...So says a new fan interpretation of the book “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows”.  You know I love plot twists and alternate interpretations, so of course I think this is interesting.  J.K. Rowling even semi-endorsed it.

My alternate interpretation is that everything that happens to Potter after Voldemort kills him in the woods is imagined in the instant before he dies. (Dumbledore even says as much!)  It’s like “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”.   Dark Stuff.

Ok, so I’m just making that up to be funny. There’s actually no evidence to support it.  Still, it only goes to show you that you can make up alternate theories of anything that could possibly make for satisfying narratives.

Interesting article in The Guardian about a renewed interest in witchcraft, or “Wicca”, and the associated mystical stuff among young women.  The general point of the article is that witchcraft is feminist because witchery is about female-headed authority structures. Naturally, traditionalists are upset by this trend, though whether they don’t like the witchcraft because it’s feminist, or that they don’t like the feminism because it’s witchcraft is hard to say.

I bet somewhere conservatives are saying “See? We told you the “Harry Potter” books would lead the youth into more serious pagan witch-cults!” Although it’s not like Harry Potter invented presenting magic as a good thing.  Why not blame Samantha Stephens? Or Glinda the Good Witch? Actually, to be honest, I’m not exactly sure when people were not interested in witchcraft in some form or other.

I wonder when traditionalists and conservative religious people will realize that the only reason people get into tarot cards and potion-brewing is because they know it will annoy the conservatives.  Once they quit acting upset by it, it won’t seem cool anymore.

I’m not kidding about this–most of the people I know who are into this stuff are doing it because they are rebelling against their religious families.  Personally, as a non-religious (though not really anti-religious) person, I find it pretty tiresome. It’s just trading one set of rituals and relics for another, as far as I’m concerned.  Wicca is religion for hipsters: they’re only doing it because it’s not mainstream.

People are always getting renewed interest in the mystical and the occult.  Back in the 1920s, there was a wave of fascination with the occult. I think it waned a bit in the 1930s what with the Depression and all, but there was still Aleister Crowley being Aleister Crowley. Find me some point in history when there wasn’t interest in the occult among some group or other.

I happened to see a bit of the first Harry Potter movie on TV the other day.  It was about as I had remembered: too faithful to the book, to the point where it got dull.  (An explanation of the rules of Quidditch is funny and entertaining on the page.  On the screen, it is boring.)

For whatever reason, I decided to also watch the last Harry Potter film as well afterwards–mostly just to see how the cast aged.  But what I noticed, due to the discussion of color in my last post, was how different everything looked from the first film to the last.  I’m not talking the actors here–I’m talking about everything.

Apparently, Voldemort’s rise resulted in a change in how light is reflected.  The colors in the first movie–while still relying heavily on orange and  blue–were nonetheless fairly vibrant and distinct from one another.  By the last movie, everything looked completely washed-out and greyish brown.  It appeared that someone had applied a desaturation filter to everything except the magic spells.

I’m guessing they think they were doing a good job matching the darker tone of the story in the last movie by doing this.

They were wrong.

The movie was so visually uninteresting that it physically hurt to watch.  That’s not good film-making, and it’s not a good way of matching the tone of the story with the scenery.  It can be, sure; but it is not automatic.

The first Harry Potter film was by no means a triumph of cinema, but it was fairly decent visually. The last one was borderline unwatchable because of how uninteresting it looked. I might not have thought too much more about this though, except that I then happened to watch a couple scenes from the movie Apocalypse Now a few days later.  Now, I don’t think it’s an especially good movie, because the story doesn’t make any sense, but it does have awesome cinematography. If you couldn’t tell from the title, it is a rather thematically “dark” film as well, and yet the ending scenes where Martin Sheen goes to assassinate Marlon Brando have plenty of vibrant color.

Here is a still from the climax of Apocalypse Now:

Martin Sheen in “Apocalypse Now”. Used under “fair use” for the purpose of criticism. Image via IMDB.

Here is a still from the climax of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows:

Still from “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows”. Used under “fair use” for the purpose of criticism. Image via IMDB.

How is it that a picture of a camouflaged man standing in a muddy lake at night is more visually compelling than a wizards’ duel?

So, I see they are making a new Harry Potter movie, with J.K. Rowling writing the screenplay.  It will be based on the book Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.

The source material was amusing, though mostly due to the scribbled annotations purportedly by  the trio of Harry, Ron and Hermione.  Funny annotations will be difficult to translate to the screen, but maybe they could have them providing humorous voice-overs unrelated to the action.  It’d be like Mystery Science Theater 3000 in the Harry Potter universe.

