Muggling Through: Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Wand

by Russell Paulette

Part One

Being an introduction to your author, and his overly pretentious need for title after title…

To start with, I really, really didn’t want to like anything Harry Potter related, whatsoever.

I’ll be the first to admit, really, that I was just being stubborn and ornery, and that I had no particular rational reason to like or dislike anything Rowling-related, I just wanted to…I don’t know, not buy into it for the sake of not buying into it, perhaps?

But more on that later.

Many of you out there in MuggleNet land possibly know my sister or, perhaps, her work–she’s an editor here on the site, and as such, I get regaled with many a tale involving Galleons and Hufflepuffs and things of this nature, and most of the time I can’t make heads or tails of it. Her name’s Nancy.

Me, I’m Russell. How’s it going? (He waves weakly, smiles cockeyed, shoves his hands in his pockets.)

Nancy has often implored me to give the books a try and, much though I do trust her opinion, my eyes would often turn to the ever-precarious stack of books that sit next to my bed; when I’m not worried I’ll be buried under their quantity, I do occasionally get the chance to read most of them and, more often than not, I’m happier when I actually do read. The thought of adding one or two more books–let alone five has never been an exciting prospect for me.

Being an English student and a book addict, I should never find myself thinking “I have nothing to read” and, though I do think this quite often, my life is often ruled by woulds and shoulds, and I would do better every once in awhile, should I actually be impelled by some of those, I think.

Enter a girl.

She’s great, she’s wonderful, and she’s a Harry Potter fan. And I like her tremendously so–and I’ll be the first to admit it–that’s the sole reason I’m here.

Because, you see, I never wanted to like anything Harry Potter related–I had avoided checking them out because everybody talks about them. And when you work in several different bookstores, this isn’t hyperbole, it’s reality–seriously, everybody talks about them.

So, strike one is overexposure.

Another reason for my underwhelming vibe stems from a little snooty English student-ease–I had heard the books, though well written for juvenilia, did have a considerable fondness for adverbs and other stylistic tics that I felt would get on my nerves.

Strike two, style.

Another reason–and probably the last legitimate one, though I suspect once everyone in Reader Land reads what I have to type, they’ll scream “hypocrite”–is the fact that I am, through-and-through, a gigantic comic book nerd.

Honestly, I love everything about ’em, and I have no desire to add anything else to my list of nerd-sins, though I’m perfectly willing to accept and even embrace those with Rowling on their list–honestly, I understand the impulses and everything, so my purpose here isn’t to level the guns and tear anything down. If anything, I knew part of my disinterest could also be credited to comics–they often deal with magic, at least some of the ones I read, but the difference being I always felt the Harry Potter books would use magic as a wish-fulfillment plot device, and not much more.

In all seriousness, I can be a pretty grounded guy, so if you want me dealing with anything frou-frou like spells and Latin, you’ve gotta either give me a really interesting philosophical bent towards it, or do something else. Since I didn’t peg the Rowling books for doing either, I carefully avoided them.

Strike three, then, is the content.

Now, you may have noticed–and I’m perfectly willing to admit to this, as well–that none of these prejudices have anything, whatsoever to do with the books themselves. They are, like I say, prejudices–so, to split that word apart like a crab, I have pre-judged these books without so much as cracking them open to suck the meat out myself.

What’s that they say about books and covers?

Yeah, that was me.

So, again, I remind you–there is this girl. And she’s great, and she’s wonderful, and I want to hang around her and, what with the June 4 deadline looming, I definitely expressed interest in going with her to see Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.

Not, of course, for the Right Reasons–that would be to, you know, see the movie because I want to see the movie. Nope–I’d be doing it for all the Wrong Reasons.

Which, really, I was okay with, but she wants fellow Potter fans to gush with in a full afterglow flush of seeing the movie.

So, if I want to be there with her opening night, what do I have to do?

That’s right, kids, I’ve got some homework on my plate, now. And, again, while this isn’t the Right Reason to read any of it, as Nancy has said when I express my guilt, “you’re reading it–that’s a good thing.”

Now the girl requires that I read Azkaban prior to seeing the movie, but that I can’t just jump into that book–so I’m currently going through a marathon of reading the first three, and watching the corresponding movies, all before the 4th so as to catch up with my Harry Potter knowledge and hold my own in any associated conversations.

Which brings me to this–which kind of brings the joke full circle. I mentioned it was homework–a joke I lobbed at the girl, and we both thought was funny, and since nepotism is alive and well in the Paulette household, I knew I’d have a forum on which to write “book reports,” if you will, of my reading experience.

