It’s been twenty years since Harry Potter took over the world. However, if you return to Hogwarts with adult eyes, is the magic still there?
Twenty years ago this month, the young adult novel Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was published in the UK, and then a year later in the US as Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone – because ‘Philosopher’ translated into (what Microsoft calls) ‘US English’ supposedly comes out as ‘Sorcerer’.
If you’ve read the book, in all probability you did so when it was new, and when you were young. A few decades have since passed, and we’re in full celebratory mode (like how Sgt. Pepper gets another shot every ten years, skipping past ‘Being For the Benefit of Mr Kite’ and ‘She’s Leaving Home’ and wondering why all the fuss, oh yeah, ‘A Day in the Life’). But in hindsight, is the first book in the massively vaunted cultural juggernaut of a series … actually any good? Does it stand up to repeat readings with hindsight (and actual different literature consumed in the ensuing years)?
Let’s take a moment of collective wilful ignorance, and forget that it was Thomas Wolfe who said it, and attribute the quote “You can never go home again” to Norman Mailer. It fits my narrative, so go with me here: Norman Mailer said you can never go home again. And he’d know, he wrote The Naked and the Dead when he was only 22.
At that age, I was working weekends in my parents’ bookstore. The year was 1997, and I had not noticed – for a second – that a piece of young adult fiction had found its way to the shelves of that particular Dymocks. Why would I? And even if people had started raving (they hadn’t) about this exciting tale of a boy wizard and a goat (or something), I was just paying my way through university; reading more Douglas Coupland than JK Rowling. What do/did I care what ‘the kids’ liked?
History, it seems, has bested me on that one. I didn’t read the book until early 2001. By then, late to the party as I was, this ‘wizarding world’ had taken on a life of its own. The one book became a series which would eventually become a fleet of seven; these begat eight films, a ninth as some kind of franchise spin-off (horrible as it was) and now an author with a bio which has you believe she wrote the book in a café as an unemployed single mother of a newborn infant.
The scene would be utterly Dickensian, were it not for the absence of chimney soot, and the presence of almond biscotti.
Hashtags have of late abounded about this milestone, and if our collective lenses were any more rose-tinted we’d all be in a perpetual red light district (make your own ‘magic wand’ joke here). But should one go back to Hogwarts as a mature age student? Try as one might, revising the first novel can be something of a challenge.
It’s often endearingly British, and sometimes it is gratingly so. Skin-crawlingly cute and twee British middle-class cleverness (like an episode of The Good Life). “Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.”
I mean, ergh. Whatever.
The first chapter is wall-to-wall expository dialogue. The next couple of chapters, set in the ‘muggle’ world before Harry goes to wizard school, are plodding. Some of the dialogue, apart from being expository, is grating enough to strip the enamel from your teeth; nobody, ever, talked like this. Upon a second reading, it’s hard to be patient with the piece early on knowing that things will get a lot more interesting once the action proper starts.
Rowling writes action scenes quite well – the descriptions she invokes in conveying the spectacle and excitement of Quidditch are evocative and fun. The ‘troll in the boys’ toilets’ scene is well played out, too.
Having said that, it does tend to plod and meander, and like any book of this ilk, is bogged down in the minutiae of boarding school ritual. The sorting hat process is a bit dry, and Rowling relies all too heavily on exclamation points to convey excitement in situations where that actually lacks. Hermione, Harry and Ron are all drawn in the broadest possible strokes and there’s little character development in this first book, and the rest of the characters are – for the most part – so white they’re almost blue.
And, not for nothing, the final act is just pants. There’s a build-up and mystery surrounding the main villain Voldemort, but (spoiler alert) he’s hiding under a stammering teacher’s turban in a kind of magical cerebral purgatory, which didn’t so much pose any direct threat to the protagonists as it signposted multiple sequels to come. Also, it was about as scary as melted ice cream.
Part of the problem with revisiting it, is that much of it is informed by the massively popular films which followed it. Which itself is a problem because of the first film’s multiple, inescapable flaws – like how the entire cast of kiddies are terrible beyond belief. While some (Daniel Radcliffe) got better with age, others (Emma Watson, Rupert Grint) set such a low bar in those early days that they could go nowhere but up (and Emma’s … kinda gotten better). That kiddie who played Draco Malfoy was awful in the first one, and kept on being awful, and never improved to the point where the producers just stopped giving him lines by the time seventh and eighth films were released in 2010-11. Conversely, the adults were perfectly cast, to the letter. You can’t revisit the book without hearing Alan Rickman’s molasses-thick low register voice spouting Snape’s dialogue. It also helps that I had no frame of reference for the name ‘Hermione’, and it’s good to know how to pronounce it (‘Her-my-oh-nee’) and not mangle it (‘Her-me-own’, I’ll admit, was my take).
As a novel, it’s fine – ‘top of the bell curve’ stuff. Rowling’s imaginative prose and attention to detail is vivid, and it is, all these years later, an engaging page turner. If you anguish over the lack of reading taking place among the young people, it got an entire generation back into books, although that same generation has since become adults, amid some kind of Potter-sourced arrested literary development. Search Twitter for the expression ‘Read another book’ and they’re all about the Potter series.
To be fair, I was never the target demo. I read it at 26, not 8, and I basically got where she was coming from at page two. The author – and the books – got better with age, until the fifth book, which was hundreds of pages where nothing actually happened, and then there was a sixth and a seventh, and I’ll begrudge them nothing for they’ve essentially funded my parents’ retirement. There are countless books which are infinitely better written and deserve a bigger chunk of the cultural zeitgeist, but try telling that to an adult human who has a Hufflepuff tattoo.
Saying that the first Harry Potter book is fine is doubtlessly heresy among the devotees; those who grew up with it would hold its pages as being sacrosanct in the same way Tolkien fans hold the exploits of Frodo & Co., or Hergé purists doubtlessly beatify Tintin, or the how much the Scientologists like Dianetics. When the final Golden Snitch is nabbed, the truth probably emerges that the fans like the happy memories of the books more than the books themselves. If the child born in 1989 revisited the books now after devouring them in the late ’90s and early ’00s, perhaps the sheen would have dulled somewhat, although, perhaps not. We hold on to these childhood totems and guard their worth as holy relics, so to question the cult’s primary notion is perhaps rousing a sleeping giant. Best we just go on living with an embossed memory of what we think is good, but in reality probably… wasn’t.
‘Norman Mailer’ was right. You can never go back to Hogwarts again.