It does sort of tie-in with what I talked about in this post, about needing an original story set in the Potter mythos.  it’s probably just as true for movies as for games.  Even though it’s still going to be written by Rowling, the fact that it’s about somebody else unrelated to the established characters of the series sets a good precedent for the Harry Potter “Expanded Universe”.

“The fans are all upset. They’re always going to be upset. Why did he do it like this? And why didn’t he do it like this? They write their own movie, and then, if you don’t do their movie, they get upset about it.”–George Lucas

I was thinking a bit more about the Mass Effect 3 ending.  I may do a post later on with my thoughts on it specifically, but while I was thinking about it, the idea occurred to me that it was so disappointing because it was so anticipated.  Fans had years to think about how the Mass Effect series would end; and so whatever happened would likely disappoint them.  It is an intrinsically bad ending, don’t get me wrong, but its badness was amplified by how much everyone had been thinking about it.

The same thing happened, for me anyway, with the Harry Potter series.  A big plot point, discussed by fans and even used in the advance marketing of the last book was “is Snape good or evil”?  Everybody had two years to think about this question, and we all knew what was going to happen.  Even if you bet on the wrong outcome, chances were you’d heard alternate theories that turned out to be correct. It may have made it sell better to promote the debate, but it weakened the book’s dramatic power.

It’s hard to surprise your audience with twists when you are telling a story with long intervals between each installment.  The only way out is to not leave clues to what’s coming, but then the endings or plot twists will feel unsatisfying; like they just came out of nowhere.  The best plot resolutions have to have been logically set up beforehand.

Sometimes a writer can stumble on some good twist in the middle of a series.  For instance, few people see the famous twist in The Empire Strikes Back coming, unless someone has spoiled them on it.  I’ve heard that this is because George Lucas only decided to do it after A New Hope was released, so he hadn’t left enough clues to give it away before hand, but was able to satisfactorily retrofit his twist on to the second film with the vague setup given in the first. But he was very lucky.

Lucas also didn’t have the internet to contend with.  If he had, some random fan probably would have accurately guessed the ending by pure chance while speculating on some forum.  I see this as the inevitable fate of the Half-Life video game series: if they ever do release Half-Life 3, there is no way someone won’t have already guessed what the deal is with the G-Man and posted a huge essay about their theories to be discussed on some forum.

There’s no question that internet fandom has intensified this problem; for it enables like-minded people to interact and ponder their favorite series.  I don’t think this was as much of a problem before the internet, even though there were stories that appeared in installments in magazines and the like.

This problem is lessened a bit if you are not doing a sequel that directly continues a particular story.  J.J. Abrams was very smart to come up with the alternate timeline business for his new Star Trek movies, because it pretty much allowed him to do whatever he wanted.   And although it still does not really live up to its title, I think a lot of criticism from Fallout fans of Fallout 3 was blunted because it was set far away from the other games.  In other words, it’s easier to do a series that is a loosely-related group of stories in a certain setting or around a set of themes than it is to tell one coherent story over installments. And it’s easiest of all to just tell your story in one shot.  To bring us back to Mass Effect 3, I’m convinced that had they condensed the story of the whole series into one game–with the same endings–they would have gotten way fewer complaints.  On the other hand, they also would have made less money.

I know I’m in the minority on this, but me and a friend happened to be talking about our disappointment with the Harry Potter series.  I think talking about J.K. Rowling’s new book was what started it.  We agree that 6/7 of the series is quite good.  But the last 1/7 is a different story.

The series starts out magnificently, the first 60% or so being among some of the finest adventure epics I’ve ever read.  In the second half, it gets weaker, but still very, very good.  But it culminates in an inexplicable and unforeseeable disaster that tarnishes the whole thing.  It is the 2007 New England Patriots of Y.A. fiction.

The first four books combine adventure, humor, horror and mystery into an excellent package.  The climactic scene in the fourth book where Voldemort rises again gives me chills every time I read it.  The next two books are not as good—they have more pointless teenage angst, and seem less tightly-plotted and well-edited than the previous ones.  But they’re still quite good.

And then, alas, we come to book seven.  The best thing about it is the cover.  (In fact, the quality of Harry Potter books is inversely proportional to the quality of their cover art.)

