J.K. Rowling

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald (2018)

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald (2018)

(On Cable TV, July 2019) As someone who liked Fantastic Beast and Where to Find Them more than most, I was primed for more of the same with The Crimes of Grindelwald: Another trip through J.K. Rowling’s universe, perhaps a bit of fantastical sightseeing and enough special effects fit for a blockbuster. I got all of that indeed, except that it came with a scattered script and a barely-sensical plot. Reading about the making of the movie, or specifically its post-production reassured me: Many of the most nagging plot points in the film are explained by the overenthusiastic editing process that took away several explanatory scenes. Director David Yates has a lot to answer for. Unfortunately, the films’ lackadaisical plotting, which seems to be spinning in circles for most of its first half, is not so easily explained. Nor are the convoluted coincidences. They do end up robbing The Crimes of Grindelwald of most of its urgency, not helping the added confusion of the truncated narrative content. Adding further strangeness is the retconning of some plot elements of the first film, which is particularly vexing considering that the whole cycle of movies is said to have been planned well beforehand. (I think there’s more to the story here, considering the constantly changing plans for the overall series.) Plot weirdness aside, at least there is something to see when the film gets cracking: heading for Paris rather than New York, The Crimes of Grindelwald multiplies vintage visuals, even though it squanders quite an opportunity to ground its wonders in French magic—whatever glimpse we get at Paris’s magical societies feel exceptionally generic. The images aren’t bad in their non-specific ways, though. The actors are also usually good. Eddie Redmayne doesn’t have as much to do here than in the prequel, but Johnny Depp has one of his most dynamic roles in years here, with Jude Law offering a bit of support along with Carmen Ejogo, Zoe Kravitz and Claudia Kim. Still, the overall mix doesn’t quite gel— The Crimes of Grindelwald seems to be loitering in place for its first hour and a half, then rushes through predetermined plot points in a way that doesn’t seem organic. There’s some dodgy ethnicity stuff that seems tacked on a pre-existing mythology (many of the convoluted plot points have to do with integrating non-white characters in a very Caucasian mythology—I appreciate the attempt, but wish it had been done more gracefully) and some eye-raising revelations that feel forced. I still mildly enjoyed it, but more as a visual showcase than an actual fantasy film. By the end of this second volume, it seems as if Rowling has clumsily placed a lot of cards on the table, but it doesn’t feel as if we’re ready for the real story to start yet. Suddenly, I don’t feel so optimistic about the rest of the series.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016)

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016)

(On Cable TV, August 2017) As a mild Harry Potter fan, I wasn’t expecting much from spinoff Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. With Colin Farrell lurking in a supporting role, I was even envisioning a Winter’s Tale-sized debacle. But the result, thanks to J.K. Rowling’s savvy script and Warner Brothers’ willingness to bankroll a lavish production, is surprisingly good. Eddie Redmayne is very good as Newt Scamander, an awkward wizard with more affinity with fantastic animals than people. He arrives in New York City in time for us to get a long good satisfying look at a lavish re-creation of 1920s NYC, crammed with details and enough CGI to impress anyone. Director David Yates moves the story along at a good clip, first as light comedy and then increasingly as a full fantastic drama. The ending deserves a special mention, as it is more thematically resonant than most other forgettable CGI fantasy fests of recent years—the hero doesn’t get to pulverize his opponent out of brawn, and whatever clichés remain (city in peril, memories wiped) and handled far more gracefully than elsewhere. Production design is important: The rebuilding-the-city sequence that so annoyed me in Jupiter Ascending is transformed here in a delightful sequence by sheer accumulation of details. Spending time in 1920s NYC turns out to be a lot of fun, and no expense seems to have been spared in putting details on-screen. Redmayne is backed-up with a good cast: while Katherine Waterston has a mostly unglamorous role as a flapper voice of reason, Alison Sudol is a lot more fun as her blonde bombshell sister, gaining importance as the story goes on and falling for Dan Fogler’s unexpectedly likable character. As far as big-screen CGI spectacles go, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is far more tolerable than most of the recent fantasy epics, and it feels substantially more sophisticated than many franchise-building attempts. It’s got a heart despite the big budget, and it’s so different from the Potter movies that it can be appreciated as a standalone effort. Its nature as a prequel doesn’t hamper its effectiveness or ability to surprise, and the way it leisurely reveals its fantastic assets is wondrous rather than slow. All in all, a better-than-expected effort at a time when we’ve grown used to the commodification of the fantastic in movies. All it takes is a good script and enough resources to do it justice…

