Written by: Erik Myers, special to CC2k
(IMPORTANT NOTE: This piece is a dissenting viewpoint, and the opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of CC2K. Do you disagree? Is the author wrong? Head on over to the forums and be heard!)
I hate Harry Potter. Even more than Harry Potter himself, I hate his fans: mouth-breathing, sweaty-palmed, socially retarded teenagers who eventually grow into mouth-breathing, sweaty-palmed, socially retarded adults. You can’t help but notice them: in their teenage form, they’re the homely girls blocking up the entire aisle at Barnes & Noble, camped out on the floor with their blackhead-encrusted noses buried in some moronic Manga digest (a genre I hate almost—almost—as much); in their adult form, they’re the guys who live in Mom’s basement, engaged in an epic war against soap, greedily devouring Cheetos by the handfuls while shouting upstairs that the running of the vacuum cleaner is interfering with their World of Warcraft connection (which they play obsessively when not checking in on the online countdown to Emma Watson’s eighteenth birthday). I hate these people, which could very well mean that I hate you, as well. Nice to meet you.
Now, there are many who could in turn argue that my contempt for this franchise stems not so much from the books and subsequent films as much as the followers themselves. Trekkies (or “Trekkers,” the pretentious and more preferred label for what is still an embarrassing lifestyle) seem to be universally clueless that their utter devotion to Star Trek is what has made the series so incapable of slipping into the mainstream, despite the fact that there are actually several films and episodes in the franchise that deserve viewing. In the case of the Harry Potter films, however, the rabid devotion becomes all the more intolerable when we recognize the fact that J.K. Rowling (and the subsequent film makers) are simply recycling the same garbage over and over and over again. A geek is inoffensive when keeping to his or herself; however, the geek who makes it impossible to see a summer blockbuster like Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix in the theater because he or she turns it into a very public religious experience is the geek I cannot tolerate…especially when they’re losing their minds over the exact same film they’ve watched four times already. Nothing is worse than watching someone fall to their knees in worship of crap.
And that’s the major problem here. Harry Potter is, on its own, a mediocre series of books and films that have become held up as pop culture events by people too stupid to realize that each installment is indistinguishable from the one that preceded it. When a phenomenon like this is created, it leads to a general dumbing-down of our artistic sensibilities, resulting in lazy writing and repetitive film making.
Before I launch into my tirade (and buckle up, ‘cause it’s a-gonna be a bumpy ride), allow me to share my personal history with the Harry Potter franchise.
Back in the late-90s, my sister gave me the first book, Harry Potter and the Americanized Title, and I found it to be a very brisk and rather engaging read. Rowling’s prose reminded me quite a bit of The Hobbit (and in some instances, Charlotte’s Web) in its ability to entertain the kiddies while keeping the adults interested as well. It’s no mean feat: most childrens’ books are pandering, superficial cheese-fests filled with Important Life Lessons and annoying, talking animals. I read the second book, Chamber of Secrets, and decided that I’d better stop before a casual disappointment became a thorough dislike. Originally, I’d thought: "Okay, this is cute, I wonder where Rowling goes with this," and then found that the answer to that question was that the story went absolutely nowhere…except to the top of the bestseller lists, as well as the Box Office charts.
So, to answer your universal questions, no, I haven’t read all of the books, and yes, this editorial will focus only on the films, which I feel I am more qualified to discuss.
With all that out of the way, let’s reiterate my thesis, which is this: every Harry Potter film recycles the exact same plot as the one that preceded it. Sure, you get a few new characters thrown into the mix, some new prophetic mumbo-jumbo gets bandied about, yadda-yadda, blah blah blah…but nothing advances the plot in a more than superficial way. To demonstrate, I am going to construct a sequel entitled Harry Potter and The Same Movie As The Last One, and if you give it more than a cursory glance, I think you’ll see my point.
Ready? Here goes!
1. Harry is living with his Muggle family. They're horribly abusive. Then, in time-tested fashion, Harry (or one of Harry’s friends/pets/house elfs) enacts some magical “punishment” upon the family that is both humiliating and deserved. Ha ha ha!
2. Time to catch the train to Hogwarts! Friends reuinte! Hermione’s unibrow becomes less severe! To everything, turn, turn, turn.
