Sunday, June 06, 2004
Yes, it’s true, I’ve read all five Harry Potter books and I know my Flitwick from my Umbridge. I resisted mightily at first, partly for the reasons the Onion gestured at in its December 2001 headline, “Children, Creepy Middle-Aged Weirdos Swept Up In Harry Potter Craze.” (I’d link to the story—it’s hilarious—but it requires Onion Premium or Onion Advantage or something.) Also partly because of that weird brand of American Anglophilia I associate with PBS, A&E, and Moynihan liberals. Also partly because I thought I’d already read all that stuff back when it was written by Roald Dahl.
I realize that parental reading habits in these matters depend heavily on the age of the children; I believe the last book I read with Nick, actually with him, night by night, was the quite wonderful Racso and the Rats of Nimh, and that would have been sometime around 1992. From that point on, he was on his own. So when he became one of J. K. Rowling’s faithful readers, buying Goblet of Fire the day it appeared and devouring it in one all-night reading marathon, I didn’t even look over his shoulder.
Then I took Jamie to the first Harry Potter movie, and I was stunned—partly by the story, which was at once darker and more charming than I’d anticipated, but mostly by Jamie, who completely got it. I suppose it helped that Jamie was 10 at the time, and that his glasses look a great deal like Harry’s, so that he began talking about attending Hogwarts when he turned 11, and practicing the “wingardium leviosa” spell now and then. As for me, after we saw the movie I was curious enough to read the dang book at last, and I was fairly impressed. I’ve since heard that Harold Bloom, that learned old gasbag and self-designated arbiter of all written words, despises the book and has said so at least once every six months for the past five years. Well, alas, Bloom, my good man—leave aside the sorry spectacle of the world’s most famous literary critic spending some of his dwindling energies trying to squash J. K. Rowling like a bug, all because of a series of books whose readership extends to eight-year-olds, for god’s sake (would Lionel Trilling have behaved this way with A Wrinkle in Time, do you think?), and let me put it this way: you style yourself after Falstaff, but you have no sense of humor whatsoever. You never did—and your Rowling snits seal the deal. Now, what do we call people who think of themselves as latter-day Falstaffs, but who have never uttered a funny thing in their lives? Don’t think Shakespeare—think Restoration comedy.
Back to Jamie. After Jamie and I had seen Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets ten or twenty times, I suggested to him that we read the books together. Jamie doesn’t really read on his own, unless you count his various coffee-table books about the Beatles, and I wasn’t sure that he would be able to follow a narrative of 300, 400, or 700 pages on the basis of nighttime bedside reading, which might cover seven or eight pages on a good night. But then, I didn’t think he’d follow the plot of the first movie, so what do I know?
Well, I don’t want to say too much more here, because (this is my first conflict of blogging interest in five months) I eventually want to write something about this experience for some nonacademic journal. But suffice it to say that the Harry Potter books have extended Jamie’s capacity for narrative by powers of ten. We started in early 2003 and we’re now a third of the way through Order of the Phoenix. I read to him (sometimes Janet does), and I annotate and explain where necessary—not only with regard to unfamiliar words, but more important, with regard to narrative questions not broached by the films (for example, Harry and the Weasleys’ discussion, early in Chamber of Secrets, of whether Dobby the house elf might be lying to Harry, since, after all, he works for the Malfoys). Once in a while I ask him questions about things that happened hundreds of pages ago, or in other books, and I’m astonished at how much he retains. He’s also expanded his emotional repertoire as well, though I really shouldn’t say which character he sometimes feels sorry for, or whom he’d like to invite to the Yule Ball, without his permission. But I will say that he’s come to understand, via Professors Dumbledore, McGonagall, Sprout, etc. that his own parents are Professors too, though without the whole robes-and-hats-and-wands regalia. As the books delve further into the problems associated with the idea of individual autonomy, seriously (via the Imperius Curse) and comically (with Hermione’s S.P.E.W.), we have to stop and discuss what’s what and who’s who (those of you familiar with the plot twists at the conclusion of Azkaban and Goblet of Fire know what I mean), and of course Jamie has to protect me from dementors with his patronus every now and then. But for the most part, it’s going amazingly well.
So yesterday he and Janet and I went to see the new movie—a milestone of sorts, since this is the first time Jamie’s read the book before seeing the film. I made him promise to hold my hand when the dementors came so that I would not be scared, and he did, but I think even he was a little surprised at how ghastly they are, and didn’t have all that much comforting left over for me. I won’t bore you with a full review of the film (after all, I have to bore you on Tuesday with a recap of the Cup finals!), but I will say that
-- the lovely Garman Theater in Bellefonte, PA is a great place to see movies, especially when your tix are taken by a young man who looks exactly like Professor Snape, and who has obligingly dressed the part;
-- Alfonso Cuaron is a more subtle director than Chris Columbus, but nonetheless, the film demands so much compression of the first nine-tenths of the book (in order to do justice to the concluding sequences) that it may be the first movie in the series for which a knowledge of the book is a prerequisite. I know you can’t have kids’ movies coming in at the length of Berlin Alexanderplatz, now, but still, slightly more should have been done with Hermione’s inexplicable disappearances, and the Crookshanks - Scabbers subplot, so critical to the novel, is given about eight seconds of screen time; and
-- we all love Alan Rickman.
Kudos to Rowling, by the way, for broaching the issue of having an out gay man—er, I mean, a werewolf, cough cough—teaching at Hogwarts. Note that Hogwarts’ only competent Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher (over a five-year span!) is chased from his job by a hate campaign mounted by the Malfoys. If I recall correctly (it was only yesterday, after all), the film makes matters slightly more explicit than the novel, by having Lupin attribute his resignation to the fact that parents will not want “someone like me” teaching their children (he does not use the word “werewolf"). She’d already broached the racism of the Malfoys in Chamber of Secrets, and when we get to Goblet of Fire we’ll come up against the brutal stigma faced by those among us who are half giant. I just gotta love Rowling—she’s managed to piss off the insufferable Bloom and the insane fundamentalist right, and she has no patience with Daily Prophet reporters who rely lazily and uncritically on sources like the Malfoys or Ministry of Magic apparatchiks. What’s not to like?