Monday, March 30, 2015

Respecting the intelligence of young readers

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I have started searching the internet for early interviews with J.K. Rowling as part of my effort to understand her writing process. I am interested in understanding both how she approached planning and writing such a complicated story (broken down, as it was, into seven separate novels) and to what level of detail she had actually planned the seven-book arc in the early years.

It's been an interesting experience, as much because there are really very few interviews available from the early days -- before or as, say, the second book was written -- as because of what I am learning from the interviews themselves.

For example, I confirmed what I had long suspected: the books are published under the name "J.K. Rowling"  because the British publisher worried that young male readers would not pick up a book written by "Joanne Rowling", a clearly female writer

Although it seems clear that she now finds the publisher's request that she use her initials silly and potentially problematic, Rowling has admitted that, at the time, she was so grateful that someone was going to publish The Philosopher's Stone that (as she told the New York Press Club in 2000), "I would have let them call me Enid Snodgrass if they published the book so I really wasn’t that bothered with it".

I love that comment for two reasons: one, it exemplifies what a fun and funny person Jo Rowling is and, two, it gives me a potential approach to understanding other questionable decisions that were made with regard to the Harry Potter books and films. For example, take Scholastic Books' decision to Americanize the books for the US audience and any number of the decisions made by the makers of the films.

Is it possible that J.K. did not feel she was in a powerful enough position to oppose Scholastic when it decided to rename the already successful first book The Sorcerer's Stone out of fear that American youngsters would not understand or be interested in a "philosopher's" stone?

That decision was made very early, apparently in conjunction with the awarding of a significant advance to Rowling for the American rights. It was made, in fact, before Joanne Rowling was JOANNE ROWLING, the international star writer with significant personal wealth. Is it possible she disagreed with the proposed Americanization but didn't feel like she was in a position to resist it?

From what I've seen, Rowling has a great deal of respect for young people and their intelligence. In that NY Press Club appearance, she actually chided the host for making a less than kind comment about the handwriting of one young person who had submitted a question. I cannot imagine that she would have agreed with Scholastic's contention (whether stated openly or not) that American youngsters would be scared off by the word "philosopher" in the title.

And then there is the decision to eliminate Snape's "test" from the film of that first book. I found it bad enough that screen-writer Stephen Kloves was permitted to make what I consider to be inexplicable decisions to change the Devil's Snare test and the winged key test (I don't think the film versions were any more vivid or visual than Rowling's originals); why eliminate entirely the logic test that Hermione solves?

Was it again because film viewers weren't considered smart enough to follow the test? Was it because they didn't think the riddle with the bottles could be translated onto film in an interesting way?

To me, Snape's logic puzzle was a key moment in the book, both in terms of the excitement of the moment (Hermione is able to keep a cool head under intense pressure) and in terms of promoting the characters and themes of the book.

We learn from it to respect the different abilities that Hermione and Harry bring to the table: moments earlier, Hermione had dismissed her own "cleverness" in deference to Harry's qualities of "friendship" and "bravery"; Snape's test serves to show how important Hermione's intelligence, her cleverness, her level-headed rationality truly is in pressure situations.

Sorry, I digress. I just wonder if, in those early days, Joanne Rowling felt she could challenge some of these decisions with which she must have, in some way, disagreed.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

A new source for clues to an long-considered question

I'm a little disgusted with myself, to be honest.

As anyone who has read this blog will know, I am fascinated by the process by which J.K. Rowling wrote the seven Harry Potter novels, by how her planning for the series developed over time and was (or perhaps was not) influenced by other factors, such as the success of the early books, the making and release of the early films, and input from media and fans.

To date, I have limited my search for clues as to that process solely to the books themselves. And there has been plenty of evidence there.

But, today, for some reason, I stumbled upon a new source of information on this issue that so strongly interests me, a source that has existed and been available to me almost since the day I started this blog. I had simply never thought of accessing it.

The source is early interviews with Rowling herself. Interviews that were written or recorded while she was still in the process of writing the books.

I know, I know, I have also long proclaimed that I am not particularly interested in what Rowling has had to say since the books were released on how to interpret them or what happens to the characters after the time period covered in the books is over.

That's still, for the most part, true.

But I think I have been a bit of a fool not to avail myself of the mountains of information available in these early interviews when it comes to coming to an understanding of the process of planning and writing and the impact other factors had on the yet-to-be-written books.

For example, I found today this fantastic video on Youtube:

It features an interview conducted in a Scottish coffee shop with J.K. Rowling after The Philosopher's Stone had become a success in England but before it had actually appeared on book shelves in other European countries and in North America.