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 (2011)

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 (2011)

(In theaters, July 2011) As review-proof as they come, this second installment of J.K. Rowling’s final Potter book is all narrative pay-off after the often interminable setup of Part One.  The action moves back to Hogwarts and stays there, although what happens is closer to a local Armageddon than a traditional school year as the two opposing camps of the wizard civil war finally clash.  There are a few deaths (quickly glossed over), but also a few triumphs along the way:  Neville and Mama Weasley each get unusually good moments for themselves, and the film goes have the feel of an eight-volume epic conclusion.  There isn’t much more to say than even though this conclusion may not be a startling cinematic achievement it itself, it delivers what fans were hoping for.  (If you didn’t see it opening day with a psyched-up audience, well, you missed one of the rare times where seeing a film with a big raucous crowd can add a lot to the experience.)  It’s far more appropriate to take this opportunity to salute the eight-film series with a deep bow and a flashy tip of the hat: I don’t think there’s been such a long-running series with this sustained level of quality before, and the bet that Warner Brothers made in going forward with this series has handsomely paid off for everyone even as other attempts to create kids-film franchise haven’t gone past a first film.  The way the actors have grown up in front of our eyes is amazing, and Deathly Hallows Part 2 can’t resist showing us a few sequences of baby-faced Daniel Radcliffe to remind us of the long ten-year road from the first film to this one.  While it hasn’t been all good (Alfonson Cuaron’s job on the third film hasn’t been equaled, and the seventh film seriously dragged at times), it’s been a remarkable adaptation of complex books and the result will, I think, be enjoyed by many people for a long time to come.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 (2010)

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 (2010)

(In theaters, December 2010) For years, I’ve been watching Harry Potter films and commenting that the films are essentially critic-proof.  Fans of J.K. Rowling’s series will see the films no matter what the reviewers say, and the films have been produced with such a consistent level of quality that one review says everything about most of the series.  This, however, doesn’t turn out to be true in this self-indulgent first half of a seventh instalment.  It’s probably the worst Potter yet, in part because it has been split in half with a final instalment still eight months in the future.  The problem isn’t as much the cliff-hanger as the lackadaisical nature of the film’s middle third, which cries out for aggressive editing as the lead trio goes gallivanting across England in search of… something or another. (I didn’t care.)  There are, to be sure, a few things worth noticing about this seventh-and-a-half instalment: The tone is as dark and adult as the series can become, the action never makes it to Hogwart’s, the totality of the budding Voldemort regime is nightmarish and the film dares to present a brief stylish animated segment.  Alas, much of the film is spent waiting for the next thing to happen, with brief squabbles to break up interminable moments in the wilderness as the lead trio figures out the clues handed to them.  There is, as you would expect from the first half of a broken-up film, not much of a climax: most of the action has been deferred to the second film… which everyone will see anyway.  So, in a sense, the film is critic-proof: final judgement on Deathly Hallows Part 1 will have to wait until we see Part 2.

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.)

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, J.K. Rowling

Raincoast, 2007, 607 pages, C$45.00 hc, ISBN 978-1-551-92976-7

I’m going to miss the little wizard.

Oh, I’ve never been much of a Potterphile: I’ve been quite happy to read the books right after the movie adaptations come out, and if I have generally enjoyed the tales so far, I’ve left to my siblings the pleasure of obsessing about the series and going out to the midnight events celebrating the release of the series. I probably won’t read the last book until the release of the film sometimes in 2009-2010.

