Saturday, May 26, 2012

New insights into Harry's lonely walk

I have long admired the chapter in The Deathly Hallows where Harry, having learned the truth about his role in Dumbledore's plans, takes his solemn walk into the Forbidden Forest to face Voldemort and, ultimately, his own death.

In my opinion, J.K. captures this moment, these events perfectly and depicts Harry as responding to this situation precisely as I would have expected him to: with fear, with sadness, but with an unwavering resolve to face his own end with dignity, to sacrifice himself so that others may live.

I thought, to be honest, that I had read and digested fully this wonderful chapter such that I had plumbed fully its depths, understood every nuance, recognised every aspect of its achievement.

And then my boss walked into my cubicle the other day and showed me how wrong I was in my self-satisfaction.

"Do you think," she said in her quiet, self-effacing way, "that the descriptions of Harry's heart beating so hard that it seemed to wish to escape his chest in that scene are intended to hint to us that there is actually a bit of Voldemort's soul in there instead? That it is that last, unrecognised Horcrux inside Harry that is, in fact, pounding so hard as it recognises that it faces its own death?"

I was dumbfounded. Amazed. Awed. So simple, so perfect and, once it was pointed out to me, so obviously true.

J.K. writes the following at the start of the chapter, "The Forest Again": "He felt his heart pounding fiercely in his chest. How strange it was that in his dread of death, it pumped all the harder, valiantly keeping him alive. But it would have to stop, and soon. Its beats were numbered. How many would there be time for, as he rose and walked through the castle for the last time, out into the grounds and into the Forest?"

How could I have missed this? While Rowling suggests that it is, in fact, Harry's heart that is rebelling, it seems quite obvious now that it is, in fact, the Horcrux that is fighting for its life.

Later, Rowling writes: "His heart was leaping against his ribs like a frantic bird. Perhaps it knew it had little time left, perhaps it was determined to fulfil a lifetime's beats before the end."

Now that I read them from this perspective, these passages remind me of the descriptions of the locket Horcrux just before Ron destroys it with the Sword of Gryffindor: "The locket was twitching slightly. Harry knew that the thing inside it was agitated again. It had sensed the presence of the sword..."

Or, even earlier, when Harry and Hermione encounter the animate remains of Bathilda Bagshot: "Harry became aware of the locket against his skin; the thing inside it that sometimes ticked or beat had woken; he could feel it pulsing through the cold gold. Did it know, could it sense, that the thing that would destroy it was near?"

A prophetic question, as it turns out.

If my supervisor is right, and I think she is, then this earlier passage suggesting that a Horcrux can sense when it is approaching its own death serves to prepare us to recognise what J.K. is doing in "The Forest Again": using her usual sort of misdirection, she is telling us that there is a Horcrux inside Harry that senses its own impending destruction while misleading us to believe that it is, instead, Harry's own heart that is pounding in his chest as he approaches the Forbidden Forest.

Once again, brilliant writing. J.K. at her best, giving us information that is key while ensuring that we do not recognise it for what it is.

And proof that, no matter how many times you read and re-read Rowling's books, you will never really fully understand them unless you share and discuss them with others, add the insights of other Harry Potter fans to your own.

I'm learning a lot about these novels from my boss who is bringing a fresh, intelligent, thoughtful mind to them, who is reading them and understanding them in ways that I never could. I can only hope that I am providing similar insights to her and to anyone who reads this blog. And it explains why I treasure the comments people leave with regard to this blog, showing me the kindness of sharing their thoughts and insights with me.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

J.K., meet Ann Killion and Randy Moss

There’s nothing I like better (well, except actually settling in to read a Harry Potter novel) than stumbling across a reference to J.K.’s magical world in places where I least expect it. These kinds of surprising discoveries remind me forcefully just how much of an impact Ms. Rowling’s works have had on the world and how many people are out there who, like you and me, see the world through a Harry Potter lens.

Today, my happy surprise came in the form of a column on the National Football League (NFL) written by Ann Killion, one of my fave sports/football writers, for Sports Illustrated’s website ( Ms. Killion writes of the return of one of the NFL’s all-time great (and most diva-like) wide receivers, Randy Moss, to the league after a brief retirement.

Ms. K. begins her “Inside the NFL” column today with this:

Randy Moss arrived in the Bay Area in 2005 with sirens blaring and a police escort.

Seven years later he's come back with an invisibility cloak.

“Did she just say ‘an invisibility cloak’?” I wonder to myself. “Could that possibly be a RowlingRef” (as I call all references to Harry Potter and his world)? “No,” I decide. “Not possible. Not in a football column. Must be a reference to the more general idea of a cloak that makes a person unseeable.”

