I have recently started reading the first Harry Potter book to my eldest child, and, as I've never read a single word of the series before,* I am in a sense reading it to myself as well. I thought I would share some observations.
The first is banal, but as Milan Kundera reminded us, it is often the most banal observations that shock us the most. Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone was released in 1997. This still somehow feels recent to me (I was 16 at the time), but, of course, it isn't at all - 1997 is as distant to us as 1971 was distant to it. An awful lot changed between 1971 and 1997, and an awful lot has changed afterwards. There were no mobile phones to speak of in 1997; no internet really; no hipsters (except possibly in Seattle). It was still an analogue, print world - one in which, indeed, it was possible for a series of books for children to sell hundreds of millions of copies around the world (a thing now truly inconceivable). It was the world of Friends, of Starbucks, of cheap and easy international travel, of optimism, of Brit Pop. That world has gone, and it is genuinely difficult now to conjure its texture in the mind, let alone communicate it to children. Without wishing to sound too maudlin, I am nearly as old now as my dad was in 1997. Shit - I need to start writing that great English novel, learn Ancient Greek, visit Tasmania and make a bucket list.
The second is only a little less banal: it's now possible for a child to sit down and watch all the Harry Potter films, back-to-back, instantly, and essentially at no cost, in the comfort of their own bedroom. I of course will not let my own children do this, because I am an ogre and only let them watch 30 minutes of TV a day, and because after the second one the films get too scary for a 6 year old. But there is nothing stopping it in practice. Our children do not really have an experience of scarcity of entertainment in the way we did, unless it is forced upon them by their parents. A lot of parents don't enforce any such scarcity (just look at how many quite happily let their toddlers zone out in front of an iPad while at a restaurant or out in the pram), and we are as a result going to see something of a social experiment unfold as the current generation ages: some kids will be brought up in something like a traditional way; others will be brought up without even a concept of how to process boredom. Something to think about.
The third concerns JK Rowling's own implicit views. No, I'm not opening the trans can of worms: I mean about class. I glean from her wikipedia entry that I am not the first person to observe this, but there is something really in-your-face snobby about the first chapter of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, and to which I had quite a visceral reaction. JK Rowling is a sensitive, bookish, creative middle-class girl, and she wears her prejudices on her sleeve. For her, the bumptious, upwardly-mobile, suburban, lower middle-class Dursleys (the father of whom owns a factory that makes drills - ugh! They're trade!) are beneath contempt, made worse because they don't appreciate the things that nice people like she does - things like books, and reading, and, er, books, and reading. This snootiness is not appealing; it's something Roald Dahl could also be guilty of, but the saving grace of Dahl was that he was a genuine misanthrope whose hatred was scattergun. JK Rowling's feels focused on a particular type of English family - privet hedge, car in driveway, bacon for breakfast, smallish mock-tudor detached house in suburban estate - which it is easy to mock and belittle, but without whom society simply could not function.
The fourth concerns the writing. JK Rowling is not Proust. Nor is she Roald Dahl, a writer she obviously copies, both stylistically and thematically (the plot of Harry Potter is essentially The Lord of the Rings meets Matilda, and the opening paragraph of The Philosopher's Stone is pure, undistilled Dahl, but Rowling doesn't have the twisted turns of phrase that he had or the comic timing**). I can't say I quite understand how the book ever captivated adult fans. But, for what it is, it is readable, well-paced, competent - better, much better, than I was expecting. (Far better, for instance, than the truly execrable Twilight books, which in my head was the closest comparator.)
The fifth concerns the films. I have seen each of the films, though only once; they're okay - mostly within the solid, three-star range. But what is immediately noticeable (again, a banal observation) is how their content merely skates over the surface of the book. One of the things that I disliked about the later films was that the plots lost coherence (something about horcruxes and elder wands and Helena Bonham Carter), and one got the strong sense that the filmmakers were simply relying on audiences basically knowing the stories already and being easily distracted by nice special effects and classically-trained English actors being very serious and important. This suggest that, when one reads the books, the plot is actually coherent, and serves to remind me of the important maxim that films of books are the absolute pits.
The sixth and final concerns my eldest. Disappointingly, she loves it. I think I'm in for the long haul.
*I was 16 when the first book came out, which was exactly the wrong age: too old to appreciate a kids' book, but too young to have an adult perspective on a kids' book. I was also (and still am, really) one of those genre snobs who hates mainstream, crossover successes.
**An example of Dahl's brilliance:
'In a way, the medicine had done Grandma good. It had not made her any less grumpy or bad-tempered, but it seemed to have cured all her aches and pains, and she was suddenly as frisky as a ferret. As soon as the crane had lowered her to the ground, she ran over to George's huge pony, Jack Frost, and jumped onto his back. This ancient old hag, who was now as tall as a house, then galloped around the farm on the gigantic pony, jumping over trees and sheds and shouting:
"Out of my way! Clear the decks! Stand back, all you miserable midgets or I'll trample you to death!" and other silly things like that.
But because Grandma was much too tall to get back into the house, she had to sleep that night in the hay-barn with the mice and the rats.'