Tuesday, 18 November 2008

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone

This is the order in which I eked the essence out of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone:

My first acquaintance was the Latin version of it - I tried to translate the first chapter into some semblance of English.
Then I watched the movie.
Then I read the book.

I am, as they say, "The Woman who is Backwards".

The Philosopher's Stone, I thought, was not a bad book. It had a charming simplicity and freshness and fun to it - for younger readers. I guess I don't fall into that category but I'm used to reading kids' books so maybe my brain switches easily into appreciation of that and doesn't need the later bloodsheds and twists of story to think "that's a good book!"

Even if it was a little too predictable for my liking, the characters were very likable. Against the flow, I happened to like Professor Snape. He reminds me of Dr Cox on Scrubs except without the humour and he's not American. But if there were an American Professor Snape and he could just have a little bit of humour, I could see John C. McGinley there. Not that Alan Rickman doesn't do a superb job. He was, I thought, one of the better actors in the cast. I also thought Hermione was brilliantly cast.

And some of the concepts were a bit of fun - like the Sorting Hat, or Professor Quirrell and Voldemort's head! And "Wizard Chess".

However: Some things about the Philosopher's Stone were just plain cheesy. The ending where Gryffindor wins all the points and beats Slytherin - that was too plain cheesy. You might as well have found princes for all the girls to marry.

I found the explanation of Quidditch to be just plain weird. The whole concept of having a game where one team member (the Seeker) be the one who not only can end the match by catching the Snitch, but "whoever catches it usually wins the game" - you wonder why the heck they bother with the Beaters and Chasers at all. Why don't they spend all their time coaching the Seeker and/or hitting the other Seeker of his/her broomstick? Why does anyone really care about the other players at all - the Seeker gets pretty much all the glory?

It seemed to me that the game would be pretty boring most of the time.

I read a whole lot of critics going on about how the Philosopher's Stone was so unique and creative and how it was so like Roald Dahl.

Personally, I thought the writing was entertaining and there were some imaginative concepts there. However I agree with Ursula K. Le Guin (The Wave in the Mind) that those who ranted about its uniqueness didn't seem to note that it drew from two grand literary traditions - the English boarding school and the witches/wizards/magic tradition (with some very obvious nods to established myths and terms in magic).

Even the idea of a "witchcraft school for young witches" isn't a unique one - A set of books by Jill Murphy called The Worst Witch series centres on a witchcraft school attended by young witches of various abilities who have friends and enemies, teachers who are variously likable and dislikable, different "witchcraft classes" and a central character "Mildred Hubble" who gets into trouble constantly but somehow saves the day. The series was even popular to get made into a TV series.

This doesn't detract from Harry Potter as a fun and entertaining series - and most writers either get their ideas from somewhere or have had bits of their ideas "done" before - coming up with a completely unique idea is virtually impossible. However I'd just challenge that particular "school of critic".

The other thing is ... well I'm a big fan of Roald Dahl and when I read the Philosopher's Stone I didn't think that there was a lot to compare Rowling and Dahl with ... oh except they are both popular and successful British children's authors, and Rowling even broke into poetry (with the Sorting Hat) in the middle of her book, which was a popular device of Dahl's.

What marked Dahl's writing for me was not all the weird names he used for his characters (which some people probably felt was similar to all the imaginative names Rowling gave to her characters) but his somewhat savage and often naughty sense of humour.

Kids who get eaten up in a pie. A headmistress who throws a kid over a fence for wearing her hair the wrong way. Farting for sport. Collecting food in your beard for a "snack". Putting worms in the spaghetti, turning children into rats, throwing kids into the garbage chute and then jumping around and singing songs about how fun it is. That's all characteristic of Dahl. Not nearly so in the Philosopher's Stone.

All in all, quite good but not what I would say gripping. Perhaps it would bave gripped me had I been a lot younger.


TimT said...

Backwards reading is the best! I've read at least one quartet of books backwards, and often begin reading a set of books - a trilogy or quartet or whatever - in the middle, and then proceed in a random fashion until I finish them off. On the other hand, I HATE generic pop-fiction trilogies that need you to start at the beginning and go on until the end. I find it absolutely dishonest of the publishers to release a book that has no real ending (just a lead in to the next book) and no real beginning (just picking up where the previous book left off.) And their middles are usually crap too.

I like your comparison to Roald Dahl. That's exactly why I'm not enthusiastic about Harry Potter, and never bothered reading the books. There are so many great authors out there already. Ever read Eva Ibbotson? She often uses the same sort of plot tricks and conventions that Rowling uses, but she's very very wicked and funny and clever.

Maria said...

Haven't read any Eva but you've piqued my interest!

I'm a big Dahl fan and (while I don't want to diminish Rowling's success - good luck to her, she's done extremely well for herslef) I thought it showed a lot of misunderstanding of Dahl's appeal to compare the two.

What I loved about Dahl was his daring and cheek - it was naughty but not in a crude way. He just wasn't afraid to be black or dirty at times, and really make that rather fun!

