Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Harry Potter And The High-Yield Mutual Fund

It was ten years ago this month (very nearly to the day, I think) that I started reading the Harry Potter series of books. I was a camp counselor, Goblet of Fire had just been released, and I was mystified at how rapt the children were in it. I had heard about the Potter-mania (and let us not forget that it was, in fact, a -mania), but to see it first hand was awe-inspiring. For the week after its release, every spare moment for nearly every camper was spent holed up in their bunks reading about Harry's adventure.

No, really.

I had to find out what the hell this was all about. So I picked up J.K. Rowling's first book and started reading--and was thoroughly entertained. Her stories were well-crafted and clever, if a bit childish. I read the first three books at a sprint but lost momentum about half-way through book 4, which I finished at a decidedly more leisurely pace. I read the final three books as they came out, but given the span of years between volumes, I lost a lot of detail. Characters vanished into the ephemera, and when their names reappeared, I admitted that they sounded vaguely familiar but I didn't really connect the dots of the longer story arcs.

With the films of the last book coming out this coming fall/summer, I decided it might be worthwhile to revisit the series, knowing how it turns out.

When I read Chamber of Secrets ten years ago, I remember being impressed with how Harry's ability to talk to snakes was showcased in the opening of book 1 and then became a pivotal plot point in book 2). In re-reading I'm even more amazed at the links between elements in the early stories and the way events play out at the end of the book. (And oh, uh, SPOILERS AHEAD, although I think the statute of limitations has passed for this series.)

Some of these feel a bit tenuous. In book 7, Ron uses the putter-outer (the inverse magical lighter) that was showcased in the first few paragraphs of book 1. Later in book 7 we get a reappearance of the golden snitch that Harry caught in his mouth at the end of the first book. While the connection is clearly there, it's possible, even likely, that they weren't planned from the very start but were written in later.

Some connections feel more like wild coincidences. After Fred, George, and Ron spring Harry from the Dursley's in the flying car, Mrs. Weasley singles out Fred and tells him he could have been killed, which, in the last book, he was. This might have been planned (it's quite possible that Rowling knew which characters weren't going to survive the series and put in a subtle nod), but it still feels like a bit of a stretch.

Then there's the unmistakable. I'm about two-thirds of the way through the second book, and so far both the first and second book have made some reference to Snape seemingly being able to read Harry's mind. We learn in book 5 that he absolutely can. For that matter, seeing Snape's interaction with Harry through the lens of his final revelation has been oddly fulfilling.

Also interesting is the contrast against the existing films. The best movies (Prisoner of Azkaban and Half-Blood Prince) are the ones that stray the farthest from the source material. The weakest (the first two) are the most faithful--although they weren't helped by larger-than-life performances or the woeful miscasting of Kenneth Branaugh as a dream-boat. On the other hand, Richard Harris was inspired casting as Dumbeldore (I much prefer him to Michael Gambon). On yet another hand, while I have the utmost respect for Maggie Smith, I always pictured Minerva McGonagall as Finola Hughes.

But what can you do, right?

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