged me with her to a "MuggleCast" live podcast at the main branch of the St. Louis County Library. When the last two HP books came out, I lined up with literally thousands of other people at the Borders Bookstore in Brentwood, Mo. to buy my copy right at their midnight release. In at least the case of Hallows, I went immediately from the bookstore to the home of my fan friends to take part in a "read-in," though we weren't able to stay awake long enough to finish the books in one sitting. And of course, I didn't miss a local midnight premiere of any of the HP movies from Chamber on, seeing each one multiple times on the big screen and, if I could afford it, splurging on the deluxe-edition DVD, with extra-extra features. Each time a new book or movie came out, I made a point of re-reading the entire series up to that point.

The insanity has cooled a bit since then. Someone on the MuggleNet staff still sends me the minutes of their monthly staff web-meeting, though I haven't attended one in ages. I stopped writing new editorials and fan-fic-column episodes, partly because a lot of what drove them was speculation about what was yet to come - which, as far as the main sequence of HP novels is concerned, is all over now. I kept contributing book reviews, because I thought that was the most important thing I could contribute to the fandom - to this day, I blog a review of every book I read and, in many cases, apply the question "Why would a fan of Harry Potter like this?" as I do. I've gradually lost touch with the mechanism of getting those reviews posted on MuggleNet, partly because the website changed platforms several times and I haven't been able to keep up with the posting protocols, and partly because the management's decision to open its book review forum to multiple reviewers devalued my contribution to it. Currently the staff at MuggleNet is about a year and a half behind on posting the last several reviews I emailed to them, so I sense we're drifting apart. And that's all right with me, since my "fort made of books" lives on in this blog.

Harry Potter books still occupy a place of honor in my collection of favorite books that I don't plan to sell or give away. But it has been quite some time since I re-read any of the Harry Potter books. Indeed, I don't often re-read any book, once I have gotten through it and written a review. There are exceptions; for example, I've been through John Bellairs' The Face in the Frost several times, and I've made it through Patrick O'Brian's 20-book "Aubreyiad" a couple times. But generally, even the books on that "all-time favorites" shelf just sit there, warming my heart with good memories whenever I see them, and mellowing in my recollection until I can see a film adaptation of one of them (like the recent BBC miniseries based on Susannah Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell) and not be particularly disturbed by differences between the book and the film. I remember the struggle of schooling myself to like the Harry Potter movies when I was vividly aware of their infidelity to the source material; it makes me think 15 years (like in the case of the Clarke book) might be the right interval between reading the book and seeing the movie. But how about doing it the other way around?

Well, all seven Harry Potter books have all been out for a few years, and so have all eight of the movies based on them. Until this week, I had seen all the movies since I read any of the books; some of them I had seen, at least in part, many times, thanks to the mixed blessing of cable TV, which always seems to be playing a Harry Potter movie on some channel or at some time of day, and sometimes offers holiday-weekend Harry Potter marathons. The series has reached that tipping-point between vintage and popularity when you start to notice interesting things like which movie always seems to be accidentally-on-purpose left out of the marathon, which movie you always seem to catch only the last half of or less as opposed to the whole thing, and which scenes previously seen only in the "deleted scenes" bonus features of the DVD are now fully integrated with the version repeated endlessly on cable. Meanwhile, not having read any of the books since the run-up to the last movie, when you zipped through the whole series once more just to be prepared, you gradually stop noticing things like which characters were merged together or omitted altogether, which plot developments were radically simplified or moved around, which things the filmmakers did to try to open up the cinematic potential of the story (or perhaps just to compress it for time) actually did violence to the original work - in short, you increasingly, and perhaps mercifully, forget all the ways and reasons the movie isn't as good as the book. Because, also increasingly, but I won't say mercifully, your knowledge of the movie has replaced your memory of the book.

For reasons I think I have made clear, this phenomenon has affected me mostly in connection with the last two books. As I explained above, I never immersed myself in Prince or Hallows as much as in the first five books. I didn't listen to a recording of my own voice reading them aloud until I had them all but memorized. If I re-read them at all, after the first time or two through them immediately after their release, it was only to refresh my memory before one of the last three HP movies came out. And once the last movie was out, there was no more call for such a review. What it all boils down to is the fact that, before I re-read these last two HP books this week, I had pretty much forgotten why and to what extent the last three HP movies fell short of them. So, approaching them from the (for me) unusual position of knowing the movies better than the books, it was a pleasant surprise. I found not only that the movies are not as good as the books (which is so nearly universally true of movies based on books that it verges on meaninglessness), but more interestingly, that the books are way better than the movies.

You probably don't think that last statement was more interesting than the one I contrasted it with. But if you tried the same experiment, under the same conditions, you might have the same surprise. Without being boring and pedantic and listing in detail all the ways the books are better, I just want to register the observation and suggest that you test it for yourself.

