Potter Revisited


Recently, I saw that the Harry Potter saga was going to be republished, starting in October, in deluxe illustrated editions. The illustrations are quite beautiful, worthy of Doré, John R Neill, Tenniel, or Garth Williams, just short of Pre-Raphaelite stature. The artist’s name is Jim Kay, whose work has been on exhibit at the V&A in London. Upon seeing the pictures, I contacted my friend Becky Glenn, who was my General Manager at Borders in Santa Monica, and who now owns and manages–with her partner, Pete–The Book Frog, an independent bookstore in Torrance, CA. I strongly urge you to visit their store if you are in the area, or their website, if you are not. At the very least, I implore you to support your local independent bookstore; you will find it a far more rewarding and personal experience than a point and click at Amazon. Every experience I have had with The Book Frog has been a pleasant one; they are happy to serve on site or to send on their site. The Book Frog is a place to shop.

For many years, Becky and I read, and reread, and reread again Rowling’s masterpiece–because it really is one work (or 3, if you subscribe to the theory that books 1-3, book 4, and books 5-7 are each their own jumping on/off points)–each year a new book was published, and in-between, and even 2-3 times a year. It’s not that we were obsessed, or anything, we simply enjoyed the books, as sellers, we were part of the overall experience of their publication–the anticipation of each book was as hungry as that of a Dickens serial or an episode of Dynasty in its heyday. (Who doesn’t recall the sight of Alexis and Krystal rolling down the grassy knoll into the decorative pond with anything but a nostalgic ache of fondness?) Working in a bookstore the night the latest Harry Potter was shelved was simply, for lack of a better word, magical.

In the last few years, both Borders and I have left the bookselling world (please don’t buy from Amazon) and I realized, seeing Jim Kay’s rather lovely pictures, that it had been a long time since I had last visited Hogwarts and environs. Texting Becky, I declared my intentions to reread the series. I also declared my intentions to begin en medias res, with Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Becky responded with enthusiasm, stating that she, too, would reread the books–starting with book 1–and suggesting that we post our findings on her Facebook group, Talk Books with the Book Frog: https://www.facebook.com/groups/200592033454816  Upon completing my reading of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, I made the following post, which I produce, edited and expanded, for obvious reasons of self-promotion:

Picking up Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban was like greeting an old friend after a long absence. This was the book that truly sold me on the series. Yes, Sorcerer’s Stone introduced the wizarding world, and it was captivating: rather than taking the common route of creating a fantasy world of its own, a Middle Earth, a Westeros, an Oz, Rowling created a magical world existing congruent with our own, if we muggles only stopped to think and observe. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (the American title, and heretofore referred to as HP1)  magnificently sets the stage for the six to follow, and it is, more than the rest, geared towards its target audience. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (HP2) is my least favorite of the series: while it introduces important characters and plot points–Ginny Weasley, Dobby, the, as yet, unnamed Horcrux, the Whomping Willow, Azkaban–a lot of it reads much like the first book: the Dursleys are mean to Harry, there’s a new Defense Against the Dark Arts Teacher, quidditch is played, Snape is nasty, and Voldemort makes a cameo appearance at the book’s climax in a secret, subterranean chamber. Also–and I say this guiltily, given his sacrifice in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (HP7,) and kind of spoiler alert, but would you really be reading this if you haven’t already finished the series?)–I find Dobby to be one of the more irritating characters I’ve encountered in literature. I finished the book entertained, but not astonished.

HP3 was a different matter; perhaps because the characters were older, perhaps because I’d grown to know them over two books, they were simply a lot more interesting. It was great to see Harry show the Dursleys a little snarkiness, and fantastic to see him blow up the rotten Aunt Marge, even if it was a subconscious gesture. The new characters we meet are all well drawn, from animals like Crookshanks and Buckbeak, to characters as minor as Stan Shunpike and Madame Rosemerta. Characters like Cedric Diggory and Cho Chang are introduced almost offhand, with a subtlety belying the complexity of the saga. It is certainly Hagrid’s shining moment in the series: from his triumph at becoming a teacher to his quasi-tragic experience with his beloved Buckbeak, his character in this book evinces more pathos than the Falstaffian buffoonery typical of him throughout the books. The Knight Bus and the village of Hogsmeade both are brilliant examples of how Rowling brings magic into our world.