And so, that’s what I think I’m going to do with this here thingy–write up my pretentious, literary, English student thoughts on both the movies and the books, as I soldier through to the opening night experience of Azkaban. Consider this like a reading journal or a reader’s commentary–like a director’s commentary, but coming from the audience’s perspective–of a non-fan’s thoughts on the books.

Because, like I say, I had every reason in the world concocted not to like the books. And, dammit, guess what happened?

Well, I like them.

There’s nothing wrong with them and, though my predicted fears were certainly evidenced, it didn’t bother me in the ways that I thought they would…

But, again, I think I’m getting ahead of myself. I should save that for the actual analyses, so that I have something to talk about, shouldn’t I?

So, thanks for looking in on this if you’re curious–I know this was a long walk-around-the-park just to get to the whole point of this exercise; however, if it turns out like I expect, at the least you all can enjoy my little monkey song-and-dance and, perhaps, glean a little insight from someone who has little interest in giving these books a close read and, really, is just trying to impress a girl.

Along the way, I might have a thing or three to say that might seem interesting or important.

Because, though Muggles are those lacking knowledge of the magic arts, we have, in our time, been known to pull off a trick or two.

Needless to say, with the plan, I’ll be discussing the books and movies frankly, so if you’re looking to avoid spoilers on the early stuff, don’t keep reading. If you know them by heart–you know who you are, of course you do–then, by all means…

With that…

Part Two

Being an analysis of Year One, both celluloid and pulp, and some thoughts of a literary kind…

Okay, so to embark on my little exercise, I did kind of put the cart before the horse–I’ll admit it.

Nancy showed me the movie first.

I figured, if I can’t stomach it, it’s only a short two hours–two and twenty, Nancy warned me–so that it’s not all that much of an investment.

So, we popped in the DVD of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, and away we went.

–The Movie

I knew the name Chris Columbus from The GooniesHome Alone stuff, I believe, and other assorted business. Nothing that ever really stuck to my ribs–The Goonies wins points for being so outlandish and goofy that it achieves a major cult status with my demographic, but it’s by no means Art, if you know what I mean.

Entertaining, sure, and there’s worse you could accuse a film of being, but nothing I’m going to bend over backwards to add to my DVD collection.

So, to start with, the film had a bit of a lackluster buzz for me–that, and Nancy admitting that Columbus’ direction isn’t the hottest in town led me to believe I’d be in for a bit of a chore.

Steve Kloves, however, was a name I was relatively familiar with, as he did the adaptation for Wonder Boys, which is a fantastic Michael Douglas. So, I thought, if nothing else the script’ll probably be solid, and as the novel’s probably standard Arthurian Model fare, we’re in promising territory.

At first flush, Nancy was right about Columbus and his directing–some of the scenes at the Dursleys’ play awfully static, and while claustrophobia is the right note to hit, especially in Harry’s cupboard, it does make some of those scenes play dishwater dull. Have to remind myself, though, that I’m not the target-audience here, and so that probably plays quite a bit into it–that, added to the fact that since Rowling’s following a fairly basic story pattern, here, I have a good sense of the road we’re on, so I already know the exit signs.

Kids, however, won’t because they haven’t seen the Star Wars Trilogy ten thousand times, and don’t know Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With A Thousand Faces backwards and forwards, like I do.

(Though, to be fair, I haven’t actually finished Campbell’s book–but his Hero’s Journey outline is easy enough to follow, and I have seen his Moyers interviews countless times, and studied him. But, I digress…)

So, working around my frustration with the film getting started–we all know Hogwarts is around the corner because, if nothing else, we’ve seen the previews–it’s altogether not that bad. Much of it is supported by Daniel Radcliffe‘s performance; a stronger acting job I haven’t seen from a ten year old in I don’t know how long.

It’s hard not to hide a smile as the Hogwarts letters come streaming through the fireplace and flutter around the room like moths. Seeing the triumph on Harry’s face as Dudley tumbles headfirst into the water at the zoo is absolutely charming. The gruff, over-the-top performance from Richard Griffiths as Uncle Vernon reminds me of something out of a Monty Python sketch but, under the circumstances, they make it work for them and the humor shines through.

When the door to the lighthouse cabin bangs, and in walks a towering Robbie Coltrane as Hagrid, I know we’re off to the races. Personally, I find the “everybody look at the fat kid” jokes at Dudley’s expenses a little distasteful–they bring to mind the Truffle Shuffle from Chunk in The Goonies–but, I suppose, if it’s source, I can’t complain too badly, and it is the sorta thing for that audience, so I won’t complain.