In the interview, J.K. talks with some awe at the size of the advance she has just received from Scholastic Books in the U.S. for that first novel -- I wonder if she knew at that point that Scholastic would require so many ridiculous changes to The Philosopher's Stone (including to the title) to make it more palatable to American readers?

She mentions her hopes that the book will be popular in Finland and she talks about how she is currently in talks with film studios about doing a movie version.

Most importantly to me, she makes several comments about her plans for the Harry Potter series. She says she has already completed the second book (The Chamber of Secrets), that she is working on the third (The Prisoner of Azkaban) and that she envisions the series as comprising seven books, with Harry ultimately achieving the status of being a fully trained wizard.

And she admits that the success of the first book, and the massive interest in it in the United States, caused her to develop writer's block for a month while she was writing the second novel. That's the kind of impact by outside factors that interests me. I also wonder: how much did her vision of Harry Potter, the other characters, the plots and the magical world, change as a result of those outside factors as she continued to write the books?

I have to watch this video a couple of more times to glean from it all that I can. And then I have to scour the internet for more interviews (whether in print or in video format) with Rowling that were conducted while she was still writing the books, when the completion of the series was still in the future.

It's an exciting thought. I can't wait to start on that journey.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Dumbledore's a crack apparator

Dumbledore's Study at the Harry Potter Studio Tour
When Dumbledore apparates to Privet Drive in the first chapter of The Philosopher's Stone, he does so "so suddenly and silently you'd have thought he'd just popped out of the ground".

When Mundungus Fletcher apparates away from Privet Drive at the beginning of The Order of the Phoenix (leaving Harry unprotected in the face of the Dementors), his disapparition is marked by a "loud, echoing crack [that] broke the sleepy silence like a gunshot". Later, J.K. writes that "Harry was sure the cracking noise had been made by someone Apparating or Disapparating."

In fact, the loud noise becomes closely associated with the act of Apparition throughout the remainder of the books.

So how can Dumbledore do it silently?

I would guess that, as the long-time Hogwarts Headmaster is a wizard of exceptional skill and talent, he likely solved the problem on his own to allow himself to appear and disappear silently. This would be a definite advantage to him when dealing with an enemy.

What do you think?

Friday, March 20, 2015

Dale, Frye and the American idiom

As part of my recent birthday extravaganza, I received as a gift a complete set of the audio books of the Harry Potter novels. This is something I have coveted for some time so I was completely thrilled to open the box and find them all smiling up at me.

100 compacts discs. More than 117 hours worth of recordings. All seven of J.K. Rowling's novels, unabridged, recorded specially by Jim Dale. Since I already own The Deathly Hallows in this format, I am well acquainted with Mr. Dale and his vocal stylings and I am very much looking forward to listening to the books, in order, at times when I can really focus.

Two things of interest have emerged immediately upon my opening this gift.

First, my partner described to me the adventure she went on in trying to decide which of the two sets of recordings that have been made of these books (the Jim Dale version or the Stephen Frye version) she should purchase for me and then, once the decision had been made, to purchase them.

I learned a great deal from her story. My partner said she had gone online and listened to sections from each version and had decided, based on her comparison, that she preferred the Frye version. So that's the one she attempted to buy.

It was only then that she learnt that the Dale version is for North American (read, "American") audiences and that the Frye version was made for sale in the United Kingdom but not here. So she decided to wait until we travelled to England for my birthday, determined to acquire it then. Before we left, however, she found out that the Frye version is no longer available, not even in England, for reasons no one has been able to explain to her. She was told that she might be lucky enough to find one in an out-of-the-way bookstore somewhere in Britain but it was unlikely.

So she ordered the Dale version before she left, in case she could not find the Frye version on our trip, then used any opportunity while we were in England to see if she could find Frye's collection. No luck. Not even at the Warner Brothers Harry Potter Studio Tour. The Frye collection of CDs is simply not available, at least not new, and she didn't have the time nor the resources to try to track down a used set.

The result is that the Dale version is still available for sale in North America but the Frye version does not appear to be available anywhere. Strange.

Second, when I started to listen to the first book on CD, I noticed something else I had never known before.

Because it was made for the American audience, the story is called Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, the title used in the US, and not Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, as was used in the UK and Canada.

That much was not a surprise to me. I was well aware that the American version of the first book had a different name (because, according to legend, the US Publishers at Scholastic Books had such a low opinion of the American child that they thought the US kids would not want to read a book about some boring old philosopher and his stone... a sorcerer, however: whiz bang, let me at it!).