I get why the filmmakers did what they did with the movies. Like I said, they simultaneously had to do that "opening up" I spoke of, as well as shrinking down. Books and movies are different things, and anyone who criticizes a movie for not being exactly like the book that inspired it is mostly confessing to a failure to understand this. But some attempts both to "open up" and to "shrink down" are disastrous. In fact, after the danger of altering the story out of recognition to suit a box-office star without whom the production might not have been funded, the "opening" and "shrinking" aspects of book-to-film adaptation are probably the highest-risk factors leading to a bad movie being based on a good book.

You do have to shrink the material (i.e., cut out a lot of dialogue, characters, scenes, plot threads, etc.), otherwise the film will last 12 hours and nobody will sit through it. I have seen this kind of movie; it was word-for-word adaptation of the Gospel According to St. John, narrated by Brian Cox without omitting a single word of the biblical text; with the best will I could not keep my eyes open through the whole thing, in spite of the narration being decoratively dramatized by costumed actors filmed on location. On the other hand, you can compress the source material so much that the film is incomprehensible to anyone who hasn't recently read the book; a good example is the concluding segment of 2001: A Space Odyssey, which I believe was originally meant to be accompanied by an explanatory voice-over. Watching some of the Harry Potter movies with a friend who has never read the books shows that this failing sometimes afflicts this series too; you have to fill them in on so many things that the video seems to spend more time paused than actually playing. The rushed endings of the fifth and sixth HP movies were especially bad in this respect; the characters seemed to speak in an impenetrable oral shorthand made of lines that had no apparent context.

And you do have to "open" the story somewhat, by which I mean figuring out a way to tell the story in a way that best exploits the language of cinematic communication; otherwise you might as well just release a video featuring full-cast audio recording of the book with sets and costumes, which would be deadly on so many levels. I have also seen examples of this, movies that had the look of stage plays acted out in full compliance with all the Aristotelian unities, but that ended up leaving an impression more of the written word than of film. Other than preserving a historic stage performance, one wonders what was the point of making them. On the other hand, I have also seen attempts to open up the written source for the screen that were more detrimental than helpful, like the 2002 version of The Importance of Being Earnest that featured Rupert Everett and Colin Firth who, instead of playing out entire scenes in one setting, were always pausing to chase each other pointlessly into another sumptuously-decorated setting before resuming Wilde's witty dialogue. The HP series' biggest count of this crime is, unfortunately, its depiction of the climactic fight between Harry and Voldemort at the end of Movie 8, which replaces the dialogue (some of the most crucial in the entire series) and the setting (in front of a big crowd) that makes Voldemort's end meaningful with a bunch of special-effects-driven zooming about the Hogwarts grounds and fighting, hand-to-hand and with wands, just between the two characters with nobody else around. It's very scenic and visually exciting, but as a solution to the jeopardy that has been building up to this point for eight long films, it's completely, mystifyingly unclear.

That bit I remembered, even after years of seeing Movie 8 from somewhere in the Battle of Hogwarts on every time it came on cable TV (but practically never seeing any other part of Deathly Hallows Part 1 or 2). What I didn't remember, until I re-read Books 6 and 7 this week, is how much deeper, clearer, and more powerful the book version is. I also didn't remember that there was some striking foreshadowing of things revealed late in Book 7 as early as Book 6, connections I may have missed simply because I seldom or never read Book 6 again after Book 7 came out; or perhaps I've just forgotten about them since the movies of 2010 and '11. I remember certain character (and pet) deaths being emotionally stunning when I first read the books and saw the movies - and of course, who now, after years of seeing Snape's memory in the Pensieve with Harry in Movie 8, isn't moved by what it revealed. But subtler things struck me on this recent re-reading, and different scenes got me choked up. Percy Weasley showing up just before the last battle and making up with his estranged family... Dumbledore's frailties exposed in a way the movies gloss over... And then this:

