Harry Potter – The Boy who made Warner Brothers money

18 11 2010

What a week it’s been!

Exciting announcements from the British Monarchy and Steve Jobs, the appearance of a lip-synching Justin Bieber at the TD Garden in Boston in front of swooning 12 year-old girls, the news that a new Sarah Palin book is to hit the shelves, Mark Zuckerberg continuing his plans for world domination and the careful observation of  National Escalator Awareness Week by those of us who take the moving metal stairs for granted.

One more to go and I can think about retiring..

And just when I thought the heart could take no more of this media tsunami, the latest Harry Potter movie – Harry Potter and the Penultimate Chance to See Rupert Grint on a Big Screen –  is released!

 

The seventh film in the franchise, based upon the seventh book in the series and the only one that was deemed worthy enough to be split into 2 parts. There will be those who think that it is nothing more than Warner Brothers continuing to squeeze more money out of a product that has an obvious end – Harry fights Voldemort, Harry loses but because he is actually a’horcrux’ (magical object created after killing) himself he is able to defeat He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named (otherwise known as Tom Riddle) and thus ensures that Good defeats Evil. Again.

I have some problems with Harry Potter.

Mainly it comes down to the fact that I actually consider his wizarding world to be a little too violent for the audience it has been marketed to/written for. Personally, I have no problem with battles and hideous creatures – as a fan of Lord of the Rings I throughly enjoyed the three films that were based upon the three books (if you need to tell a story, just shoot more footage – and make sure that you release extended versions after everyone has seen the originals!).

But the world of Harry and his chums sits uneasily in my pantheon of suitability. And I question just how suitable Harry actually is.

In considering what is suitable for our children, we have to consider the world we live in at this precise moment in history. We have become accustomed to an ever-increasing demand for media and knowledge, and at the same time many of us have decided that the best way to access this is through a system of microprocessors and flashing lights that calls itself a computer.

At the heart of these machines lies the internet, a vast domain of interconnectivity that shrinks the world into “byte” sized packages. Traditional avenues seem to have been neglected as we all turn on, tune in and drop out. The people who have benefited from this technology revolution are the children, for them the computer is as familiar as the television, a place of learning available at the click of a mouse.

However, as traditional practices vanished into the darkness, there seemed to be a ray of light.

After sitting in a cafe in Scotland, nursing a cup of tea (or on a train from Manchester to London – depends on what you believe), struggling author Joanne Rowling had invented a character that was popular with children and rather than using the web to spread the word was utilising the medium of the publishing world. Her books told of a magical world which, while existing in the same time and space, was a long way from what we adults would call normal.

It was a world of witches and wizards, heroes and villains, magical beasts and mythical creatures, spells and curses. It was good versus evil, but fought with wands instead of lightsabers and guns. This was the world of Harry Potter, a bespectacled boy with a scar, who was on a one man crusade against the forces of darkness, aided by a ginger sidekick and a girl. It was a story that has been told countless times throughout the generations and in mediums that had been used long before the worldwide web.

In the creation of Harry Potter, J.K. Rowling (as she-must-be-called) had managed to entice an entire generation of children across the world into picking up a book again. She created a demand so great that even adults became sucked into the spell she had cast and were as keen as the kids to follow the adventures of the “boy wizard”. Through careful marketing and utilising Hollywood to the maximum, she enabled these adventures to be seen on the big screen and for children to see visual images of the adventures that were being described in detail in her (increasingly lengthy) books. J.K Rowling was no longer providing media product, she was media product.

They locked him in a cupboard? Voldemort killed his parents? No!

The adventures of Harry Potter have been played out on the big screen with inevitable video-game spin-offs. There is a range of Harry Potter merchandise that includes Lego, clothing, action figures and even chemistry sets to make your own potions. This year The Wizarding World of Harry Potter opened in Orlando and is set to be another chance to milk the cash cow that Rowling stumbled upon.

But how suitable is Harry Potter for children? Are the events and situations that are contained within the books and so graphically portrayed on screen and in thousands of homes on DVD really what we wish our children to be thinking about?

If we consider a précis of Harry himself, he begins his journey as an orphan. His parents have been killed by an evil wizard named Voldemort who is himself “killed” when he tries to cast the same curse on Harry as a baby. From there Harry is taken to live with his relatives who lock him in a cupboard until he is eleven, when he discovers he is a wizard and taken to a special school to develop his skills.

Over the next few years, aside from having to deal with puberty and girls, he is placed in a series of situations that are not what your average boy should face and against creatures that seem to be the basis of many kids nightmares. He has battled a giant snake which he kills by poking it’s eyes out with a sword and then slays, escaped from spiders in a forest which were instructed to eat him, competed against dragons and mermaids in a competition and then upon receiving his prize is whisked off to a cemetery where he witnesses Voldemort rise from the grave using Harry’s blood. He then is accused of being a liar and is tortured by Dolores Umbridge (a low-level political functionary, promoted beyond her abilities), sees his Godfather killed and has to feed poison to his mentor to ensure that they can continue to battle the evil of Voldemort (who we discover was also an orphan but with a slightly more sinister agenda).

Without going into the plot of every book in detail here, Harry’s life does not get much better until the final showdown with his nemesis which unfolds like any good vs evil conflict does with the inevitable (and disappointing) result.

There is no denying that Rowling has created a rich fantasy world which has encouraged children to start reading again, but the problem is the images she allows the mind to create. Children have notoriously vivid imaginations and to describe actions and deeds in such vivid detail is not healthy in the development of a young mind.

Whilst we have the requisite hero, we have a multitude of villains, not only in human form but in beings such as the Dementor who suck the soul of a victim and feed on positive emotions, forcing them to relive their worst memories. When even Rowling describes a creature she has created as “that absence of being able to envisage that you will ever be cheerful again. The absence of hope. That very deadened feeling, which is so different from feeling sad.”, it becomes easier to question whether this is the sort of literature we wish our children to read and the sort of movie that should be viewed by anyone under the age of fifteen.

Throw into the mix a blend of political satire (Ministry of Magic), racism with the prospect of “magical”ethnic cleansing (Muggles and Mudbloods), slavery (house elfs “serving” their masters) and the media product takes on a more tainted veneer.

Despite these misgivings, Harry Potter has become a global phenomenon.

The books have been translated into nearly every language available whilst the films have performed brilliantly at the box office since 2001. J.K Rowling has become very rich on the back of “the boy who lived” and is credited with writing a literary achievement that some have considered similar to the aforementioned Lord of the Rings. The difference, however, is that Tolkien did not write his books for children, they were originally intended for a more mature reader and have stood the test of time accordingly – with production finally due to start on Tolkien’s “Hobbit” prequel.

At best, Rowling (and her marketing department) have been responsible for a modern fairy tale and an increase in child literacy. At worst, she has condemned the children of the world to nightmares and a lifetime of psycho-analysis, a sobering thought when we consider the world we live in.

But at least we know how Joanne’s journey ends.

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4 responses

18 11 2010
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22 11 2010
Ryan Hayman

hey dave.

5 12 2010
David Burchd

This is *exactly* the type of literature I want my kids reading.

6 12 2010
clawhammertim

“…he world of Harry and his chums sits uneasily in my pantheon of suitability…”
really good bit of writing that. You are a thoughtful man in an unthoughtful land. glad your here, though!

@clawhammertim

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