Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Fantastic Beasts coming soon

Today, we got our first peek at "Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them", the new Potter-world film slated for release in 2016.

The timing is interesting (at least to me) since today is also the day the first reviews of the new Star Wars film have come out (with wide release either today or tomorrow) -- I wonder if the Potter people were sending notice to the Star Wars people that there's a new cinematic bully in town that isn't planning on giving up its position of dominance so easily.


That being said, I approached the new FB trailer with a great deal of enthusiasm.

First, I am very excited to see J.K. Rowling's debut as a screen writer. She's proven her skill in so many different forms of writing over the years: novels for children, novels for young adults, novels for adults, mysteries, (fictional) text books, (fictional) history books, short stories and even newspaper articles (for the Daily Prophet) but this is her first attempt to write a film.

But, for some reason, she always left the screen writing to others. And I think the film versions of the Harry Potter books were much the worse for that.

So I am very interested to see how Rowling shapes up as a script writer. I have no reason to expect anything but greatness in this script but I find myself quite excited to find out how great the final product really is.

Second, I just love the initial creativity of Rowling's play on the title of the original book (Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them) in the approach to the plot for the film. The book is written as a text: here is a description of a fantastic beast and here is an explanation of its natural habitat.

Not surprisingly, the film abandons the text-book approach and introduces a plot that still ties closely and effectively to the title: we've brought in a case full of magical beasts, we've lost some of them, and now we have to figure out where to find them again.


Now, the trailer is the only thing I have seen or heard with regard to the plot of the new film so I may have missed some information out in the virtual world that might address some of the following questions but here are a couple of things I am already wondering about based on the brief trailer:

1. Since the film's plot apparently involves the arrival in New York City (from England, I suppose) of Newt Scamander with a case full of beasts, the escape of some of which causes the chaos that ensues, does that mean that there are no such beasts that are native to North America?
2. Since the beasts in question arrive inside a brief case, does that mean that they are all tiny? So no Centaurs, Grindylows, Hinkypunks, Hippogryffs, Dementors or anything like that?

And finally, on the trailer itself, while I think it's brilliant that the trailer begins with a well-known Potter-world spell ("lumos maxima"), I have to admit that I am very frustrated that the filmmakers have chosen to continue the ridiculous conceit that "lumos maxima" is a spell that needs to be renewed over and over again. This conceit was introduced in one of the early movies and, to be honest, makes no sense at all.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

It's not all about you, mate

In honouring Snape, Harry hoped in his heart that he too would be forgiven. The deaths at the Battle of Hogwarts would haunt Harry forever.

So stated J.K. Rowling in a tweet response to the argument over why Harry and Ginny would name one of their children, at least in part, after Severus Snape.

Whenever I read the later Harry Potter books, I just wish someone had pulled Harry aside and said, as clearly as possible, "Look mate, this is NOT all and only about you. No one is sacrificing themselves for you. This is a battle over our freedom; this is a battle of good versus evil. Just because you happen to have been placed at the centre of it, that doesn't mean we are fighting and dying for or because of you. Stop trying to make this all about you."

Ron makes a speech like this in the first part of The Deathly Hallows film and it is one of the very few things about that film that I actually like.

Because a speech like that needed to be made. Harry needed to get off his high horse and realize that the war was much bigger than him. He needed to understand that the battle was not all about him, any victory was not to his credit alone and any defeat did not fall entirely on his shoulders.

I read quotes like the one at the top of this entry from Rowling and I wonder what she really feels:

1. Is she making the point that Harry is a flawed individual, with a bit of an egotistical streak, who actually continues to believe that this was all about him and that, therefore, he is responsible for the "deaths at the Battle of Hogwarts" such that he needs to be forgiven for them? or

2. Does she, as the author, truly believe that he requires forgiveness? That the battle and the deaths were his fault?

I trust... I sincerely hope that the first possibility is true.

Is Snape good or evil? Is he even really one character?

Is Snape good? Or is Snape evil?

According to a report on the CNN website, that argument has again erupted, this time in the Twittersphere and this time focusing on why Harry and Ginny would choose to name their son "Albus Severus", honouring both Harry's biggest mentor and guide in the wizarding world, a man who was almost without fail kind and fair with Harry, and the man who was, for most of the seven-book series, sadistically abusive of Harry and his friends.

Even our favourite author, J.K. Rowling, entered the heated fray.

After what sounds to have been a long and surprisingly vitriolic debate, Rowling tweeted: "There's a whole essay in why Harry gave his son Snape's name, but the decision goes to the heart of who Harry was, post-war."

And further: "In honouring Snape, Harry hoped in his heart that he too would be forgiven. The deaths at the Battle of Hogwarts would haunt Harry forever."

And finally: "Snape is all grey. You can't make him a saint: he was vindictive & bullying. You can't make him a devil: he died to save the wizarding world."

Now, you can go back through my earlier posts on this blog and find snippets here and there that might help you understand my own interpretation, my "take" on this debate and on Rowling's approach to it (and I would encourage you to do so -- I've had a lot of fun writing all these posts and I hope you will be willing to invest some time in reading them) but allow me to summarise my thoughts on the subject here.