Looking back over the whole Harry Potter series, there are a lot of moments one could point to and say, "That's the moment Voldemort was doomed," or, "Right there, that person just killed Voldemort." Obviously, this has something to do with the fact that he split his soul up into a bunch of nasty Horcruxes that had to be destroyed, one by one, before he could truly die. But it isn't only because of it. For Horcrux-related examples, Lily Potter (Harry's mum) killed Voldemort when she chose to die for her son; with then one-year-old Harry protected by her love, Voldemort's next curse rebounded on him and destroyed his body. Lily's protection continued in Harry's skin, as Dumbledore put it, causing Voldemort's first serious attempt to come back to fail when Quirrell (whom Voldemort was possessing) tried to strangle Harry, and perished. Harry killed the first Horcrux (the diary) with a basilisk fang in Book 2. Dumbledore killed part of Voldemort's soul between Book 5 and 6 by stabbing the second Horcrux (a ring) with Gryffindor's sword, also used by Ron to destroy the locket Horcrux in Book 7/Movie 7, and by Neville to kill Voldemort's snake familiar/Horcrux in Book 7/Movie 8. Hermione also destroyed a Horcrux (the goblet) with a basilisk fang (7/8); but, contrary to Movie 8, Book 7 depicts the tiara Horcrux as being unintentionally destroyed by the magefire (or Fiendfyre) conjured by Crabbe, who also perished in it. Voldemort unwittingly destroys a bit of himself in Book 7/Movie 8 by attempting to curse Harry, not knowing the boy was also a Horcrux. And of course, it was again Voldemort's own death-curse rebounding on him as he tried to kill Harry that finally finished him off; at least the fifth time in the series when the Dark Lord's "Avada Kedavra" failed to connect with the Boy Who Lived.

But the whole complex story of "Who got Voldemort" doesn't end with a list of who stabbed his Horcruxes with what. It struck me, this evening, that the reason Voldemort's final attempt on Harry's life blew back on him so disastrously can be traced to Draco Malfoy - a nasty little boy who miraculously survives the greatest danger that threatens him, which is the danger of harming his own soul by killing another person. It is Voldemort who, in Book/Movie 6, sets Draco the choice of either murdering Dumbledore, dying in the attempt, or just dying period; but Dumbledore, despite having the wand snatched out of his hand by Draco's disarming curse, rescues Draco from all three alternatives by arranging ahead of time to have Snape kill him (Dumbledore) in such a way that Voldemort can't blame the boy for faltering. But what you might not have noticed is that, at the moment when the wand flies out of Dumbledore's grasp and clatters to the floor of the Astronomy Tower, Voldemort's ultimate doom has been sealed. As Harry explains before Voldemort's final, fatal attempt to curse him down, Draco's disarming charm makes him - not Dumbledore, or Snape, or afterward Voldemort - the master of the Elder Wand, with which Voldemort proposes to kill Harry. And since Harry subsequently beat Draco, making Harry the master of the Elder Wand, Voldemort's attempt to curse Harry with it proves suicidal. So, in a sense, the fact that Draco (not Snape) disarmed Dumbledore, and was in turn disarmed by Harry, is what finally seals Voldemort's fate. In a "Hallows" (as opposed to "Horcruxes") sense, Draco unwittingly joins the list of people who slew the Dark Lord. And it's worth noting that he spends the rest of the series trying desperately (but successfully) not to kill anyone, though somehow making it look hard. That moment alone with Dumbledore seems to have shaped his destiny too.

A few other Death Eaters also, intentionally or not, took part in serving justice upon Voldemort. Lucius Malfoy's attempt to undermine Arthur Weasley's position at the Ministry of Magic by implicating his daughter in something dark leads to the fanging of the diary in Book 2. Regulus Black's decision to save the house-elf Kreacher from Voldemort, and to make it Kreacher's mission in life to destroy the locket Horcrux, becomes the catalyst that brings Kreacher onto Harry's side and ultimately leads to the locket being destroyed. Bellatrix Lestrange's meltdown on seeing the Sword of Gryffindor (not realizing the one in her bank vault is only a copy) gives Harry the idea of breaking into Gringotts to see what else might be in her vault. Horace Slughorn, a Slytherin even if not a Death Eater, tries for a bit of remorse in Book 6, to the extent of giving Harry the crucial memory that ultimately leads him on his Horcrux quest. Even Dolores Umbridge, the character Harry Potter fans most love to hate, has some of Voldemort's blood on her hands, thanks to the combination of personal shortcomings that puts the locket Horcrux within Harry's grasp. And finally, in a bit of "Dumbledore explains all" in the train station to the afterlife - an explanation omitted from the movies, by the way, and which I had forgotten until I re-read Book 7 - it seems even Peter "Wormtail" Pettigrew drove a knife into Voldemort's heart (albeit on the Dark Lord's orders), when he let Harry's blood drip off his knife blade into the potion that restored Voldemort's body. That "blood of an enemy, forcibly taken" bit seemed awfully dark in Book 4, but at the end of Book 7 it proves to have an even weirder effect: by tying Harry's life-force to Voldemort's new body, it ensures Harry cannot be killed while Voldemort lives, even if his status as a Horcrux is revoked. Once Harry's blood, carrying the protection of Lily Potter's love, enters Voldemort's veins, it works more to Harry's advantage than to Voldemort's - for reasons I had to re-read the book to remember, after five years of forgetfulness brought on by the movie.

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