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The Trouble with Harry
by Lucius Shepard
November 23, 2001

[Editor's Note: This article is for adults. We're not out to sucker-punch anyone, so here's your warning: Lucius Shepard makes light of Harry Potter and uses rough language. The views of Mr. Shepard do not necessarily reflect the views of ES or anyone affiliated with the corporation. We've made these points elsewhere, but the letters expressing nothing more than outrage suggest they need repeating. If you wish to debate the review, please do so in our forums, where I will cordially welcome you. --Bob Kruger, ElectricStory.com]

First of all, as he is portrayed in the movie, if that little marshmallow-hued choirboy Harry Potter went to a real school, he'd spend most of the seventh grade digging his underwear out of his butt crack and drying off his head after being given a swirlie. Even at Hogwarts School for Wizards, which is not exactly South Bronx High, it's likely he'd get punked out. The rougher lads would make sport of his tiny wand and generally torment him until, after years of relentless abuse, miserable, embittered, and borderline psychotic, Harry would break into his uncle's gun collection one fine morning and head off to school with a big smile on his face and a pocketful of hollowpoints and a crazy little song whining in his brain like the buzzing of an LSD-maddened fly.

Scratch one apprentice wizard.

But that, alas, is not the subject of the film, Harry Potter and the Booger of Fire, or whatever that puerile mess of hey-nonny-nonny I just saw was called.

For those of you who have been living inside the biosphere the past few years, Harry Potter is a winsome little scut with a brave soul and an ever-so-clever mind in whom a talent for the Great Art has been perceived, so off he goes to Wizard Junior High where he meets a clutch of equally precocious pals, and together they participate in classes run by quaint curmudgeons with vast powers and have oodles of fun and adventures you wouldn't believe unless you were sufficiently diminished to buy into this chump as entertainment and not the acidic brain-eating alien drool/opiate of the masses it truly is.

What's your problem, man?, someone will surely say.

It's not supposed to wreck your soul. It's a charming whimsy, a veritable banana split of special FX and sense of wonder, a film for children of all ages.

The trouble with that term, "children of all ages," is that it's misapplied—it should be used only in the pejorative. The trouble with the world is, in fact, that it is populated not by adults but by children of all ages, and ruled by schoolyard bullies. Despite the primacy of the juvenile in matters political, it's my feeling that the preferences of children of any age, much as they may gladden our hearts, should not be made into a cultural standard, especially any standard that relates to the entertainment industry. Children, after all, can happily entertain themselves by tossing a ball against a wall for hours on end—this scarcely seems to qualify them as arbiters of taste.

The reason kids say those delightfully barmy things they do is because they're essentially idiots, their brains aren't wired yet. If you think your Boopsy is cute when she spews her spaghetti onto the table and arranges the mess with her grubby fingers and then points and says of the incomprehensible shape she has created, "Noodlebug!" or some other inanity, why is it any less charming when Cletus Mapes, a 47-year-old schizophrenic who's been institutionalized most of his adult life, smears excrement on the wall, steps back, lifts his arms in exultation and screams, "Yama Yama Bonk," over and over until he's given an injection? I mean, there's not much effective difference between unfinished wiring and defective wiring.

(Let me dial back a second, so as to avoid some of the hate mail. I'm a dad myself and I like kids fine. I'm glad they have movies they can relate to—I simply wish there were a few more I could relate to. But with the average reading ability of the American public hovering around fifth grade level, the chances of that are slim.)

The trouble with Harry Potter and the Gauntlet of Phlegm is that while it pleases the little snogginses, it represents corporate synergy at its most loathsome: We're talking about an AOL/Time-Warner product accompanied by AOL/Time-Warner websites and links, AOL/Time-Warner action figures, lunch boxes, pencil sets, toy wands, pyjamas, card games, magic sets, watches, ad infinitum, all designed to extract as much money as possible from you, you, and especially you. The movie is a soul-less replica of the novel, and the novel...well, every ten or fifteen years someone hits the lottery and comes up with a fad that's perfect for the synergistic process. Tolkien, Dungeons and Dragons, Magicards. Harry Potter. JK Rowling seems like a nice lady, and it's nice she's getting her reward in the here-and-now. But let's face it, as works of fantasy, the Potter books are (to Rowling-ize the critical terminology) medium-grade gristlebore rife with worn-out muggletropes and nary a whittlesap of originality, deriving their Libertarian political sub-text from Ayn Rand, lifting bits from—among others—Tolkien, T.H. White, C.S. Lewis, Superman, and the first of the series having an ending that bears an astonishing resemblance to a Dungeons and Dragons adventure called Ghost Tower of Inverness. They are the Same Old Story we have been hearing since long before Bilbo was a pup: the saga of the Chosen One, the little lost prince with a Destiny, the innocent brought forth from anonymity to duel with the Dark Lord, who in this instance is named Voldemort (a Saxonization of Wallmart, perhaps?). They do not challenge, illuminate, or enthrall anyone above the mental age of 12. And it is these very qualities, the purity of their mediocrity, their consummate average-ness, their utter lack of originality, that are the underlying reason for their massive popularity and comprise their chief virtue as regards the culture-engulfing purposes of the marketing machine.

