I just finished up auditing a graduate-level Harry Potter course called Taking Harry Seriously from the Mythgard Institute, a part of the new Signum University. The professor was the amazing Dr. Amy Sturgis–I simply can’t praise her enough! If you love Harry Potter, fantasy or gothic literature, try to at least audit one of her classes. Imagine taking a course with people who love the same kind of literature you do, and getting to discuss it in a serious, in-depth way from a brilliant professor who loves the subject as much as you do!
One week, Dr. Sturgis asked us for our thoughts on how the Harry Potter movies would affect the reading experience of the next generation of Harry Potter readers. The first generation of Harry Potter readers read the books first. They imagined the characters and the places for themselves. But many, if not most, of the next generation of readers will either see the movies first or at least run across clips and photos to the extent that it will be very difficult to come to the books with a completely fresh perspective. I shared my thoughts with Dr. Sturgis on this topic–and thought I would now share with you, you lucky dog! Here’s my letter:
In the last lecture, you asked for our thoughts on next generation Harry Potter readers, whether they will come to the movies before the books, and how that might affect their experience.
Seeing the Movies First
This is a very interesting topic to me. Naturally, I’m viewing it through the lens of my own experience. Over the years, I’ve actually preferred to see movies first, then read the books. First, because it was too jarring to form my own mental images of characters and then see totally different people onscreen. Even if they were brilliant actors and did a wonderful job, they didn’t look the same. And I sometimes have trouble forming mental pictures of places from book descriptions, so having the movie scenery in my mind can help.
Second, you almost always get less in a movie–less detail, less plot and character development, etc. I preferred to get a taste from a film and, if I liked it, dive into the book and get more. Finding new scenes and extra detail in the books would be such a delight! Coming from the other direction–book to movie–was almost always a letdown. Invariably, the scene or character I’d be anticipating would be cut altogether. Or twisted in some disappointing way. So I definitely preferred movie first, then book if I liked the movie.
Other classic movies/books
And of course, during my childhood, there were other huge films based on books that almost everyone saw either as a movie first, or only as a movie. The Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind are the two that come to mind. I read both of those books because I had seen the movies and loved them so much. I found reading Gone with the Wind to be a treasure, because the book was like the film in spirit, but there was so much MORE.
The Wizard of Oz…I loved the book, but it was so different from the film that in a way it was a totally different experience. Almost…a book that I enjoyed and a movie that I loved but no real connection between the two.
However, when I came to the Potter books (very late, in 2008) and started reading them, I didn’t want to see any of the movies until I finished reading the books. For some reason, I felt those books were special, and I wanted to approach them fresh and unaffected, as other readers and friends had.
The Harry Potter movies and the books
Of course, even I, a Potter virgin, had seen movie trailers. So I think I had a sort of Daniel Radcliffe-ish picture of Harry in my head. And an Alan Rickman picture of Snape. Maybe that partly explains why these book-to-movie experiences were some of the least jarring I’ve ever had. Or maybe Rowling was that good at description. But when I saw the movies, Hogwarts, Privet Drive, the characters were almost all very close to what I had pictured.
All of this is a lengthy way of saying, I think a huge percentage of new readers will see the movies first. And many movie-goers will never read the books. (Most of the people I know who saw The Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind didn’t go on to read the books.) Those people will be cheating themselves out of something wonderful, but they wouldn’t have read the books, anyway.
But there will be others who see the movies, love them the way I loved The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind and wanted more. And they’ll be delighted with the extra…the secrets, the humor, the detail and richness of the Wizarding World…the undercurrents! And yes, they’ll be picturing Alan Rickman and probably Daniel Radcliffe and the Hogwarts of the movies, but as you mentioned in the lecture, I think Rowling’s vision was realized so closely that that’s not necessarily a horrible thing.
Will the movies look dated?
Also, you asked whether the movies will become dated and people will think they look silly–and therefore will avoid the books. I think story and character trump everything. Back to referencing The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind–they’re still brilliant. I have recently seen The Wizard of Oz terrify children who have seen the best that modern movie-making and special effects can throw at them.
And then there’s a British science fiction show called Blake’s 7. The special effects were pretty laughable to begin with and are most certainly dated and silly now, but the story-telling and characters are so compelling that it fires the imagination–or at least it does mine–nonetheless.
So…that’s my take on all this movies vs. books business. What about you?
While waiting for her writing to pay off, Robin Johns Grant had some fairly boring jobs but also did a lot of crazy fan stuff, especially in Harry Potter and Star Wars fandoms, which helped her dream up her first novel Summer’s Winter. According to John Granger, author of several books on Harry Potter, “Robin Johns Grant’s Summer’s Winter is the most inventive take on fan fiction I can imagine — because it’s a romance-thriller about fandoms, especially if not explicitly the Harry Potter fandom, and explores the important intersection of literature, spirituality, and imagination. Delightful!” With a degree in English and a mid-life crisis coming on, Robin returned to school and earned a master’s degree in library and information science a few years ago. She now has her best day job ever as a college librarian, which keeps her young by allowing her to hang out with students.
My niece Kristi (the same one who, a few years ago, deviously showed me the first the first three or four episodes of Lost and then went back to California, leaving me addicted) visited recently. While here, she insisted on showing me the first few episodes of a new show that has her hooked–The 100. Yep, she got me again.
One of the things I’ve found fascinating about this show is that, so far, the characters set up to be horrible villains in the first few episodes have become disturbingly sympathetic–not to mention complex. There was the young man who was supposed to be a traitor but was actually covering for someone else, sacrificing his own relationship to help another. And there’s the violent bully whose childhood flashbacks show why he is the way he is, and who is starting to morph from bully to leader. There’s the military man who pushed through a horrible policy to reduce surplus population, but turns out to have deep beliefs, remorse, regrets, and self-doubt.
It’s sort of like the first wave of villains are morphing into the protagonists, and other characters are rotating into the villain slots. It will be interesting to see whether the trend continues, and those bad guys in turn show that they’re really tortured, redeemable characters who will then step aside for the third villain wave.
I don’t think this is just a trend on The 100. I’ve watched ABC’s Once Upon a Time up to about halfway through the second season. During that time, the wicked witch Regina started out as the consummate villain–the source of the curse that all the rest of the characters were suffering. But she gradually became sympathetic and passed the villain mantel on to her evil mother.
When I was a kid, villains were villains. At least that’s the way I remember it. But then came The Empire Strikes Back.
And Darth Vader was still terrible, but we learned about his connection to Luke, and somehow you could sense there was something more to Vader. I think people actually started rooting for his redemption. I actually loved this and found it refreshing, instead of the cardboard black-hatters I was used to.
Since then, I’ve seen loads of villains who morphed into heroes, or whose tragic backgrounds made them sympathetic. Maybe Vader set a trend. So much so, that as I was doing a re-read of the Harry Potter series, I actually found it refreshing that Voldemort was just evil through and through. He was so horrible, I didn’t want any excuses of childhood trauma or whatever, and was quite pleased to see that he was just as creepy and messed-up when he was a cute orphan as he was years later with red slit eyes and no nose.
But then again, J.K. Rowling also wrote Severus Snape, who is possibly the greatest, most complex villain/hero/whatever in the history of literature.
So what do you think? How do you like your villains? Fun to hate, like Voldemort? Redeemable like Vader? Hard to define, like Snape?