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,
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
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
The trouble with that term, "children of all ages," is that it's
misappliedit 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 endthis scarcely seems to qualify them as arbiters of
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
toI 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 fromamong othersTolkien, 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
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 gruelthey 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 bourgeoisiedespite 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, andsince they refuse to share their wealth with
himmean-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
Hogwartsclearly representative of the upper classesare 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
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 willas did the
Tolkien industryspawn 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 Potterit'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?
Perhaps in the long view, the fact that high art may be reduced to nearly
outlaw status will be invigoratingart 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 oblivionwhile
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..."
"Yama Yama Bonk!"
Cletus Mapes of NPR