Saturday, 24 February 2018

Reading Harry Potter for the First Time in My 20s

If you saw my 25 Before 26 List, you would know that reading the whole Harry Potter series was one of my goals. Although I've watched all the films—most of them multiple times—I've never finished any of the books before. I don't know why now I'd like to experience that, but I just feel like I ought to. Since there are seven books in total and most of them are rather thick, I thought I'd start straight away, but I really didn't expect to finish so quickly. The experience was like nothing I've ever gone through before, because—as I've mentioned above—I've gone through the story before in an entirely different form. However, just like most book-based films, the story can be quite different in the books, so I'm intrigued to follow it. I think, though, that time is a major factor on how you feel about a certain experience, so I feel like me being in my 20s is a major part on how I feel about the books. And I want to talk about that a little bit.

First Impression

Being someone who has devoured the movies over and over again, it was very difficult for me to take in first impression from the books apart from what I already knew. It got really easy to get carried away comparing the two—mostly siding with the film, unusually, because that's my first experience of the story. What I decided to do, instead, is compare the series to other novels—specifically YA series. Apart from that, I also vowed not to become a Potterhead later on—but that's just my aversion towards anything popular, really. Honestly, at first upon reading the book, I don't feel like it's anything special. Of course, it's probably because I already knew the whole story before and I'm most likely not part of the target market anymore. However, if I were to compare it with, say, Narnia or Percy Jackson, it lacks a lot of qualities, in my opinion. For starters, the writing relies more on "telling" instead of "showing," which is such a shame because I find the storyline rather interesting. A lot of the time, one of the characters would go on a long-winded monologue that can get quite dull. Also, I realise it is meant for kids around 11-17 years of age, but there is barely any metaphors or any form of figurative languages, making the story feel quite bland. The lack of humour is also something worth noting, in my opinion.

Through this experience, however, I realise what makes the series tick. How could it have blown up the way it did? Why do people still declare their undying love towards the series even now? I think it's a beautiful mix between escapism—in the form of offering a magical, unreal world that is so close to our own—and relatibility—by showing the daily life of students not unlike the readers themselves with their teenage struggles and drama. I think J.K. Rowling did very well, in not using outside references and completely reeling the readers in by making her own. One can argue that the world she created is laden with plot holes and not made from scratch, but in inventing her own facts and trivia, she lets her readers experience it for the first time through her books. The self-reference within the books are, to this day, still talked about amongst Potterheads worldwide.

Books vs. Films

One of the first things I've noticed, in terms of deviation from the books, is that the films add in a lot more humour and comedy, that can really bring out the colour in the story. It is often little things that bare no significant effect to the big picture, but create quite a major difference to your experience of it, in my opinion. Films being films, they also create a more action-packed environment, which may as well have left out a great deal of detail that might contribute to a deeper understanding of the whole story in general. Potterheads alike have been exasperated by the omission of characters or events from the film, resulting to changes in the story and roles of certain figures, that may or may not have a bigger part to play in the books. Ginny, for instance, is a commonly known character everyone regrets not having more of in the films—which I think is heard by the filmmakers as they add more of her screen time since the fifth instalment.

Not only omitting, the films also go so far as to change some of the characters' personalities as well as the creatures' form and/or behaviour. The most prominent one I find in the form of Hermione, who in the books are stricter, less devil-may-care and seem quite incapable of much physical activity. In the films, however, she is a lot looser in regards to rules, a lot more capable of humour and isn't so hopeless in terms of body exercise. Harry, too, is slightly different. In the films, he seems to know that his friends are his strength and he should count on them. Snape, to me, is leagues apart in the books and the films. For starters, there's more of a comedic quality to his mannerisms in the films—especially his tendency to smack Ron across the head—and he doesn't seem to favour any of the Slytherins over any student of the other houses'. And, well, several others I could mention, but then we'll be here all day.

