Thursday, July 19, 2007

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix


I just saw the latest movie of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series (Order of the Phoenix) and with the 7th and final book pending days from now, I couldn't help revisiting my review of the 5th book, "The Order of the Phoenix". Here is my review (which first appeared in Aoife's Kiss):

For those of you unfamiliar with this very popular YA series, J.K. Rowling’s first Harry Potter book, “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” (Bloomsbury Publishing), hit the bookshelves in 1997. The book captured the hearts and imaginations of so many young (and older) readers, that it and subsequent three books in the series have enjoyed an unprecended success. Her “Harry” books have sold over 325 million copies, translated into over 55 languages in over 200 countries.


The series explores the life of a young boy who discovers that he is a wizard – and a famous one at that, because he survived the death-touch of the most evil wizard of all, Lord Voldemort. J.K. Rowling’s colourful imagination has provided a rich world from Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, to a host of wizards and witches and strange creatures, a game that rivals basketball, cricket and rugby put together and is played on flying broomsticks (Quidditch), and much more. Since her first book, Rowling’s subsequent books have continued to both entertain adults and grip younger readers in an ever-escalating adventure with ever-increasing tension and pace and dark elements, until in the fourth book readers are shaken by the death of one of Harry’s own classmates and Harry must suffer torture by Voldemort’s Death Eaters and battle the evil wizard himself.

Which brings us to the fifth book. By my thinking, it should have started with a bang and thrust Harry and the reader into the thick of what was, in the fourth book, already a maelstrom. Instead, Rowling chooses to drop the momentum and introduces us to a brooding, sullen and slightly obnoxious hero, languishing in his own self-pity as he – and the reader – waits for something to happen. This is an angry (and spoilt) Harry. Now, granted, he is a teenager and prone to fits of irrational anger and impatience. But Harry is also our superhero. Does he have to be such a brat? And do we have to suffer his languishing thoughts – all of them? Aside from Harry’s unlikeable qualities (not great for a hero, even if he is a teenager!), I found that the first quarter of the book was less than captivating, unexciting and overly-full of details that seemed to neither further plot nor illuminate character. Her prose was also prone to repetition (I don’t know how many times Rowling repeated Harry’s same anxious and impatient thoughts on the same subject – once was certainly enough for me!). I found myself impatiently skipping lines and putting the book down. Something I had not done in the previous books.

For me, the story didn’t come to life until well over a 150 pages into the book, once our beloved main characters are in the train and on their way to Hogwarts. And as far as I’m concerned this is where the book could have started. If not for two important plot events, the whole beginning could have been—and should have been—scrapped. It seems as though, like her own protagonist, the writer only rouses herself once we reach Hogwarts. This is where she shines as an author, where her characters interact and come to life and move. It is at Hogwarts that the pace and tension and character involvement flow as she builds the srory and reader interest. As a writer, I recognize that some settings we create evoke our creative muse better than others. Hogwarts is definitely Rowling’s preferred setting and the preferred metaphoric vehicle for her exceptional voice in fiction.

Once Rowling is in her element, she tantalizes us with all the things we have come to love and expect from her. There is Harry, of course, who grows in character as well as in experience (his first kiss is a wonderful mixture of awkward and sweet). His two best friends, Hermione and Ron, add both comical relief with their continued bickering and a stong sense of loyalty and friendship in times of struggle. Other familiar characters such as Professor McGonigal, Hagrid, and the Weasley twins add a rich repertoire to the setting in which Harry must navigate to fulfill his destiny (of which we get some strong hints in this book). We also witness the evolution of timid characters, Ginny Weasley and Neville Longbottom, as they find their inner strengths. There is even Rowling’s own greek oracle, the Sorting Hat.

In new and dark characters, our emotions are roused by the despicable and totally reprehensible Professor Umbridge, who even fair and sweet Hermione calls an “evil hag . . . a fowl, lying, twisted old gargoyle.” Malfoy is, predictably, the obnoxious little thing he always was, and growing feeble and tiring as Harry’s foil. As for another foil, I found Snape’s character disappointingly flat, hitting the same strident and “sinister” note time and time again. It is hard to accept that this intelligent man could not grow a little as do most of the other characters. What was actually harder to take was Harry’s own “one-note” hatred of Snape, particularly after his discovery of something in the past to do with his father. I found myself, as with Harry’s final scene with Dumbledore, wanting to box Harry on the ears for being so “heartless”, despite Dumbledore himself mentioning Harry’s heart. Perhaps we must wait until Book Six or Seven before Harry and Snape resolve things or at least evolve their relationship.

