I’ve re-read all the Harry Potter books and re-watched all the films, and participated in a series of podcasts to discuss the latter. I’ve read the script of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, and watched Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. For the moment, it’s time to take a rest from this franchise.
The Harry Potter books themselves – the main focus of this year’s project – were, for the most part, just as wonderful as ever. Yes, my more mature eyes were more capable of spotting the various flaws, but also at appreciating the finer details, such as how well JK Rowling foreshadowed later events from as early as the first book.
So, is there a big secret to why and how Harry Potter became the worldwide phenomenon that it still continues to be? I’m not sure, but I can certainly float some thoughts as to what makes this series stand out.
Rowling brings a delightful writer’s voice and prose style to these books, with clarity, humour and emotional power – I especially love her frequent use of similes. She makes the characters and their voices so distinctive that you can often look at a fragment of dialogue and, without being told, guess who it belongs to. But there’s also the fact that the writing style changed over time, not just because Rowling herself was gaining experience, but because she recognised that her young readers were growing older, and so the style changed to suit them while still retaining what made it good in the first place. We go from this in Philosopher’s Stone:
‘The Potters smiled and waved at Harry and he stared hungrily back at them, his hands pressed flat against the glass as though he was hoping to fall right through it and reach them. He had a powerful kind of ache inside him, half joy, half terrible sadness.’
To this in Deathly Hallows:
‘He let (the tears) fall, his lips pressed hard together, looking down at the thick snow hiding from his eyes the place where the last of Lily and James lay, bones now, surely, or dust, not knowing or caring that their living son stood so near, his heart still beating, alive because of their sacrifice and close to wishing, at this moment, that he was sleeping under the snow with them.’
Then there is the massive and diverse cast of characters. Harry Potter himself is a great protagonist: highly relatable in how he tries to grasp all the details of the strange new world he has been thrust into, he changes and grows over seven years, takes wrong turns and makes bad decisions, yet remains a good and moral person throughout. His choice of best friends – Ron Weasley, who may be an average teenage boy in many ways but has a lot of heart and a greater knowledge of the wizarding world; and Hermione Granger, the studious know-it-all who still suffers from a few insecurities in spite of her brilliance – makes for a wonderful team dynamic that lasts for the whole series.
Many of the characters seem familiar to those who have previously experienced fantasy or school-based stories, but are given new angles or subversions. Albus Dumbledore looks and acts like the classic wise old wizard, similar to Merlin or Gandalf; but as the books progress, we see him make mistakes and learn about the unhappier things that resulted from his being a prodigy. Lord Voldemort looks like the classic twisted, inhuman sorcerer who wants to take over the world, but he is given an actual agenda, and we get to look at his past and see just what made the monster. Draco Malfoy, the snobbish school bully who antagonises our hero at every opportunity, isn’t so sure of himself once he’s invited to play with the adult antagonists; and Neville Longbottom, the loser with little talent and even less confidence, rises to fill Harry’s former role as leader of the Hogwarts resistance movement.
And while much of this magical world may provide wish fulfilment and escapism, there are many ways in which it is not so far removed from our own. Harry still has to deal with a lot of the same problems as a teenage boy in the real world: homework, bullies, horrible teachers, falling out with his friends, and eventually trying to ask out girls. Themes of prejudice and racism are prevalent throughout the books: even if looking down on Muggle-borns is a fictional form of prejudice, it may still help younger readers to understand similar prejudices in the real world and why they are wrong. Thus, the Harry Potter books manage to be fantastical in some ways, and grounded in reality in others.
So now, here are my final rankings of the eight films:
This isn’t a terrible film as films go, but it’s the only one that falls short of being a properly enjoyable watch. If it can’t help being stuck with the less exciting and intriguing parts of the final book, it still stretches things out far more than it needs to.
The whimsical, family-friendly style that Chris Columbus brought to the first two films has a lot of good about it, but Chamber of Secrets is still an awkward adaptation: not enough effort in translating some parts of the story to film, some poorly adapted elements that don’t make sense, mishandled characters, and an overly long running time.
Philosopher’s Stone may suffer from many of the same problems as Chamber of Secrets – the two films are almost identical stylistically – but is still an enjoyable introduction to the film franchise that showed fans of the books just what they’d be in for.
This film has some great action and acting, and captures the light and dark tones within the book very well, but it cuts so many things out that it comes together like a poorly-constructed piece of furniture, which manages to stand up but often wobbles ominously.
Even though I didn’t like this film as much as I used to upon the re-watch, due to its mismanagement of some characters and subplots, I still put it slightly above Goblet of Fire: it feels more cohesive and makes some good stylistic choices.
Like the book it’s based on, this film is solid and sure of itself. Alfonso Cuaron brings a more unique and less childish style to it than the two Columbus films, and it makes relatively few slip-ups in terms of adapting the source material.
Being based on the longest book, Order of the Phoenix again has to cut many things out, yet still feels far less disjointed than Goblet of Fire. It has an especially good instrumental score, excellent portrayals of its new characters like Umbridge and Luna, treats most of the old characters as it should, and brings its long plot together commendably well.
Deathly Hallows Part 2 takes full advantage of the additional legroom it’s been granted, and brings the climax of the final book to life with all the same excitement and emotional hammer-blows that the written words provided.
And now, my final rankings of the books themselves! Though I do still love them all.
Following the re-read, Chamber of Secrets replaces Order of the Phoenix as my least favourite: besides some questionable plot elements and relatively unrefined writing, it sticks out from all the others as the central conflict is the most disconnected from the series’ overall arc. Everything that happens in subsequent books is part of one long chain of events, but Lucius Malfoy’s decision to unleash Riddle’s diary on Hogwarts doesn’t feel like a part of that.
This one was still painful to return to, with Umbridge’s despicable antics, the heroes having to struggle against a large proportion of the world that refuses to listen to them, and Harry being struck a sudden blow by the puberty stick that turns him into a raging, sulking brat a lot of the time. However, I did gain a new appreciation for some of its better elements, and the emotional impact of its writing.
This book is quite reserved compared to the two which preceded it, and much of its purpose is just to set up the finale, but the character development and revelations therein definitely keep things interesting.
The one that started it all: despite its contents being the most aimed at a younger audience, and Rowling not having a total grasp of her universe’s rules yet, it’s still a joy to read and brings back all the happy memories of experiencing this world and these characters for the first time.
After some clumsiness in the first two books, Rowling had gotten into her rhythm with Prisoner of Azkaban, firmly grasping both the world and the characters: the result is a solid, cohesive story with mysteries, character development and a great deal of fun.
The concluding volume may not have reached the impossibly high expectations of myself and other fans, but it still features some of the best writing and most complex themes of the entire series, and brings the saga to an exciting and satisfying end.
This one has been my favourite for years, and nothing has changed following the re-read: it marks an excellent midpoint in the series, with the characters beginning the transition from childhood to adulthood, a well-constructed mystery at its heart, and a perfect blend of humour, darkness and excitement.
So just remember, in the words of JK Rowling at the Deathly Hallows Part 2 premiere: ‘whether you come back by page or by the big screen, Hogwarts will always be there to welcome you home.’