Is Johnny Maxwell the Forgotten Harry Potter?
Abstract: Johnny Maxwell, as created by Terry Pratchett and whose adventures are described in the “Johnny Maxwell” Trilogy, seems to have so many similarities with “Harry Potter.” No, he’s not magical, but he finds himself in fantastical situations and he has a team of friends just like Harry and he does face life-changing challenges… shouldn’t we look at the parallels?
Before I go any further, anyone who hasn’t the faintest idea who Johnny Maxwell is should read the following books by Terry Pratchett: Only You Can Save Mankind, Johnny and the Dead and Johnny and the Bomb. They’re pretty short and shouldn’t take you too long.
OK… let’s assume you’ve read the books. Who is Johnny Maxwell? An ordinary school kid, 12 or 13 years old when we meet him in Only You Can Save Mankind. He lives in an ‘ordinary’ northern town (could be Yorkshire or Lancashire) that has long since lost its industrial prowess and suffered ‘modernization’, goes to the local school and hangs out with a bunch of slightly nerdy friends – Wobbler, who’s a computer genius, Yo-Less, a black kid who’s so straight and completely out of Yo, and Big Mac, Blackbury’s (as in the town they live in) only skinhead.
Kirsty – who turns out to be something like Hermione Granger on speed – turns up later.
The first similarity with Harry Potter is the fact that just like J.K. Rowling, Terry Pratchett has an unerring ear and an imagination that captures life in Britain for a 12-year-old boy absolutely perfectly. The dialogue, the little humorous scenes, the setting…. all perfect. It feels totally right, totally genuine… I’ve been there, I’ve had the same bunch of friends at school, I’ve heard the same dialogue between my children and their friends.
It is quintessentially British and even more acute than even J.K. Rowling’s keen sense of character.
There is the notion of a group of school friends – loyal, humorous, each with their own character traits and idiosyncrasies. You are immediately struck by the fact that the Johnny in another world could be Harry and vice versa. And we even have the fact that the Harry Potter novels are set in a boarding school that owes more to Enid Blyton novels of the 50s (anyone remember the Famous Five?) than the 21st century which only reinforces the similarity.
Pratchett also has the same spot-on grasp of place and setting. Blackbury, where the books are set, is an imaginary Northern town, but I can name any number just a few miles from where I live which fit his description with uncanny accuracy. This mirrors J.K. Rowling’s grasp of life in an English boarding school and her ability to set the scene and paint a picture.
I’ve already mentioned Kirsty – the proto Hermione Granger who completes the group and plays a key role in the following novels – Johnny and the Dead and Johnny and the Bomb. She’s the sort of girl who is always good at everything – from school subjects to athletics, karate, and other sports…. almost more Hermione than Hermione herself.
Unlike Harry, Johnny is not magical, nor are there quite the portentous events that surround his birth and ultimate destiny but strange and mystical – almost magical – things happen to him. In Only You… he’s well into a video game that involves shooting up an imaginary alien invasion force when suddenly they start talking back to him…. we surrender! Surely this doesn’t happen in a ‘shoot-em-up’ video game.
And then, more mysteriously, he’s transported aboard the alien spacecraft (is this really just a game?) and his very real dilemma is that he must protect the aliens from every other game player on the planet until they can escape across the border and out of ‘game space’.
The very real Harry Potter parallel is that, although the story is based on absurdity, Johnny is faced with some very real human dilemmas that include deciding what is right and what is easy (remember that line?) including the fact that, when it comes to the crunch the seemingly know it all, do it all Kirsty suddenly freezes and it is up to Johnny to save the day in a climax worthy of any Potter novel.
In the ensuing two books, Johnny and the Dead and Johnny and the Bomb the moral choices get harder although the humor never lets up and the best of the three is the last one, Johnny and the Bomb where Johnny seemingly does perform magic.
Here we’re introduced to the enigmatic Mrs. Tachyon a vagrant who carries all of her possessions around in an old supermarket trolley. It contains mysterious black bags which in the end turn out to be ‘bags of time’… and here you can almost picture Bathilda Bagshot.
To cut a very intricate story short, Johnny discovers that the trolley can transport you back in time, in this case to a specific time point when a bomb was dropped on a particular street in Blackbury during the war. Hilarious adventures ensue, except that Wobbler gets left behind, changing time and creating a parallel ‘now’ to which the gang returns to. They realize they have to make the past ‘right’ again and at the climax, Johnny acquires seemingly magical powers to cover a 2-mile run in seemingly no time at all to set off the air raid siren and save the day.
Quite apart from being brilliantly funny and exceptionally well written, it is a masterclass in writing any novel that features time travel as its central plot point.
But again the Harry Potter parallel is clear. A bunch of friends go through a number of scrapes and adventures in a plot that involves mysterious and magical elements which ends in Johnny using supernatural powers to save the day.
Oh… and ignore the made for TV drama of the book. It re-wrote the plot so much as to destroy the central premise and was a pretty poor version.
My only regret is that Terry Pratchett didn’t write more Johnny Maxwell books – but the three that exist are exquisite and well worth a few hours of anyone’s time.
So why compare Johnny Maxwell to Harry Potter? Three reasons. First of all Johnny and Harry are roughly the same age, are not by nature heroic and yet use their inner strengths and character to overcome very human dilemmas which leave other stronger characters seemingly powerless.
Second the descriptions of place and character are flawless and yet similar. Both Harry and Johnny have a bunch of mates who help him out and yet it is Johnny/Harry who has to single handedly save the day, working his way out of a moral dilemma… and the Hermione/Kirsty parallel is astonishing.
And… just in case you’re wondering who pinched what from whom, the Johnny Maxwell novels were written in the early 1990s.
As a postscript, if you’re really looking for young witches in the Terry Pratchett world, then look at Tiffany Aching who first appears in Wee Free Men – her introduction to magic is to bang Jenny Greenteeth with a frying pan before she rescues her brother from the land of the faeries – and the Faery Queen is not a nice person!
More on that in another Quibble!