But sometimes, you don’t need to read a book in order to review it. Regarding Harry Potter 7, I have gleefully spoiled myself rotten, starting by reading the leaked epilogue and going on to query people who have read the book as well as reading tons of spoilerrific discussions. I can tell you who dies, who married who and the reasons why the epilogue may or may not please readers. I may not have read the series so far, but I certainly know where it’s going, and it doesn’t take much more than that to bloviate about the series.

So, first up: That seventh volume pretty much goes through the expected motions, doesn’t it? There’s little in here that’s genuinely shocking. The generally amiable tone of the series is darkened but preserved, and if a few minor characters die, well, it’s just to show that Rowling has raised the stakes a bit. Of the main characters, there’s little surprise in who dies and who ends up snogging who. Though I’m disappointed to learn that my long-awaited Harry/Draco fist-fight never happens, the rest is pretty much by the numbers, up to and including the not-really-murder of You-Know-Who by You-Know-Who-Else.

As for the epilogue, well, I’m usually the last one to complain about heteronormativity, but using “they all got married” as a shorthand for “they lived happily ever after” has always struck me as a bit easy. It’s even worse considering that just about everyone marries people they met in high school: can you imagine being stuck in a universe where that was true? The English wizard world is a bit inbred, isn’t it? Goodness forbid Harry should find a hot non-British witch to woo if he is to maintain the purity of English wizardry. (And what’s up with Cho’s puff-like disappearance from the series? Oh, OK, never mind.)

But generally speaking, it looks as if that seventh volume is what fans expected, so that’s that.

It may be more fun to discuss the series’ lasting impact. The Potter series has been a publishing phenomenon beyond measure: It was an experience to go though Ottawa’s biggest bookstore on the eve of Volume Seven’s launch to find the store re-done in Potter regalia, along with a bunch of customers and employees dressed up for the occasion. “This feels like a science-fiction convention”, I said to the cashier who seemed to understand what I was talking about.

Trying to explain why the series took off involves a conjunction of events and narrative hooks that may not be repeatable. The universality of the series’s premise is wonderful, and so was its ability to expand in a world that was much more complete than the first book suggested. (Though I’d love to study the changes made mid-way through the series.) The vast cast of characters meant that there was something for everyone, and the evolving maturity of the series also meant that the book could appeal to kids as they grew older.

Ironically, I think that “for the kids” label of the series explained why it reached so many people. The clear prose presented no reading challenge, and the parents could hop along the series alongside the kids. More broadly speaking, I think that the “you know, for the kids” appeal of the Harry Potter universe freed parents to enjoy the fantasy trapping without self-consciousness. Beyond the habitual fantasy readers, adults could just show up on the bus or at the office with the latest Potter book and no one batted an eye. There’s probably a lesson in there for expanding the fantasy readership, but I don’t think anyone inside the SF&F community paid any attention to what it was.

I’m also wondering if the Potter Craze was well-timed alongside the Lord of the Ring mania of 2001-2003, or the Star Wars Episodes craziness of 1999-2003. More than anything else, I keep hoping that something will manage to catch similar broad attention. Potter may have been the 800-pound gorilla in the fantasy field, but he’s been useful in decrazifying the image of the average fantasy reader. Yes, it’s “for the kids”, but you won’t find too many people saying that it was “just for kids”. As the wonderfully cool concept of people lining up at midnight to buy a fantasy book recedes in the rear-view mirror of 2007, I just realize again that I’ll miss the little wizard.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, J.K. Rowling

Raincoast, 2000, 636 pages, C$35.00 hc, ISBN 1-55192-337-8

Another Potter movie, another Potter book, another review where I struggle to find something to say.

At this point, I mean, what is left to write? Amazon.com lists no less than 4 198 reviews for Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire alone. It’s been read, reviewed, pirated, plagiarized, parodied and pilloried by thousands of people, most of whom are much smarter than I am. What else is there to add to the critical carnival?

Not much except for my own impressions, most of whom boil down to “eh, I liked it.”

The fun part with the Potter book so far, of course, is that even with the enormous hype, the mainstream spoilers, the merchandising, the myth-making, it’s possible to just sit down with the book and read it fresh, reasonably confident that it’s still going to be a worthwhile read.

