On The Outside Looking In: Harry Potter
When the first Harry Potter book was released on an unsuspecting world, I was at the perfect age to get caught up in J.K Rowling’s world of wonder and magic.
I was just about to start secondary school, a strange, intimidating place full of exciting possibilities, where I’d make new friends, exasperate new teachers, and experience new things. I was about to escape my mundane existence in the suburbs and embark on adventures of my own. Just like Harry Potter did in The Philosopher’s Stone. There was plenty I could relate to in that first book.
And yet, I didn’t. I started the first book, at least I think I did, but I didn’t stick with it. I just couldn’t get into it.
Almost everyone around me did, both young and old. Seemingly the world over, people went nuts for Hogwarts.
I couldn’t tell you exactly why I didn’t want to board the train on platform nine and three quarters, but it’s probably because back then I was something of a contrarian, and if I’m being honest, a right little shit.
So I never read the books, never understood the fascination, and when the movies started coming out I never had any interest in them either.
But a few weeks ago, during a weekend where I had nothing to do other than nurse a mild hangover, I decided to give them a watch. To see what all the fuss was about.
And now, almost twenty years after that first book came out, I can honestly say….
I am a fan.
It is too late and I’m now too old for my appreciation of the property, or I guess to be more accurate, the phenomenon, to run as deep as it does for many of the lifelong fans. I know people who had a Harry Potter themed wedding, and others with death eater tattoos, and I think it is fair to say that will never be me. But at the same time, I still understand why they have such strong affection for that world and its characters.
And it is the universe that people love. It is rich and warm, fun and surprising, with just enough darkness to give it real weight, and most importantly, it’s a world populated with characters we want to spend time with. Harry is brave, dedicated, and unwilling to stand by whilst others suffer. Hermione is logical, wicked smart, and a secret badass. Ron is an affable everyman with hidden depths. Dumbledore is noble, good, and trusting of the good in others. All of them are flawed, layered, and true. These are interesting characters inhabiting a world as rich and full of life as they are.
That is why the stories matter, that is why so many people are still in love with them, and that is why cynical gits like me can come to the party late and still find something to appreciate.
The magic and wonder in the Harry Potter universe is so appealing and enthralling because it is tangible. Diagon Alley may look like it is a hundred or so years older than any other street in London, with its uneven cobblestones and angular architecture, but there is something about it that almost convinces us that maybe, if we just keep looking, we might actually stumble upon it in real life. The magical places in Rowling’s world are a heady mix of old fashioned and fantastical, the familiar and the fresh.
That old fashioned feel to the wizarding world gives it depth. Magic long did the job that many technological advancements would later do for us muggles, which explains why many of the established locations seem to belong to a gothic, bygone age. They don’t need to modernise as magic offers them everything technology ever could. None of this is ever explicitly stated in the text, but it is there, providing yet another little detail making the world feel all the more lived in.
That is why so many people flocked to the studio tour when it became open to the public, and why the Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Orlando is such a massive success. It’s not just an inviting world full of magic and joy for kids of all ages, but one that feels like it could exist if only you believe in it hard enough. No one is focused on the differences between the descriptions in the books and what appeared on screen. In fact, when visiting those attractions, guests don’t talk about them being from the films. They are places from Harry Potter’s world, as though we somehow managed to cut a small piece out of another world and transport it intact over to our own.
As for the films themselves, they are okay. The first two are flawed but charming, the third is genuinely great, the forth is good, and the rest are solid. None of them are masterpieces, but they don’t need to be. They get the important bits right, and they manage to tap into the same essence that give the stories their magic.
The casting is spot on throughout. Every supporting character, important or minor, is perfectly cast. From Rickman as Snape, to Rhys Ifans as Xenophilius Lovegood, every single actor and actress completely become their character to the point that you couldn’t imagine anyone else playing them. That’s one of the advantages of having such a large budget; they were able to stuff each film with talent. They got national treasure Emma Thompson to play Sybil Trelawney, and she’s only in about five scenes across three films.
As for the three leads, I personally think they’re great. I know upon release there was some snickering and mocking about the youngsters’ performances in The Philosophers Stone, but I thought they more than adequately got the job done. I wonder if having not read the books was beneficial in this regard. I came into that first film and just saw Harry, Ron, and Hermione, because that is how I’ve always seen them. I didn’t already have an imagined version of those characters that the actors could only fail to live up to.
I also wonder if coming to this franchise late is why Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them did so little for me. For many fans just having a new Harry Potter related (even tangentially) story is enough for them to be all in. It’s been five years since The Deathly Hallows Part 2 and this is the first scratch to that itch they’ve had. Whereas I’ve only just found Harry’s world, so an immediate return to it doesn’t carry the same nostalgia rush for me.
I thought much of what the previous films got so right, Beasts gets so wrong. The casting, so long the series ace in the hole, felt uninspired here. Eddie Redmayne’s Newt Scamander isn’t a fully fleshed out character. He’s a collection of tics and an awkward walk. There’s nothing to him and the only reason Redmayne feels like he’s in the movie is because he is the Brit of the moment. Scamander’s plot, revolving around a case of the titular fantastic beasts escaping into 1920’s New York, is oddly superfluous to the actual storyline. And yet it takes up three quarters of the film. The rest of which deals with Colin Farrell’s agent for the Ministry using the timid son of a magic hating witch hunter to pursue a powerful dark magic. It’s here that the film takes steps towards saying anything at all. There are themes of intolerance, persecution, segregation, and repression, which in the current cultural climate are all highly pertinent. The individual pieces are there to create something powerful and to say something meaningful. But the film doesn’t give this plot the time it needs to do it. Instead turning its attention back to Scamander and his forgettable companions.
Colin Farrell does good work with the little he has, but the rest of the characters and performances fade away the moment they’re off screen. And the reveal of who is playing Grindelwald smacks of stunt casting.
So the characters are thinly drawn to the point of being boring and the story is largely a dud, but what of the world itself? The alleys, buildings, and institutions that have so long held such wonder and elicited such awe? Here too, Beasts drops the ball.
In previous Potter entries much of the enchantment comes from the old hiding within the current and rubbing up against the impossible. Here the magic looks exactly like everything else in 1920’s New York. The homes of the witches and wizards look like any other tenement building from that time. The nightclubs are no different. There is no contrast in this film. No old or new or fantastic. Everything is muted. I understand that in the context of the film this does make sense, as the magical are hiding in plain sight. But that doesn’t stop it from being dull. The Ministry itself is first shown to us in a sweeping shot as the camera floats through the inner workings of this important, influential, seemingly all powerful organisation. It’s this film’s version of the Hogwarts introduction. The camera swoops, the music swells. But what we see during this grand arc of an establishing shot isn’t magic at work… it’s bureaucracy. Filing papers. Hardly the fantastical stuff of dreams.
It’s hard to image thousands queuing for hours to step onto those sets. Fantastic Beasts isn’t awful. It is just uninspired, and focusing on the wrong part of its story.
But does this one lesser entry put me off returning to Harry and Rowling’s universe? Not for a second. There is plenty of magic left to be found in that universe, and countless characters with interesting, surprising stories left to tell. I held off joining Harry, Ron, Hermione and Dumbledore (… and Luna. The actual best character…) for a long time. If they ever come back, I won’t make the same mistake again. Diagon alley isn’t a place you can point to on a map, but now I understand why that hasn’t stopped kids and adults alike from looking for all these years.