Sunday, 21 November 2010

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows… Sort Of

I stopped really enjoying Harry Potter books and films a couple of years ago when I realised that it contained very little that was terribly original and the books were not actually that well written, so I was not expecting much from the latest HP film. I was not disappointed. Well I was disappointed, but not at all surprised.

I have many problems with the books and, by extension, the films. The principle of these is that it’s all too clichĂ©. Rowling extracts, pretty much unaltered, almost everything that popular folk law has to offer and stuffs it clumsily into her world. Creatures from across the globe cram into the forest outside Hogwarts without any attention paid to the context and subtleties of the myths with which they’re associated. This leads to a paper thin and rather unsatisfactory world in which the story it set.

The magic in the story suffers from much the same problem. Rowling never really sets any rules, either implicitly or explicitly. There are vagaries about relative strength and many of the Witches and Wizards at Hogwarts struggle to get to grips with the stuff, but once they reach adulthood, it seems that they can do pretty much anything that needs doing without too much trouble – unless of course the plot demands that they have trouble with something for the sake of tension. As such Magic just becomes a convenient plot device to be wheeled out whenever something needs to happen, rather than an integral part of the conflict, contributing in some meaningful way to the characters or themes being explored.

Examples of this is seen repeatedly in The Deathly Hollows; right at the beginning, for example, when Hermione extracts herself from her parent’s life with magic – which is an incredibly complicated and difficult thing to do properly when you consider the profound influence even relatively minor people in our lives can have. Magic is used here to perform the act with relative simplicity, but healing flesh wounds seems to be beyond the talents of everyone. If wounds were healed with as much ease as memories were selectively wiped, the tension and difficulty created later on by physical injury would be shattered. Magic has limitations when it’s convenient, but now when it doesn’t need to, and it becomes somewhat jarring.

Rowling’s world, on the whole, is pretty paper thin. It compared very unfavourably to the incredibly vivid worlds created by other Fantasy writers such as Tolkien and, more recently, Robert Jordan (one of my personal favourites) among others. Of course world building is not the be-all-and-end-all of fantasy. As with any story the plot and characters are by far more important that the setting. Rowling’s focus most certainly lies with the former, so it’s prudent to examine those further; writers should, on the whole, be judged according to their own priorities.

Rowling performs somewhat better in terms of characters and plot than she does on setting, but it still lacks complexity. HP essentially boils down to a very simple and overused fantasy structure; a young hero ignorant of his past and of his true place in the world is thrown into the world beyond his limited childhood and faced with his shadowy past. He much strive with his friends (many of whom are in a similar position to him) to foil the undoubtedly evil antagonist, who is somehow linked to the hero’s own past, in his plot to rule the world. Now this in itself in not inherently bad – Jordan’s Wheel or Time series is based on exactly the same model – but is only effective if it is build upon by interesting and original layers of complexity, as well as well thought out characters.

While Rowling does succeed in making it slightly more complex than the above model, it’s still pretty shallow; Voldemort’s motivation beyond being an evil bastard is pretty weak and the setup of Harry’s character is very standard. The link between the two is relatively interesting and well played out, but the lack of ambiguity spoils it somewhat.

Indeed the lack of ambiguity is one of the most glaring flaws in the series, along with most fantasy of similar ilk. There is no question of whether Voldemort or any of his cronies are evil; indeed the evil is, at times, cartoonish. The antagonists of Harry’s childhood; the Dursleys, are a perfect example of the unrealistically dislikeable characters. They are straw people designed to ally the reader’s sympathies with Harry straight off. The opportunity was to pose interesting questions on the tragedy of an unwanted child for whom the parent’s can’t care for, but it was ignored in favour of a childishly simplistic foil to the protagonist.

This is a theme through the books. Think of all the ‘bad guy’ in the series and try to think of one with whom you can actually sympathise. As far as I can remember, they’re all comically hate-worthy, with hardly a single saving grace amongst them. In the film for example, it is reinforced early on that Voldemort’s secret council is full of evil people (as if that wasn’t obvious by the fact that they all look shady and murderous), by having them feed some random Witch to a snake, just in case we didn’t realise that they were the bad guys. Similarly the Ministry of Magic is turned into some modern reimagining of Nazi Germany, just to make sure we were aware that they were the bad guys too.

