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Saturday, 4 June 2011

Harry Potter - The End Is Nigh...

I made this: Avid Reader at 1:25 am
***SPOILERS***SPOILERS***SPOILERS*** 

Well. I don't know about you, but I am just giddy with excitement about the final film in the Harry Potter series, to be released in Leeds on the 15th of July. Admittedly I was late getting into the books (primarily as my younger brother had acquired the first three as they came out and raved about them - it was a teenage sibling thing. Trust me. If you have one, you know exactly what I'm talking about. A classic 'slice your own nose off' situation!), the moment I opened Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone I was an addict. 

I did not read those books - I devoured them. And as soon as I had finished the (at this point) 4 books that had been released, I re-read them. Just because I had enjoyed them so much. 

Though it is probably only fair to point out that I actually do this quite a lot. Only with the very best of books though...obviously. 
His Dark Materials - that's a great one. 
The Eldarn Sequence - so very very detailed, a re-read was essential. 
The Princess Bride...hmm, that might be an example too far...

Meandering slowly back to the point; these stories provided me with a school series - set in a contemporary time frame - that could match the stories I had grown up reading and become entranced by. I don't mean those books that you like, but only read once. I mean those sets that you pore over again and again, till the pages become soft and shiny, until the characters are as familiar to you as family members.
As far as I am concerned the time line highlights for children's books looks a little something like this;

Oral Tradition
I
I
I
I
I
I
I
I

For a slightly more detailed timeline, check out this - History of Children's Literature or the ever un/reliable wikipedia

More articulate people than I have tried to analyse the source of Rowling's success. I can't tell you why these books - out of all on offer - have captured the imaginations of millions of children and adults around the world. All I can do is share with you some of my own reasons for loving these books. Now, there are so many characters, so integral to the plot, I'd be here till Thursday if I even attempted to list them all, or my thoughts on them. Instead, I'm going to cover my highlights!

The Set Up
It is by no means a new concept - that there are worlds within worlds, hidden by magical means (Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere just LEAPT into mind). Nevertheless, within three chapters of the first book, the world of Harry Potter vividly came to life for me. As Harry was also a stranger to the world meant that I was able to walk alongside him as he discovered his magical roots, Diagon Alley and Hogswarts. As he cast his first spell, I held my breath, and as Harry, Ron and Hermione began to explore, I allowed my imagination to run riot. 
There is a beautiful sense of balance and internal consistency within the series, but particularly in the initial four books. Each book expands upon the one before. The magic becomes more sophisticated, and the wizarding world is built up - layer on layer, in a way that ensures it never becomes twee. That Ron is there to explain magical structures, laws and culture as though it should be obvious to a child of three also manages to dilute any sense of the magic providing too easy an route. There ARE rules. Magic has it's own logic.

The Issues
Wrapped up in all the magic, and the wonderful wacky world of wizards, these books tackle some fairly weighty issues. Some - like the racism experienced by muggle-borns and the non-wizarding races - are fairly obvious in conception, but developed slowly and are brought to life over time. I saw HP2 in the cinema and saw teeny tiny little people react with shock when Ron explains why 'mudblood' is a bad word to an unaware Harry and Hermione. It was actually a pretty powerful moment, and certainly not something I was expecting to be generated from a children's book, without any obvious political agenda.

Others - such as the long term efforts of bad parenting - were employed far more subtly - with almost all of the primary players impacted upon greatly by their parents - Snape, Voldemort, Harry and Dumbledore. 
In the case of Dudley, it was explicitly stated by more than one character that his parents were ruining him. We, the reader, feel no sympathy for him. Dudley is one of the least appealing characters in the series. Until the final book, we have no inkling that Dudley is actually a person in his own right, developing ideas outside of those his parents approve of. 
Malfoy is another boy, moulded - some could say victimised even - by his home environment. This spiteful, vindictive and foul mouthed little boy is actually the closest to Harry's in terms of character, ability and determination. In a way, Malfoy is to Harry as Iago is to Othello. Unlike Iago, Malfoy is provided with many opportunities to redeem himself and grow. And, I can only speak for myself here, I really wanted him to do so. I wanted for it to explicitly possible within this world for a person to change their path, break with their family patterns. I wanted Malfoy to be Sirius.

Oh yeah, other little things like reincarnation, violence against children (becoming more sexualised after the introduction of the vile Greyback), poverty, class distinctions, good versus evil, truth vs lies, trust, hope and most of all LOVE also feature. The little things in life, you know?


The Baddies
I think it goes back to watching all those shockingly bad daytime war and alien flicks as a kid, but I always feel a bit sorry for the bad guys. My favourite bad guys are the ones juuust past the point of redemption. The ones that you half hope will end up on the winning side - even if they are not the victors. 

