the circular runner

The Harry Potter Paradox: A movie about magic that manages not to be very magical…

In observations, writers & books, writing on July 21, 2011 at 11:58 am


I saw Harry Potter last weekend, and though I enjoyed it, I left the theater a little sad and a lot deflated.  This feeling I had might have something to do with the fact that I was looking forward to the movie–really looking forward to it.  As in, Christmas morning, my-wife-and-I-giddily-walking-down-the-streets-of-SF-giddy.  But I’m not so cynical that I don’t believe in the possibility of having your expectations met from time to time, so I don’t think it was about inflated expectations.  I think the problem for me is that though the Harry Potter series is about magic, every time I go see one of the movies, I’m reminded of the fact that they are not very magical.  They are movies about good v. evil as that battle would take place in a world where wizards an goblins walk among us.

So what do I mean when I speak of “magical”?  Well, other vague terms spring to mind, like mystery and wonder, which I’ll try to define later, but for now, I’ll say that these words point at a comfort with that which can’t be explained or shown.  Of course, then I could say that the medium is to blame.  Can a movie, something visual, really be mysterious?  In order to become aware of something in a movie, we have to see it, right?  I guess I like not seeing everything, so maybe books are better suited to deliver the magic I’m looking for.  Though as I say that, I start thinking about another smaller movie I saw recently called Beginners.  That was a movie about people learning about themselves and about love.  It was magical even though there was nothing fantastical going on.  But there’s also Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (both versions for different reasons), which I think were magical and filled me with wonder, and both had supernatural elements.

A couple thoughts come to mind regarding both of these movies: 1. the magical can come in hyper-realistic packages.  2.  When fantastical elements are employed, I want them to highlight human nature, not fantasy.

Point 1 scares me a little.  Mainly because my writing for the past few years has centered around mixing the fantastical/supernatural with the real.  And I’m wondering if maybe that’s been a little bit of a cheat.  I’m reminded of something I read by Flanner O’Connor.  In her book, Mystery and Manners, she writes,

fiction is about everything human and we are made of dust, and if you scorn getting yourself dusty, then you shouldn’t write fiction.

I think this is why Harry and his friends left me cold, and it’s also why I think some of my own fiction, if I can be honest about it, is sub-par.  The world, described well and accurately has plenty of mystery to it.  If the story you’re telling requires overtly supernatural elements, then so be it, but the dust–not fairy dust–needs to be there, which leads to my second point.  From the Harry Potter movies at least, you get the feeling that Harry’s story is a story we’ve all heard of before–that, in and of itself, is not a bad thing.  But if you take away the magical elements, you are pretty much left with Dickens.  Still, no problem there.  But for all its spells, the movies don’t bedazzle the way Dickens does because they are kind of clunky when it comes to the emotional life of the characters.  Some might say that I’m being harsh.  That the movies are for children, and so emotional sophistication is not really necessary.  To which I say that the Harry Potter movies haven’t been kids’ movies in some time.  And even if they were, I’d counter that fiction for children should be just as emotionally sophisticated as any adult story, if not more so.  Again, I’m reminded of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, another book/movie “for kids” that was just as fantastical as Harry Potter while also being emotionally genuine and wondrous and, yes, dusty.

As a writer, I guess I should be glad about my disappointment with HP7.  Keeps me on my toes.  It makes me ask myself some hard questions about my own work.  Am I using fantastical elements to hide an uninspired story, flat characters, poorly written descriptions?  Though I’d like to think this isn’t always true with me, I know some of the work has suffered from it.  I haven’t gotten as dusty as I should.  Maybe I should let myself write something naturalistic and still try for the wondrous.  Maybe.  Or maybe, I just need to try harder to write the stories I want to write without forcing things one way or another.

In any case, seeing HP 7 has made me realize how high the stakes are.  I’m sure a lot of people won’t agree with me.  They think the movie was amazing, but for me, it just makes me sad.

There’s magic in them thar hills, and as a viewer, I want to find it.  As a writer, I want to help point readers in the right direction.  It’s hard, but I think it’s the job of a storyteller.

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