Harry Potter: The Storm Breaks

[15 November 2001]

By John G. Nettles

+ review of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by Todd R. Ramlow

Gerald Gardner, a British anthropologist and occultist often called the father of modern witchcraft, wrote in one of his books about a coven of witches who reportedly gathered on a Dover cliff during the darkest days of World War II. Marshaling their forces, the story goes, they averted a full-scale invasion by the German navy by calling forth an enormous storm over the English Channel. It’s a fantastic story and probably untrue, but it’s most interesting as an entry in the British Isles’ most enduring tradition, from Gildas to Mallory to Bedknobs and Broomsticks: that the Isles and their peoples are inherently enchanted. Shot through with magic on the molecular level, a British soul with the right cause and the proper determination can work miracles.

Author J. K. Rowling is one determined Brit, and the storm she has been steadily brewing is of diluvian proportions. Five years ago, Rowling was a single mother on the dole in Edinburgh, making up stories about a boy wizard at a magical boarding school to entertain her daughter. Today that boy wizard, with the unassuming name of Harry Potter, has sold a freakish 110 million books worldwide, earned his creator wealth, fame, the adulation of children and adults alike—including such grown-up kids as Steven Spielberg and Stephen King—and a knighthood. And this month, the release of the film version of her first book, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, is widely anticipated to break box-office records, a deluge that threatens to sink James Cameron’s Titanic.

It’s Harry’s world right now—the rest of us just live in it. This is not necessarily a bad thing, much as we may wish for the media hype and merchandising blitz that have inundated the stores with Harry Potter clothing, watches, action figures, coloring books, card games, candy, and a million other franchises to fade. As we find ourselves staring into the round, bespectacled face of Daniel Radcliffe (who plays Harry in the film) over and over again while doing the holiday shopping, it may help us somewhat to remember what that face represents, the reunion of children with the love of books. Or rather, the reunion of children with books that require a vocabulary and more than one sitting to read. The Harry Potter books—a projected series of seven, with the fifth due out next year—have gotten progressively longer and more complex with each volume, unheard-of in the usually formula-and format-driven world of children’s book publishing. Book Four, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, runs 734 pages, a page count that most authors for adults wouldn’t dare to attempt, and yet it was the single fastest-selling book in publishing history and 10-year-olds devour it whole, then go back and read the entire series again.

The sheer ubiquity of the Harry Potter phenomenon renders exposition a moot point—if you don’t know the story by now, you will by Christmas, children of your own or no—but for this discussion, here it is in brief. Harry Potter, an orphan in the care of an uncle and aunt who inexplicably despise him and force him to live in a closet, discovers that he is, in fact, a wizard. And not just any wizard, but one possessed of such power that as an infant, he survived and repelled an attack by the unspeakably evil sorcerer who killed his parents. This leaves him with a trademark scar, shaped like a lightning bolt, on his forehead and a near-messianic celebrity within the shadow world of magic he discovers as he begins his schooling at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, a sort of Eton for the spellbook crowd. Thus begins Harry’s journey as an ordinary kid forced to live up to an extraordinary responsibility, the trials of adolescence in extremis, which Rowling captures precisely. For all the fantastic elements swirling about him, Harry remains ever accessible, a good but not great student who’d rather be playing sports (in this case Quidditch, like rugby on flying broomsticks) than saving the world. He likes some of his teachers, hates others, makes friends and enemies; at all times, Harry is first and foremost a kid, like his millions of readers.

What is startling about Rowling’s series, however, is not just its popularity but its resonance with children and adults in spite of its unrelenting Britishness. Each volume follows Harry through a year at Hogwarts, where the students are divided into competing houses and take their Ordinary Wizarding Levels during fifth year. But Rowling never bothers to translate the arcana of the English boarding-school system for her young readers in other countries (one proposal for the film, quickly nixed, was to set it in an American high school). Nor are sundry other Britishisms—government ministries, pubs that admit children, the British rail—ever glossaried for an international audience. Furthermore, Rowling’s style, strongly reminiscent of Roald Dahl, mixes subdued narrative with accented and colloquial dialogue in a way that eschews the usual slam-bang pyrotechnics that mark most current entertainments for children. It is hard to believe that Harry Potter and Pokemon have roughly the same fan base.