3. We reach Hogwarts. Old rivalries flicker! Harry makes new aquaintances, and we can immediately tell if they’re “good” or “bad” based upon they way they deliver the line: “So…it’s the famous. Harry. Potter.”
4. Surprise! There's a new Defense Against The Dark Arts instructor. Remember this once we get to the "twist" at the end…
5. Sneak out at night. Gather clues.
6. Meet the next day. Discuss clues.
7. Sneak out at night. Gather more clues.
8. Meet the next day. Discuss clues.
9. Harry feels angst about not knowing his parents.
10. Quidditch time!
12. More filler.
13. The bad guy is revealed! And involved in this plot (typically) is none other than — the new Defense Against the Dark Arts Instructor! Everyone gasps!
14. All of Harry's friends/companions are eliminated. Harry must go on alone! Will he survive…?
15. Harry confronts Voldemort or one of Voldemort's guises…and beats him to a standstill using newly discovered power. He feels a sense of closeness to the parents he never knew.
16. Yay! Griffindor wins!
Yawn. Same plot points over and over again. Screenwriting 101 would dictate that in each successive installment, the earlier themes would be built upon, and while some have obviously been explored, they’re never explored enough to warrant seven films that each stagger drunkenly toward a three-hour run time.
If there’s a true crime in this franchise, it’s the fact that we’re teased with the idea of a magical world of adventure and excitement, and yet we remain “housebound” in each story. Rowling’s universe never breathes, never offers a sense of scope. Rather than exploring the boundaries—intellectual and physical—of a universe hitherto invisible to us “Muggles,” we stay inside like it’s a rainy day for yet another Scooby Doo mystery, one that the villainous Voldemort would have gotten away with, too – if it hadn’t been for those meddling kids…!
This is most glaringly evident in the previously mentioned running time. Personally, I love me an epic. I don’t suffer one bit from our MTV-induced pop culture ADD, so I don’t find it difficult to stay still for long periods of time (hence this article). However, while a novel can be as long as it wants, given that it’s meant to be read in spurts*, a film has to earn every second that it demands from you. The pacing isn’t the same, and certain ideas have to be condensed or dropped outright. While I’ve been a major Lord of the Rings enthusiast since childhood, I’ll be the first to point out that Professor Tolkien’s book would have died onscreen had it been filmed as written.
Don’t try and tell this to a Pott-Head, or else you might get your wand ripped off. As mentioned before, the fans of this franchise happen to be its biggest detriment. I can’t expect every Tom, Dick and Harry Potter to have taken Screenwriting 101, but the two major rules would be 1) Show, Don’t Tell, and 2) Keep Things Moving. The Potter films suffer in both regards, featuring extended filler sequences in which boring, two-dimensional characters stand around talking about what’s happening instead of being engaged in the situation. Again, much of this is the result of keeping the series Hogwarts-bound, but it results in a serious case of repetition.
Fans don’t want to hear this. They stamp and yowl and complain over every little detail, ever single, minute variation from the book. They riot and clamor over whether we got to see the scene where Harry has heartburn and decides to stay in for the evening, or whether that character-building scene with Ron and his misplaced pencil sharpener made the final cut. A seven-hundred page book cannot be translated verbatim, no matter how much the fan base might want it to be.** Nevertheless, I’ve had several very animated Potter fans grow increasingly animated to the point where they spit on me (yes, spit on me) when I suggested that the films were too long as is, and didn’t need any more filler. “But YOU don’t UNderSTAND!” I’ve been told. “YOU havEN’T read the BOOKS! I hAVE!” My response is always the same: I understood the films well enough without any more filler than I already endured, thank you very much.
And speaking of repetition: how can a critic such as myself expect any variation when it’s literally the same formula over and over again? It’s not even just the fact that the plot advances at a snail’s pace – it’s the fact that each story begins at the start of the school year and ends before summer vacation! Does He Who Must Not Be Named have a summer condo someplace? Does Ultimate Evil relax on the beach before another school year of wickedness? Dumb dumb dumb.
The films have been, by and large, excruciating to sit through. Even the best one, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, was pulled down by the sheer weight of its own inherent dullness. You keep hoping that something will happen, something interesting. Something that shows these kids as real teenagers wrestling with magic and hormones. Maybe Snape will stay after class with Ron and “touch him.” Maybe Harry will discover that he can’t stop thinking about the way Neville has looked rather fetching in his academic dress lately. Something. Anything. And so far, the closest we’ve gotten so far has been a god damn costume ball…which reminds me of a story I like to call THE ONE TIME THAT HARRY POTTER TRIED SOMETHING DIFFERENT: A TALE OF PERSONAL TRUAMA.
