Friday, September 30, 2011

Getting to know the Dark Lord

Ever since my online conversation with Anonymous, I've been thinking a lot about Voldemort, his life and his portrayal in both the books and movies in the Harry Potter series.

Just yesterday, I was reading the last part of Harry Potter et La Chambre des Secrets (the French translation of Rowling's second novel) and reviewed, once again, our first meeting with Tom Riddle, the Dark Lord's youthful self. What an interesting presentation that was!

Voldemort's shadow hangs over the early novels, even though his appearances in these books are brief. In The Philosopher's Stone, Harry learns of Voldemort at first from Hagrid and it is Hagrid's fearful, halting explanations of who the Dark Lord is and what he had done to Harry's parents that set the tone for Voldemort's influence on the rest of the series of books.

In the movie version of that first novel, Robbie Coltrane does a great job of capturing the fear and paranoia that continues to grip the magical world, even though ten years have passed since Voldemort disappeared. I am particularly fond of the way Coltrane spits out the word "Codswallop" in that scene. He's just so vehement about it: "Some people say he's dead. Codswallop, I say."

We catch our first glimpse of Voldemort at the end of that first book, a shrivelled face that emerges from the back of Quirrell's head in the final battle over the fabled Stone. But it is only when Harry plunges into the diary in The Chamber of Secrets that J.K. begins the wonderful process of serving up, in tantalising pieces, the story of Voldemort's younger years. The scene in the Chamber provides even more of these morsels.

The Tom Riddle of the second novel is a handsome, well-spoken, seemingly quiet young man. We learn he is an orphan, with a Muggle father and a magical mother, that he desperately hopes to escape the orphanage and that he is a remarkably brilliant student. We also learn that he is a Parselmouth and, oh yes, that he is the direct descendant of Salazar Slytherin, one of the four founders of the Hogwarts School.

This all seems very positive, especially if you can see the Slytherin relationship as merely a sign that Riddle is related to magical royalty rather than a sign that he is associated with a Muggle-hating bigot.

But then we meet the memory of Riddle in the Chamber. This Riddle is portrayed as self-centred, vindictive and judgmental. He brags about his ability to charm people in order to get his way. For the first time, we see his willingness to see others as pawns in his game, as tools to be used and cast aside. His ridicule of the 11-year-old Ginny Weasley for the childishness and banality of her diary entries, for her little girl hopes and fears, confirm him as a hateful, spiteful individual and his complete lack of concern or empathy over her impending death is a telling foreshadowing of his future behaviour.

We also get a glimpse of two weaknesses in Riddle that would continue to plague Voldemort in his adult life. The first is his fear of Dumbledore. Already as a 16 year old, Riddle struggles with the power Dumbledore seems to have over him, with his frustration over his inability to charm the brilliant wizard, to blind Dumbledore to his evil intentions. Even as he brags that Dumbledore was chased from Hogwarts by the mere memory of Voldemort, Riddle reveals his own inability to deal with Dumbledore's unique ability to stand up to him.

The second weakness we encounter is Voldemort's underestimation of the power of things that do not interest him or that he does not understand. It never occurred to Riddle that Lily Potter's decision to sacrifice herself out of love for her son would provide Harry with the protection he needed to survive Voldemort's attack. And when Harry points this fact out, Riddle both recognises and dismisses it, seeing it only as evidence that Harry alone could not have withstood him.

When Fawkes, the Phoenix, arrives to help Harry, bringing with him the Sorting Hat, Riddle mocks Harry and Dumbledore relentlessly. A song bird and a moth-eaten hat, he laughs. This is the help the great Dumbledore sends you? Even as a 16-year-old, Riddle understands only certain types of power, only certain kinds of magic. And he pays for it. The hat provides Harry with the Sword of Gryffindor, the weapon he needs to kill the Basilisk. Meanwhile, Fawkes proves invaluable, first blinding the great snake and then saving Harry from the Basilisk's venom with his healing tears.

We can't forget that one of Voldemort's greatest flaws is his inability to recognise power in forms he cannot or refuses to understand. He is all but destroyed by the power of Lily's love and sacrifice for Harry. He underestimates the power of house elves, never considering that an elf like Kreacher could infiltrate the cave and escape with the locket Horcrux. He dismisses the possibility that Snape's love for Lily Potter might be so strong that Snape would spend much of his adult life working to bring about the defeat of Lily's murderer.

That's a great deal of information to pack into what is, in fact, a relatively short scene in the second novel. It speaks volumes for J.K.'s abilities as a story teller but does it undermine Anonymous' criticism that Voldemort is flat and one-dimensional throughout the books?

I have to admit that I'm not sure it does. I may have to accept that Anonymous is right but credit Rowling with intentionally creating a single-minded, one-dimensionally evil character and leave it at that.

What are your thoughts?