A passel of academics, desperate for a moment's recognition of their own average-ness and mediocrity, have taken it upon themselves to analyze the appeal of Harry Potter. One of these poor souls has opined that it is the orphan motif that causes children of all ages to slurp the books up as though they were chocolate-flavored gruel—they speak to the universal feeling of separateness, blah, blah, blah. Another testifies that Harry's girl pal Hermione's passionate defense of oppressed elves reflects Rowling's social activism and distaste for Thatcherism. This sort of analysis, however, is no more useful than it would be were it applied to a package of Jello, for the quintessential allure of both the Potter franchise and a bowlful of strawberry gelatin is their bland goodness, their unsubtle flavor, their palliative simplicity, their debased commonality.

In opposition to this statement, I have been sternly told that the Potter books will be read fifty years from now, and this will prove they are more worthwhile than I have declared. To which I respond: I'm not sure they will be read fifty years from now, nor am I sure that in fifty years any readers will be left alive. But if the books do continue to be read in 2051, this will not, to my mind, prove anything more salient than would be proven by the fact that a package of Jello stored in a cabinet for fifty years remains edible.

It has been argued that whatever their quality, the Potter books provide our children with a healthy role model.


If I were one of those aforementioned academics and seeking to cling by my fingertips to the Harry Potter bullet train, I might essay an analysis of Harry Potter in terms of the British class system. Harry's aunt and uncle, who take him in after his parents' death, are distinctly bourgeoisie—despite having money, their prospects are limited working-class prospects. Although they provide Harry with food and shelter, they're portrayed as spiritually and mentally stunted, and—since they refuse to share their wealth with him—mean-spirited. Harry is presented as woefully put-upon by this circumstance, left sad and alone and without resource; yet being possessed of an incredible legacy and unmatched magical powers, he is essentially a child of privilege who truly does not need their money. Putting up with a doltish cousin and penurious foster parents for a few years scarcely seems the Cinderella-ish plight Rowling intends it to appear, considering the Oxford of wizard schools is waiting to bring Harry into the fold. Harry's teachers at Hogwarts—clearly representative of the upper classes—are depicted as bungling and stupid. And Dumbledore, the headmaster of the school, addled yet capable at times of mystical illumination, surely represents the royals, or more precisely, he mirrors the attitude of the educated middle class toward the royals, one informed by derision, resentment, and a kind of reluctant awe. Thus it seems that Harry, who springs from that sub-class, the same from which Rowling herself sprung, could afford a certain disdain for everyone not of his own smallish circle. While he questions and defies authority (an admirable trait indeed), his defiance strikes me as less an act of reasonable rebellion than an assertion of entitlement. He, like many of his sub-class, might be considered an aristocrat without perfect pedigree, more worthy of the estate than those of the blood, yet kept from his proper station by an accident of birth.

Not the role model I'd want for my kids.

It has come to my attention that the Internet abounds with stories of how the Potter books have affected lives and brought children back to reading. Harry Potter Cured My Dyslexia, How Harry Potter Persuaded My Ralphie to Toss His Gameboy, and so forth.


But just what will these newly literate souls read?

If AOL/Time-Warner has its way, the Potter industry will—as did the Tolkien industry—spawn infinite imitations, a glut of wizardly books and films that are easy to produce as Twinkies and have a built-in audience of junk-food junkies who cannot get enough of these starchy treats.

I have heard it put forward that thanks to Rowling's exhaustive research, the Potter books are treasure troves of ancient lore, and reading them will lead children to explore mythology and other related topics. Uh-huh. Suggesting that some little deviant will be inspired to study biology by jamming a firecracker up a cat's butt makes every bit as much sense. It could happen, but the chances are slight. Forget all the analysis, all the testimony that Harry Potter can heal the sick and make the blind see. What the Potter franchise offers is escapism pure and simple, and there's nothing wrong with that. We need our escapes. Whatever does it for you—-video games, vanilla ice cream, hacky sack, pornography, Harry Potter—it's a good thing if it keeps you sane. There is no need to justify them, or to claim they have magical powers. They comfort, they insulate, they reassure. The trouble I have with such products is that I fear they will soon narrow our choices to such a degree, it will be nearly impossible to find any alternative to the escapist.