Interestingly, the baddies are not always the ones on the opposite side of a wand. Sure Quirrel tries to kill Harry, but he's never considered the 'big bad', just a means to an end. Similarly, Tom Riddle is the one doing the possessing, but it's more satisfying when Harry realises that it was Lucius that provided the tools for him to do so. Sirius Black, the Darth Vader of Death Eaters couldn't have been more of a baddie when he first appeared. And sure, we all know how that turned out! Next up was Barty Crouch - who barely qualifies as a baddie as no one but Winky knows who he really is. Fudge, the ministry, the adults. They aren't baddies as much as obstacles to be overcome. 


From the first book, Rowling provides some of the best, and most three dimensional baddies in children's literature. And they are *evil*. The first time we hear of Voldemort, we learn that he orphaned Harry. Accidentally. He wasn't even trying to kill Lily and James, the one year old was his actual target. Nothing fuzzy wuzzy about a baddie who tries to kill infants. That's just cold. 

 Malfoy is Harry's on the spot arch-nemesis and in a weird way, the Death Eaters barometer. His responses are all reflections of his father. Harry never really recognises Malfoy as a threat to him, despite his obsession with Draco. I have read that the author has been concerned that young teens fancy Malfoy, one of the villains of the piece. That the actors attractiveness has taken from his characters true darkness. Hmmm, I'm not so sure about that. I'm fairly certain that those teenagers are more than capable of recognising that he's a nasty piece of work, and still liking him. Like I said above, it's the redemptive possibilities that attract certain people. And, not to disparage my gender, sometimes you have to like the not-just-wrong-but-actually-awful guy to realise that you'll never do that again!

One of my pet hates is Dolores Umbridge. Cruella de Vil and no mistake. Her worst crimes are not the obvious - she lies, cheats, steals, tortures, and delights in her blood 'superiority'. Oh but she does worse than that. She becomes a teacher and betrays her charges over and over again. Her vicious behaviour has the same impact on Harry as real life bad teachers have on students daily. He never quite trusts 'grown ups' again. She forces the real world - which can be magical but also monstrous at times - onto a young person, with no thought as to how he would react. In later books, Harry holds up the scar that she gives him as reason enough for him to distrust the Ministry and is either treated with derision or the brusque awareness that the damage Umbridge caused can never be apologised for. I still haven't decided to my own satisfaction which.

Course, there are actually only two really baddies throughout the series -Voldemort and Severus Snape. For the first four books, Voldemort is trapped between planes of existence, while Snape seems to be obnoxious, yet on the side of the light. For the final books Snape has been exposed as the conniving, backstabbing liar that Harry had always been convinced of. I was FURIOUS. Snape was everyones favourite character. He had such layers to him that we had all been convinced that he would save the day. His betrayal, and true revelation to Harry happen so quickly first in book 6, then again in 7, that they don't seem to impact for a moment. When it hit me, I was so impressed. I wasn't shocked, though by that late point in the book I couldn't see how Rowling was going to manage it, but I'd no idea how well planted her plan had been. As soon as you process his story, all his actions make perfect sense. And it's awful. And it's perfect. And while the books may be called Harry Potter, it's Snape's story that compelled me.
Snape - ever the protector

 The Goodies
So how do the good guys compare? The primary protagonists are not heroes. Not really. Not because they are merely children but because most of the time, they are terrified, ignorant of the true situation or over-confident. Sometimes all three at once. They fall out with each other, keep secrets, fail time and time again to see what it really happening around them and let each other down repeatedly. At no point do they ever really feel like anything will work out for them. 
Whew! It's the believability that makes it work. From the Weasley's - the friendliest family that you could hope to meet, to Hagrid the half breed, Lupin the werewolf, Sirius the reckless criminal and Dumbledore the keeper of the secrets - all Harry's allies are flawed in one way or another.  Nevertheless, this is still a tricky section to write. While the baddies are all very descriptive, the goodies are more reactive. Unfortunately, I think that the books do the goodies far more justice than the films. In the films, all the details of the past are crammed into quick flashbacks. In the books half the time it feels like good deeds are performed out of a sense of obligation to the past, rather than to actually defeat Voldemort, or assist Harry. 

Dumbledore plays such a large role throughout the series - it's surprising how little he is actually seen in the books. Certainly, he features in a far more honest way after his death than he did while actually trying to prepare Harry for his destiny. He's a great character. All knowing, all powerful, and still human, down to Earth and humble. Despite it being signposted from the very start that Harry - the main character - was destined to fight Voldemort, I still felt a little cheated that Dumbledore had played the man behind the curtain rather than the defender of the people. Even the duel that is mentioned is never detailed. One good fight scene. Clearly too much to ask. Then again, I should be careful. Seeing Yoda fight after wishing for it for so long was a disappointment I can't really put into words. 