Friday, September 23, 2011

On Draco's Redemption and Voldemort's humanity

I received some great comments from "Anonymous" on the issues of Draco's Redemption and the portrayal of Voldemort in the final film. As you might recall from some of my earlier posts on these subjects, I was more mystified than anything about the way Draco behaves in the seventh and eighth films and I was very unhappy with the way Stephen Kloves wrote Voldemort for the final movie, turning him, in my opinion, into a bit of a putz.

I think Anonymous makes a great point when she/he says that Draco's behaviour is actually laudable, that Draco's decision to join his mother and father just before the last battle and to leave Hogwarts while the battle still rages fits well with J.K.'s theme that real courage is shown in standing up against your friends. Draco and his family clearly make a decision that, even if Voldemort wins his fight with Harry, they no longer want any part of the Dark Lord and his monstrous ways.

On the issue of the portrayal of Voldemort in the final film, however, Anonymous and I will have to agree to disagree. Anonymous argues that Voldemort is more real, more human in the eighth film than in the final book and Anonymous likes that. I respect that position but I would argue that Rowling intended to make Voldemort less and less real, less and less human, more and more flat and one-dimensional in the later books precisely because of what he had done to his soul.

By splitting his soul into eight pieces, Voldemort filleted himself and his humanity. By the time only two bits of his soul survived (the one in him and the one in Nagini), Voldemort's humanity is paper thin. He is flat and soulless.

I think the movie version betrays what J.K. was trying to do. In the novel, Harry tells Voldemort that he can repair the damage to his soul by showing sincere regret for his evil deeds. By that time, however, Voldemort no longer has enough soul left even to consider being anyone other than his evil self. There is no regret coming because there is no regret possible for such a decimated person.

You can find Anonymous' very interesting and well-thought-out comments attached to the posts of July 28 (Draco's Redemption: How Can he just walk away?) and and July 20 (The film's Voldemort becomes a sad and silly caricature). I'm interested to read what other people think!

Sunday, September 18, 2011

All hell breaks loose

"When have any of our plans ever worked? We plan. We get there. All hell breaks loose."

Harry says that to Hermione in The Deathly Hallows, Part 2, just after they've escaped Gringott's with Hufflepuff's Cup. He's told them that Voldemort knows they're hunting Horcruxes and that the final one can be found at Hogwarts.

When Hermione objects to the idea of going immediately to the school, saying they should plan instead, Harry responds, "When have any of our plans ever worked? We plan. We got there. All hell breaks loose."

Harry's right of course but it's an interesting line for the screenwriter, Steven Kloves, to have added to the story (it's not in the novel). Why does he throw this line in, since in some ways it sounds to me like a criticism of Rowling's books?

I doubt he intended to criticise Rowling in any way. I think he puts it in because he needs a quick explanation for why they have to go to Hogwarts immediately, without planning.

In the novel, the explanation is much deeper and more subtle. Voldemort realises they're hunting Horcruxes and decides that he has to visit the site at which he's hidden each of the others to confirm that they are still there.

Harry sees inside his mind as Voldemort thinks of each one and makes the decision to leave the one hidden at Hogwarts until last, feeling that it must be safe there with Snape in charge.

That gives the Hero Trio some time to get to Hogwarts and begin the search, while the Dark Lord is visiting his grandfather's shack and the cave by the sea.

They can't plan because they would be wasting the precious time granted them by Voldemort's search. It's a much more plausible and interesting explanation.

But, of course, the movie Harry is right. No matter how hard they plan, they always seem to survive on their wits alone.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Adults struggle with that magical leap of faith

J.K. wrote the Harry Potter series for kids. One of the major triumphs of the seven novels is the way the writing in each successive book matures with its intended audience.

For example, the first novel, The Philosopher's Stone, is aimed at the eight-to-ten-year-old group while the fourth book, The Goblet of Fire, caters to the early teen audience. By the time you get to the final novel, The Deathly Hallows, Rowling is writing for a nearly adult group in their late teens. And she does it well.

What I don't think she or her publishers expected, at least in the early going, was the huge following the books would earn from adults. My impression is that it started with the parents and teachers who read the first couple of books to their kids. These people became fans in their own right, then told other adults about the series and so on and so on.

The problem, of course, is that much of the ground work for the Rowling world, as I call it, was laid in those early novels, the ones J.K. wrote specifically for kids, never thinking that adults might pick them up and enjoy them on their own.

So she required leaps of faith so to speak that children are much more willing to take. Like the International Statute of Secrecy that requires wizards and witches to keep their powers secret from Muggles.

Rowling wanted to allow a child reader to believe that maybe, just maybe, the magical world does truly exist: it's just purposely hidden from the rest of us Muggles. It's a wonderful ploy and it obviously worked. Children have gobbled up these novels and dreamt of discovering that they, like Harry, have hidden magical powers that will get them invited to Hogwarts.

