Why the Harry Potter Books are Better

 

“Professor Strand, which is your favorite Harry Potter movie?” a student asked recently as class began.

“I’m sorry,” I replied, “did you ask, ‘which is my favorite Harry Potter BOOK?’”

“Oh, yeah, right. Which book,” she said, unfazed. A few students murmured their understanding of her error, but most simply waited to see how much class time the question would chew up (a favorite pastime of my students: baiting instructor into digressive pop culture conversation).

I wasn’t altogether surprised by her phrasing, as I had encountered the same movies-as-primary attitude in a college-aged Potter fan just a few weeks before, as I attended a collegiate Muggle Quidditch tournament. Seeking an understanding of the viability of Quidditch on its own terms, I had asked one of the players if everyone on her Quidditch team was a Harry Potter fan, or if some players simply played for love of the sport. She informed me most were indeed big Potter fans, but there were one or two players who, she said, despairing of their poor taste, “haven’t seen any of the movies!” (Their attention to the books: not mentioned.)

Then two weekends ago, as I gave my lecture about the symbolic meaning of Quidditch at the Roanoke Harry Potter festival, two different (young adult) audience members challenged me on my assertion that James Potter was a Quidditch Chaser. “James was a Seeker,” they politely insisted. I tried to explain that on the level of symbols – which is the level on which Quidditch operates best – James has to be a Chaser, because that position corresponds to his role in the larger narrative. James is a member of the Order of the Phoenix and a goal-scorer in the fight against Voldemort, but not a Horcrux hunter (like Harry and RAB, both of whom were Seekers, on the pitch and off). Thanks to Google and the proliferation of smart phones, we discovered the source of confusion: in a 2000 Scholastic interview with J.K. Rowling, the author stated definitively that James played Chaser for the Gryffindor Quidditch team, although in the book she has McGonagall identify him only as “an excellent Quidditch player.” (SS 152) However, the 2001 Warner Brothers film adaptation of Sorcerer’s Stone misidentifies him as a Seeker. Because who cares about the nuances of a complex symbol system when you’re making a movie?

I stopped watching the Harry Potter films a couple of years ago. While I was never an obsessive, I do own all the films, and have watched the early Potter film installments many, many times. I used to enjoy popping one of the films into my DVD player when my need for a Potter fix was great, but my time for re-reading a 4200-page series was short. The films are classics, and they’ll always remain a part of my movie collection. But I don’t watch them anymore, and I won’t let my son watch them (not a single one!) until he’s read all 4200 pages of the Potter series.

This turning away from the films began when I heard Episode 10 of Mugglenet Academia about what is and isn’t canon in the Harry Potter series. In that episode, John Mark Reynolds gave his opinion – one I ultimately adopted – that the films would inevitably serve to “date” the books, making the story they depict seem as passé as some of the sweaters Rupert Grint was made to wear.

To be honest, I haven’t missed watching the films. For one thing, they can really mess with one’s understanding of Potter canon. For example:

  • How does Harry learn his father played Quidditch? (1)
  • How does Hermione help recover the Philosopher’s Stone? (1)
  • Who are the “Marauders” of the “Marauder’s Map”? (3)
  • What is S.P.E.W.? (4)
  • Who gives Harry the gillyweed for the Second Task of the Triwizard Tournament? (4)
  • What does Dumbledore do to protect Harry as they land on the Astronomy Tower after returning from the cave? (6)
  • Why exactly does Neville kill Nagini? (7)
  • What happens to Voldemort (i.e. his body) after he dies? (7)
  • What does Harry Potter do with the Elder wand at the end of the story? (7)

If you’re more versed in films than books, you won’t even know how to begin answering most of these questions. Others you’ll get plain wrong. (Special thanks to my Facebook friends for helping me compile this list. Believe me, we could have gone on… and on…)

Maybe it doesn’t matter who gave Harry the gillyweed. But from a symbolic perspective, it certainly matters what position James Potter played in Quidditch (or rather, what position he didn’t play: Seeker). And it absolutely matters – especially if one appreciates the significance of the symbolism of a broken weapon and how that brokenness is resolved – what Harry does with the Elder wand when all is said and done. It may make for better cinema to watch him snap it into pieces and toss it off a high bridge, but symbolically that action is incoherent. On the other hand, in Deathly Hallows (the book), Harry’s temptation to use the wand to assert the ultimate power he is entitled to as its Master is the very obstacle he must overcome in order to heal his own personal brokenness, symbolized by his broken holly/Phoenix wand. Thus he uses the Elder wand to fix his own wand, affirming his emphasis, consistent throughout the books, on a life lived not in fear of death but in acceptance of it (holly is a very ancient symbol of Christ’s cross) – an acceptance which robs death of its power over our human condition (hence the Phoenix feather). Then Harry, in another highly symbolic act, stows the Deathstick where it belongs – with the dead (in Dumbledore’s tomb).

