Friday, July 29, 2016

Priori Incantatem: Harry Potter Memories – Chapter Five: Wingardium Leviosa!

With the publication of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child on the immediate horizon – a play that is effectively serving as the eighth story in the Harry Potter canon I am republishing what remains one of my favorite articles I have ever written: Priori Incantatem: Harry Potter Memories. This piece was originally published in seven parts in November 2010, anticipating the theatrical release of “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1.” It was my final major statement and reminiscence on the Harry Potter series I love so dearly. Thinking this might be the case when I wrote it, I chose to focus on my memories of the franchise, in sequential order, to give the reader a sense of how I experienced this unique period in pop culture history. It is among the most emotionally open, honest, and confessional piece I have ever composed – closer to autobiography at times than review or analysis – and I therefore hold it very close to my heart. Over the next few days, all seven pieces will be published here on the site, leading up to the release of The Cursed Child on Sunday. Enjoy…

Continue reading after the jump…

Chapter Five: Wingardium Leviosa!

Middle school represented the worst two years of my life. I don’t know if I had things any better or worse than anyone else, since many people hate middle school, but as the painful days slowly dragged on, I found myself wishing more and more that I had gotten a Hogwarts invitation from Dumbledore when I turned ten.

That, of course, is the power of a good book: In our darkest hours, a wonderful story can provide blissful escapism and catharsis to soothe the troubled soul. J.K. Rowling has said that she wrote the Potter series from this perspective, that writing was how she coped with the death of her mother and the stress of being an impoverished single mom in London. This explains why the series is so dark, but also why it has touched so many lives, including mine. I began reading the series after the deaths of my grandparents, and though my love of the series had never wavered, it was during those horrible middle school years that I rediscovered how powerful Rowling’s themes and messages truly were.

With the publication of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince the summer before I entered seventh grade, Rowling cast a marvelous spell to levitate my spirits once more. Like its predecessor, the book was published the same week as the annual Lack family fishing trip to Canada. On the release date – July 16th, 2005 – my dad, my little brother (now ten and joining us for the first time), and I were in Des Moines, Iowa on our way to Ontario. We stayed with my Uncle Curt and Aunt Pattie, and on the morning of the release my Dad woke up early and bought the book at a local Wal-Mart so it would be there when I woke up.

Once again, the hype had been enormous, driven by an effective marketing campaign focused around the question on everyone’s mind: “Who is the half-blood prince?” Rowling even fueled speculation in interviews, hinting that it was not Harry or Voldemort. As any reader will tell you, the Prince’s identity isn’t a major plot point, and both the title and the marketing were fairly misleading; this just goes to show that the publishers were doing a better job than ever before at keeping the real plot details under wraps. When July 16th arrived, all we knew for sure was that the book had an extremely titillating title and that its cover art was very, very green. So when I bounded up the stairs from the basement where we were sleeping and saw the book lying on the dining room table, I had no idea what I was in for – except, of course, that this was Harry Potter, and would, therefore, be awesome.

And awesome it was, though with more painfully authentic grief and emotion than ever before. When I first read the book over the next two days, as we finished our car trip to Big Pine Lake, I had no idea that in a matter of weeks I would be embarking on the worst two years of my life. Harry, on the other hand, was right in the midst of his, and this was clear from the start. He and his friends go through plenty of emotional and physical turmoil throughout the novel, and the mammoth character death at the end colors any and all discussions about the story. What’s striking, though, is that despite the dark lows the book reaches, it is also one of the most outright humorous, infectiously fun installments in the series. 

Half-Blood Prince has been called a ‘calm-before-the-storm’ tale before, but it would more accurate to call the book Rowling’s take on A Farewell to Arms, Ernest Hemingway’s classic tale of love and loss set against the backdrop of World War I. Just as the war is a constant presence in Arms, the escalating conflict with Voldemort and his forces, raging more fiercely than ever before, is the canvas upon which all other action is staged. That gives Prince an inherently dark flavor, but the destructive powers of war do not put a stop to everything. For Harry, love, hormones, friendship, and all the other day-to-day activities and stresses that come with being a Hogwarts student continue no matter what Voldemort does. There is still time for laughs, dating, and deciphering a very wise used Potions textbook. Half-Blood Prince is not about a calm before a storm, but a tale about living within the eye of a maelstrom, and how even the darkest of paths can still be illuminated by the occasional, unexpected light.   

Thus, when things started to get really bad in middle school, this was a book I turned to. I may not have had to face a Dark Lord, but like Harry, focusing on what hadn’t gone wrong in life turned out to be one of the best ways of dealing with hardship. Just as Prisoner of Azkaban had offered a profound perspective on dealing with death, Half-Blood Prince was the perfect book to read when it seemed like the whole world was crashing down around me. Having a role model like Harry, a person who never lost sight of his morality or bravery even in the darkest of times, was essential during those gloomy years.

