Thursday, July 12, 2007

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

I read the first Harry Potter book back in 2000, for the very same reason I read The Da Vinci Code the next year, which is that I thought it was irresponsible for anyone working in publishing not to have at least a passing familiarity with any genre work that succeeded on this scale. Fortunately, I enjoyed the former a good deal more than Dan Brown's collection of painfully unsubtle cliques cobbled onto a long chase scene. Unlike a lot of what I see produced for children and young adults these days, the Harry Potter books are free of the sarcasm and knowing in-jokes and celebrity references that clutter so much children's entertainment (Lou = not a big fan of the Shrek films. Pixar, however, rocks!) What Rowling has written, you don't need me to tell you, really is timeless and really has slotted perfectly into place alongside the enduring classics of children's literature and probably will be read a century from now, alongside Lewis and Pullman and yada yada yada. But I've never read past the first book, for the same reason I've never read past The Gunslinger,which is that I just don't have time to read seven books that get fatter the further you go when I'm being paid by someone else to read books I might actually have a chance of publishing myself.

My brother, however, has read all the Harry Potter books, I suspect several times, and as, oh, Batman is to me, Harry Potter is to him. (He's also a big fan of Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchett, and the new Doctor Who, if that helps get a handle on his tastes.) So, I'm aware that the more complex the novels get, the more the films become less stand-alone narratives on their own right and more postcards from the novel. (This is how I feel about the relationship between the film and the book, The World According to Garp, btw, which is one of my top five favorite novels of all time.) So, given this - and all the details of the previous 4 books that David has filled me in on, I was pleasantly surprised that, in contrast to the last two films, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix really holds together well as a film in its own right. Watching it, there were certainly moments when my brother, along with about one-third of the audience, would give knowing little chuckles of recognition, when some beloved scene or character or set-piece made its appearance, where I knew I'd be appreciating it more if I'd read the novel first, but this awareness of a deeper level didn't stop the film working on the level I interacted with it on, which is as someone coming in fairly cold to see a good movie. It might be my favorite of the Potter films after The Chamber of Secrets (Azkaban really doesn't work, so much is chopped out, and while I liked Goblet of Fire well enough, talks with my brother have clued me in on how much vital material was cut). And bro? He who actually reads the book? He thinks it's the best book-to-screen translation of the last three as well. So there you go. The expert and the ignoramus both agree!

Now, two things strike me about this franchise. One, it now rivals Star Wars for the depth and complexity of the world-building, from the cast of characters, the categories of magic, the vastness of the sets, the scale of the story. This kind of epic really is only possible in cinema when you have such a huge franchise in support of it - Star Wars, Star Trek, Lord of the Rings - and so it's good when, unlike Lucas' incoherent disappointments which are such a waste of the talent of all the artists and designers and actors and model makers who pour their genius into his black hole - the core material really is worthy of the attention given to it. Second, while they may not be "famous famous" in American eyes, these films have aggregated the largest collection of tremendous British talent outside of the RCS. Fiona Shaw, Maggie Smith, Gary Oldman, Emma Watson, Robbie Coltrane... the list goes on and on and grows with each film. They're all back, and I boggle at the ensemble thus assembled. And Gary Oldman is just incredible! He can find so much nuance in the most innocuous lines. I love it when he is allowed to play something other than a stock British villain (as, apparently, is he.) To see so many great actors in supporting roles...

So, anyway, I am unabashedly enjoying these films and wish by some miracle of time distortion I could actually read books 2 through 6 before July 21st. Baring that, I look forward to reading them to my kid one day, if he can take the implants out and drag his attention away from the data-nets long enough to care about an old man intoning from a dead-tree edition in real time long enough to let me.

7 comments:

Shara Saunsaucie said...

You could TOTALLY read books 2-6 between now and the 21st. :) They're fast reads, after all. The only trick is, you know, you can't do ANYTHING else. ;)

Lou Anders said...

And there, my friend, is the rub...

Jayme Lynn Blaschke said...

Lou, I have to say that Rowling has been poorly served (as a writer) by her success. Look at the point where her novels became a publishing "event" with tight deadlines and film-related urgency. Between books 3 and 4. That's Azkaban and Goblet. Now look at the page counts. They jump from 300-something to 700-something. The latter books are not tightly plotted. There's a lot of blubber there that could be trimmed, but when the writer's manuscript arrives a mere three months before publication date, there's not a lot of time for editorial give-and-take. Heck, you could probably shave 100 pages off just by taking out all the adverbs Rowling seems so enamored with.

Her complexity and sophistication as a storyteller has improved over the course of the series. There's no doubt about that. But her technical proficiency has digressed at the same time. Of course, she's the billionaire and I'm still holding down a day job, so what do I know? ;-)

Paul Cornell said...

I'm very pleased by her success story. Write something very well, and you become rich. Glad that's still in place. The book upon which this movie is based is my least favourite of the run, and I'm hoping the politics have been trimmed a bit. But the next one in line, the penultimate one, I was amazed by, a vast return to form.

Lou Anders said...

Jayme, what you describe happens, and is the case, so I hear, with Anne Rice as well. I've not read Rowling past the first book, so can't comment myself. I will say that Chris Roberson told me that everything I am responding to in the prose of Stephen King's The Gunslinger is all stylistic stuff he will jettison as he "improves" as a writer...

Paul, the politics didn't seem overt in the film to me. The film just seemed to be a narrative in its own right, unlike the previous two, where I could see all the dangling plot threads and incomplete developments screamingly clear.

Shaun Farrell said...

Not too many writers have a theme park built around there books, which is also happening with Rowling. Think I read that in Locus.

Lou Anders said...

When I left the theater, my brother and I speculated about what Rowling will do next. My guess is, something completely different. Would be wonderful if she started a seven book Space Academy series though, wouldn't it?