This book is a mess.  There is no gentler way of putting it.  Early on we have the inexplicable alteration in Remus Lupin’s personality.  Why he would suddenly become so reckless makes really no sense for the character, except, I guess, to set up a tearjerker fate for him and Tonks.  It doesn’t work for me; it feels like the character just wildly altered his personality for no reason.

Then there is there is the posthumous destruction of Albus Dumbledore’s character.  Now, I like the idea of a seemingly generic, stock character (kind, wise teacher) turning out to be more unique and interesting.  Theoretically, it sounds like a good idea.  But it doesn’t work with Dumbledore, because it comes too late in the story, and moreover it takes too much time away from developing other characters.  Which leads me to my next point…

The marginalization of Severus Snape is another weird error, compounded by the fact that he got all the advance hype, and yet was barely in the book save for one flashback chapter.  Snape is by far the most interesting and complicated character in the series, but he gets largely ignored and instead we get “The Dirty Life and Times of Albus Dumbledore”, or whatever it was.

This is all pretty bad so far, but I might have liked the book despite it all.  What ruins it for me are the following catastrophic things.

First and foremost: The pointless introduction of the Deathly Hallows, which just confuse everything and add even more MacGuffins on top of the already hard-to-keep-track-of Horcruxes.  The first six books were spent setting up the Horcrux plot thread; the Deathly Hallows just show up out of left field.  They are a magical device too far.

This is closely related to the problem that the Deathly Hallows, particularly the Elder Wand, are governed by a set of byzantine laws that seem designed arbitrarily for dramatic effect.  And even for dramatic effect, they fall short.  The entire book  hinges on Dumbledore’s “final plan” going awry, Voldemort not studying his Wizarding law, and Potter just happening to disarm Malfoy at the right moment.  Not on Potter learning something, or having courage; it’s just sheer luck.  Realistic, I guess, but it doesn’t fit with the rest of the series.  (Jenny Sawyer wrote a review when the book came out that addresses this in a bit more detail.)

Finally, in the atrocious epilogue, I don’t understand how it is that no one seems to have learned that Slytherin house creates vastly more problems than it solves, and that it really should be abolished.  Here they are, with the old rivalries still maintained, despite the fact that Slytherin’s Founder buried a giant monster under the school, his “heir” tried to conquer the world, and all but two of the people who are known to have attended Slytherin have been evil.  (Even Snape and Slughorn aren’t exactly model citizens, but they keep it from being uniformly bad.)

But no, nobody cares, and they are still admitting people into Slytherin, effectively sorting all the little maniacs into one isolated group, cut off from the rest of the school.  I would have tweaked the Sorting Hat’s algorithm to distribute the evildoers into the other houses, where they might be reformed, or at least restrained.

There are other flaws as well–the extremely dull camping trip (and the attendant return of pointless teenage angst), the comical ineptitude of Voldemort and his minions, the unbelievable ease and speed with which the entire Ministry of Magic converts from being a liberal democracy into an authoritarian regime.  (Did all Ministry of Magic employees get a memo “You’re all going to be Nazis now”?) but these could be overlooked, if not for all the major flaws mentioned above.

All this adds up to a disaster.  The characters are inconsistent, which makes them hard to care about.  The MacGuffins and plot devices pop up everywhere, and are not really connected to each other in a meaningful way.  The climactic battle between Potter and Voldemort is resolved by a quirk of wizard law, an ending which would be very well in a Gilbert and Sullivan comic opera, but not so good in an epic high-fantasy novel.

Star Wars fans moan endlessly about how “the prequels ruined Star Wars“.  Putting aside that I like the prequels, I never understood how the creation of a new movie could somehow retroactively ruin previous ones.  But I can sort of feel that way with Harry Potter thanks to Book Seven.  It sort of dulls the appeal of the whole series for me.  It probably shouldn’t, because I can still go back and read the brilliant Chamber of Secrets and it is every bit the tightly-plotted magical thriller that it was before Deathly Hallows was even written.  But, the fact remains, I have not bothered to revisit any of the other Potter books since Hallows, and I suspect my lack of motivation to do so is because of the awful finale.

When you criticize something popular, people usually respond with: “could you do better?”  Fortunately, I don’t have to.  The good people at “How It Should Have Ended” have already supplied an answer to that question:

If the Defenders of High Culture didn’t have enough to worry about with the Harry Potter conference, there now comes an announcement that a new Harry Potter game will be coming out this fall. Perhaps the 2013 conference will feature an in-depth examination of Harry Potter for Kinect and what it means to our society.

