July 8, 2010


I confess I’m a big Harry Potter fan. At the moment, I’m rereading the final book as a refresher for the November movie release: part 1 of a two part series. It’s been a while since I first read it and I’m discovering how much I’ve forgotten. I like returning to the land of witches and wizards. Settling into this novel is like settling into a warm bath. There’s plenty of adventure and Hogwarts, the school of adolescent magicians ages eleven to eighteen, is a place where I’m comfortable.

I’ve enjoyed watching J.K. Rowling grow as a writer from her delightful first book to the darker, more philosophical issues raised in the final episodes. Her style is accessible, as it must be for young readers, but she raises adult question which trouble children and grown-ups alike: What happens when we die? What is important about friendships? How should one conduct oneself in a life fraught with good and evil? Is the world just? The questions don’t get any bigger than these.  Socrates raised them over a thousand years ago.   

To be honest, Rowling isn’t my favorite writer of magical adventures. I’d give the prize to Phillip Pullman for his trilogy, His Dark Materials, if a prize was being given. The title comes from Milton’s Paradise Lost and is a deeper exploration of good and evil than the Harry Potter series and also more elegantly written. I was surprised when the first book in his trilogy, The Golden Compass, fell flat at the box office; but thinking on it, Rowling’s work is more linear than Pullman’s. What we get in her books are a series of adventures – and then and then and then – told with breathless delivery. Pullman’s stories are linear too but the characters have a depth that can’t be captured in a 90 minute adventure film. In his books, one must pause for moments of introspection or to  enjoy the sheer poetry of his language, requirements a film is unable to provide.

Movies need action. Books encourage speculation, good books at least. Certainly Pullman tells a wonderful story but the dilemmas that face his characters invite more than reaction; they invite thought.  Good and evil appear as shadows, difficult to differentiate because they are aspects of character. There is no Voldemort, a clear unequivocal target for our enmity; but there is a mother who is power hungry and shamelessly uses the child she loves. There is a father so intent upon his struggle against the dark forces that he all but abandons his daughter. And of course, there is the ruling power, the Magisterium, prepared to mutilate and murder its subjects in the belief its actions will save them.

J. K. Rowling, I think, found that happy medium where its story and cosmology intertwine seamlessly; where character is clear and not too complex; where the villain is scary but resides outside ourselves so we are given no cause for self doubt. In her books we know where we stand: against the villain. With Pullman, the villain lies within us. If his trilogy fails as film, it is mesmerizing literature.