Or perhaps not. Like Pokemon‘s noisy little protagonist Ash, destined to become the world’s greatest Pokemon Master, Harry is every child’s dream of empowerment come to life. The key to understanding the chord that Harry’s adventures continually strike is that the saga is thematically ancient and universal: Harry is an archetypal Child of Destiny, emerging from humble circumstances to assume the mantle of greatness, along the way learning the importance of wielding power responsibly. The late Joseph Campbell would doubtlessly have made hay out of this, comparing Harry to any number of mythological heroes and demigods, including the one with whom he shares his closest kinship, King Arthur—in many ways, the Potter series is essentially The Sword in the Stone with school ties.

This is, of course, not to say that all parents view the series so charitably. The fact that Harry’s journey to manhood follows the path of sorcery has raised the inevitable hue and cry from fundamentalist Christian groups who assert that Rowling is enticing children to embrace the occult. All four books in the series rank high on the American Library Association’s list of the 100 most challenged books, and currently there are vicious battles being waged in Michigan, Tennessee, and Texas over the restriction of access to—or outright removal of—the series from school libraries. Rowling herself has been vilified and targeted by conservative ministries. On the Kjos Ministries’ website, an excerpt from an interview with Rowling, in which she reminisces about pretending to be wizards and fairies with her friends as children, is followed by a note from the site’s owner about Rowling’s clear “lifelong obsession with the occult.” It is safe to expect this same sort of protest from conservative groups as the film steamrolls into theatres.

On the other end of the philosophical spectrum, many fans of the series have lodged their own protests against the film, believing that rendering the books on the big screen undermines all their positives, taking the images of the characters and scenarios from kids’ imaginations and concretizing them—Hogwarts will forever look like this and Harry will forever look like that—and there is something to be said for this argument.

Still, nothing could have stopped the film series from happening, just as Great Britain’s other major film franchise, the James Bond pictures, continues to chug along despite having gone through five lead actors and exhausting the Ian Fleming catalog. The Potter films have attracted a bevy of acting heavyweights—Maggie Smith, Alan Rickman, Robbie Coltrane, and Richard Harris among them—who would otherwise not have locked themselves into a seven-picture series for children. Harris initially balked at playing Hogwarts’ headmaster Albus Dumbledore until receiving a call from his 11-year-old granddaughter, who threatened never to speak to him again if he didn’t take the part. Coltrane, who plays Hagrid, the kindly but bumbling giant groundskeeper, has joked that he has nightmares of children chasing him in angry hordes for mucking up the part.

All kidding aside, it is precisely this concern for living up to the expectations of millions of unforgiving children who have read, dissected, and absorbed the texts with the intensity of Talmudic scholars, that has driven the making of the film. While Hollywood routinely butchers source-texts when adapting them to films for adults—witness the virtual excision of Act V from Baz Luhrmann’s ironically named William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet or The Lawnmower Man, which used Stephen King’s name and title and nothing else—it dares not risk this franchise by omitting even minor details. Thus Warner Brothers acceded to Rowling a level of creative control that not even Anne Rice held when her first book was filmed. The author reportedly turned down dozens of screenwriters and directors, including Steven Spielberg (who envisioned an all-CGI film a la Toy Story, before allowing Steve Kloves (The Fabulous Baker Boys) to adapt the series and Chris Columbus (Home Alone) to direct.

Advance notices from Great Britain, where the book and film are titled Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, have been universally positive. Even at 2 1/2 hours—another precedent when most children’s movies run an hour and 15 minutes, tops—the film is reported to be faithful to the book, visually exciting, and thoroughly adult-friendly. Moreover, the child actors, particularly newcomer Emma Watson, as the bookish Hermione Granger, and Radcliffe (who has already appeared in films, notably a BBC production of David Copperfield) have been lauded for their star power. Most importantly, the children in the audience have apparently been leaving the theatre starry-eyed and satisfied, ready to see the picture again and undoubtedly compiling their Christmas lists. The storm officially breaks in America and the UK on November 16th. The best advice: if you have children, start shopping now.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/011115-harrypotter/