Columbus shooting Hagrid and Harry in London seemed a little weird, as if their budget extended to only one day, so all the angles had to be looking up at Harry, and that’s about it, but the Diagon Alley sequence was a lot of fun, especially getting to Gringotts, with the wrinkled, bespeckled trolls and the glimpse of Harry’s fortune.

Most notable in the whole sequence, I’d gather, is Harry obtaining his wand–and Columbus doing an effective, if a little heavy handed, shot of Harry glowing with power. “Here’s Arthur pulling Excalibur from the stone.” I chuckle a bit at the shop owner mentioning his and Voldemort’s wands being powered by a Phoenix’s feather–knowing only that an Order of the Phoenix enters into the mix at some point–but this notion has Nancy telling me “yes and no–now just keep watching.”

At this rate, I’ll be describing bits in far too great of a detail, so we’ll just rack the focus out a bit and try for a deeper lens.

The Train Station bit was fun, and the introduction of Rupert Grint as Ron a little too on-the-nose but, again, don’t argue if it works. The chemistry between the two of them on the train is immediately palpable, and the introduction of Emma Watson as Hermione is suitably haughty and fraught with conflict–you know, by convention, these three are bound to be friends.

Though, to spring for a lame analogy, it’s a little funny imagining Ron in the Han Solo buddy role, as he doesn’t exactly emanate roguishness, does he? The Hermione/Leia parallels aren’t too far off, and Harry does fit quite snugly into his “orphan/savior” role, now, doesn’t he?

(And, again, as a warning to stave off detractors of my analysis–Star Wars is just the pop-culture example I’m using. I’m not trying to imply this is where Rowling got it from. See, also: Harry-as-Arthur, Ron-as-(gulp)Lancelot(?), and Hermione-as-Guenivere. It’s just types or roles I’m talking about here…)

The introduction of Hogwarts is suitably awe-inspiring, and the other principle kids are introduced with a deftness. Tom Felton as Draco Malfoy is so perfectly wicked, you would like someone to slap that sneer off his face. Even the teachers are all introduced with a memorable flair.

And it’s here I’d like to pause for a moment and express my complete heterosexual crush on Alan Rickman.

Growing up as an avid watcher of Die Hard, anything else, in my humble opinion, that has Hans Gruber in a speaking role is worth a turn on the DVD turntable. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is no mean exception and, if this wasn’t a family site, I would wish to express my admiration in a series of endearing expletives as to his acting prowess.

So, in short, we’ll say despite a great turn by legend Richard Harris as Dumbledore, or Robbie Coltrane‘s Hagrid, or any of the other adult actors turning in great roles, watching Alan Rickman not even try, and still hand everyone who shares a scene with him their jock, I can’t help but be sorely entertained.

And, if nothing else, these kids have–in addition to the other fine actors–a great model here on which to soak up as much as they can.

What is interesting to me is how the film’s structure works rather episodically, which is to say that what there is of an overarching story spine is shadowed by, really, everything else that goes on in the movie. There’s all the introductory material, the leading the audience through typical goings on in a year as a student at Hogwarts, there’s the Quidditch business, and everything else under the sun other than plot.

In a lot of ways, this seems counter-intuitive–like it shouldn’t work, but strangely it does and, in large measure I chalk it up to the individual episodes being strong enough, stand-alone moments that you don’t so much mind that they seem to have little to do with the overall plot, per se.

Which, as you well know, is the satisfaction of the climax, as everything you’ve seen before comes into play in varied and different ways–from Harry and Ron’s inconsequential chess games, to Harry’s being the Seeker helping him get the last key, to the random incident of the Mirror of Erised (“desire” backwards–get it?) paying off at the Big Moment.

Rather than a random string of adventures, Rowling smartly links them all up so that we get a much more cohesive plot out of what was, really, a random string of adventures.

I don’t know if that sentence parses, but to the extent that it does, I think that’s how I feel.

Now, to a certain extent, the parts that were a bit less charming–I think the Mirror of Erised would have been more effective if I wasn’t assuming Harry was going to get caught by Snape who, it seemed based on the staging, was still actively looking for him–were what wore on my patience, and I knew they needed to start concentrate on this damn package if we were going to get this plot ball rolling, and stop worrying about Golden Snitches or whatever.

But, somehow, it didn’t seem for the most part that any of these miniscule gratings wore out their welcome, and had Columbus‘ direction just been a tad bit stronger (for instance, if the camera just moved a bit), I might’ve forgiven these slights. As it was, I forgave it anyway, but it’s largely retroactive and plot-based, so there.