This kind of paper-thin, black-and-white, good-vs-evil setup is so simplistic and juvenile as to be insulting, even keeping in mind that the books and films are aimed at a young audience. Young people can still understand and grapple with ambiguity. The books and films would be far richer if they encouraged the audience to consider the arguments of both sides and displayed an appreciation for the moral greyness of reality, rather than propagating a rather simplistic idea that there are good guys and bad guys and no-one in between.

In fairness this is more a criticism of fantasy as a genre than HP specifically, because the latter is very much a product of the former. Even Tolkien is not above unambiguous and poorly characterised straw-man villains. Nevertheless, in HP it is even more cartoonish and over the top than usual. Again the story here is of missed opportunities. Clearly Rowling is going for a Nazi parallel with the obsession with blood and the understandable superiority complex of some of those with magic over those without, and at first this is rather well done, but it becomes somewhat overplayed in the final book and all subtlety is lost. The most jarring thing is that most wizards seem to just go along with it, when there seems no reason to do so. It’s clear that Harry Potter isn’t the villain here because Voldemort so obviously is, so why don’t ordinary people smell a rat? It’s not like the situation in Germany when in the 1930s is anything like the situation in the wizard world; at least if it is Rowling fails to show it sufficiently for the parallel to be anything more than vulgar.

All of the above is forgivable. While there are many major flaws, these could be carried along by sufficiently strong characters. Unfortunately the characters are very much the same as the rest. I’ve talked about the straw-man villains, so let’s talk protagonists. Admittedly Rowling is able to create some likable and well developed characters, but the most interesting tend only to be side characters. The principle protagonists, Harry, Ron and Hermione are, by far, the weakest. Ron is little more than a goofy sidekick who occasionally shows some inconsistent glimmerings of valour to save the day, but spends most of the time just being annoying. Harry meanwhile is brave and heroic to a fault. His boldfaced attempts to try to do everything by himself are noble, but gets extremely annoying after a while. His pathological failure to realise that what he’s dealing with is not just about him gets jarring when it happens in every book. His insistence that no-one risk their life for his sake in the most recent film is not noble; it’s just plain stupid. You’d hope by now that it he’s work out that it’s not all about him, but apparently such intelligence is beyond him. Meanwhile Hermione is the super-rational, emotionally dysfunctional prodigy who is very much like Dr Temperance Brennan in the American crime drama ‘Bones’. The difference is that ‘Bones’ is very tongue in cheek, whereas HP is far too straight faced to pull off such a character without it being unintentionally silly.

Well, what was supposed to be a review of the recent Harry Potter movie has turned into a rant about why I don’t like the franchise, with a smattering of references to the actual film, so I guess I’d better pull out the stops and talk about the film for a bit.

The director was always in for a challenge with converting this book into a film because it’s just so damn big! It’s not just the size, but also the fact that so much happens. In fact one of the problems with the books was that they lacked pacing. Everything happens quickly. Sure it keeps you interested, but Rowling never stop to really describe anything in vivid detail or build suspense. To quote Alan Bennett, ‘it’s just one fucking thing after another’. This means that there’s a lot to cram into a reasonable time space. They’ve already split the thing in two, but still if felt rushed.

There was very little suspense created because there was just so much to get through. Events happened to quickly that no-one, not even the characters, really had time to stop and take stock of what just happened. There wasn’t enough time for the characters to react to events because the next event happened straight away. As such there was very little opportunity to really form the emotional connection with the characters needed for the audience to actually give a damn what happened. Of course it didn’t help that they all acted to jarringly unrealistically and unsympathetically throughout.

There were some positives however; the story of the creation of the Deathly Hallows was really well done, and as ever the magical duels looked fantastic. Editorially it was very well put together and, as you might imagine, no expense was spared in making it look very pretty, however this is all style. Style is great, but it’s nothing without substance.

The film suffers from being part 1 of 2, because the ending is really weak and I left the cinema with a very unsatisfactory feeling. That being said I wasn’t exactly given a great deal of reason to look forward to the next one; I can’t say the characters really interested me enough to want to see any more of them. The books always managed to keep me interested and engaged, even if they were rather unsatisfactory, the films have all pretty much failed to do the same. It’s not just because I know what’s going to happen either; I’ve read the earlier book multiple times and they still engaged me.

In short, save your money, (re)read the book because it’s far more entertaining, or go pick up a much better fantasy series and get into the instead.

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