And so this fourth volume begins like the others, as Harry is spending the last days of the summer with his evil mundane (er, muggle) relatives. Before long, through, it’s back in the magical world, back in Hogwarts, and back in unspeakable peril as The-One-Who’s-Always-Coming-Back is, well, coming back. As Harry and cohort are now 14, this leaves ample opportunity for more conventional teenage drama, including the dreaded “whom shall I take to the ball?” question. The budding romance between Hermione and Ron advances a bit, but not as much as Harry’s funny feelings for Cho.

If, like me, you’re reading along with the movie release schedule, you won’t be surprised to see that the fourth film left out a lot of background material from the book. The entire house-elf subplots are gone, along with bits of characterization (such as Harry’s anger fits) and smaller, more amusing moments. The journalist character, dropped in mid-film, is present through the whole book. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire isn’t exactly a fast-paced page-turner, but at least it keeps the considerable charm of the series so far: reading the book is like slipping in old comfortable slippers.

Not that it’s all fun and games, of course. Harry and his friends may just want to pass their exams and have fun with each other, but they’re stuck in a situation not of their own choosing. As this instalment makes it clear, the whole Voldermort situation has a rich political history, with shades of McCarthy-like witch-hunting (ahem) and complex personal histories. Among the book’s new characters is the newest Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher, Alastor “Mad-Eye” Moody, a man with a rich past in special operations… The higher authorities of British magic also get a bigger role this time around, leading this “children” book in very adult places.

The Potterverse also expands significantly in this instalment, with the arrival of foreign wizards in Hogwarts. It’s been a stated wish of mine that the very English magic of the Potterverse be expanded to take in account foreign flavours of the supernatural, and so we here get a glimpse of magic as performed in France (Beauxbatons) and Eastern Europe (Durmstrang). If we’re lucky, we may get to see a little bit more of the world in subsequent volumes.

The big plot segment of this volume, though, is the Tri-Wizard tournament, which purports to find a “best” wizard through a contest of magical abilities. You probably won’t be surprised to learn who wins: While the Potter series may be charming, it becomes somewhat contrived at times. In fact, the big finale is likely to engender questions like “wasn’t there an easier way for the villains to reach their objectives?” Harry himself is curiously passive (although less so than in the movie) and exhibits better networking than magical ability.

But (making “bla-bla-bla” sign with hands), none of that really matters to anyone likely to read book four of the series. Perfectly pre-packaged to fans, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire delivers on its promises and expands the series in a satisfying fashion. No further comments are required.

(Well, maybe another: This didn’t deserve to win the 2001 Hugo Award. But I digress.)

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, J.K. Rowling

Raincoast/Bloomsbury, 1999, 317 pages, C$11.95 tpb, ISBN 1-55192-478-1

Truth be told, I’m not unhappy to be the last one on my block to read the Harry Potter series. As a rabid reader with a serious hundreds-books-per-year habit, you could expect me to keep up with the fantasy bestsellers. But I’ve been content so far to follow the series along slightly behind the movies, trying to find a happy medium between being a cinephile and honouring my semi-rigid rule of waiting until the last volume of a closed-ended series has been published before reading it. Hey, it’s been working for me so far: Wait for the movies to come out, see film, read book, repeat… until volume seven comes out, that is.

I’ve been generally satisfied by the movies so far, except for moments in HARRY POTTER AND THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN where crucial scenes seemed to run too quickly without the necessary information. As the crowd around me oohed and aawed in recognition, I started suspecting something had been lost in adaptation.

Even a cursory reading of the original novel confirms these doubts. Oh, the basic thrust of the story remains the same: Harry escapes evil foster parents, goes to school (third year!), tries to follow classes but ends up stuck in yet another skirmish between the forces of good and evil. Harry learns a little bit more about himself, we learn a little bit about the world surrounding them and more magic ensues. How complicated can it be, truly?