And it matters – oh, boy does it matter – when, in Deathly Hallows (the book), “Tom Riddle [hits] the floor with a mundane finality, his body feeble and shrunken…” (744) In 2007, political philosopher and ethicist Jean Bethke Elshtain gave a lecture at Notre Dame’s Center for Ethics and Culture about the nature of evil in Harry Potter, and its consistency with the thought of St. Augustine, especially in its depiction of evil – personified in Voldemort – not as glamorous, ultimately, but as banal. “Evil is banal. It lacks depth. It is a flattening of the world through a failure to engage it at its roots. It is nihil. It is a nihilism,” said Elshtain. WB’s film adaptation of book 7 (Deathly Hallows, Part II), however, made Voldemort’s death far from “mundane” as the book has it. The film depicted both Voldemort’s and Bellatrix LeStrange’s bodies disintegrating before our eyes, and floating away on the wind. There was a glamour, an extraordinary quality to their deaths in the films – one which unfortunately undercuts the depiction of evil at work throughout the series. Elshtain beautifully points out that in the Harry Potter books, evil is not unique, special, glamorous, glorious; it is, as Hannah Arendt called it, a fungus which grows on the surface of things. It is a parasite, living in the back of some poor professor’s turban, or off the milk of an enchanted serpent; it is a whimpering thing, stashed under a bench at King’s Cross station. And though the trappings of this world may glamourize evil, in its final defeat, evil’s banality is exposed for what it truly is: mundane, feeble, shrunken, utterly bereft of agency. In other words, like this: “They moved Voldemort’s body and laid it in a chamber off the Hall, away from the bodies of Fred, Tonks, Lupin, Colin Creevey, and fifty others who had died fighting him.” (Deathly Hallows, 745)

I do not wish to belittle anyone whose knowledge of the Harry Potter films outstrips their knowledge of the books. I also do not wish to set up dichotomies among Harry Potter fans; one is a “real” or “true” fan of something if one self-identifies as such. Period.

At the same time, I wish to invite those who haven’t experienced the richness of Rowling’s Harry Potter books to keep at it. Keep reading, even if it takes you years to get through the books. No 200-minute film can express what’s in between the covers of any one of those seven books, nor indeed of any book, but especially not Harry Potter, which is itself a celebration of books – real, parchment and ink sort of books. In the essay collection Harry Potter and History, Alexandra Gillespie argues that Rowling does something very intentional when she fills Harry’s magical world with good-old-fashioned books, as opposed to Muggle technology like computers and smartphones. “She transforms the book (and writing itself) back into something magical, just at the moment when, so we’ve been told, its days are numbered. […] [The book] has an almost supernatural power: to bear words that contain and then stimulate the extraordinary force of the human imagination. […] The old books, quills, and scraps of medieval writing depicted in the Harry Potter novels have much to teach us – about the magic that is hidden in books…” (58)

For all their cinematic brilliance, for all their pervasive popularity, the films are a muddling shortcut on a narrative pilgrimage that should really take, well, as long as it takes. For walking through seven books with Harry Potter is indeed a pilgrimage, and on a pilgrimage, the journey is just as important as the destination.

Share your own thoughts on what we get from reading the Harry Potter books versus watching the films in the comments below, or join me in conversation on Facebook and Twitter (@ekcstrand).

Comments

  1. Brilliant post, Professor Strand!

    I am no fan of screened images or ‘film’ in general which I think are a pervasive neo-iconoclasm (long story) but I enjoyed this specific take-down of the Warner Brother film adaptation of the Hogwarts Saga. Your points about interpretative errors and missteps capture the disconnect between the mercantilist/conformist priorities of the film studio and industry in general and those of the writer-working-on several-levels to include critiquing the profit-over-principle character of our times.

    Again, well done.