At the climax, the Quirrell revelation, I’m ashamed to admit, was a slight surprise. I mean, with hindsight, it’s the most obvious revelation to be had, but since I hadn’t really cared, and I’m used to Alan Rickman as Big Bad, that meant I’d sunk my teeth firmly into the Snape red-herring–which, now that I think on it, is a bit of funny phrasing, there, as a herring is a fish, right?

Anyway, yeah, I hadn’t quite cared who the Bad Teacher was, but I also chalk that up to the film’s seeming disregard for the plot–I mean, it’s lucky the Big Bad revealed himself at the end of the term, so that our climax fell right at the end of the school year, right?

Okay, so that’s a bit harsh, and I have to say that structuring your story around the school year, especially for your first time out of the gate is tremendously smart, as it means that Rowling had an automatic structure upon which she could space out her plot concerns. But, as this book’s plot seems to take a second seat to World Building, that also has a lot to do with my disengagement from the actual story–when you’re caring less about who’s trying to steal the Title Item, and a little more about seeing some more Quidditch, it’s time for the movie to go out with a bang or a whimper.

Which this film did–a bang, I mean–certainly, the surprise of Voldemort living on the back of Quirrell’s head was plenty gnarly, and considerably gross for how I’d undersold her audience, but it did keep my attention for the remainder of Act III. I had remembered a friend complaining about Quirrell’s overly long explanation of the plot, but I found it fun–if nothing else, it had kind of a “this is how I did it, Bond…” quality which, you know, For The Children, is great.

And just as gnarly as Quirrell’s double-head was, his death was plenty gnarly and surprisingly graphic for, you know, something for kids… Actually, at first I had assumed Harry’s burning away of Quirrell’s body had something to do with the power of the stone–it transmogrifies things, right?–but then Nancy reminded me of Dumbledore’s explanation, which I had heard but had forgotten three minutes later, which is probably as much consideration as I felt I should give it.

Somehow, I still like the idea of it being the stone, but I’ll let that one go, I suppose.

The bits at the end, at the train station were suitably cute and fun. The report between Ron, Hermione and Harry feels genuine, and the chemistry is definitely built for more to follow, I suppose.

I skipped over it a bit, but the set-pieces of the various traps leading to Quirrell and the stone were well constructed, and, in particular, the chess game being a favorite–though I’ve a weakness for chess, I’ll admit. Both Nancy and the girl had mentioned an article somewhere else on here about the possible foreshadowy significance of that sequence, and I do say that it does seem charged with signs and possible portents of Things Yet To Come. I do think it possible, though, under the generic conventions, that Ron could sacrifice himself without paying the ultimate price which, though may seem a cop-out at first flush, I can’t say I would hate that as a possibility as Ron, as both a character and a product of Rupert Grint‘s performance, is quite a charming fellow, and I’d hate to see him go down in flames like that.

But, now, based on the strengths of this first movie, I am confident that whatever Rowling has in store for me (a few books behind) and everybody else (who’s, you know, read it all), not a soul in the room will be disappointed.

With that, we’ll move on to the book itself…

The Book

Now, at the time of this writing, I’ve already dived into Year Two, so much of my comments might come off of that, but I think the similarities in terms of style and whatnot are apparent enough that it’s not going to matter all that much.

That’s first.

Second, since I saw the movie first, I think it unfairly colored my enjoyment–at the least, getting started–of reading the book. I think, mainly, it was just a case of “let’s get on with it,” so, again, it has nothing to do with the book itself and everything to do with the cart-before-the-horse methods I’ve employed to read them.

Third, and final caveat to my analysis is this…

I don’t read fantasy.

I’m serious–inasmuch as this stuff counts as fantasy–it’s not my typical bag. I mean, some have caught me with a Neil Gaiman book, but he’s the exception that proves the rule. Typically, the books I like–titles like The IntuitionistLives of the Monster Dogs,In the Lake of the WoodsThe Night Listener–are these unconventional, contemporary pieces of fiction that, above all else, have what I like to call “The One Weird Thing.”

It’s proven, with me, that so long as a book, movie, play, whatever messes with reality by employing the One Weird Thing, then I’ll be happy.

In Rowling and Harry Potter‘s case, I was afraid that the Magical World stuff would be too much. As it turns out, I do think that the existence of magic probably satisfies the One Weird Thing criteria, it just happens to embrace and exist within the Weird Thing.

A bit of a departure, to be sure, but one that I’m willing to let slide because the books are infectiously enteratining, and because I’m reading them for the Wrong Reasons.

Moving on.

* * *

The first thing I noticed in the early chapters was how smooth and entertaining the prose is written. It’s not necessarily full of the flourishes, tricks and fancy nonsense that a pretentious literati like myself usually looks for, but it’s smooth and entertaining nonetheless.