Quite complicated, as it turns out. I’m just about the last critic to make the wide-eyed discovery that the Harry Potter books are growing along with the characters, and so this third volume is much more darker in tone than the previous volumes, following the trend traced by the second book. Themes are more serious (even though there’s less emphasis on the muggles/wizard class divide this time around), stakes are higher and even the magic itself is getting more serious. (Just wait until Harry’s hormones kick in: I’m expecting riots and ravishings by volume seven)

But Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban isn’t just more somber: It’s downright tragic. The biggest twist of this third volume is the growing realization that poor Harry and his friends are stuck in paths traced by their parents. Harry, Hermione and Ron would love to live the life of normal students, attending classes, making friends, playing quidditch and having fun. But no: Thanks to events having happened decades earlier, they’re constantly stuck in mortal perils not of their doing, trying to atone for the sins of their fathers. And that, in my book, is pretty damn tragic.

Otherwise, well, there isn’t much to report. Readability remains sky-high, thanks to Rowling’s careful prose and steady re-use of common fantasy elements. I do like the way that her universe is expanding and coming together, though the big breakthrough in this matter so far remains the second volume. Still, Harry’s education is always a delight to follow. On a sentence-per-sentence level, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban does honour to the high standards of the series, though some lengths are found here and there.

What’s unfortunate is that the wrong lengths have been excised from the film version. If you want to talk about the adaptation buts-and-bolts, I can always point out at the missing pets material (there’s a lot more in the novel, and even a quarter of it would have been nice to see in the film). Interestingly enough, the film includes hints of a budding romance between Ron and Hermione while completely ignoring the first appearance of Cho (blame it on casting), whereas the book scrupulously avoids any romantic foreshadowing except for Harry’s early infatuation with Cho. Hmmm.

But not much of this really matters (including this review), because the Harry Potter juggernaut rolls forward, critic-proof and flush with accumulated good will. Has the third volume changed my opinion of the series? Not a bit: I still think it’s quite wonderful. Do I have any intention of altering my current reading schedule for the series? Not really. Is this review bringing anything new to the discussion? I really don’t expect it to.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, J.K. Rowling

Scholastic, 1999, 341 pages, US$6.99 tpb, ISBN 0-439-06487-2

Second year at Hogwarts, and a second year of assorted trouble for boy wizard Harry Potter, who probably doesn’t need any introduction. Now that we’ve been introduced to the students, teachers and support staff at Hogwarts, this story feels free to dig deeper in the whole universe created by J.K. Rowling for her series. Fortunately so, for this is what makes the Chamber of Secrets so enjoyable this time around.

It’s not as if this volume is so dissimilar, plot-wise, from the first novel. Once again, Harry must confront a mystery, endure random sniping from unfriendly peers and rely on his friends. Mix in a few classes, quiddich matches, magical tricks, sinister reminders of Voldemort’s power and you’ve got a well-rounded adventure that runs the danger of reading a lot like the first one.

But everyone on all three sides of the pages is growing up. J.K. Rowling is more comfortable writing about her universe, Harry and friends are one year older, and so are the readers. Unlike many kids’ series, the Harry Potter Series seems written “in real time”, allowing for kids to grow up as the novels are released.

While the results of this evolution are still (mostly) forthcoming as The Chamber of Secrets is read, attentive readers can already see the germs of future conflicts in this volume. Rowling takes the opportunity offered by a visit through the seedier side of Diagon Alley to make us glimpse a magical universe that’s far deeper than anyone had hitherto suspected. Magic even has a civil service, which depends on good-natured public servants much like in ours. Is class warfare coming up? Well, it’s a British book: what do you think?

More directly, Rowling touches upon the touchy implications of “magically-gifted” persons in the “real” world and the inevitable muggle-wizard relationships. Discrimination appears at Hogwarts, drawing a none-too-clear divide between the pure-blood aristocracy and the more “populist” wizard population. Yes, this series is definitely growing up.

A side effect of this added depth is an added interest for readers already used to the fantasy genre. Whereas many (including your truly) were prompt in quibbling that the first volume contained nothing especially new, this second volume helps in establishing the series for what it is, a fully-imagined universe that can support itself without references to other previous mythologies. For all the above complaints about the similarity of the intrigues, Chamber of Secrets curiously feels more original than the first volume. Go figure.