Interestingly, this is the one book in the series where Voldemort is an entirely offstage character, though still a constant menace in its characters’ lives. This is the book that introduces the Dementors, characters I believe that Rowling has stated had their genesis in her own battles with depression, the Dementors are: “…among the foulest creatures that walk the earth…they glory in decay and despair, they drain peace, hope, and happiness out of the air around them…every good feeling, every happy memory will be sucked out of you…[t]he dementor will feed on you long enough to reduce you to something like itself…” [from the text.] Descriptions like these are evidence of Rowling’s growth as a writer, and HP3 is full of them. The Dementors are, arguably, the most horrifying of her inventions. Of course, the finest introductions the book offers are the typically short-lived Defense Against the Dark Arts professor, Remus Lupin, and the eponymous prisoner, Sirius Black.

Almost from the moment the reader meets Lupin, s/he is stricken by his humble heroism: he is the only truly fine DADA teacher the school has in the canon, he is a good teacher, but one who can remember what it was like to be a student. He is among the noblest and, ultimately, most tragic characters in the series. Sirius Black is an offstage menace through much of the book, but in one of Rowling’s typical, yet always surprising, plot twists, proves to be Harry’s good godfather, and a potential source of happiness and well-being in his life outside of Hogwarts. The fact that the entire wizarding world views Sirius as one of Voldemort’s staunchest supporters serves to show how truly little the adolescent protagonists can depend upon the adult world. Even the all but omniscient Dumbledore is fooled, and though a believer in Sirius’ innocence once hearing Harry’s and Hermione’s recounting of what happened in the Shrieking Shack states that the words of two underage wizards would count for little in the adult world.

This is a theme that becomes increasingly important in the series, until by book 7, Ron, Hermione, and Harry realize that all they can really depend upon is one another. The friendship between Moony, Wormtail, Padfoot, and Prongs anticipates the importance of that between our three protagonists. Children have to grow up. It is not for nothing, that our protagonists are 13–entering puberty, becoming adults in some faiths, that they begin to learn this rather unsettling thought. Sirius, Peter, and James depend upon themselves to keep Lupin’s secret, and then James’, just as Harry depends upon Hermione and Ron to help him fulfill his quest. The very fact that James, Sirius, and Remus would embrace such a sycophant as Peter Pettigrew is testament to the innocence of their youth and the strength of their hearts.

Peter’s betrayal is one of the horrifying shocks of the series, and Harry’s merciful response in the shack shows he has a maturity his father’s generation lacked. But the faith, love, and friendship the Marauders have for one another foreshadows that of Harry, Hermione, and Ron. Sirius, Remus, and James certainly have a friendship for one another that lasts beyond the grave, as the reader realizes in HP7.   Rowling offers marvelous hints at these character’s identities throughout the book, even their names are clues: Sirius is also known as the dog-star; Remus is one of the twin founders of Rome suckled by a she-wolf. And the name Lupin is one letter short of Lupine, an adjective which suggests a wolfish nature. What does Wormtail describe but a rat’s appendage, and “petty” is just what Pettigrew is, in both size and nature. In short (ha ha ha ha ha ha ha) HP3 is the game-changing book, in my opinion. More than any other, it sets the reader down the road to what’s to come, from the evolving relationship of Ron and Hermione, to the consequences of Harry’s mercy towards Peter, to Trelawney’s second accurate prediction, to the importance of friendship and love, this book delineates Rowling’s goals for the series.

The Movie 

At the millennial change, it is almost dictated that a pop culture literary phenomenon will turn into an omnimedia one. Harry Potter is no exception, with an 8 film series, an official web experience(Pottermore, amongst a myriad of others,) and theme park adventures. But it is the film series that will no doubt live in the minds of the world. It has made celebrities of its youthful stars (Hermione’s going to be Belle and who knew about Neville!!!???) and has ensured that its adult actors are surely immortal in the canon of entertainment (if Maggie Smith is not eternally remembered for playing the Dowager Countess, she certainly will be remembered for embodying Minerva McGonigall.)

