Sunday, December 12, 2010


I didn't always like it. When the first book came out in 1997 I spot read in it and wasn't impressed.  It seemed like a rehash of Lord of the Rings, which in book form I never liked much. On the eve of the movie debut in 2001 you could hear my yawn a block away. Then I saw the film.

Holy Cow! It was fascinating! I came out of the theater muttering, "So THAT'S what Rowling had in mind!" I couldn't believe what a blockhead I was for being so dense.

Looking back on it, I think my resistance had to do with Rowling's disappointingly normal dialogue and  and narrative. It's not bad, it's just not special. You expect English writers to dazzle with language, and she doesn't. No only that but she writes in a mass market adolescent style, which strikes me as somewhat simplistic.

So why do I like her? It's because great assets outweigh great liabilities. She has an astonishing imagination. Add to that a wonderful ability with characters,  an infectious idealism,  and a marvelous way with scenes and images. On the film side, she's amazingly good at picking collaborators. Her choice of actors (above) and art directors was perfect, and her out-of-left-field choice of Chris Columbus to direct was inspired.

Here's (above) the real star of the story: Hogwarts Castle. It's a wonderful image. All by itself the picture of the school asks the question: "What if school was fun, what if it combined serious purpose with tradition and life and death struggle? What if the buildings themselves were monuments to the efficacy and noble purpose of man? What if  marvelous, life-changing truths were revealed there? What if students were expected to be clever and adventurous, and not just passive receivers of knowledge? What if you made loyal, lifelong friends there? What if your own life, the only one you'll ever have, wasn't scrinched by muggles?"

Of course you don't travel to the world's best school on a plain old bus. Rowling has us take a real steam-driven train over trestles and through beautiful countryside that looks as much like Hawaii as England.

 In the films directed by Chris Columbus, the interior of the school is beautifully art directed. I love this idea of candles hovering above tables in the dining hall (above). The addition of ghosts walking through doesn't hurt either.

Terrific set design (above) for the staircase sequences.

Above, the Defence Against the Dark Arts classroom. Very nice!

Above, Dumbledore's office as it's reconstructed in the theme park that opened in July. Can you believe that it took 13 years to get a small park going?

The park is okay, just okay. Can you believe how lame this candy store (above) is? It looks like the identical design used in the Zany Brainy stores. Come to think of it, Disneyland is full of stores like this. Did the designer take time to read any of the books?

The merchandising on Harry Potter has been woefully unimaginative. Potter could have sold 10 times the toys that it did. This reaffirms my belief that 80% of all toy executives should be tarred and feathered.

At least the park cafeteria (above) has an interesting ceiling. I think all ordinary high schools should have cafeterias with complex, interesting ceilings. Occasionally a kid will get hurt when illegally trying to climb in them, but that's to be expected. You don't want the world to be so safe that no one can have fun anymore.


Steven M. said...

I never knew you were a Potter fan. Anyway, great insights, I wish all schools were actually fun.

Unknown said...

I'm curious as to what kind of Harry Potter merchandise would sell better than the "bland" stuff.

Anonymous said...

Couldn't disagree more about the films, especially the first one. In particular, the Columbus is uninspired, unimaginatively produced, and on the nose. It vacillates between being too literally faithful to the book, and being too timid to be cinematically bold--and ends up being more milque-toast than the mish-mash of the book series. There are no clear rules to the magic--it feels as if it makes itself up as it goes along. And therefore, the audience can't really care. The third film shows how to take a mediocre book and make a great film--primarily because there are limitations imposed on the magic of the characters.

Beyond that, the rest of the film series has been as muddled as the original film--and for most of the same reasons.

Paul Penna said...

Granted that I'm not a Harry Potter fan per se, in that I don't have much invested in the characters and the overall story arc, but as stand-alone fantasy/adventures I found the first two films to be delightful. Sort of like a latter-day Wizard of Oz in their whimsicality, humor and sense of wonder. When the series became more dark and gritty, I started losing interest. To me dark and gritty has become the boring cinematic cliche of the current era.

mike fontanelli said...

Here's why I like Harry Potter...

Unknown said...

What I like most about Harry Potter are the characters. I think Harry Potter has the best characters with rich personalities and it's fun to see them in the films.

The Harry Potter land in Island of Adventures is alright (I think they're planning to expand). I think the ride "The Forbidden Journey" is the greatest. It's worth it to wait in a long line because of the fact that you can journey into the Hogwarts castle.

I never got a chance to get inside the stores. There was always a huge line for each store.

Mattieshoe said...

Oh, Mike, You Scoundrel.

What did you think of the radical turn in direction Alfonso Cuarón gave the series in it's third installment, Eddie?

Looking back, I suppose it was appropriate that the direction changed as the novels changed, but I think the films lost some of their raw whimsical appeal at that point, it became less like an appealing getaway of a world and more like a gritty unromanticized, stylized world, which I thought was contrary to the original appeal of the films and novels.

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

Jtstrocel: Good question! I'll devote a whole blog to answering it...maybe the blog after next.

Anon: You sound like someone with good taste, but I guess we'll have to disagree about this. The images in the photos I posted seem very imaginative to me.

I agree that the magic seems very arbitrary. That put me off for a while, then it occurred to me that the Columbus films work in spite of that flaw. Rowling's storytelling has lots of flaws, but for me and for millions of fans her best stories succeed anyway. How she pulls that off is a mystery to me, but I'm determined to try to understand it.

Paul: I agree. The first two fims are my favorites, too. The amazing thing is that the darker stories still have some great images and manage to keep us wondering wil happen next.

Series novelists are rarely able to sustain the excitement generated by the first books; it must be hard to do. I read a bunch of Hornblower novels and none were as riveting as the first ones, Beat To Quarters and Ship of the Line.

Mike: HAW!!!!

Sandra: Fascinating! I never visited the park, I had to judge it from pictures.

Mattie: I agree. The first time I saw the third film it struck me as too dark, and I was critical of it. Of course the third book was darker than the previous ones, so I guess the film had to be. I recently rented the first six films and the darkness of the third film didn't bother me so much this time.

Anonymous said...

The images you posted ARE imaginative. It's the films that are not, and are not cohesive as a cinematic adventure.

Lots of films "look" good, but as a whole are pretty lame. Hang 'em on a wall. And sometimes, the visuals AND the film, are just awful (city of lost children, rockadoodle).

Anyway, I always love to read what you say.

yawn said...

Iam not much of a Potter fan either. But I have seen the first two films. I agree they are more imaginitive than the others.

Unknown said...

I wish I took more pictures.

The area is more like Diagon Alley and I think they did a great job at it. It's not too clean and polished like many Disneyworld/Disneyland areas, so it feels more real and actually like you're in the movie.

I couldn't get into the stores because of the long line. I tried to at least see it through the window. So far my only complaint is they look too small for a store.

Merchandise-wise, the biggest sale as far I know are the wands, next to the scarves. I could be wrong but most of the guests I saw were going crazy for the wands.

The ride is the best I've ever been on. I won't spoil it but it's absolutely fascinating and unlike any other ride I've been on. I wish Universal Studios Hollywood would have a Harry Potter area. That park would actually be worth 60 bucks (or is it $70)

Waiting in the line always sounds like a drag but it's really not so bad. The line is always moving so you hardly ever have to stay in one place forever (unlike the Peter Pan ride, yeesh). When you reach inside Hogwarts Castle, it's really breath-taking. Every detail about it is extremely amazing. They even have some really cool effects like the talking paintings, the Sorting Hat, and so much more.

Here's a little glimpse of it. -->