An economist of my acquaintance has chided me for promoting this idea. It is her belief that anything that increases the number of readers and/or moviegoers will ultimately increase the audience for all manner of books and films, and thus every form of the literary and cinematic arts will find its niche and thrive. Though this notion is funded by some logic, I feel my economist friend underestimates the power generated by the overarching corporate culture of the New World Order, the pervasive potentials of its mechanisms. Books and movies compete for our time, and that competition is in process of being overwhelmingly won by the AOL/Time-Warners of the world.

As a small evidence in support of my thesis, on the same weekend I saw Harry Potter and the Bubble of Sputum, I went to see The River, a movie in its first American release by the brilliant and virtually unknown Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-Liang. While Harry was showing on six zillion screens across America, featured on the cover of every magazine, the only hint of The River playing in town was an ad in the newspaper about the same size as a classified notice of a rummage sale. In order to view it, I had to travel into the hinterlands of Portland, to a tiny repertory house reeking of cat piss, where I sat with seven other people and watched the unreeling of a work of art. Ming-Liang's film tells a story concerning a dysfunctional family in Taipei and gradually reveals not the secret of some specious magical artifact, but the far more intricate and mysterious secrets at the heart of life...and does so by means of a thoroughly original and purely cinematic style of narration. It is a disquieting film and was never intended to achieve the type of mass audience that Harry Potter has received. But seven people? On a weekend night in a large American city?

Some niche.

Perhaps in the long view, the fact that high art may be reduced to nearly outlaw status will be invigorating—art tends to flourish under such conditions. But never before has it been faced by such a mighty enemy, one whose repressive techniques are so insidiously effective.

Having reached the end of this column, I see that I have neglected to review Harry Potter and the Briquette of Doom. Oh, well. It's been reviewed sufficiently. The gist of the matter is, had AOL/Time-Warner wanted to make a great movie, they would have handed the project to someone who would vividly magnify the book, someone like Terry Gilliam, say. But their sole interest lay in protecting the franchise, in guaranteeing that it would be accessible to all children of all ages; they did not want to risk that a real director might offend some small portion of the consumer universe, and thus they passed it into the care of Chris Columbus, a cheese cutter of a director, who has produced a tidily shrink-wrapped, pre-sliced, homogenized product fit for mass consumption, but lacking even a glimmer of inspiration.

What's to review?

Instead, I'd rather share with you a dream I had the other night in which I watched the last Harry Potter sequel (number thirty-something) entitled Harry Potter and the Question of Suicide. Harry, now fiftyish and a failure, having been stripped of his magical powers and dismissed from his position as headmaster at Hogwarts due to certain shameful behavior that has been hushed up for the good of the school, lives in a seedy London slum with his wife, Hermione, who has changed her name to Willow Bitch and runs an escort service specializing in elvish girls. Their child, Harry Jr., a gifted wizard himself, runs with a gang and squanders his talents on the perverse and the trivial. Bitter and despairing, his dreams in tatters, Harry Senior is about to hurl himself into the Thames when he spies a wizened figure balanced on the opposite railing, apparently preparing to do the same. It is Voldemort, his long-since-vanquished enemy who, shorn of his powers, has spent the past 40 years as a cost accountant in Chelsea (one of his clients is Hermione, whom he has been boinking on the side). Shocked at having seen their nemesis in such pitiful straits, the two ex-wizards gravitate toward one another and eventually, their old enmity dissolved, wind up in a pub, where they indulge in doleful reminiscence and drink themselves into literal oblivion—while urinating behind the pub, in a moment of albumen-fueled transcendence attended only by the red-eyed, black-feathered mutant offspring of Harry's pet snowy owl, good and evil, now both eroded into shades of dolorous gray, merge in a splash of bilious light and become Voldepotter, a new Dark Lord of even greater potency than he who preceded him.

And who will save us from this terrible enemy?

Why none other than Harry Potter Jr., of course. Unmindful that dear old dad has become the dominant half of this syncretic ultra-villain, he abandons his profligate ways, enjoins Hermione to marshal her elvish lovelies into a virtuous force of full-breasted Amazon witches, and marches off toward an ultimate Oedipal confrontation with Voldepotter.

Critical reaction to the film has been unvaryingly positive:

"...effects a miraculous revitalization of the Potter legacy..."

The New York/London Times

"...while this hybridization of the two great franchises of the late 20th Century, Star Wars and Harry Potter, may seem on the surface to lack the stamp of originality, such profound unoriginality contrives in this instance a masterstroke that transcends its banal sources to create an uncompromising work of art, offering not only a stunning visual and emotional experience, but also a view of the architectural imperatives of the new creativity...."

—George Wibberly, Ph.D.
Dean of the Harvard School of Harry Potter Studies

"I wet my pants..."

—Roger Ebert

"Yama Yama Bonk!"

—Cletus Mapes of NPR