I was dragged (not quite kicking and screaming, but pretty damn close) to the midnight showing of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. My stomach began to hurt the moment we entered the theater and I saw that it was not only jam-packed, but it was jam-packed with ugly Manga chicks and college frat boys, all of whom were near-exploding with excitement. Lights down; film rolls; crowd cheers. The film begins and plays exactly like the first three, causing me to zone out and start thinking about what chores and errands needed doing the next day. The crowd wouldn’t shut the hell up, exploding and cheering and laughing, not only at the obvious things (“Yay, they’re playing Quidditch!”), but over bizarre, minute details that as a non-Pott-head I must have missed (“Look, it’s an Asian girl – CHEER!”).
Then, all of the sudden, things got weird.
A plot began to unfold onscreen involving Harry and his friends attending the Hogwarts prom/homecoming/costume ball, and suddenly the main storyline was left dead in the road for forty-five minutes as the characters all began scrambling to find dates. This led to an extended sequence that was like a combination of Pretty in Pink and Rainbow Brite in which our dapper young men show up at the worst middle school dance imaginable to (badly) dance the night away. This on its own was juvenile enough – but the crowd was literally howling and screaming their applause. I’d never seen such a spectacle. Not at Star Wars: Episode One, not at Spider-Man, not even at Return of the King. (Presumably) grown men were almost falling out of their chairs as they clapped and pumped their fists in the air at the sight of Harry dancing with some chick who looked like a girl with Little Old Lady Disease. All I could think as I shriveled with embarrassment was: These movies are made for twelve year-old girls.
In retrospect, I think I can safely say that if there has been a deviation in storytelling within the Potter franchise, it was that one. However, as soon as it was over, we had more of the same, with Harry facing insurmountable challenges (will he succeed…?) before coming face-to-face with his adversary. However, I’m still not sure how it turned out because I am simultaneously humiliated and justified to announce that for the first time in my life, I fell asleep during a film. It was that bad. And afterward, when my then-girlfriend*** asked, “But don’t you want to know what happened…?” I simply responded: “He beat Voldemort, who will be back in the next one.” Wow! How did I know that…?
Nope, I haven’t seen Order of the Phoenix yet, but I can probably tell you what’s going to happen with a fair degree of accuracy. I heard this one is “darker” than the last few (which I had about the last two, as well), and I also heard that Dumbledore buys the farm…but seeing as they killed a character at the end of Goblet of Fire, a climactic death scene seems…oh, I don’t know…kind of repetitive…?
The number one counter-argument is that “at least the series is encouraging kids to read,” which in my mind makes no more sense than saying that it’s okay to molest your daughter because at least you’re teaching her about sex. While I’m all for the idea of kids reading (or watching lengthy films, for that matter), what I object to is the idea of feeding them Twinkies instead of something that can be nutritious and delicious.
I mentioned earlier that the Harry Potter series is, on its own, pretty harmless stuff. It’s once it becomes a pop culture phenomenon inflated by mindless lemmings that I start to get irritated. The overall quality of major motion pictures seems to be suffering as we plow through the decade, and much of it is due to the cookie-cutter nature of blockbusters. Harry Potter is one of the biggest franchises in the world right now, and the fact that it churns out nearly-identical product to an unquestioning and undemanding fan base demonstrates to Hollywood executives that this is a medium that has less to do with art than will filling seats.
But what do I know? I haven’t read the books.
*I speak for the average reader when I suggest that novels are meant to be read over a period of time, however long or short that period may be. Harry Potter fans are another animal entirely, and it wouldn’t surprise me one bit if most die-hard fans rush home from their midnight line party at Borders and devour all thirty-five hundred pages of Deathly Hallows in one Red Bull and Stacker-fueled marathon.
**It should be noted that the two most slavish adaptations thus far—Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and Harry Potter and the Chamber of ZZZZZZZZZ—were both more or less literal translations of the source material, and are likewise the least-praised by the critics and fans alike. Food for thought.
***We broke up shortly afterward. She shouldn’t have dragged me to that screening. I warned her.