So I read on. After a well-written para or two explaining what Randy Moss is up to now, Killion then writes this:

The 49ers -- whose lack of standout wide receivers may have been the difference between a good season and a trip to the Super Bowl -- signed Moss to a non-risky one-year deal and have been raving about him ever since.

San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh has made him sound like a cross between Hermione Granger and Vince Lombardi.

By this time, I’m howling with glee. And moving Ms. K. up even higher in my pantheon of great sports writers. I mean, she’s smart, she’s eloquent and she apparently has at least some level of Harry Potter knowledge.

Cool. Cool cool cool cool.

Randy Moss as Hermione Granger. Perfect. And perfectly funny. Not that Hermione ever displayed even the least interest in sports. I mean, her antipathy for Quidditch is the stuff of legend. But she does pack a mean punch. And Mr. Moss could no doubt learn a thing or two from her about how to manipulate and control the media.

To read Ms. Killion’s column in full, head here:

Monday, May 21, 2012

A Fleur by any other name

I was thinking the other day about The Half-Blood Prince.  More specifically, I was thinking of the scene near the end of the book when the Wesley family gathers around Bill's hospital bed, shocked at the damage Frenrir Greyback has inflicted to Bill's face.

Remember the response Fleur Delacour gives when she feels Molly Weasley is suggesting that the wedding will now be called off?

"What do I care how 'e looks?" Fleur seethes. "I am good-looking enough for both of us, I theenk!"

How did you respond when you first read this reaction? Did you think Fleur was over-the-top vain about her own beauty? That she was a conceited, self-centered snippet?


Neither did I. And, until recently, I've accepted my non-reaction to this proclamation as being absolutely normal. But is it?

If this were any other person, we would think very little of her and her vanity. But J.K. Rowling has done such a nice job of convincing us first of the magical beauty of the Veela race and second of Fleur's own individual loveliness that we never question Fleur when she makes this declaration. It's not tasteless bragging -- it's the truth, and we accept it as such.

Instead of thinking the worse of her for this statement, we (like the Weasley family) accept it as proof of her deep love for Bill and we admire her for it.

Imagine if any other character had made so outrageous a statement as this? How would we have reacted if, for example, Ginny had proclaimed that it doesn't matter that Harry is not so great looking, wears funny spectacles and is marred by an ugly scar on his forehead since she is so beautiful she makes up for his shortcomings?

I don't think we'd be too impressed, would we?

But, for Fleur, the statements seems natural and appropriate. Interesting.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

HP LEGO, a new passion to indulge

Okay. So I'm in the LEGO store in Sherway Gardens Mall, west Toronto, and I see that they have a pretty cool selection of Harry Potter kits. Uh oh, I think I'm hooked. I just have to start my Harry Potter LEGO collection. Maybe I'll start simple, with the Forbidden Forest kit. Apparently, it comes with a figure of HP himself. And a tree.

But do I really have to build it myself?

Friday, May 11, 2012

Hubris and the act of filmmaking

A colleague of mine here at work has told me that his 14-year-old daughter is becoming a huge Harry Potter fan. After getting over the fact that she is just now becoming a fan, I asked him if she read the books first, saw the movies first, or kind of combined them.

He laughed and told me that, although she received the complete eight DVD set of the movies for Christmas this year, she has refused to watch any of them until she's finished reading the seven novels.

Great call, I told him. And then I warned him that, while she might really enjoy the first three or four films once she finally watches them, I expect her to be increasingly disappointed in the movies as she gets into the fifth, six and so on. He asked me why.

I was a bit caught off guard. It's not an easy question to answer, especially for someone who doesn't know Harry Potter at all and isn't a student of book-to-film transformations as I believe myself to be. I copped out and chose the easy route, telling him that the later films are merely "highlight reels" of the best action sequences from the books and that they didn't really tell the story at all.

He seemed satisfied with my answer but, the more I think about it, the less I'm happy with what I said.

Why do I so strongly prefer the books to the films? Why do I see the first three, perhaps four films to be much better adaptations of their corresponding novels than the last four movies?

Some of it has to do with length, no doubt. The shorter the book, the easier it is to adapt it faithfully into the film form. I have often said that feature films are really short stories, not novels, so it is a much simpler task to take a 200-page children's novel and bring it to the screen than it is to do the same for a 600-page book.

But I think there are other significant problems as well. To be honest, I think most of those problems stem from the possibility that the movie makers (especially the screenwriter and the director) started to get too comfortable with material in the later films, saw the successs of the flm franchise and started to lose track of the fact that it was J.K. Rowling's story telling, her creativity, her fantastic plots and intersting characters that were responsible for the success of the books and films and thought, instead, that they, themselves, deserved that credit.

