Harry Potter, Celebrity Wizard
Review by Steve Barancik

Book Title: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone

(Note: This is intended to be a funny review. You can read a much more serious one here.)

Author: J.K. Rowling

Book Type: Chapter

I would prescribe this book for this kind of child: A child who's had a hard life so far.

I think this is a: Book that is only appropriate for the particular prescribed audience

Review: Okay, I don't want to be too catty. Sorcerer's Stone, the first book in the Harry Potter series, is a decent enough book when compared to the average children's book. Where it falls distressingly short is in measuring up to its own hype.

First, a confession. I saw the first Harry Potter movie years before I read the book. I knew the movie's producer. I was hugely disappointed.

Frankly, having worked in Hollywood myself, I blamed the filmmakers. To me, the movie played like a highlight reel: a whole lot of big action scenes with little to connect them.

Not much character. Not much logic. Not much believability.

Being all too familiar with Hollywood, I figured they'd removed all that boring "humanity" that had no doubt contributed to making the book so popular, in order to cram in more action and visuals.

I just now read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. I was wrong about the movie. It was, unfortunately, rather faithful to the book.

I'm afraid I owe my producer friend an apology.

I'm also afraid that my "highlight reel" complaint was far from my only one about Harry Potter.

This Harry Potter book suffers from Welcome Back, Kotter syndrome

If you remember the annoying 1970's sitcom, you'll know what I'm talking about. Kotter was a high school teacher. He was saddled with a smart-aleck class full of underperformers.

Four of them were the stars of the show. They sat in the front row. The rest of the class was made up of extras. Kotter never spoke to the extras. Their job was just to laugh at the clever exchanges between Kotter and the four stars.

Harry Potter movie cast, Mr. Kotter cast

Even as a kid, I had a problem with that. It didn't meet my standards for realism and believability.

Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry has much the same problem. Harry Potter enters as a first year student. It would seem there are at least a couple hundred students at this school, but reading the story you'd swear there were only about eight, and only three who figure prominently.

Harry and his friends, Hermione and Ron.

These three get in adventure after adventure, find themselves in trouble continuously, rarely consult their teachers before setting out recklessly to save the world (the world seems to need saving by these three about once a month), and always manage to pull off whatever it is they're trying to achieve.

(Here's a general precept of good fiction: the hero fails a lot before succeeding in the end. Harry Potter, on the other hand, succeeds a lot before succeeding in the end.)

The other characters at Hogwarts seem to exist merely to revolve around Harry.

As a writer, reading Harry Potter is kind of bizarre for me

You see, it's not the magic that makes the book unbelievable. It's the fact that these first year students might as well be the only kids at the school!

In fact, to my mind, author J.K. Rowling's great talent is the utterly charming way in which she renders the wizardry and witchcraft believable. She does so by making magic - or at least the learning of it - humorously mundane. The children at Hogwarts moan and groan over their pending Defense Against The Black Arts exam just like regular children moan and groan over Algebra!

That Rowling does this so well is part of the reason the Kotter Syndrome is so grating. Harry Potter and his friends are too young and untrained to be succeeding - no less surviving - in their absurd adventures.

I realize I'm practically the lone voice in the wilderness here

Believe me, I know this book, and the other Harry Potter books, have merits. I see some of them. But obviously, these books are touching millions of children - and adults - in a way that they aren't touching me.

I don't assume that I'm right and everyone else is wrong. (Though it's tempting!)

I do have an opinion, though, on what has made the Harry Potter books so popular at this particular point in history. Here it is.

They're about celebrity. Completely unearned celebrity.

I'm not going to get any dispute if I state outright that we live in a celebrity-obsessed culture, am I?

I'm certainly not the first to say so. People are no longer just famous for being good at something. We have people who are famous for their bad actions, and people who are famous for, well... nothing at all.

Can you say Paris Hilton?

In this, the first Harry Potter book, Harry finds out one day, at age ten, that he is famous! Not in the mortal (Muggle) world that he's been living in, but in the world of magic, wizardry and witchcraft that he hadn't known existed.

Children know his name. Adults know his name. They whisper about him and point at him. He hasn't done anything to deserve it. It's just that his birth parents were famous.

We live in an era where endless "reality" shows confer actual fame on ordinary people who have done nothing more than succeed at putting their baser selves in front of millions of hungry eyeballs.

Harry Potter seems, to me, very much of this era. True, he didn't audition for the role of Best Kid Wizard. But he's plenty content to be in it, and I don't remember a single passage in this 300 page book where he paused to question how he came to be the anointed.

That would have been refreshing. But at least he doesn't hire a public relations agency.

True, Harry has lived ten years with a rather awful family who make him live in a cupboard. It's a rather Cinderella existence. He is deserving of sympathy. He may not exhibit Cinderella's pure goodness and selflessness, but who would? He's still a pretty sweet kid.

He deserves better. But does he deserve fame?

I don't doubt that this book would be an incredibly satisfying read for children who have had a truly hard time of it in their short lives. But I despair somewhat for the message it imparts to kids who haven't had a hard time of it.

Message? Actually, it's more like a fortune cookie. It reads,

"You will soon be recognized for your innate genius. Don't sweat it."

Harry Potter is a star as soon as he arrives at Hogwarts

Not only is he held in awe because of his parentage, but he hops on a broomstick for the first time and just turns out to be the best stunt flyer at school, instantly. This allows him to be the reigning star at the sport of Quidditch.

No practice. No learning curve. No time spent on the junior varsity. In fact, although first years aren't allowed on the team, it's decided that because this is Harry Potter (gasp!) he should be allowed on the team.

It's another precept of good fiction that heroes succeed in the end by virtue of hard work.

Not in Harry Potter. Heroes succeed by virtue of being Harry Potter.

My final complaint

Harry has a barely perceptible inner life. His childhood has been hell to date, but it doesn't really get him down. Sadness for Harry might come in the form of a sigh, little more.

His early circumstances are certainly worthy of sympathy. But it's hard - for me at least - to be too sympathetic, because Harry seems to have a decent enough time no matter what.

Because Harry tends to experience success on the path to success, rather than failure, he never experiences substantial disappointment. I've heard people refer to the darkness of these novels, but I don't see it.

Darkness is suffering. The hero can pass through the valley of the shadow of death, but if he's whistling, and if the reader never truly worries for his fate, it's hard to engage with the suffering.

No, if you want to engage with Harry Potter, I'm afraid you have to do it on a celebrity level. In my opinion, your child's time might be better spent practicing for his American Idol audition.

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