Wednesday, November 08, 2023

8: There is going to be a new Harry Potter television series.

There is going to be a new Harry Potter television series.

It doesn’t seem especially surprising that the same book should be adapted twice in twenty years, and it doesn’t seem surprising that a book published at the turn of the millennium is still widely read. Kids are still reading the Famous Five after eighty years, and Alice in Wonderland after an hundred and eighty.

I agree with Ursula Le Guin that the Potter books are a collection of not-very-original fantasy tropes spun around a not-very-interesting boarding school story; and I share her irritation that a lot of people who are not-very-interested in fantasy hailed them as the last word in originality. But it is also true that the earlier volumes, at least, were jolly good fun. I remember my mother, who wouldn’t have recognised a fantasy trope if you dropped one on her head, laughing out loud at the “First Years are not allowed their own broomstick” letter when it was reproduced in a feature in the Guardian Saturday supplement.

What kind of fantasy story do you like?

Do you prefer one where magic is magical—a strange, spiritual, numinous, force? Do you like stories like Le Guin’s Wizard of Earthsea, with its True Names and Shadows and its Taoist, Jungian underpinning? Stories which drop you without explanation into universes which operate according to their own rules and leave you to figure out what the hell is going on? Phillip Pullman may have turned into a colossal bore, but there’s a real genius to the way he takes Daemons and Dust and The Authority for granted from page one.

Or do you prefer worlds where magic and wizards are utterly normal and not very mysterious at all; where encountering a unicorn is a bit like spotting a rare breed of gazelle? There have been half a dozen TV shows in which witches, ghosts, djinn, vampires and robots are presented as a normal part of suburban life, with hilarious consequences. A kid getting detention for not doing his potions homework is fun in exactly the same way that a cowboy saloon where the cowboys are aliens and the Indians are robots is fun.

The Potter books aren’t exactly spoofs, but they are closer in spirit to Terry Pratchett than they are to George R Martin. Pratchett had done the “Tom Browns Schooldays Only Magic” schtick eight years before Rowling.

It is always a bit annoying when something is over-praised. My bugbear used to be people who had never read any comic apart from Sandman telling me that Sandman was the only comic there had ever been in the history of comics that was worth reading. Some of them wrote introductions to the collected editions. The aforementioned mother used to get similarly miffed when people who had once heard a recording of Pavarotti at a football match claimed to be devotees of the opera. But it’s not a good look. Those of us who liked fantasy before it was cool should probably resist the temptation to tell the millennials that they are not allowed to like Hogwarts because Silmarillion.

Any interest I have in the Expanded Potterverse will be purely exegetical. Rowling is good at world-building; mediocre at plots; and very, very bad at writing. The existing films gave us the bare bones of her stories, but only the slightest hint of the lore. A TV show, with twelve or sixteen hours to spend on each volume, would give the whacky Hogwartian detail space to breathe; the contrived soapy plots time to unfurl, but would free us from the odious necessity of reading JKR’s prose. It may well be that the earlier, shorter volumes will have to be padded out, but JKR is by all accounts still alive and likely to remain so for the foreseeable future, so she will presumably be available to pump more background detail into the setting.

The branding seems weird. It appears that the TV show will emulate the look and feel of the movies (which are, we are told, the “core of the franchise”): it will not “re-imagine” the books. The current party line is that the movies transmute the pictures in JKRs head directly onto the screen, and therefore any attempt to visualise the setting differently would simply be incorrect. So we are going to end up with two equally authoritative adaptations of the same text, and, presumably, decades of argument about Canon.

We live in a world where there are more interesting TV shows than anyone can reasonably be expected to watch. But I might well give the series a look. It can’t possibly be as boring as the BBC’s adaptation of His Dank Materials.

I’d even by a ticket for The Cursed Child if it toured the regions.

But notice what is happening at this very moment.

The second I mentioned Harry Potter, my readership split into two factions.

Which side are you on?

Are you on the side which is thinking “Why is he even talking about this TV series? Why is he even contemplating watching it? Why is he even referring to it as Harry Potter? The correct terminology is ‘Those Shitty Wizard Books’”

Or are you on the side of the line which is already bulverising (q.v) my opinion? “Andrew only thinks that JKR is a bad writer because he doesn’t like her politics. He only thinks that her plots are derivative because she has been demonised by a hard-line trans cult. He only thinks her fantasy is unimaginative because he is part of a conspiracy to abolish lesbians. He only thinks her prose is poor because he can’t define the term woman correctly.”

As a matter of fact, Andrew does think that JKR’s public pronouncements on gender exhibit a vindictive wrong-headedness which borders on monomania. But he has had considerable practice in enjoying problematic texts. He thinks that you can believe that JKR is wrong about public lavatories and simultaneously be quite interested in what Netflix does with the new Harry Potter TV show.

But he is quite aware that in this respect he is in the minority. For very many people, Those Shitty Wizard Books have the same status as rag dolls which are not penguins, marble carvings of men’s front bottoms, and posters with the word FUCK on them.

Irreducible signifiers of wrongness.

This post forms part of an extended essay. 
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