Rowling’s prose, in essence, is efficient and workmanlike–and despite the annoying tics of adverbs on dialogue tags, and things like that–the strength of the prose is in its leanness, and in not wearing out its welcome.

One peculiar tic of the prose that I have picked up on, however, is that Rowling writes the scenes flowing into one another in strange ways, such that she’ll shift time and location pretty drastically, while only using a line of dialogue to serve as a transition. To be less “lit crit” about it, I don’t think I always realize that we’ve moved outside until she has the line of dialogue, and attributes it with something like “said Harry after they had walked out through the door.” It’s jarring, and a bit grating, but interesting in one particular sense…

It’s filmic.

She’s using the line of dialogue in the same way that filmmakers would, where the dialogue would be heard off-screen, prior to the cut, and then once we cut to the exterior location, that’s when we’re oriented to the action. In particular, the movement from the levitation class to Ron surreptitiously insulting Hermione, and Hermione getting pissed is an example of what I’m talking about–there are no page breaks, or any other typical prose-convention to indicate the shift in time and location, we just carriage break from description inside the classroom, to a line of dialogue which is tagged as happening outside the classroom.

It’s interesting that she chooses to write this way, as it’s a method that I think when you’re learning to read, or developing your reading skills, means that some of the details could get lost, but in another way it seems smart–in that it’s employing to an already filmicly-smart audience the techniques that they already know.

If that makes any sense.

I would say the other main strength of the book, and its prose, is really how funny it is–and, subsequently–how Rowling is able to imbue the narrator with a strong sense of authority. For one, the narrative voice is definitely not a removed voice–there’s a self-awareness when she talks about “our story”–and, for another, the narrative voice easily slips in and out of other character’s heads, particularly in the beginning with the Dursleys. That we’re with Uncle Vernon for quite a few pages in those early chapters is an interesting choice, especially considering how devolved he becomes once the voice attaches itself to Vernon and he becomes, not just in Harry’s view, but by necessity of plot, an oblique ogre whose reasons make no sense whatsoever and whose attempts to rationalize with are met with deadbolts being locked.

(And as a quick aside–my prose, right now, is getting particularly lofty and strange, here, and different in tone from the previous sections. Apologies–it’s mainly that I’m writing this at a different time, and when I start talking book-stuff, I can easily swim into the academic shallows.

Butt. Doodie. Booger.

That should bring the haughtiness of this section down some.)

Anyway, the biggest compliment I think someone can level at Rowling in any of the books, thus far, in my opinion is that, despite her weaknesses, that voice never falters and speaks on the story with a resounding authority that it’s nigh-unto impossible not to become transfixed by it and get swept away in the story. And the humor the voice employs–Uncle Vernon seeing a cat reading a map, and the narration getting into his thoughts with “but cats can’t read, so that cat mustn’t be reading, and I’m just seeing things”–reminds me of some old school Douglas Adams or, even, Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s Good Omens.

Which is to say, very British, very dry, and very funny.

Her plot construction in the book is fine–the film lifted most of that quite faithfully. It’s still effectively a series of episodes all loosely tied together around the notion of building this world, with just the finest thread of the mystery around the stone being evident. The differences–some of the scenes that didn’t make the translation to the screen–were quite effective, I thought. For instance, Harry’s encounter with Draco and the duel gauntlet being thrown as being the impetus for what leads Harry, Ron and Hermione to discover the three-headed dog was neat, and while I would’ve liked to have seen it, Kloves’ choice–of a mostly random encounter–was, in the end, the smarter choice of getting the job done in a more efficient way.

Still, the loss of some of those tangents makes reading the book a bit worth it.

Since this experiment is leading towards Azkaban, I’m a bit relieved that I seem past the mostly-episodic stuff, as, for my taste and temperament, that might just wear thin a little bit. Already, with Chamber of Secrets, I’ve noticed that she kicks the question of the plot into the novel very early on in the process, all the better to get the ball rolling. But since Sorcerer’s Stone is the Origin book, we can give her some leeway for taking her time before kicking the plot into gear. I am still amused at how much she accomplishes on such a thin plot, really, but since it leads to some interesting sequences, we all forgive her for it.

All in all, I’d say the book is a good start, and with those three-hundred-odd pages behind me, I’m more confident that the little things (adverbs, adverbs, adverbs) that I thought would bug me don’t nearly bug me as much as I thought they probably would.

So, you know, on with the show.

Coming Soon:

Part Three: Chamber of Secrets, in pulp and celluloid…