  2. Brian Basore says:

    It’s a good time to read the HP books, before there have been a lot of new editions, and the attendant little revisions by the author and publishers’ editors have a cumulative effect on the text across time. It is still possible to read a copy of the 1997 Philosopher’s/1998 Sorcerer’s Stone, the 2007 Deathly Hallows and the volumes in between.

  3. Emily Strand says:

    John – thanks! And I’d love to hear that long story over frothy beverages sometime.

    Brian – what a great point. Your anticipation of a Lucas-esque “face lift” on the HP canon by the author is something I hadn’t considered but certainly should. Thanks.

  4. Ben Akina says:

    Excellent article.
    I have to wonder if on some level Rowling thought of Harry’s Seekerness as an inherited trait, because of what Harry witnessed in the Pensieve: James absent-mindedly playing with a golden snitch (book 5?).

  5. Emily Strand says:

    That’s an interesting thought, Ben. Thanks for reading and commenting. Honestly, I interpret James playing with that Snitch in “Snape’s Worst Memory” as characterizing him (James) much more than anything to do with Harry. James was playing with a Snitch not to keep his reflexes sharp (it’s not even his position!), but simply to remind the girls around him that he plays Quidditch (Sirius’ question “where’d you get that?” and James’ answer: “Knicked it” seem to fill the reader in that it’s not even James’ to play with, really). And far from making Harry feel like his father’s son, the scene causes one of Harry’s biggest moments of disorientation with regard to his own personal history; he sees that he’s NOT an extension of his father as much as he’d always imagined (he’d never do what his father was doing with that Snitch!), but really more like his mother, as it happens. That’s my take anyway.

  6. Professor Granger and Company:

    I am a SciFi and Fantasy writer, and I have learned so much from everyone’s analysis of Rowling’s structure and symbolism. For years, I realized there was something missing from my work. The symmetry and beauty of ring composition, and a better understanding of the subtlety of working with subconscious symbolism is what I needed.

    I’m wondering if you are aware of any internet based writing groups that concentrate on learning and working with symbolism and more complex plotting structures? Most internet writing groups are organized around critique of a chapter or a scene at a time–not conducive to creating rich layers of symbolism or an overarching complex structure like a ring composition. I am trying to write a series, and I would like to give my work in progress a more structured symmetry. A group of like-minded writer to discuss these ideas would help me grow as a writer.

    I was formerly in a writing group that met regularly with an editor. We presented to the group what progress we had made that week. The editor, who had read the work ahead of the meeting, made comments. While we learned specific lessons from the editor about our own work, we learned from each other’s work as well. There were 5 of us, so we paid the hourly fee divided by 5. That made the sessions economical and very educational. Do you know any writers or editors who are focused on these difficult to master aspects of the craft, that might be interested in forming such a relationship?

    My current WIP is a fantasy with a Native American historical base, so I would really appreciated it if you could put me in touch with Amy Sturgis as well.

    Thank you for your time and for all the wonderful, useful things I have learned from all your lectures,
    Cherrie

  7. Emily Strand says:

    Cherrie – thank you for reading and for writing! I do not personally know of such a writing group, but I encourage you to start one, and let us know about it when you do. As for Amy Sturgis, you can contact her through the contact page on her website, amyhsturgis.com. Best of luck to you!

  8. Brett Fish says:

    This is a great analysis of why the films ultimately fail, at least on a symbolic/thematic level. I’ve dabbled with this in my own work; for instance, GoF (film) fumbles the mystery elements with embarrassing fashion (Barty Crouch/BCJR).

    The way Rowling creates mystery and drops clues is completely lost in the films, for the most part. I think it’s a near impossible transition.

  9. Emily Strand says:

    Brett – thank you! And I agree with your assessment. The very thing that makes us want to read Rowling’s books over and over is the thing that is mostly lost in the films.

  10. Kelly Loomis says:

    I agree with just about everything written here!! I can remember reading Deathly Hallows, for instance, with The Half Blood Prince next to me. I kept returning to it to look up where I might have missed an obvious clue. Goblet of Fire, as Brett points out, completely missed the mark. Winky and her story completely being left out – not only in how it added to the Barry Crouch Jr story but in relation to larger themes was a big miss. I sometimes want to watch a movie to quickly get back into the HP universe but always end up frustrated!

  11. Emily Strand says:

    Kelly, I know, right? I always put one in just wanting a little Potter dose but then I end up all discombobulated… and angry!