The major flaw of the book, to me anyway, is its tendency to drag things on for days and days and days, which could really come off rather boring. There are books that I feel would end a whole lot quicker if certain scenes are cut short several pages—i.e. the Goblet of Fire and the Deathly Hallows. The films, in turn, offer an entirely different outcome—or a fast-paced one—that saves a whole lot of time and still makes sense. Ironically, the Order of the Phoenix—which is obviously the largest book of the lot—doesn't have any lulls or scenes that feels really dragged on. There are too many things going on in that book, sure, but they're all greatly essential to the story—or at least most of them—and will lose meaning or effect if omitted. Strangely, the film managed to fit almost all of them into the limited time it has.

On the other hand, the books also have some great qualities that are not to be forgotten. First of all, the books include a lot more characters, which shows how big Harry's world at Hogwarts actually is. From the films, you would think that Hogwarts is concerned with only Gryffindor and Slytherin—save for Cho Chang + Luna (Ravenclaw) and Cedric (Hufflepuff), I guess. But, it turns out, that Harry knows a lot of people from the other two houses, who may or may not be his comrades later on. Also, it shows a bit more of the history of the characters—with the existence of Fenrir Greyback, for instance. This, however, also becomes a little difficult and kind of unnecessary when the Death Eaters start appearing—because naming each of them when they appear contributes nothing to the story.

The books also reveal a whole lot more about each character's history and background than the films are able to do. It tells the story of Harry's father (and his friends) during their school years, for instance. Also, there's the story of Voldemort's origin, Snape's past, Lupin's background, and even Dumbledore's young romance. Although most of these stories—except for Snape—are not entirely essential to the main plot, they really give the characters a well-rounded personality. It gives depth to the story that offer that relatability to the young readers and it feels almost like sharing secret between friends. While I see why the readers adore this aspect of the story so much, I also understand why the filmmakers choose not to include them in the films.

Concluding Statement

As I've said over and over and over again throughout this post—and book reviews—I know that I am most likely biased towards the films, as I've seen them multiple times first before even trying to read through the books, but in the end I stick by them. I just find my humour and heart fit more with the films than the books. I do feel that the films can be quite unfair on certain parts—specifically Ginny's part in the story—but I would still choose them over the books. That being said, I feel like if we really want to do the story justice, we should consume both versions of the tale. The films allow us to really see what the wizarding world looks like, while the book gives sense and background of it. Also, some adjustments and changes made by the films—i.e. the Ravenclaw symbol and scarf—make more sense to me than the original version of J.K. Rowling's.

Apart from that, though, I don't feel for Harry Potter characters as much as I do for other YA series that I have read in the past. Usually, after a long series like that—and Harry Potter is longer than most series I read—I would feel slightly empty, like I've just lost a friend and I don't know how to move on from it. But, strangely enough, my reading experience felt almost anti-climactic. I didn't like the last book almost at all, although I don't find the ending disappointing or unpleasant—it's a well-deserved ending—but I feel like the delivery isn't packed with the punch it should be. Also, the tendency to "tell" instead of "show" decreases the weight the entire storyline can give the reader, by the end. Of course, all this can also be due to the fact that I am not within its target market anymore. Had I read this, say, 10-15 years earlier I might have an entirely different opinion on these books.

At the time, obviously, Harry Potter opened up a whole new genre and perspective in the world of fiction—or more specifically, YA fiction—not unlike that of Sailor Moon or Astro Boy. It offers entertainment and education in the form of a 7-part series of wizards and witches. It goes way deeper, beyond fantasy and imagination, bringing us back to reality through each character, showing that though they may have magical powers, they are still human with flaws, insecurities and histories, not unlike you and me. I think, before Harry Potter, YA fiction has always skirted off certain topics—death, racism, politics—and J.K. Rowling shook that world by bringing The Boy Who Lived. She also shows that there is no one truly good or truly evil, there is always a reason for everything. Her series manages to bring various serious topics to the surface, teaching children about the real world without them realising it. I think that is magnificent and I admire her for it. At the same time, I feel like a series's success also comes from knowing where to let it end and Harry Potter hasn't managed to do that.

Lastly, I'd like to leave you with a couple of my favourite interviews J.K. Rowling has done—this one and this one—which shape a whole impression I have on the films and influence my view on the books. They might also give you a behind-the-scene insights to the wizarding world as you know it.

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