And when all else failed, opening one of Rowling’s books and escaping into the magical world of Hogwarts for a little while always proved effective. I have re-read all the books many times, but never more than in middle school, when the escapism Hogwarts offered my imagination was the most alluring.

I did not actually read the books too many times, actually, but instead had them read to me by the world’s greatest narrator, Jim Dale. For Easter one year during elementary school, my parents had bought me the audiobook of Chamber of Secrets, thinking it would be a cool new way to experience the series. They had no idea what an amazing gift they had found. Better than reading the physical texts, more lifelike than watching the movies, Jim Dale’s audiobooks are hands down the most fulfilling way to experience Harry Potter.

Dale has a voice that is impossible not to fall in love with, and his proper British accent is a perfect match for the material. More importantly, Dale does not simply read the books, but performs them as a truly spectacular one-man show. He is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records for creating and performing a record 146 different voices in the series, some hugely different than his standard narrating speech. It is hard to believe, for example, that his gruff, lovable Hagrid and chipper, surprisingly-feminine-sounding Hermione stem from the same set of vocal cords. Others, like Harry and Ron, sound closer to his standard speech, but still stand apart as very distinct creations.

His interpretations are all spot-on, perfectly capturing every nuance of every character with almost eerie precision. Some Potter characters are harder to nail down than others, but I consider Dale’s performances the definitive portrayals of each. For instance: While I absolutely adore what Emma Watson does in the films – she’s fantastic – Dale’s depiction is the truest approximation of what Rowling wrote, an exact vocal recreation of the true spirit of the character. Or consider Dumbledore: One reason I have never loved Richard Harris’ performance is because he never possessed the lively vitality and sense of humor that Dale gives the character, qualities Michael Gambon would find when he took over the role in film three. And as truly scary as Ralph Fiennes is, Dale’s Voldemort, a high, raspy, inhuman drawl, is even more likely to induce nightmares. It sounds like something from another dimension.

Dale’s interpretation of Harry is the subtlest and, in many ways, the most impressive; the books are written from a limited third person perspective, so while Harry doesn’t technically narrate the books, we do hear his thoughts for long stretches, and the action is framed from his point-of-view. Therefore, Dale’s narration and Harry’s speaking voice are very similar, and over the course of the seven books, Dale gets plenty of time to develop the character. We hear the character grow up as Dale flawlessly captures Harry at each age. In fact, listening to the audiobooks might give one a more vivid picture of Harry’s psyche than simply reading the novels would, thanks to Dale’s powerhouse performance. When not performing characters, Dale is still extremely impressive, finding the perfect tone for each scene with a subtle but powerful range of emotion.

Much of this I knew before I was ten, having only listened to the Chamber of Secrets audiobook my parents got me for Easter. I immediately fell in love with Dale’s take on the series and knew I would have to collect all of them, which I slowly did over the next few years. I bought Sorcerer’s Stone in a Des Moines Barnes & Noble on a car trip, and received Prisoner of Azkaban and Goblet of Fire as presents for various occasions; after that, I would typically get the audio version of the new books a few weeks after buying and reading the print copies.

I listened to them each a few times during elementary school, but it was in middle school that the audiobooks started a constant rotation on my portable CD player. If reading the books was candy to the imagination, then the immersion of Dale’s magical, multi-dimensional narration was a gourmet feast. Dale gifted each of the characters with such authentic emotions that the powerful escapism of Rowling’s works was multiplied tenfold, and in middle school, nothing was more therapeutic than letting Dale read me tales of my dream fantasy realm. I listened to all the books many times during those two years; it probably wasn’t completely healthy to spend so much time at Hogwarts, but since many teenagers cope with their problems through drugs, alcohol, smoking, or violence, I think my solution was a relatively smart one. 

A few months after Half-Blood Prince hit shelves, it was finally time for the next film, “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire,” set for release on November 18th, 2005. At this point, I had grown out of spending too much time hyping myself up for the new movies, but nevertheless, I was extra excited for this film because it would be the first Potter movie I would get to see as the Colorado Kids ‘Movie Kid,’ a job I had been having loads of fun performing for the last year and a half.

Being a writer for a subsidiary of The Denver Post meant I got to go to all the press screenings of new movies and see nearly every film before its release. I was introduced to all kinds of movies I would never have seen under normal circumstances, which is why I have such an eclectic film taste today. But back then, my favorite part was simply seeing all the big movies before everyone else, like “Spider-Man 2,” “Batman Begins,” and “Star Wars Episode III.” “Goblet of Fire,” however, was the one I had really been waiting for; seeing “Prisoner of Azkaban” early had proven how cool it was to view a new Potter flick before everyone else, and now I got to do it as a member of the press, skipping the lines and sitting in reserved seats. I was living the good life.