  12. Hi! Hope you don’t mind my chiming in; I haven’t been here in a long while. Of course, you’re right that the movies simply drop some plot points and overstate others. An example: when we were watching GOF and Moody came on the screen, my mom said, “Is that the villain?” Not much mystery there!

    But, in many ways, the movies also correct the incoherence and cruelty of the books. Here’s an essay by a livejournal friend that makes that point:

    http://terri-testing.livejournal.com/21351.html

  13. Emily Strand says:

    Mary – your comments are always welcome! Thank you for reading. I agree with the assessment of white-washing Harry a bit from book-to-film. I am very critical on my latest read-through of the series of instances of reciprocal bullying by our heroes. (Unfortunately, some of the author’s own less-than-charitable tweets prompt such scrutiny.) I’m not sure I agree it’s an example of incoherence in the books, as sometimes even in real life people behave in inconsistent or irrational ways, especially when strong emotions prevail. But it’s an interesting point your friend makes. Thanks for sharing.

  14. Nicholas says:

    Emily, I’m somewhat late to the party (John, forgive me for being a stranger lately!), having not visited the site in a while, but along the lines of your discussion, it brings to mind what my wife and I both saw as the single biggest travesty that occurred in bringing the books to the screen – one that in the course of a single scene, literally changed the fundamental meaning of the entire 4200-page series.
    I’m referring to the final confrontation between Harry and Voldemort. In the movie, it was a spectacular battle which involves lots of flying around and crashing into walls, with spells flying everywhere. The implication is clear – the outcome is still in doubt! However, as readers of the Deathly Hallows Lectures, or pretty much any of JG’s discussions of the series, will know, the final outcome was essentially secured much earlier, probably at Shell Cottage. Certainly by the time the two faced off in the Great Hall, Harry had already won. And it was pretty clear from the dialog between the two – quite possibly my favorite page or two of the entire series – that Harry knew perfectly well that he understood all this.
    The reason for the change was obvious – the spectacular showdown plays far better on the screen. Who cares about preserving the literary integrity?
    But what always bugged me in the back of my mind : if this is so obvious, why did Rowling allow it? Raising this question to a Potter pundit of the highest order who is also a screenwriter by trade, the theory was that JKR had already “emotionally moved on” by this point, and was focused on other things. Sounds like a good enough explanation to me.
    I probably mentioned this on the site 5-6 years ago, or maybe it was just in private conversations, but returning to the site and browsing this article brought up my frustration all over again. By apologies if I’m replowing ground already planted.

  15. Emily Strand says:

    That’s a great point, Nicholas. (And it’s never too late to make a great point!) I was thinking (and writing) more about that final moment, but you’re right – the whole final confrontation is far more out of Harry’s control than it should be. Thanks for reading and commenting.

  16. amflmnt says:

    I greatly enjoy the reference to the banality of evil, it always reminds me of the visuals in the film Brazil for a cultural evil that reigns not only in it’s stick-in-the-mud progress, but also lacks the creativity to extract itself or move on. To be sure, that does not mean that a cultural evil is wanting in imagination, after all such systems did orchestrate it’s way into power via cleverness; however, imagination under evil usually operates with the controlled (limited) parts it already has, rearranging them to perpetually celebrate it’s own mediocrity. We can see this in the two contrasting environments of the Stately but boring Malfoy manor no matter how many times it is lavishly re-decorated and the cramped messy inventiveness that takes place within the Weasley home. The world outside of the books tells us which is the more “successful” but as readers, we know where we’d rather be. (Thanks Puddleglum.)

    I would like to say that in a small defense of, especially the first two films, they are full of visual misdirects and indicators that in their own way attested to Harry’s character that were then supplanted by action/adventure for the latter films when Columbus departed. (Something, alas, already appearing in the WWHP1-FB film.)

    We were all mesmerized with what the rendering of the HP world could/would look like AFTER the reading of the books, something latter generations are pressed to refrain from doing. What school kid isn’t going to head for the Cliff Notes version? However, what we do have to admit to is the legacy of the film scores long after the film frames fade-from memory. I still play them when re-listening and to re-associate them to the unabridged audio books.

  17. Emily Strand says:

    Great thoughts. Re: Malfoy Manner vs. the Burrow: Beth Sutton-Ramspeck from Ohio State Lima is writing a book which will include a chapter on the depiction of dirt in Harry Potter as a positive trait (in most cases) and a brilliant stroke of irony in the series. Look for her work in the coming years – it’s right up the alley of what you’re saying. Thanks for reading and commenting.

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