But adults have more trouble accepting it. We pick at it, like a scab. If there is a Statute of Secrecy, and a Department in the Ministry of Magic dedicated to preserving that secrecy, we wonder, why do they keep inviting the children of Muggles to Hogwarts? Why do they tell each new British Prime Minister of the existence of this wonderful world?

How do you keep a secret, in other words, if you keep telling people?

You would think that, by the 21st Century, every Muggle in England would know at least one person who had a family member, a friend, a friend-of-a-friend, a distant pen pal, who knows someone who went to Hogwarts.

So everyone would know and the Statute would be useless.

I actually had a fellow fan raise this concern with me the other day. She was seriously troubled by this logical inconsistency in the books.

My answer: take the leap of faith; accept the implausable; suspend your disbelief.

After all, the Harry Potter novels are children's books, first and foremost, and a wonderful, exciting, exhilirating ride as well.

Be a child again and accept the unlikely. After all, you're buying the existence of an all-powerful evil wizard who can split his soul into eight pieces and hide them in cups, snakes and bits of jewellery. Why not buy this little lie too? Just for the fun of it.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Waiting for the discs

How long does it take for a movie to be put on a DVD or Blu Ray? I mean, it's been weeks now since Part 2 closed in my local theatre. I've been watching the first seven movies, I've been reading the books (in French and English) but I just can't wait until the last film comes out on disc.

I've already kind of accepted that I'm going to buy the movie as soon as it becomes available, on Blu Ray and in the biggest package available. I'm becoming almost as addicted to the Extras as to the movies themselves.

How much is that going to cost me? Yikes. But it'll be worth it, I'm sure!

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

When Harry Potter was new...

I think I've mentioned my colleague at work before, the one who has seen all of the Harry Potter movies (several times) but had not, at the time of the release of The Deathly Hallows, Part 2, read any of the books.

Well, she tells me now that she's finally taken the plunge into J.K.'s original world, working through the first three novels over the course of a two-week holiday. She says, however, that she finds herself sometimes wishing that she had read the books first, since the movies have robbed the literary plots of much of their suspense. She knows the major events that are coming, even if the novels give so much more depth and character development.

Meanwhile, I envy her that absolute delight of reading the novels for the first time. I don't have much of a recollection of my first readings of novels one through six. All I know is that I roared through each one at breakneck speed the first time, then had to go back to read them over again at a slower pace, with more time to savour the quality of the writing and the intricacies of the story.

I do, however, have a very vivid recollection of the excitement that built up as I, and so many of my friends and colleagues, waited with anxious anticipation for the seventh novel to be released. We would talk about the first six books endlessly and have a seemingly non-stop conversation about what we thought the final novel would bring.

Was Snape truly evil or was Dumbledore right to trust him after all? Would Harry die? What would Draco do in the end? And what about Neville: was it possible that he really was the true Chosen One? Would Hermione and Ron finally get together or would Hermione come to her senses in time?

And when the book finally hit the bookstores, I bought it on the first day and literally disappeared into the world of Rowling for the next forty-eight hours. I galloped through it the first time, slowing only to weep as Harry bravely walked into the Forbidden Forest to face his death. Then I went back and read the last hundred pages or so more slowly, to make sure that I understood, that I recognised the power and beauty of Rowling's writing.

And then I read the novel once more from start to finish. Only then did I feel I could talk about it.

I know my colleague will never be able to feel that level of anticipation, that depth of excitement in the reading. She knows the plots. She has a good idea of the major events.

But I hope she can find a way to immerse herself in the details, find amazement in the ways in which J.K.'s novels are so much better than the films. Enjoy the intense excitement of discovering for the first time just how great these books really are.

And, if she can, I'll envy her every step of the way. My experience of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (both in the anticipation of its release and the intensity of the first couple of readings) was such a rush that I hope I'll find another book someday that will give me something even close to that feeling.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Rowling fools us into suspecting Hagrid

It's interesting the way J.K. gets her readers to believe that Hagrid was guilty of opening the Chamber of Secrets the first time fifty years before the novel of the same name.

She simply shows us Tom Riddle's memory and, despite the fact that it proves absolutely nothing, we believe it to be proof. And then she has Harry, Hermione and Ron fighting very hard not to believe that Hagrid is the culprit but finally convincing themselves (and us) that he is, in fact, guilty.

It's neat writing. By having her characters argue the same points that her readers are arguing, she convinces both them and us. She preempts our doubts by presenting them directly to us through the terrific trio.

And then, once we're completely fooled, she turns the table on us.

Even neater is the fact that, even though she's shown us that she can use this strategy effectively to prove Hagrid guilty when he is, in fact, innocent, we still fall for the same trick with regard to Snape throughout the rest of the novels.

Writers can learn a lot from reading Rowling and paying attention to the strategies she uses to beguile her readers. We can all learn a thing or two from the master.