Lupin was always going to die. His character - so noble and honourable - was the most stereotypical to me. Don't get me wrong. I love they way he is truly on Harry's side. I love how he is never afraid to be honest with him, and that he insists on the three learning how to think for themselves. He trusts them. 
So doomed. In OOTP, I had been sure that he was going to bite the bullet. That I had it so badly wrong made the actual character death that bit harder to bare. His relationship with Dora, mirroring that of Bill and Fleur, plays out in the background, but none the less has impact. As awful as the war with the Death Eaters on, it was important for Rowling not to lose the bigger picture; these touches are so effective at demonstrating how the world continues turning, no matter the danger. In the final book, reading about the love stories and Ginny, Neville and Luna at Hogworts was vital for providing the reader with perspective. As a device, that it is obvious rendered it no less effective. 

My favourtie goodie has to be Neville. Who'd'a thunk he'd turn out to be so important? Seriously, he was part of the gang by book 4, but I didn't really expect him to turn out to be so pivotal in so many way. In retrospect, it's so obvious. He was johnny-on-the-spot in every book. It's a sign of the fluidity of the writing that at no point did he feel jack hammered into the story. Well, maybe a little bit in Chamber of Secrets, but the moment he tries to stop them, the impression fades. 
Neville is also my favourite because I think that he grows so much throughout the books. His general uselessness is so embedded from the outset, that I gave a little whoop for joy when he finally managed to disarm Hermione (even by accident) during the DA training. As his confidence grew, so slowly, so little at a time, I became very fond of him. Reading about him facing Bellatrix was awesome, especially having seen what she had done to his parents. 

The main three are a delight to read. At one point or another, I became so vexed with each of them, I was sure that I'd never warm to them again. Hermione is such a little swot, and so self righteous at times. Even though she's almost never wrong, there are times that you just wish for her to make a total fool of herself. Harry becomes quite the little introspective snappy whinger in his fifth year, and his inability to trust really grates in place. Ron can be insensitive and occasionally cruel. He is quite selfish, and set in his ways. He's quick to judge, a tad resentful and has a chip on his shoulder. 
Course they also learn. Hermione has that whole thing with the polyjuice potion and cat hair, and it becomes funny that she can remember every time that Harry received a higher grade than her. Harry cares so much. It can be irritating, but weren't we all a bit like that as teenagers? Convinced that every decision was the END OF THE WORLD. And of course, it always was. Ron struggles with loyalty time and again in the books. His stubbornness prevents him from backing down, even when it's obvious he knows he's in the wrong. He can't seem to speak to Hermione in the later stages without seeming like a bit of a misogynist git. And he knows it. It's brilliant. They might be magical, but they go through the same melodramatic nonsense as the rest of us!

The Fans or The Millions Who Now Know Reading Can Be Fun 
Finally - the fandom. Like those that centre around my personal TV Deity Joss Whedon - HP fans are friendly, open-minded (for the most part - for both fandoms here!) and inclusive. Whether you are a 5 year old school child, a 50 year old academic or a 150 year old wizard in hiding, you are welcome to join in the fun. 

Sure, the Krusty the Clown -style merchandising is now light years beyond over the top - from bedsheets, to toys, to wallpaper and everything in between. It's annoying and must be horrific for parents with excitable and demanding children, but I would argue that this is hardly new. 
I grant you, the scale of this commercialism is grotesque. Fair to say, most blockbuster books don't offer quite as fertile fodder for cheap plastic reproduction as this one does. However, on the film front - I'm not even going to go into it - two words - star and wars. People are still collecting original editions of merch. And then there was Jar-Jar - an attempt to appeal to 'those young people' so obvious it was painful for most viewers whether young or old.

Moving on...

Youtube
You can't even think about Harry Potter - if you are me - and not immediately think of the many fantabulistic rip off's, homages and fan vids on youtube. There are far too many great ones to list, but a few of my personal favourite include:
A Very Potter Musical - feat Blaine from GLEE
Potter Puppet Pals - The Mysterious Ticking Noise - beware the addictive nature of the song!
Potter Puppet Pals - The Deathly Hallows - can't...type...laughing...toooo...much... Ahem, also very and detailed  spoilerific, so viewer beware!
Shipper Vid - Ron and Hermione - not the best syncing in the world, but so sweet.

My Scores for the Books:
HP and the Philosopher's Stone    - 7/10
HP and the Chamber of Secrets - 6/10
HP and the Prisoner of Azkaban - 10/10
HP and the Goblet of Fire         - 8/10
HP and the Order of the Phoenix - 5/10 EDITOR! Where was an editor?!?!
HP and the Half Blood Prince    - 10/10
HP and the Deathly Hallows      - 10/10
Harry Potter Books


And for the films:
HP and the Philosopher's Stone - 6/10
HP and the Chamber of Secrets - 6/10
HP and the Prisoner of Azkaban - 10/10
HP and the Goblet of Fire - 8/10
HP and the Order of the Phoenix - 6/10
HP and the Half Blood Prince - 9/10
HP and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 - 6.5/10
HP and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 -  ?????

Harry Potter DVD



The end of an era - Trailer for the final film:


And for no reason at all.
SUCH ICONIC BOOKS; THEY MADE THEM STAMPS.

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