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Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Fairy tale ending

Things have come full circle.

I was in the United States when I saw the first Harry Potter movie, specifically in Redmond, Washington. I knew precious little about it other than that the books were selling wildly and were being given credit for motivating an entire generation of children to actually read. Our then-Munchkin was not quite a year and a half old, and it was the first time the Missus and I had entrusted her to someone who was not a blood relative—so that we could go to a cinema together for the first time since she was born.

Now, it is almost eleven years later. And it is that former Munchkin herself who dragged the Missus and me (and an aunt and a cousin) to a cinema to see the final film in the series. Once again, we were in America, this time in Las Vegas. All of the installments in between we saw in Ireland. Sometime during that span, my kid has managed to read all the books and see all the movies multiple times. I began reading the first book (here called by its original title, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone) to her at bedtime, but she grew frustrated when I kept falling asleep. She took the book from me and finished it herself, followed by all the others. To this day, I myself have never read any more than those first few chapters.

Something else sort of came full circle on the same day I saw Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2. (Has there ever been a more unwieldy blockbuster movie title?) I made a peace of sorts with the Lifetime channel. Shortly before I saw that first Harry Potter movie, I wrote a rather scathing indictment of the self-styled cable channel “for women.” For a good while, it was one of my most popular commentaries, getting lots of hits and being frequently emailed by other equally frustrated males. I even heard Jay Leno make a joke about Lifetime on The Tonight Show that was so close to what I had written that I suspected that one of his writers had come across my web site.

As it happened, the same day I saw the last Harry Potter film, I also caught a Lifetime biopic about J.K. Rowling, clearly timed to cash in on the hoopla over the movie’s release. Called Magic Beyond Words: The JK Rowling Story, it was a respectably journeyman effort at fashioning the well known facts about Rowling’s rise to success and fame into a two-hour TV movie. In refreshing contrast to the wallow-in-victimhood flicks I remember enduring at my mother’s house, this movie celebrated one of the most singular successes of any person, man or woman, in our lifetime. With the economy typical of TV films, it told the story of girl with outsize imagination who grows up into what looks like limited prospects, as she returns to Britain with an infant daughter after a brief, failed marriage in Portugal. Frustrated by bureaucratic rules that make it difficult to work and collect social welfare, she sets out to write the book that has been evolving in her head for years. In a too-good-to-be-true development, she manages to get an agent and publishers, first in the UK and then in America. That’s pretty much it. The movie provides little information beyond what is available on a book’s dust jacket, except perhaps the fact that Rowling’s mother died tragically at a young age from multiple sclerosis—explaining one of the wealthy author’s several philanthropic focuses. In the title role, Without a Trace’s Poppy Montgomery looks uncannily like the woman we have seen in photos and the occasional TV appearance.

For me, the key “aha” moment in the movie comes when Rowling is advised that she should use initials for her official pen name rather than her given name, Joanne, to obscure the fact that she is a woman writing a fantasy book. It turns out that she never had a middle name, so she has to decide whether to go with J. Rowling or to invent one or more letters to add to the J. In a quick montage, she goes through several possibilities, one of which is, with a bit of tongue in cheek, “J.R.R. Rowling.” Now, I have no idea if Rowling actually considered that as a pen name or whether this a bit of mischievous invention by the screenwriter. But it implies that Rowling was consciously following in the footsteps of, and was likely influenced by, the legendary J.R.R. Tolkien.

This brings to mind something I have recounted before. When the Missus and I first saw Peter Jackson’s wonderful The Fellowship of the Ring, she remarked that it seemed to her that the filmmakers were “copying” a lot from Harry Potter. To the extent that this was true, it was actually the reverse case since Rowling finished her manuscript for Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone in 1995. Tolkien, on the other hand, had completed The Hobbit years before it came to the attention of a publisher in 1936. The Lord of the Rings was published in 1954 and 1955. Was Rowling influenced by Tolkien? It is not even necessary to ask. It is a given that every writer of fantasy since the latter part of the 20th century has been influenced, at least to some extent, by Tolkien.

If I have never completely warmed up to Rowling’s books, it is because they simply weren’t aimed at me. She aimed them at a younger audience, but she took the interesting approach of maturing the characters and themes along with her initial audience. Rarely has the notion of readers “growing up” with a series of books been so literally true. But from my point of view, the books seemed a bit derivative. To be fair, there are going to be common themes and conventions in all stories of epic heroes, whether that hero is King Arthur or Frodo Baggins or Capt. John Sheridan of Babylon 5 or Harry Potter. That hero will be led to go on a quest. He will be tested to the limits of his endurance. He will die, either figuratively or literally. And he will be reborn. And he will triumph, although at a cost. That Rowling followed the time-honored formula does not bother me at all, but the trappings of wizardry she applied to it always did seem well worn. She took elements that were out there and made them her own, and more power to her. What really kind of annoyed me was the underlying politics of the Hogwarts school. The character of Harry was always infused with adolescent resentments (resented the family he grew up with, from birth had a sense of being the chosen one but not treated with the deference he was due). On top of that, his antagonists at school were virtually Nazi caricatures. (The blond Malfoys are always on about not liking wizards who are not of pure blood. And they are mean to their house elf.) In the end, these villains are two-dimensional and not very satisfying. And the ultimate villain, Voldemort, is little more than a nose-less face which utters stock lines from the Evil Guy Handbook. There is no human dimension in him to identify with or to explain him. Even when we see him as a child or a young man, he is a much a blank slate as Damien from The Omen.

In the end, however, these are quibbles. I do not begrudge the pleasure Rowling’s books—and the movies made from them—have provided to millions. But given the size of the work and the resources spent on them, it would be nice if they had a bit more depth.

-S.L., 28 July 2011

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