What has surprised me, however, is the fact that they didn't stop at changing the title. All through the book, the American publishers replaced British word usages with American ones.

Here are some examples from the first three chapters:

"sellotape" becomes "scotch tape";
"cine-camera" becomes "video camera";
"fringe" (of hair) becomes "bangs"; and
"local comprehensive school" becomes "local public school".

It's quite disconcerting and a little bit ridiculous, in my mind. Especially when you have Jim Dale reading the book to you in a set of thoroughly British accents, using American idioms throughout.

Kind of makes you wonder what would have happened if the bright minds at Scholastic had been the first to publish Shakespeare, Milton, Dickens, Austen or Woolf in the United States...

Monday, March 16, 2015

Sharing the excitement of the Studio Tour

The Gates of Hogwarts
As I said in my last post, my 50th Birthday visit to the Harry Potter Studio Tour was made even more exciting and enjoyable by the fact that a birthday party of young people adopted me and allowed me to share in their excitement.

This is a photo of me at the Hogwarts Gates with several of these happy young people -- published with permission. Note the fabulous robes on two of them and the big smiles on the faces of all of us.

Every once in a while during the tour, I'd run into them again and they'd shout "hello" and wish me "Happy Birthday" and they would point with excitement at the nearest display and asked "Did you see...?"

They told me that they had all been on the tour at least once before. One of the girls said she already owns at least 12 wands (!!!!) so I was very happy when the Studio permitted us all a sneak preview of the Hogwarts Express display. At least the kids got the chance to see something new!

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Harry Potter Studio Tour - An indescribable experience

Me with our friend Pollie, outside the Studio
As a wonderful surprise, my partner took me to England for a ten-day visit in honour of my 50th birthday. As an even more wonderful surprise, she booked tickets for the Warner Brothers Harry Potter Studio Tour in Watford Junction, north of London, on the actual day of my birthday.

To say that this tour was "magical" would be a terrible pun but very true. To say that it was "amazing" would be the understatement of the year. The Warner Brothers Harry Potter Studio Tour was quite probably the best major attraction I have ever visited. It offers an incredible amount to see and do and it is designed and presented in a remarkably visitor-friendly way.

Dementors lurk
If you don't believe me, as my partner Patti and our friend Pollie, who joined us for the tour, neither of whom are Harry Potter fans of any description. They loved the entire experience, even though I turned what is supposed to be a three-hour tour into a six-hour exploration of as many of the displays and presentations as I could take in before I became completely overwhelmed.

And that's one of the beauties of this tour: the first half hour is scripted, with staff leading you through a brief video and your entrance into the Hogwarts Great Hall, but after that you are left to your own devices, to wander the exhibits at your own speed, to spend as much time as you like examining the set for the Burrow, or Dumbledore's Office or Malfoy Manor, or watching the many explanatory videos or trying out the amazing interactive opportunities (spell casting lesson anyone?). You are not "guided" through at a particular speed so you can take your time. And, if you opt to rent a digital tour guide, you can listen to the interviews with directors and crew members, watch the videos, take it all in at your own pace.

My favourite set, the Headmaster's Office
Remember, this is a tour of the studios in which the Harry Potter films were made. You visit the actual sets that were used in the movies; you see the actual costumes and the actual models that were transformed, through the magic of film-making, into the many creatures that come to life on screen. There is so much detail there that a massive Harry Potter fan like me can become completely overwhelmed with just a single display (my favourite was Dumbledore's Office, I think).

You don't have to be a fan to enjoy it, though. Patti and Pollie loved the entire thing, learning as much about film making as about Harry Potter himself.

Because it was my birthday, I received a special badge and, as a result, was wished a "Happy Birthday" by the friendly staff throughout the tour. This also mean that I was befriended by a wonderful group of girls who were there for a birthday party. Two of them were sporting Hogwarts robes for the tour and one admitted to me later that she already owns 12 wands (!!!!). We kept encountering these young women all over the studio and their enthusiasm and excitement served to add to the thrill of my visit.

I don't plan to post all 400 photos (and 60-minutes of video) that I took on the tour in this one blog entry but I will finish with a final, very special shot. Our visit to the Studio Tour had been booked over a year ago so it was quite ironic (and slightly disappointing) when we found out, the day before we attended, that the Hogwarts Express display was about to open... four days after our visit.

Our sneak peek at the Hogwarts Express display!
Imagine how excited we were when we found out that the Studio had decided to hold a "soft opening" of the display on the very day of our visit, for just a half hour or so, to test it out with real visitors. So we got to see it, before just about any other member of the public had the chance. Awesome!!!