Location: Vienna, Virginia, United States

A graduate of Dartmouth College (2005) and Washington and Lee University School of Law (2010). These are my personal blogs, and the musings expressed on them do not reflect the positions of my employer. They do reflect my readings, thoughts, and aspirations, which I figure is good enough.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Of Mustelids and Unforgivable Curses

So I went to an advance screening of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire tonight. It was decent I guess.

I'm ok giving some spoilers, and it's a tiny bit of a criticism. In the Goblet of Fire book, there's a judging system for the tournament that resembles the judging for Olympic figure skating, complete with Eastern bloc judges voting for their man (or woman), and a scale from 1-10. It was probably a good idea to stay away from that for the movie, and they do, but the problem is they don't replace it with anything.

Harry Potter is first and foremost, in style, a mystery. There's sleuthing and problem solving and red herrings all over the place in the books. This movie treats it more like a competition or an adventure that goes from A to B. I think it wasn't a great directorial move, especially seeing as how as I said before, their competition has no discernable scoring system. There's some vague references to judges, and first through fourth place, but the movie makes it very confusing about how people got to their respective positions.

But that's all the reviews/spoilers I'll give.

One thing that I've always wondered, and still wonder, after a conversation with Steve Resnick a while back, regards J.K. Rowling's originality. I have several issues with Rowling's style and narrative methods, but by and large, if she can get people to read, who am I to complain?

Wait, I know who I am to complain. And no, I won't say because I'm an English major, or because I consider myself somewhat knowledgable about the fantasy fiction genre. I can criticize and complain because that's one of my jobs as a reader. Sure, I should enjoy myself and immerse myself, but I should also reflect and criticize.

So here goes (and I'm going to complain about more major things than the fact that Voldemort is a lich, because in truth, Rowling often makes decent use of archetypes)

Gripes and Complaints:

Why the heck are all the cool curses, like the ones that give people animal features (like cat's ears), or the ones that make people's feet really slippery, or the ones that make someone throw up slugs, utterly useless outsides of retribution and/or for comic relief?

I know that there are some inventive uses of "curses" during wizarding fights and whatnot, but it seems, especially in the latest books (the fifth is especially poor about it), serious fights between the good guys and the bad guys amount to people throwing energy bolts around. Doesn't it get irritating to constantly shout the same thing?

And as an aside, if any of the kids have any schooling in latin, couldn't they tell what curses do without actually reading about it? Anyway...

The bad guys use the bad curses, as well as energy bolts and disarming stuff or something like that, and the good guys throw around energy bolts and disarm people or something like that. Why doesn't anyone in the wizarding world do anything original or make an inventive use out of a curse? Isn't making someone vomit slugs remotely useful in a tight situation? No?

As someone who grew up with AD&D, perhaps I would expect fireballs and clouds of stinking gas, or summoned imps, or illusions. To a certain extent, that is what I expect. And Rowling seldom delivers. This is really my major issue.

J.K. Rowling is working in a fantasy environment which promises no boundaries except her imagination.

Perhaps it is because the kids can throw around the funny curses in good times, and Rowling feels the need to be more serious in a fight, more serious meaning curses that cause direct physical pain. Of course, in doing so, she loses a lot of originality and potential. Her descriptions of battles, already set in vaguely described locales, descend into bolts of energy flying around and some yelling of the same things over and over again.

She can't see it in her power to a) make the battles in the books interesting and b) inject any decent description about settings when the settings are new to the reader.

She's very good at using animals as metaphors, giving characters animal-like traits, and describing everyday environments with a fantasy twist. But when it comes to describing a scene like the climactic battle in the fifth book (in the Ministry or wherever), she makes no sense whatsoever.

Dumbledore's Army finds itself fighting a bunch of Death Eaters in some vaguely described rooms and hallways, some of which have ridiculously and strategically placed hazards, like a door that leads into oblivion.

The sixth book has a similar scene, the one in which Harry and Dumbledore are looking for one of Voldemort's phylacteries, or whatever Rowling decided to call them. Harry and Dumbledore crawl into a cave. And walk along some cliff or something, and across to the middle of a lake, the size of which Rowling doesn't feel the need to convey.