As a result, they felt entitled to change Rowling's original works beyond what was necessary to change them from literature into film: they felt they could create new scenes of their own, change characters and their motivations, rewrite the plots completely. This hubris comes to full bloom in the eighth and final book where the filmmakers rewrote the last half of The Deathly Hallows almost completely, in ways that undermined everything that Rowling was tryng to do.

I've written extensively on this blog about how unhappy I am with that eighth film so I won't go into the details but I think it's important to recognise how big a factor the egos of some of the filmmakers could have been in the disappointment of that last film.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Where is all the liquid luck in the Battle For Hogwarts?

Here's a question that has been bothering me for quite some time now: why did no one involved in the Battle of Hotwarts at the end of The Deathly Hallows take a nice dose of Felix Felicis before the fight started? Seriously.

Professor Slughorn introduces us to this wacky substance in the Half-Blood Prince. As you will recall, Harry gave his stash of Felix Felicis to Ron, Hermione and Ginny just before heading off with Dumbledore to Voldermort's cave to attempt to retrieve the locket Horcrux. They later credit the potion for saving their lives throughout the fight with the Death Eaters who invade Hogwarts that night.

Sure, it takes six months to brew. And sure, it is devilishly tricky to make and a disaster if it goes wrong. But Slughorn has proven himself capable and surely Snape himself should be able to brew the potion so why aren't at least some people on either side of the final battle flying on liquid luck when the fighting starts?

It's possible some are, in fact, under the influence of Felix Felicis at that time and J.K. simply decides not to tell us readers. Or, perhaps, she conveniently forgot about the potion when she wrote the seventh book because, let's face it, liquid luck would kind of undermine the drama of the final book, wouldn't it?

And that is, of course, the problem with narrative short cuts like this. Rowling needed a convincing, magical way for Harry to weedle the Horcrux memory out of Slughorn in Book Six and decided to create Felix Feilcis to accomplish that task. It sounded good at the time and even produced some fun moments. But, once she'd created the a potion that brings luck to those who drink it, she kind of found herself in a bit of a pickle in the seventh book.

Now that they know about Felix Felicis, why would Harry, Hermione and Ron not brew a batch while they're holed up at Grimmauld Place, then take a little dose of it each time they go into a particularly dangerous situation: like the Ministry, Gringott's or Hogwarts? Or, for that matter, why wouldn't one of the adults in their lives have brweed some Felix Felicis and delivered it to Harry? After all, he is their best hope for defeating Voldemort.

Yes, overuse of the potion can lead to ill effects but we have it on good authority (from J.K. herself) that Slughorn had used it twice in his lifetime with no problems and, further, that Dumbledore had used it too in his youth, though only for recreational purposes of course. So what's the issue?

This question bothers me a lot. It undermines the tension of the final book and makes me wonder why Felix Felicis isn't used more often by more witches and wizards. My personal opinion is that Rowling would have been better off finding some other way to get Harry together with Slughorn in Book Six and to let Harry's natural charms and kindness work on him rather than creating a potion that would prove so inconvenient, so counter-productive to the creation of tension in the seventh book.

I find I have to forget about the existence of Felix Felicis in order to enjoy to its fulleset the seventh book. And that's not a good sign.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

"Why do you read these kids' books?" asks the Bully

So what do you do with the people who tell you that the Harry Potter books are just for kids?

People who just don't get how an adult like you can enjoy the books (and movies, perhaps) so much that you read them over and over again, you talk about them with anyone who will listen, you write (heavens forbid!) a blog about the books, movies and their characters?

I've been dealing with a little bit of that at work lately. I don't want to call it Bullying but it has some of the same nastiness to it. This person just can't understand why J.K. Rowling's books appeal to me so much. He wants to attribute my love of all things Potter to some defect in my character, my maturity, my intellectual development.

And he just won't listen to any explanation I try to give him.

I've decided to put his behaviour down to his own insecurities. He can't allow himself to enjoy anything that might be considered "different" by the men he hangs out with because he's not secure enough in himself to stand up to them.

I know. I know. I'm beginning to sound like a bad episode of Frasier, aren't I?

If this guy would actually listen to me, this is what I would say:

1. I enjoy Harry Potter because the books are extremely well written, the characters are interesting and the stories exciting;

2. I read thebooks over and over again because I get something new out of them every time I read a book, some new nuance to the story or the characters, some insight into J.K.'s philosophy, or some new appreciation for the writing;

3. I read the books because they explore interesting themes and ideas in fascinating ways, they use this invented world of magic to examine our own world in a different light; and

4. I read the books because the characters feel like family and the settings are like a place to escape from the trials of my own life.

Do you think these responses would make sense to him? Satisfy him even?

How would you answer his questions?