Literary Whiplash

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Alternate title: Act I Scene III: Strangers With Birthday Cake Will Take You To A Better Place.

I spent most of the day yesterday reading Jack Kerouac's "Dharma Bums"--not to be confused with the blog by that name listed on the right. :-) I don't know how I missed reading Kerouac when I was in my late teens. The friends I hung out with at the community college I attended in Prescott, Arizona were all Zen Lunatic wannabes. We read Hermann Hesse, not Kerouac.

In the evening Mike and I watched Syriana, my first request upon signing up for Netflix last Friday after hemming and hawwing about it for at least a year. The movie came on Saturday--pretty impressive.

So anyway, it wasn't until just before going to bed that I finally picked up "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone". I read only the first few chapters before turning out the light, so it's way too soon for me to make any judgement regarding book vs. movie. I don't want to keep score anyway, because that would just ruin it. Nevertheless, the contradictions were a bit jarring and I couldn't help making comparisons. First, I shouldn't have been surprised to realize that gee, this book was written for kids. The physical descriptions of the Dursleys in the first chapter are cartoonish, as is Hagrid's wailing and sobbing when Harry is left on their doorstep. It'll be interesting to see if the style changes as the characters mature; it'll be particularly interesting to see if the style changes in the fifth book, which was written (or published, anyway) after a couple of the movies had been made.

I keep telling myself that it would be hard for the first book to match up to the movie--they pulled out all the stops when the movie was made. Just look at the cast--the acting is superb. The music--John Williams! The visual effects, everything. Then I remind myself that they pulled out all the stops because the book was so hugely successful, so it's fair to expect the book to be really good.

First point to the book: we learn in the very beginning that Dumbledore is as powerful as Voldemort, if not more so, and that Voldemort is afraid of him. This is never made clear in the movies. In the second movie, I think, Harry claims Dumbledore is the most powerful wizard alive, or something like that, but I wondered at the time if he had any reason for believing it, or if it was just a combination of wishful thinking and bravado. Book 1, Movie 0.

Second point to the movie, and this is personal preference: the scene in which Hagrid comes to take Harry away from the Dursleys. See Alternate Title of this entry: this scene is problematic. A scary-looking stranger knocks down the door, hands Harry a birthday cake, tells him a fantastic story: You're a wizard and I'm here to take you to a school where you'll learn magic, and Harry goes away with him after only the briefest hesitation. I hate, hate, to bring too much real-world realism to fantasy and I don't usually do so--I love fantasy. But it's not conceivable that a child would go away with Hagrid under these circumstances. Even children in abusive homes, given a choice, will stay in their homes rather than be taken away by strangers. The only way a child could be lured into going somewhere with someone who looks like Hagrid is the "Come here little boy I have some candy for you" scenario, and Harry seems too intelligent and wary to fall for that. What makes this scene work for me is what immediately precedes Hagrid's arrival: using his finger, Harry has drawn a birthday cake in the dirt on the floor. Exactly at midnight he says to himself "Make a wish, Harry," pauses, then blows out the candles by blowing away some of the dirt. Immediately, the door crashes to the floor and there stands Hagrid. Hagrid is magical because he has magically appeared in answer to Harry's wish. This wish transforms the scene from any semblance of reality to a world where it's okay to believe that Harry would go with Hagrid, and that it's the right decision.

Moreover, Harry's drawing the cake in the dirt tugs at the heart. With Daniel Radcliffe in the role--a kid with a heartbreaking face--it gets you right here. It's also a good introduction to Harry: he's a kid who has survived a miserable childhood by developing the ability to withdraw emotionally from his circumstances and console himself with his imagination. He's emotionally self-sufficient; it's a good set-up for everything he's able to stand up to later on.

My only problem with the scene in the movie was the lack of any clue as to what Harry wished for; the viewer had to make the connection. I expected this to be resolved in the book. I expected the narrator to let us hear Harry's unspoken wish: I wish a giant would come and take me away. I was surprised and disappointed when he didn't draw a cake on the floor in the book or make a wish, he just counted down the minutes to his birthday as he stared at Dudley's watch.

I realize that the drawing of the cake isn't necessary in the book because the narrator tells us Harry is counting down the minutes to his birthday; without a narrative voice it had to be shown visually in the movie. The scene works in the book because they don't leave right away. Hagrid spends the night and tells Harry the story of his parents and Voldemort. He also tells Harry he's famous, which is too bad. Postponing this revelation in the movie makes for a cuter scene in the Leaky Cauldron, when Harry doesn't understand why everyone in the place knows who he is. So, based on this cuter scene, third and final point to the movie: Book 1, Movie 2.

But that's as far as I've gotten. It's early innings, read on Macduff, miles to go before we sleep, and so on.


I think the reason I stopped reading the books was due largely in part to the style the portion of the first one that I read was written in. Moreover, I had already seen I think three of the movies, so it seemed strange for me to be starting so far back in the story, with ~1000 pages of reading to do just to catchup. Lots of people my age love them though, during my stay in China one of the books was released and there were lines of Americans waiting outside Chinese book stores for English copies to be stocked, so it must get really good or something. I, however, will never find out =P

If you didn't start reading the book until you'd seen 3 movies, then it must have been buried under one of the piles in your room for at least five years (not as unlikely a possibility as one might think!)--I bought it for you a long time ago.

It is kind of hard to go back now and start reading from the beginning; I've seen four movies.

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