The story itself unfolds wonderfully (once Rowling gets going, that is) with some extremely interesting twists and disclosures, particularly for Harry. In a spine-chilling scene during one of Harry’s “visions” I am reminded of Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” in which, forced to face the snake inside of him, our hero must confront and rise above the darkness, the doubts and fears that dwell inside of him. More than anything this fifth book reveals the “inward journey” of our minds and hearts: to face and accept our own demons, to gain the wisdom to accept differences, to tolerate with kindness and humility minor transgressions against us as expressions of weakness, and to recognize true evil from the shallow bickering that so often fills our world. I’m not saying that Harry gets to this point by the end of Book Five, but he is well on his way. Ironically, it is the Sorting Hat that provides a forshadowing of the accomplishments both Harry and his divided group must achieve: they must sort out (pardon the awful pun!) their differences, and “unite . . . or we’ll crumble from within.”

Despite these wonderful qualities, “Harry Potter and the Order of the Pheonix” remains too long and contains far too much unecessary detail – mostly the kind that tells you where someone went and how. This seriously undermines the pace and its removal would have served the purpose of shortening the book by at least a third and heightening tension and keeping the reader less inclined to skim portions. This 5th in a 7-book series should have been a page-turner toward the series climax. The book appears to have been hurried along and Rowling could well be excused on this alone (deadlines and all). When Rowling turned her huge manuscript in to her publisher, she could well have quoted her own version of Mark Twain’s longstanding statement: “I would have made it shorter but I ran out of time.”

Biography of J.K. Rowling

“I am an extraordinarily lucky person, doing what I love best in the world.”—J.K. Rowling
J.K. (Joanne Kathleen) Rowling was born in Chipping Sodbury, near Bristol, England. After graduating from Exeter University, she worked as a secretary and taught English in Portugal before moving to Edinburgh, Scotland, with her daughter. She currently lives in Scotland with her husband and two children.
The idea for Harry Potter occurred to Rowling on the train from Manchester to London, where she says Harry “just strolled into my head fully formed.” By the time she arrived at King’s Cross, many of the other characters had also taken shape. During the next five years she outlined plots for each book and began writing the first in the seven-book series, “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone”. Several publishers turned down the finished manuscript before Bloomsbury took interest and published it in 1997.
J.K. Rowling won the Hugo Award, the Bram Stoker Award, the Whitbread Award for Best Children’s Book among many others. Her books have consistently appeared on the New York Times, USA Today and Wall Street Journal bestseller lists. The fifth book (this review) has already broken records with its first print run of 6.8 million copies and a second run of 1.7 million, an unprecedented figure for any book.
Rowling always wanted to be a writer. “I had written two novels before I had the idea for Harry,” says Rowling, “though I’d never tried to get them published. And good job too. I don’t think they were very good.” That the overarching theme of her “Harry” series is based upon acceptance, is a natural extension of what is essentially most important to Rowling. When asked if there was one thing that she could change in the world, she responded with, “I would make each and every one of us much more tolerant.”





Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of novels, short stories and essays. She coaches writers and teaches writing at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. For more about Nina’s coaching & workshops visit www.ninamunteanu.me. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for more about her writing.

3 comments:

Jean-Luc Picard said...

An excellent and detailed review, Nina.

sfgirl said...

Thanks, Jean-Luc! Did you see the movie? What did you think of it?

Juanita's Journal said...

By my thinking, it should have started with a bang and thrust Harry and the reader into the thick of what was, in the fourth book, already a maelstrom. Instead, Rowling chooses to drop the momentum and introduces us to a brooding, sullen and slightly obnoxious hero, languishing in his own self-pity as he – and the reader – waits for something to happen. This is an angry (and spoilt) Harry. Now, granted, he is a teenager and prone to fits of irrational anger and impatience. But Harry is also our superhero. Does he have to be such a brat? And do we have to suffer his languishing thoughts – all of them? Aside from Harry’s unlikeable qualities (not great for a hero, even if he is a teenager!) . . .


I found the above commentary VERY DISTURBING. Why on earth would you expect a fifteen year-old boy who had witnessed a horrifying murder for the first time nearly two months earlier, act like a proper little hero? A boy, whose claim that a great nemesis has finally re-emerged is being ignored by the wizarding majority?Have you no tolerance for less than exemplary behavior? Wasn't Harry allowed to be human? I mean . . . honestly!!!