The press screening was held at the AMC Highlands Ranch theatre in one of their unbelievably huge auditoriums, and by the time the movie started, every seat was filled with eager Potter fans, making for a very fun evening. As with every film in the series, I walked out in awe, unsure of how I could write a review to do the movie justice. But as this would be my first ever Harry Potter review, I was quite eager to tackle the challenge.

I am not very fond of looking back at my earlier writing these days, but in the interest of bringing this story full circle, I feel it is only proper to reprint, in its original, unaltered form, my 2005 review of “Goblet of Fire,” written for the Colorado Kids:

The novel of the fourth Harry Potter story is 734 pages long. The movie is two and a half hours long. You’d think the producers would be cutting most of the book out for the fourth movie, ruining the story. But it isn’t the case. As with all the movies, all the classes are cut, and some of the smaller side plots are missing. But the essential storyline is there, completely intact. The fourth movie doesn’t have you leaving the theater wishing they’d put more stuff from the book in it. The adaptation is great and it makes for a great movie.

For those of you not familiar with the story, Harry Potter returns to Hogwarts and learns that the Triwizard Tournament is being played at Hogwarts. Two rival schools, Beauxbatons Academy of Magic, and the Durmstrang Institute, are also competing in the tournament. A champion is selected from each school. Victor Krum for Durmstrang, Fleur Delacour for Beauxbatons, and Cedric Diggory for Hogwarts. But the selector of the champions, the Goblet of Fire, also selects Harry Potter. Who put his name in the goblet? And is aHaHHArrHarry in for another unforgettable year at Hogwarts?

The movie is truly spectacular in the areas of special effects and storytelling, but also, the actors for the trio (Harry, Ron and Hermione) have come a long way from the beginning. In the third movie, Prisoner of Azkaban, Daniel Radcliffe’s (Harry Potter’s) onscreen crying was almost laughable, it was so cheesy. In this one, everyone’s emotions are believable, and add to the movie.

The score for this movie was not done by John Williams, who did the first three. The score was written by composer Patrick Doyle, who worked the John Williams themes into the movie magnificently, and added some great new themes and songs. This was probably the best score so far.

I would recommend this movie to ages 10 or 11 and up. Not only would anyone younger not understand the story, but the movie is violent and intense in spots. It’s the first Harry Potter movie to get a PG-13 rating, and for good reason. 

In short, it’s a great adaptation, a great story, and a great movie. Go to the theater now and see Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.

My God, I actually used ‘great’ as an adjective three times in a row? The past is indeed a terrifying demon. 

Well, at least it was a start. I am not surprised to see my own limitations when I revisit this review, but I do have to laugh at how drastically my opinions have changed since then – or, more accurately, how many times they’ve changed. “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” is to me what the One Ring of Power is to Gollum, which is to say I have a disturbing love-hate relationship with the film. As you can see above, I immediately adored the movie; none of the trepidation I felt when I first saw “Prisoner of Azkaban” was on display. But while “Azkaban” grew on me every time I watched it, to the point where it is now one of my favorite films (and I do not, for the record, agree with what 13-year-old me said about Radcliffe’s crying being “laughable”), I went through a period where I liked “Goblet of Fire” less and less with each viewing. There was a point, in fact, where I despised the film so much I refused to watch it when moving through the series.

Today, those emotions have evened out. The film is certainly more flawed than other latter-day Potter films – why Dumbledore is experiencing such disturbing anger issues from start to finish shall forever elude me – but overall, I think it is an excellent adaptation of a terrific novel. If it does not reach the highs of “Azkaban,” it is still a major step up over the first two movies, and represents a continued maturation of the film series.

I spent the rest of my dark middle school years revisiting the books and movies already released. During those years, Harry influenced and inspired me as a role model and Hogwarts gave me shelter, forever solidifying the series’ eternal home in my heart. Without J.K. Rowling’s magnificent creation, an already dim part of my life would have been even bleaker. But all things, good and bad, must come to an end, and so it was that I finally finished middle school in May 2007, just weeks before the era of Potter literature, a far brighter part of my life, would come to a close. After ten years spent following Harry’s literary adventures, the grand finale to J.K. Rowling’s magnum opus was looming on the horizon.

To be continued in Chapter Six: Expelliarmus!

The text of this article is taken from my 2012 book, Fade to Lack: A Critic’s Journey Through the World of Modern Film, available on Amazon and other online retailers.

Follow author Jonathan Lack on Twitter @JonathanLack.

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