First, I agree in some ways with Rowling: Snape is an amalgam of good and evil. Shaped by his early personal experiences, he is a proud, angry, vindictive man. We know that his father was abusive and his parents fought all through his childhood. We know that he was bullied by James and Sirius and their gang and we know that, in the midst of all that, he fell very deeply and irrevocably in love with Lily Evans, one of the few major characters in the books who is presented as being without fault.

But I also think it is important that, while Snape turns out to be fighting on the side of good, he was also a brutal, nasty, horrible person in situations where such egregious behavior was not at all necessary. Nothing required him to bully Neville throughout his years at Hogwarts; nothing required Snape to pick on Ron and Hermione either.

Even if we buy the argument that Snape's terrible relationship with James Potter in some way explained and excused his behaviour toward Harry, I doubt very much it can possibly excuse just how awful he was to our boy hero. Not even the argument that Snape needed to convince and re-convince Voldemort that he was not an agent for Dumbledore could explain away just how unnecessarily cruel Snape was to Harry and his friends.

Further, even if we accept that Snape is a good guy, he did help bring about the deaths of two other of the good guys: Emmeline Vance and Sirius Black.

How does that fact impact the argument with regard to Snape? As I have written before, at its heart, this is a moral question. Is it morally acceptable to sacrifice at least two lives in hopes of avoiding the deaths of many many more? And, if we can forgive Snape the deaths of Vance and Black simply because Snape turns out to be willing to sacrifice himself to help defeat Voldemort, can we forgive him his earlier behaviour toward these children, when he was in the role of teacher, for the same reason?

I think our analysis of Snape has to take into account the evolving complexity of the books, the characters and their situations, from The Philosopher's Stone (which is a children's book) to The Deathly Hallows (which is a fully adult novel).

In the early books, Snape was basically a cardboard figure who represented evil. He was only and utterly Harry's nemesis. Whether or not Rowling had fully fleshed out, when she wrote the first three books, the complex and contradictory role Snape would eventually play in the later novels, Snape is presented early on as a flat, mysterious, horrible character.

More importantly, he was the key to one of the earliest examples of one of Rowling's favourite narrative strategies: misdirection. In The Philosopher's Stone, for example, Snape had to be presented as irredeemably evil in order to draw the reader's attention away from Quirrell, one of the two true villains of that story.

I would argue that, as the novels progressed and increased in depth and complexity, Rowling added more depth and complexity to her characters. She added shades of grey, to use that now horrible expression, to what had been black and white, flat, stock characters.

You see this most specifically with regard to Snape and Dumbledore, though Dumbledore's shades are mostly added only after his death in The Half-Blood Prince.

If I had to state things bluntly, I would say that the Snape of the first four books (especially books one and two) is not the same character as the Snape of the last three (especially the final one). To hold the actions of the early Snape against the later Snape is almost unfair.

In the end, this is not a question of Snape's personality or moral goodness; this is a question of Rowling's narrative strategy.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Nicholas Flamel was a real guy

I haven't had the chance to do much Harry Potter reading lately, what with the release of my own new book of children's stories and the reading requirements of my alt-sci-fi-fantasy book club, but that doesn't mean I'm not thinking about J.K.'s magical world.

In fact, sometimes I am disturbed at how deeply Harry Potter and his pals have penetrated my psyche.

Names that come up in general conversation are immediately mapped back to the characters of the seven books. If I hear or read "Hermione" or "Peverell" or even something as common as "Harry", I immediately think of the novels.

Places I encounter in my daily life get referred back to the Rowling books: Charing Cross Road? Oh, that's where Hermione apparated them in The Deathly Hallows, for example.

So imagine my reaction when I came across the following book at the local library's book sale: The Alchemyst: The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel, written by Michael Scott and published in 2007. Nicholas Flamel?? NICHOLAS FLAMEL????

I know that name. That's the guy in The Philosopher's Stone who had the last known Stone and who was good friends with Dumbledore. He had to permit the Stone to be destroyed in order to thwart Voldemort's efforts to steal it -- in essence, he had to sacrifice himself to stop the Dark Lord.

The Scott book referred to Nicholas Flamel as an "alchemyst" and said he had lived for hundreds of years. "Wow," I thought, "this Scott guy is borrowing liberally from Rowling. I trust he has credited her properly."

I scanned the book but found no mention anywhere of J.K. Rowling or the Harry Potter books. Scandalised, I put the offending book back on the shelf and returned to my office.

And did some research.

And discovered that Rowling hadn't invented Flamel and his story -- like Michael Scott, she had incorporated a real life person from centuries ago into her own story.

So I owe Michael Scott and apology. At least for what I was thinking.

And I come away even more impressed with J.K. Rowling (and Scott too) for the depth of their research and the scope of their creativity. In my own books, I have worked hard to mix historical fact with fiction, to mingle real people with my imaginary characters.

It's nice to see the Rowling and Scott have done the same, with such wonderful results.