Now, I know that the reader is supposed to use his or her imagination, but honestly, the author is expected to give the reader something to work with, yes? There is a school of thought that believes an author should be spartan with details because it is up to the reader to call upon their imagination, but I think that's a load of crap.

J.R.R. Tolkien did some things badly. He also was bad at battle scenes, for similar reasons to Rowling. For instance, while I don't have it in front of me, the Battle of Pelennor Fields in The Return of the King was quite vague. You had some fires, and some orcs, and some Grond, and then some knights and some Riders of Rohan from behind, and then some Aragorn and some Rangers in boats. Oh, and some Eowyn/Dernhelm and some Witch King in the middle of it all.

The geography of it all isn't particularly clear. All the reader really knows is front and back, at Minas Tirith and away from Minas Tirith. Which is a bit unfortunate, as some weather and wind, placement of the sun, a little hill here and there, some "A cloud of dust arose from the fallow earth as the steeds of Rohan charged the field, the sun rising behind them. And as they emerged from the golden storm upon the bewildered hordes of Mordor, their swords shone and their songs of war echoed and rang across the fields," might have made it more interesting. But Tolkien had something like that, at least the sun, if I remember correctly (maybe he had more of it), while Rowling has . . .curtained doors to nowhere.

Ok, maybe that Tolkien example wasn't perfect, because he actually does that first part ok, with the Riders of Rohan rushing the field.

If you read The Battle of the Five Armies in The Hobbit, Tolkien thought out the cardinal directions (Southern spur of the mountain, Eastern spur) very carefully. He places Bilbo on the Southern spur because Bilbo couldn't see the Eagles (not Don Henley) coming from the North and West if he had a vantage point on the Eastern spur. But his conception is very clean, almost as if he's looking at a map and describing it all. For instance, late in the battle, the dwarves take a stand around a "low rounded hill." Which came out of nowhere, apparently. There's no mention of grass, or trees, or big stones (although there are cliffs and precipices from which the goblins fall from) in the field, just two spurs of the mountain, and a valley between them.

Raymond Feist, as another example, did some things badly. Pug rescuing Carline from a bunch of trolls as "letters of fire burned in his mind's eye as he cast the spell" (or something like that) was a bit silly. Pug raining destruction above the Colosseum on Tsurannuani was even more hokey. To his credit though, Feist can write a seige or a battle. His descriptions of Armengar or Crydee work effectively. He doesn't focus on individuals too much, even though his main characters are present, he pays attention to both armies, to the time of day, to the "gritty" elements, etc. etc.

I used to read the Tracy Hickman and Margaret Weis books all the time. Dragonlance was great stuff. Chronicles and Legends still is. But I lost a lot of respect for Weis and Hickman when I realized how those first six books were so good, and why they could never recapture all that, well, good stuff. It was because they role-played it all. From the beginning of the quest to the end, they role-played a lot of it. From the beginning of Raistlin's low constitution, to Caramon's smothering love for his brother, that was all produced at a gaming table. It wasn't very hard for them to then take that experience, and translate it to a book. So to a large extent now, when I think back fondly upon the Dragonlance novels, I don't credit Weis and Hickman so much as I credit their entire gaming group.

I suppose I complain because if I want kids reading, I want them reading good stuff, and learning about good ways to write scenes, like C.S. Lewis does in The Lion The Witch and the Wardrobe. I remember reading about the Professor's house, and the smell and feel of the cupboard (camphor and fur coats) and being drawn into the book. Drawing the reader in is not necessarily predicated on making them laugh at inept charaters or making them muse about the motives of other characters. Obviously Rowling gets this, but her departs from her strengths when she tries to write ponderous or serious material.

I guess Rowling is an o.k. starting point. But she could be a heck of a lot more creative. She has such a loyal audience, and so much unlimited space with which to work. I wish she would have used it more.


Blogger panda said...

There are a lot of problems with the book.

Like Felix Felicis.

Good idea, really, really badly executed.

10:48 PM  
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4:46 PM  

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