We’re informed by a gushing press that the seventh and final Harry Potter tome sold 11.4 million copies on the first day, smashing the records set by previous Potter releases to become the fastest selling book in history. Funny that – it was also the most hyped.
For weeks, the media blitzed us from every front with conjecture about whether J.K. Rowling would kill off her hero or spare him and leave the possibility open for a resurrection at some time in the future. We were treated to multiple TV interviews with kids in the obligatory Potter fancy dress opining about the fate of magic boy. There were TV re-runs of the early Potter movies. Then the countdown began.
Every day was announced as a day closer to that big moment when the second hand hit 12 and all would be revealed. In the meantime, journos seized with glee on reports of spies who had seen advance copies and put up websites with scanned pages revealing the ending. Were they fake, were they not? We had J.K. Rowling castigating the spoilsports. More conjecture, more hype. A scandalous error by a bookstore in New York that released some copies a few days early… Kids were whipped into such a frenzy of anticipation that they camped out in front of bookstores for up to two weeks before the release date.
Truly, this was a self-generating publicity blitzkrieg such as the world has never seen. Public interest – real or perceived – reached a point of critical mass whereby the official marketing machine was able to switch to idle while the world’s press took over its task gratis.
But what of the Potter books? Are the massive publicity-driven sales records that have made the Potter series a publishing phenomenon any proof of the literary pudding within? Or is the only real phenomenon here that of today’s global marketing and its previously undreamt of reach and power?
Before I comment on that, let me declare my hand. I am not an expert in children’s literature. I know what I loved as a kid, and as an adult my ratings of these works have not changed. I consider C.S Lewis’s The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe the greatest of the children’s novels I have read. Alice In Wonderland I rate a close second. Those, then, are my benchmarks for greatness.
I read the first Potter book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, just to see what all the fuss was about. Fear not, poor reader – I am not about to inflict upon you a detailed review. My lack of expertise in the field does not stop me (it doesn’t stop others, does it?), nor any lack of confidence in my critical capacities. But I do baulk at the thought of re-reading the book in service of a half-decent critique. So I shall confine myself to commentary.
I was impressed with the early chapters of Philosopher’s Stone. The novel opens in Harry’s grotesque Cinderella world, comically and colourfully hewn by J.K. Rowling. I liked the vile Muggles family, whose treatment of Harry was so unrelentingly awful that it left no room for pathos – funny stuff. I liked the mail-bearing owl. I loved the diving entrance into the magic world through the brick wall of the railway station. Nice portal. Up with C.S Lewis’s wardrobe. To this point, I was engaged, delighted even. J.K. Rowling was the real deal as a writer – that much was clear: inventive, colourful, humorous. The situation she had set up was intriguing. The writing flowed. My boat was launched and I was a happy passenger.
Then we get to Hogwart’s School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Was ist? Enter the magic world, and the magic begins to dissipate! Sure, it’s still there in the details: animated portraits, a cloak that renders the wearer invisible, trolls, unicorns, centaurs, a Norwegian Ridgeback dragon named Norbert, and the ironically named Fluffy, a fearsome, gigantic three-headed guard dog.
But Hogwart’s is like any novelistic English boarding school – plus magic. And the story degenerates into something out of Boy’s Own – plus magic. We have House rivalries. Strict school rules that Harry and crew delight in breaking. Punishments. Adventures after lights out. Dinners at long tables (culminating – jarringly – in a magic-enhanced Christmas Dinner…aren’t we getting our pagan and Christian worlds a little mixed here?). There is a weekly sporting event, Quidditch, that borrows from lacrosse, polo, hockey and rugby – plus magic (it’s played on broomsticks in mid-air).
Naturally, Harry excels at Quidditch against his bitter adversary, Draco Malfoy, who is the school bully from the rival House. Naturally, Draco plays dirty. Naturally, he is from a privileged background. Draco is but one of an array of stock characters: the know-it-all swot (Hermione), the dull but loyal companion who makes everyone else look more interesting (Ron Weasley), the nasty school master (Severus Snape), the kindly wise-old-man Head, Professor Dumbledore.
Only the gentle bearded giant, Hagrid, stands out. The school groundkeeper, he is known to hit the bottle, lives alone, and has an affection for fearsome and exotic otherworldly creatures that he befriends as pets. Despite his formidable appearance, he is sentimental and cries easily. Of course, he becomes a friend and protector to Harry and his mates.
I found the going tedious as I progressed through the novel. I only completed it out of some sense of duty to myself, having come too far not to cross the finish line.
But what about the movies? Well, I did my best to stay awake through Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone but my best was not good enough. Recently, after some strict self-talk, I watched Harry Potter and the Chamber Of Secrets with a determinedly open mind. My findings?
Like its predecessor, way too long. The special effects and rather slight storyline are not up to the task of bearing the weight of the movie.
The acting is competent overall but unremarkable with the exception of Robbie Coltrane, who charms as Hagrid. Rupert Grint I find irritating to the point of distraction. The character he plays, Ron Weasley, is pretty one-dimensional, sure, but Grint’s “acting” is as wooden as a ventriloquist doll. His repertoire is limited to four fixed expressions, which he switches abruptly to and from throughout – shock, awe, dread and delight – and he manages to bring an inane quality to each of them.
The big problem with the movies, though, as with the Philosopher’s Stone novel, is that I didn’t care about the characters.
Harry Potter should be a lot more engaging than he is. Orphaned, his parents murdered by the evil wizard Lord Voldemort, he has a head start in the pathos stakes, but despite his bulging kit of magic and wizardry, he isn’t very interesting as a character. There’s no depth to him; he is too flawless, has no inner demons to slay. That leaves only the external ones and those are of limited interest, since they are doomed to failure, as the genre demands.
Hermione, as a character, is not much more than a cardboard cut-out. Ron I’ve dealt with earlier. Hagrid, endearing as he is, plays too small a part in the scheme of things to save the show.
A major shortcoming of the Potter books (or, at least, the first one – where my experience begins and ends) is their failure to transport the reader. C.S Lewis’s Nania is another world. It lives; it is a wondrous, magical place in which the author immerses us. Lewis Carroll, too, transports us into the midst of a mad, hallucinatory vision and as with a maze, the only way out is to keep going. J.K. Rowling, on the other hand, merely displaces her reader. Hogwarts is so ordinary, just like any other novelistic boarding school – plus magic. The imaginative scope of the work of C.S Lewis and Lewis Carroll extends so much further than that of J. K. Rowlings.
Conclusion: the Potter phenomenon is a marketing triumph, but as kids’ literature, it is not up there with the best. Not even close. Millions of kids are free to disagree – or are they? How resistant can a child’s mind be to the hype bombardment and fallout peer pressure that has elevated this series to the rarified heights it occupies today?
This is not quite where I leave Harry Potter. There is something else about this marketing phenomenon that I find interesting, and this will be the subject of my next post.
Just one thing now, before I go. Does four-eyes cop it in the final book? Or has his creator stored her cash cow away to milk another day? Maybe some kind reader will leave an answer for me in the Comments.