It is seldom that a movie is as good as the book it is based upon, and for a movie to be better than its source material is as rare as the philosopher’s (sorcerer’s) stone. Only The Wizard of Oz and Jaws immediately come to mind in that category. Movies generally fall short, but it must be understood that literature and film are very different media. No one will ever make The Great Gatsby as well as Fitzgerald wrote it. Movies based on Hemingway novels are generally crap. Well, pretty much always. Making a good movie from a good book is hard: movies based on William Goldman books are a good example of the craft, but that’s because Goldman usually writes the screenplay, and he’s a master. (The Princess Bride, for example, is a movie that is just as good as the book, but it’s also like Casablanca, a piece of magic: everyone was at the right place at the right time, and it managed to be captured for immortality. To paraphrase Geoffrey Rush’s Philip Henslowe in Shakespeare in Love, “I don’t know how it happens, it just does!”

The best one can hope for in a movie or TV adaptation of a book is that its artists capture the heart and soul of the source. That does not mean it is a reproduction of the book. That is why we have Masterpiece Theatre. No one (at least, no one who knows me,) will argue that the 1981 adaptation of Brideshead Revisited is the apex of television (except I Love Lucy, but I Love Lucy trumps EVERYTHING, let’s just try to forget Mame) but it’s not film, and let’s all try to forget the movie version of Brideshead. (The asses of Matthew Goode and Ben Whishaw always excepting.)

For me, HP3 was the first movie that captured the spirit of the books, rather than the letter. Perhaps it was Alfonso Cuaron’s experience in working with teenagers in Y tu Mama Tambien that led to this; Chris Columbus was very much a workmanship director. This movie, in my opinion, made you feel what it was like to be a teenager, the friendships, the hardships, the trauma and the joy. This was a truly cinematic experience: some have criticized the film for giving the dementors flight, but what can be more terrifying than an imperturbable figure approaching you from any side? Depression doesn’t come from one direction. While the first two movies make you feel like you’re entering the world of wizardry, HP3 makes you feel like wizardry is part of your world.

And one must not discount the performances: Radcliffe, Grint, and Watson have grown into their roles, along with their adolescent counterparts. Maggie Smith, Robbie Coltraine  and Alan Rickman are as superlative in their roles as you would expect. (In truth, when I first picked up HP1, I heard Maggie Smith’s voice whenever McGonigall spoke,) but the magnificence of this movie is the Marauders: Timothy Spall as Wormtail, Gary Oldman as Sirius, and–in particular–David Thewlis as Remus Lupin was inspired. This is the film where you really begin to feel the urgency beyond the magic. This is the movie that, like the book, propels you forward.

For me, this is why both rank high in my personal devotion of the saga.

I hope that if you disagree with what I say that you don’t curse me if you’re part of the wizarding world. I’m only a humble muggle, timid and meek like Dorothy Gale (I’m a friend of hers, actually) and just want to share my thoughts. As always, I’m telling you what I think–anything erroneous is all about me.

About What would Julia do?

Being timid and meek like Dorothy Gale, I have surprised myself by starting this blog. But a few people have suggested I do so, so there it is. I love to eat and I love to drink, so although this blog could be about almost anything I choose to type, there's likely to be a lot about what you put in your mouth. Why the title? Anyone who knows me knows my reverence for Julia Child. I don't think it's hyperbolic to say that our country's interest in the culinary arts would be all but non-existent but for Her. I would not attempt to count the number of people who have cited Her influence in their lives and careers. What Atticus Finch is to lawyers, Julia Child is to the cook, be s/he servantless or professional. Honesty demands me to say that it is not simply Her advocacy of GOOD FOOD that has immortalized her; She had the happy circumstance of coming into her own at a time when media was in her favour. We can all be thankful for that. I would name Julia Child as the patron saint of second starts, but I'm a happy heretic. Julia's dogma goes beyond the kitchen: She has famously stated that "[y]ou've got to have the courage of your convictions..." Her statement applies as equally to any part of one's life as it does to flipping a potato gallette. I will conclude by noting I have my own personal trinity of Js--Julia, Judy Garland, and Joanna Rowling. Please refer back to that part about my being a happy heretic.
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