If it’s anything like Star Wars Kinect, it might not be such a great thing, although I think Potter fans might be more receptive to that sort of thing than Star Wars fans. As long-time readers probably know, I think that J.K. Rowling’s series is fun, but deeply flawed. (Someday maybe I’ll write about that at length.) I’ve never played any of the games based on it, as they all seem to have about them the feel of something done just to cash in on the popularity of the name.

As far as I can tell, all Potter games have been based to a large degree on the books and movies. As a Star Wars fan, I know from experience that this usually means trouble. Star Wars games are either excellent or really bad. And the bad ones are often the ones that try to follow the movies, and have you playing as Luke or Anakin or someone. (The LEGO ones don’t count; they follow the movies, but with an original twist.)

The great Star Wars game series everyone thinks of are original stories like Rogue Squadron, Jedi Knight and Knights of the Old Republic. These take place in the Star Wars universe, and though in some cases they overlap with events or characters from the movies, for the most part they are their own stories. They don’t let the established stories dictate their course too much.

Are there any Harry Potter games that take place in the Potter universe, but don’t more or less follow the established story and timeframe? That would have the potential to be good, and to keep the franchise going. Now, for all I know, Rowling has forbidden this. Which she, as the creator of the series, is totally within her rights to do. But it would be the best thing for it as a franchise.

Last week in Scotland, there was an academic conference on the Harry Potter series. The Guardian reports:

Billed as the world’s first conference to discuss Harry Potter strictly as a literary text [as opposed to what?–MM], almost 50 lectures are lined up, with academics taking on issues including paganism, magic and the influence on Rowling of CS Lewis, JRR Tolkien and Shakespeare. Seminar titles range from “Moral development through Harry Potter in a post-9/11 world”  to “Harry Potter and Lockean civil disobedience”.

The article goes on to quote Prof. John Mullan of University College London as saying: “[The participants] should be reading Milton and Tristram Shandy: that’s what they’re paid to do.”

Well, I’m sure the world will manage to struggle on despite some professors not reading their Milton and Tristram Shandy for a few days. Somehow, I don’t think those works will change much over that time frame, so I don’t think there’s a lot of urgency.

It is not that literary analysis is a useless pursuit–I have often engaged in a bit of it myself, in my amateurish way–it is just the rather odd, almost arbitrary mechanism by which things are deemed worthy of it (or not) that annoys people.

Why shouldn’t our friendly neighborhood professors spend a little time reading the adventures of Harry Potter, in lieu of another go-round with Paradise Lost? Is it because they are not as good as the works of Milton? Perhaps they are not. But how can you claim that, without first having subjected them to the same scrutiny that has been applied to Milton’s work? They could give their profession a much greater reputation for academic rigor if they did that, I think. Prof. Mullan’s idea is somewhat akin to astronomers continually proving to this day that the Earth does in fact orbit the Sun, and smacking down any loose talk about this “Sloan Great Wall“.

Not that Potter is as good as the classic Great Works–it isn’t, in my opinion, but who is to say that they won’t one day come along with something that is better than those old books? It could happen, you know, but academia won’t find out about it unless they analyze them. And even if they never actually do get surpassed, you don’t need to keep reading and writing about them over and over to be sure.

This conference is, nevertheless, a bit ridiculous. I know I sound like a Tea Partier saying this, but there is a vague touch of elitism about the whole thing: “We are academics! We can discuss this book series better than you (dare I say it?) ‘muggles’ can.”

I don’t mean to imply it isn’t worth doing, because they’re professional critics. The ridiculousness of the situation derives less from the fact that they’re discussing Harry Potter and more from the fact that academic literary criticism in general is fairly ridiculous. It is for this reason that so many people think the entire profession is useless and stupid, when in fact it is only that they are using the wrong techniques. And the reason they are using the wrong techniques, I suspect, is that they are mostly analyzing old texts, and consequently have to reach further and further for new topics that haven’t been addressed before. There are only so many ways you can say “Hamlet is really quite interesting.”

Unfortunately, the techniques honed by critics for doing this are the only tools available to those critics who would write about something slightly newer such as Harry Potter. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde’s assessment of the United States: “critical analysis of Harry Potter went from barbarism to decadence without civilization in between.” (There was, I am sure, a “Golden Age” of Shakespeare analysis. It was probably in the 1700s.)

I don’t really know why it’s such a big deal, all told.  Amateurs on fan sites were analyzing the Harry Potter books well before this and will continue to do so. Academics may join in if they like, or not. It doesn’t much matter.