Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, J.K. Rowling

Raincoast/Bloomsbury, 2003, 766 pages, C$43.00 hc, ISBN 1-55192-570-2

Faithful readers of these reviews will remember my contrarian approach to the Harry Potter juggernaut: See the film in theatres, then read the book. It’s been an interesting experience so far: The movies provide the plot and the images, while the books expand upon the characters and the background. It’s an approach that allows the movies to stand on their own, sometimes for good, and sometimes not: after a few problems in instalment 3, the fifth entry in the series was the most incoherent film yet. Making sense of it required a consultation with two Potter experts (ie: my siblings) and a trip through the brick-sized book. As one of my Potter consultants remarked: The thickest book of the series yielded the shortest film so far.

Fortunately, there’s a lot more to the book than simply explaining the film. The Harry Potter series has, for me, become critic-proof: Knowing that I have nothing new to bring to the discussion in some sense frees me from trying to rate the books. I’m left to relax and enjoy the book purely on entertainment terms.

And despite this being “the thickest book of the series”, I had a lot of fun reading Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. It’s obvious from the first hundred pages (which barely cover ten minutes of screen-time) that the book is going to be a far more leisurely, far more complete experience than the book itself. While the director couldn’t make up his mind between starting the plot or stopping the film for minutiae, Rowling simply goes ahead and writes another year at Hogwarts, complete with minor character, academic anxieties, quiddich and yet another house-elves subplot.

At the book unfolded like a well-weathered comforter, a minor revelation occurred to me: I’m not reading the Harry Potter books as genre fantasy as much as I’m reading them as a novel of setting and characters. Yes, that’s the heresy of it: I’m enjoying Potter more as general literature than genre fiction. The richness of the series is in how Rowling develops her cast of characters, in how she develops her imaginary world (itself a character, one could argue) and the ramifications of her vision. It’s just as well: aside from Hermione, my favourite characters in this book (or even in the Potter series as a whole) are often the secondary or even tertiary players who just have to suffer through the whole return-of-Voldemort stuff: The Patil sisters, Angelina Johnson, Minerva McGonagall, and so on. Most of them end up on the chopping block of the movie adaptation. Here, they get a bit of space to breathe. New character such as Nymphodera Tonks and Luna Lovegood are much better-developed in the book, and the impact is far more profound than simply seeing magical light-shows on the screen.

Notable subplots cut from the film also add tremendously to the depth of the story. The prefect subplot deepens Potter’s sense of alienation, especially at the beginning of the story. The quiddich subplot adds even more to Umbridge’s meanness and Harry’s isolation. Poor Firenze never made it on-screen, and neither does Dobby and the vast majority of his fellow house-elves. More significant is the near-evacuation of the growing unease in the wizard world. The simple “good-versus-evil” conflict of the movies is nuanced into something that looks a lot like a civil war, leaving families divided —including the Wesleys. St Mugon’s Hospital? Gone. A good chunk of the fascinating academic details are also lost to the film’s length, leaving aside some excellent character moments. (I was particularly fond of Harry’s Patronus spell during his OWL examination, and the final exit of the Wesley twins is far more satisfying in the book. McGonagall’s role is also much more interesting in the book.) In the film, several plot twists appear out of nowhere; the book has the luxury of developing them properly. Umbridge? She’s even more infuriating in the book, and that’s saying something: “Hem-hem”.

Some plot-lines don’t work on the page and on paper: anything involving Hagrid just grates on my nerves (which, I think, is a good reflexion of the series having outgrown the the character), and Dumbledore’s double-dumb plans are inane regardless of how many special effects or chapter-long apologies you throw at them.

But all told, I really enjoyed those few hours spent at Hogwarts. I liked spending time with the characters, and that’s pretty much all I need to say in terms of critical judgement. Once more, like after every book so far, I’m tempted to just rush out and finish the series. But it will pass, and I will just wait for the next movie to come out. (After all, I pretty much spoiled myself rotten about book 7: It’s not as if the series has any surprises left.)

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