I think back to things like:

The whizpopping party with the BFG!
The way he glorified poaching with Danny and the Champion of the World, and talked so blithely of poachers being shot in the legs.
The gruesome details he gave when describing The Twits.
The whole concept of "Boy Pie" in The Twits.
Miss Trunchbull, the sadistic child-bully in Matilda
Willy Wonka, the glorified chocolate maker who lets kids come to gruesome endings in his factory.
George's Marvellous Medicine which really is more or less promoting a dangerous and poisonous concotion (throw a whole lot of household products including paint) into a stew and then feed it to your annoting grandma and watch the weird results ...

Well I could go on but I think these are great examples of his fantastic imagination but also his devilishness.

Rowling has her attributes but it's far more tame by comparison - in some ways I think this could appeal to a wider audience.

Maria said...

Oh and I have read some things backwards - one of my favourite trilogies in L. M. Montgomery's "Emily" trilogy. I read the middle one firt, then went and read the first and the third.

It has not diminished my experience of it.


I think the person who gave me the second book was under the impression it was the only one (or the first).

About the pop-fiction trilogies - what's disappointing is when they have no end!

I read some Gillian Rubinstein books recently.

I read Shinkei, which is the last book of the Space Demons trilogy. I had started reading that whe I was in ... oh maybe primary school. Or something. I didn't realise there WAS a third! I had read the first two, and I knew both ended with an opening for a possible sequel but each was a good book in itself but I thought it was just a device "just in case" but there was no third. I was wrong, Shinkei finished the trilogy. In my opinion Skymaze was still the best of the series.

But those books were good, they were very good separately - well, actually Space Demons and Skymaze made very good individual stories. Shinkei did rely you to understand a little too much on the structure of the other two to enjoy it to be that individual.

Then I read Gillian Rubinstein's Galax-Arena series. I read the first two - Galax Arena and Terra Farma.

Apparently a third book was planned and was even promoted. It was called Universercus. But it hasn't been released. Don't know if we'll ever get it now!

Luckily the first two were good enough ... and the second didn't leave you hanging too much.

TimT said...

Dahl is great. The author, I mean, not the food. (The food's all right too.) My favourite is 'George's Marvellous Medicine'. (Maybe it encouraged the incipient cook in me?)

I'm not sure whether I have or haven't read that third Space Demons book. Hmmm, can't have been that good if I did read it...

Douglas Adams nicely sends up the whole habit of writing in trilogies. His 'Hitchikers Guide' trilogy has five books in it!

Maria said...

I am a big fan of George's Marvellous Medicine, and also The Twits. Funnily they aren't as celebrated as things such as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory or the BFG yet they are such fantastic, maniacal, grotesque stories, well worthy of attention!

And I absolutely love Quentin Blake's drawings. He is the tops. I love that picture of the Grandma shooting through the roof in George's Marvellous Medicine. Blake captures it perfectly.

One of the bits I like in the BFG is the ending when the bad, human-eating giants are all put in a pit and fed snozzcumbers. It sounds like it's going to be a cheesy ending, but then Dahl writes that "one evening a drunken man fell in the pit, and there were roars of delight from the giants and the crunching of bones. So they had a sign erected saying "Please do not feed the giants" and after that there were no more accidents." (not verbatim - my memory!)

I think that kind of humour perfectly captures Dahl - cheeky and wicked!

His adult short stories are good too - much darker but reflect that same wickedness!

Maria said...

Shinkei (third Space Demons book) is quite different from the first two books so it mightn't have stayed with you as strongly even if you did read it. It also had that characteristic many "end of trilogy" books have - of cleaning up.

I thought it had a few weaknesses and was less memorable.

The reason I thought Skymaze was the best (better than Space Demons) was that I thought Rubinstein had matured as a writer; I thought the game was more intriguing now and it didn't lose momentum and the resolution and character interaction was just as satisfying.

Both the first two books had a similar structure and theme:

Andrew gets a game which looks innocent but can be operated from the inside if you use negative emotions. (in the first book, hate, in the second book, fear) Those negative emotions also become a theme which is used to explore the problems that the main characters are having with their lives and their interactions with others. By solving the game they also learn to resolve issues in their lives and with each other.

The character interaction and development becomes quite powerful and you get a back story to each character player - Mario, Andrew, Ben and Elaine.

There are a few subsidiary characters who play a fairly siginificant part in the interactions, for instance John, Darren and Linda and you become fairly interested in them.

In Shinkei:

1. OK, Linda is dropped altogether. Not a huge deal.
2. Introduce the characters to Professor Ito and try to set the action in Japan. Not terrible idea as Ito is a mystery character you somewhat want to meet.
3. However I felt the big mistakes were:

A. The main character in the book seems to be Ito's daughter. You have never heard of her before. I really wanted more action with the main characters, but you don't really get too much inside their heads.
B. You are hardly introduced to the game except near the end. Part of the series' interest was the whole process of exploring and getting involved in the game.
C. Adults played too big a part in this insteqad of the kids and their problems.
D. I was annoyed/bored that there was the insinuation that Ben Challis might be gay. I just felt he probably was picked as that because he made platonic friends easily with Elaine and he was good at dancing. An easy stereotype. Geez, no one'd pick Andrew Hayford, the good-looking rich boy as gay, would they?

However it wasn't a bad book in itself, but I would have preferred a different ending to the series.