Sunday, May 15, 2005

Books: I Want my Harry Potter!

July 16 can't come soon enough for me -- it's the date of the release of the next installment in the Harry Potter books, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.

For a long time, I was one of those die-hard snobs who refused to believe this series of children's novels would be interesting enough for adult readers to devote my time to it. Everybody said it was, but then, people said that about Finding Nemo, too, and it turned out to be singularly juvenile and irritating. The Harry Potter series, however, may consist of stories about children, but they're more than stories for children.

I got hooked about a year ago, when I tripped over the movie version of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. Even though I came in on the middle of the movie (and the series), I was instantly charmed. I've now seen the first three movies, am waiting with toe-tapping impatience for the fourth film (due in November 2005) and have read all five of the novels. Breathless as a sixth-grader, I've pre-ordered book six.

I really admire the way author J.K. Rowling has built each successive novel on the structure of the previous books, so that the layers of each plot have become ever-more delightfully rich and complex, but without getting so cumbersome that readers can't keep up. On the other hand, I really sympathize with the filmmakers trying to find ways of making movies of reasonable length out of novels that get longer every time, and do it before the child actors get too old to be believable in the roles. Rumor has it the director of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Mike Newell, considered breaking it up into two films -- the book runs more than 700 pages. (And the next novel in the series is even longer.)

I also admire the way Rowling has gracefully aged her characters into adolescence, complete with typical teenage neuroses. In the most recent novel, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Harry comes right up to the edge of being genuinely annoying in a series of angry outbursts sprinkled through the book, but he never quite crosses the line (well, show me a teenager who isn't occasionally annoying, and I'll show you a teenager on Thorazine). And besides, Harry's under so much pressure all the time, it'd be inhuman not to cut him some slack. He's got Lord Voldemort on his tail all the time, his foster family keeps trying to starve him to death, one of his teachers is out to exact revenge on him for something his father did, and God only knows what kind of creature is going to leap out at him at any moment -- it could be anything from a house elf to a giant spider to Mr. Filch's cat. A lot of children in books and films these days are just too cute to be endured -- remember the irksome kids in Jurassic Park? Harry's likeable, all right, but never cutesy.

If Harry's something of a grumpy hero, he's certainly a courageous and determined one, risking his life repeatedly to save his schoolmates and others. In fairness, he might not get far without his best friends, Ron and Hermione, and he rarely saves the day all by himself. But when it comes down to it, if you need a guy to stave off a werewolf or a dragon or even a horde of dementors, Harry's your man.

The occasional touches of whimsical humor don't hurt anything, either. I may not be 14 anymore, but I still find the idea of a magical incantation that goes, "I solemnly swear that I am up to no good," delightfully amusing. And part of the reason the books work well on an adult level is that they don't end with the sort of sunshine-and-jellybeans resolutions you expect from children's stories. The characters don't go off with a song in their hearts, especially in the most recent books, over which archvillain Lord Voldemort's shadow looms large.

I think it may boil down to the fact that Rowling has high expectations for her young readers' ability to understand and appreciate the complicated and sometimes intense material she's creating, and of course, with sales through the roof, there should be no doubt readers have risen to the occasion. That, more than anything, elevates these books to a level where they really are enjoyable to adults.

If you haven't experienced the Harry Potter films or books, you really owe it to yourself to give them a try, especially if you've been avoiding them because they sound like "kid stuff." Start at the begining, with Harry Potter and the Sorceror's Stone, but do start. You're likely to find yourself marking July 16 as a red-letter day.


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