It helps, obviously, that Rowling’s addictive writing style stays clear and compelling. Reading Harry Potter has a charm of its own, and so don’t be surprised to plan your life around the time you’ll be putting aside to read this book. It’s that good, and even makes the book critic-proof to some degree; when you’re having this much comfortable fun reading about Harry and friends, why complain?

The success of Harry Potter speaks for itself, and I’m not adding much to the discussion by pointing out that these books are, in fact, a heck of a lot of fun. Though I still intend to read the books as the movies come out, I’m having a harder and harder time justifying that decision; you mean there are at least two more books to read, available right now? Gee, I don’t know…

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, J.K. Rowling

Raincoast, 1997 (2001 reprint), 223 pages, C$9.95 tpb, ISBN 1-55192-398-X

“Well, I’m surprised to see that you’ve condescended to read Harry Potter” said my uncle’s girlfriend when she saw me with the first volume in hand.

The only really surprising thing is how long it’s taken me to actually read the darn thing.

I’ve always been deeply suspicious of the popular intellectual snobbery that states that “if it’s popular, it can’t be good”. Without citing too many examples, there are times where something is famous because it’s good. It might not be better than your favorite obscure painting/movie/author, but that in itself isn’t a reason to criticize anything wildly fashionable.

I first wanted to read Harry Potter a long time ago. I downloaded the pirated electronic versions of the whole series late in 2000, only to realize that I just don’t read novels on screen; my reader’s reflexes are still hard-wired to paper, ink and glue. My sister bought and read the first two volumes. Ages passed. A movie got made. I borrowed the first volume from my sister, then consciously put it away and enjoyed the movie on its own terms. A few more weeks passed and then I decided to celebrate the end of 2001 with a good fluffy read.

I enjoyed almost every page of it.

Before gushing, though, allow me to say that there are two criticisms I can heap upon J.K. Rowling and the first Harry Potter novel.

First, how deliberate it all seems. Let’s see: to ensnare kids, what better than a misunderstood, under-appreciated hero who really has exceptional magical powers and whose parents are really powerful magicians? You couldn’t design a better hook on purpose, much like Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game seemed mathematically designed to hook young teenagers with pretty much the same levers.

Second; how conventional it all is. Tales of magical academies and of young magicians have been written before. Some of them quite good. Almost every gadget used in The Philosopher’s Stone has been invented elsewhere, used elsewhere and seen elsewhere. There isn’t a lot of new, inventive fantasy material in Harry Potter. (So far.)

But guess what? None of these two objections matter very much to the base reader that I am. What is far more important is how clearly Rowling writes, how well she builds her characters and how many little flourishes she manages to pack on every page of her novel.

I attended the World Fantasy Convention in early November 2001, and the slightly dismissive tone in which Harry Potter was discussed struck me as unfair. While elements of the Pottermania leave me nonplussed (the fourth volume shouldn’t have won the Hugo, for instance), a lot of it struck me as simple sour grapes at someone outside the genre reaping all the attention and the money.

The first volume of the series, whatever the objections of the fantasy litterati are, is a wonderful little book that didn’t feel at all like a kid’s novel. I’ve always been a sucker for the “academy” type of novel, from Starship Troopers to, say, Gravity Dreams, and The Philosopher’s Stone ranks among the best of them. It takes conventional elements of magical training and cleverly stuffs them in the British educational system. Simple and obvious, but not so obvious that it’s cliché. And, like it or not, Rowling’s produced a fantasy novel that is immeasurably more enjoyable than at least 90% of what’s published in “adult” fantasy today.

While I’m not completely bowled over, I still feel that Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone is a great little book that will make you -even you!- fall in love with reading all over again. Embrace Pottermania. In this case, what’s popular is what’s good.

(A few words about the movie vs the book: Amazing fidelity, though the book “feels” more adequately paced. The novel also provides more details on Harry’s family life, Hagrid’s past and one or two extra challenges before the end, not to mention a second Quiddich game.)