rhoda_rants: (hermione)
[personal profile] rhoda_rants
Possibly the most significant pop culture phenomenon that I watched unfold in real time is the Harry Potter franchise. This coming June marks the 20th anniversary of the first book coming out through Scholastic. And good lord, how was 1997 twenty whole years ago? So of course I had to do a retrospective. I hopped on the Hogwarts Express during what fandom calls the "Three Year Summer" - that painfully long stretch of time between the fourth and fifth books. During that time I started college, created an online handle that I still use to this day, and Warner Brothers began work on the movies, the first two of which I saw in theaters before the next book finally came out. So I was a little older than the target audience base in that first generation, but not by much. We early Millennials grew up with these characters, much like Generation X before us grew up with Star Wars.

I have rewatched the Harry Potter movies far more often than I've reread the books, simply because of the relative time commitment for the former. So, it's hard not to hear Alan Rickman's delightfully dry monotone over Professor Snape's lines, or to picture Emma Watson's shrewd side-eye whenever Hermione is in the scene. The later after 2002 you came into fandom, the higher the likelihood that you watched or at least heard of the movies first. In a way, I'm sorry about that, because I didn’t go into the books with preformed notions of what the characters were supposed to look like. I also have a tendency to plug my current favorite celebrities into literary roles when I'm reading, and that's kinda what I did. Snape was "played" by Trent Reznor before the movies came out; and Remus Lupin was Daniel Johns from Silverchair. Only, y'know, British. Also I mentally tagged characters with identifying features they don’t have in the books. For example, I always pictured Hermione in glasses, and Draco Malfoy with jet-black hair, pretty much right up until the first trailer.

Side-note: Where in the books does it mention Draco’s hair color? I look for it again every time, and the most you get for physical description--in the the first three books anyway, which is where I am in my re-read now--is his “pale, pointed face.” Are we *quite* sure he’s blond? And when do we learn that?

Now, back to that Three Year Summer. On top of this brand new fandom that everyone was talking about, we were also getting all three Lord of the Rings movies and the Star Wars prequels, so it was a pretty intense time for fandom. Not to mention the landscape of fandom itself was changing. Everything was moving online, becoming faster-paced and more high tech so quickly we could barely keep up. Fanzines had been replaced by message boards, live chats became globally accessible mini-cons, and if you knew someone with Photoshop or GIMP you could wear your House colors every time you logged in. Me? I know how to manipulate raw HTML code because of fanfiction. I'm not kidding.

The first book is mostly world-building. From “You’re a wizard, Harry,” to the first trip to Diagon Alley, to Oliver Wood explaining the rules of Quidditch, the bulk of the words on the page are devoted to setting up how this wizarding world works and what Harry’s place is in it. The secondary purpose of the first book is to establish all the major characters and their dynamic together. Hermione is the book-smart logician who can outwit almost anyone on almost anything; Ron is the last in a line of impressive older brothers who wants to prove himself and sees a kindred spirit in Harry’s first year flailing; and Harry is just trying to figure out where he fits into all this and what he’s supposed to do about that.

The biggest difference between the first book and the movie is how much Harry’s part was scaled back. Of course Ron is the character who really got shafted in the movies, but we can get into that later. It becomes starker and more aggravating every time I reread it, but in the movie, almost all of Harry’s lines are cut or given to different characters. He’s more of a blank-slate hero, a fill-in protagonist so the reader/viewer can imagine what they’d do if they got a Hogwarts letter. “What House would I be Sorted into? Would I be any good at Quidditch? What classes would I do best in?” So Harry’s characterization is kind of bland. But in the books, he’s got a snarky, sarcastic streak and knows how to deal with bullies--and he’s had eleven years of experience when we meet him. That part when he gets away from Peeves the Poltergeist by impersonating the Bloody Baron? Not in the movie. (No Peeves at all in the movies, actually.) He gets more to work with in the later movies, but in this one, not so much.

GIF of Harry Potter pouring coffee and making a disgusted face.

One unexpected side-effect of this is it gave Daniel Radcliffe an opportunity to sharpen his non-verbal acting skills exponentially. Which has come in handy, and used to the most extreme of extremes in last year’s Swiss Army Man. Also, can we take a moment to appreciate Radcliffe’s unapologetically batshit post-Potter career choices?? The Woman in Black, Victor Frankenstein, Horns--it’s wall-to-wall horror and surreal indie stuff, and it’s awesome.

Another thing Rowling gets right is balancing the daily grind of schoolwork with the adventure and character development we're really there for, and this is where most YA screws up. Classroom scenes in general tend to be either super boring, or nonexistent to the point where you wonder if this protagonist actually *goes* to school. Not all the time, but often enough for me to complain about it. Hogwarts is the setting for a lot of adventure and mystery, but it is still undoubtedly a school. The characters have to work around crowds of students getting to and from class every day. They use the library to research homework assignments and their extracurricular activities. They scramble to get essays written on top of sports matches, detentions, and bouts of world-saving. Some classes that you expect would be fun--History of Magic or Divination, for example--turn out to be dull and tedious. Others depend entirely on the teacher--Defense Against the Dark Arts gets a new teacher with a new approach every year. Quirrell and Moody are both lecture-style professors; Lupin is more hands-on and practical; Umbridge does pure rote memorization, etc.

There is a plot, but it’s kind of predictable and not much different from what we find out in the opening chapters: Harry’s parents were killed by a Dark Wizard, he grows up knowing nothing about the Wizarding world, and he’s special and going to face said Dark Wizard again some day. That’s all we need for a plot hook. The rest of the details and characters are why we stuck with it. It’s high-concept wish fulfillment not just about how special and important the main character is, although that’s certainly happening. It’s about friendship, trust, confidence, self-worth, and hope. Harry gets through his trials from the first Hogwarts letter to the last battle with Voldemort because it’s his destiny, yes, but also because he has good people around him who want him to succeed. The fact that Ron bonds with him not because he’s famous, but because they both know what it feels like to get all their clothes second hand, and Hermione because she knows what it’s like to be bullied and ignored even when she’s done nothing wrong, are all factors to remember. It takes Harry a while to warm up to the reality that yes, he has friends now, and yes they do want to help him, but it’s clear to the audience from the word Go.

GIF of letters falling all around Harry as he jumps and tries to grab one.

Don’t get me wrong--this series has flaws, and we will be talking about a few of them later on in this retrospective. But in terms of finding a global audience and hooking their loyalty from the first page? It’s a success story every aspiring writer should study. I find something new to appreciate about it every time I go through the series again.
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