What's wrong with Harry Potter? Sophistication.

In The Atlantic, David Thier describes How the ‘Harry Potter’ Movies Succeeded Where the Books Failed. I haven’t seen all the movies or read all the books, so I can’t comment on their relative merit, but notice this in Their’s post:

The basic story in Harry Potter is an old one, and a good one. The boy of destiny is plucked from ordinary circumstances and becomes incredulous when he’s told the truth behind his real identity. Some training, trials, and a crisis of self-confidence later, he emerges as the true hero ready to defeat ultimate evil.

In real life, it seems like the problem isn’t often defeating ultimate evil: it’s identifying ultimate evil. Or recognizing that ultimate evil doesn’t exist very often, and more often there are banal evils, or inadvertent evils, or people just trying to get along but harming others as they do, or working in favor of malign self-interest, or some variation on these themes. Adult literature tends to recognize this. Children’s literature seldom does. Even The Lord of the Rings spends a lot of time trying to decide how to respond and who should wield power. Harry Potter seldom does that, from what I can recall: Harry is destined from birth. I don’t appear destined from birth to do much of anything; neither does anyone else (more on that below).

Robin Hanson says something similar to the preceding paragraph in “Beware Morality Porn:”

[. . .] movies usually focus more on whether characters have the strength of will to do what is obviously right than on whether they have the wisdom to discern what is right. And movie characters rarely have to choose between the praise of associates and doing the right thing – key associates usually support doing the right thing.

He uses Lord of the Rings as an example, although I don’t think it’s as appropriate as some others. The book version of The Lord of the Rings makes a point of showing how Aragorn, Gandalf, and other “good” characters work to limit their own power and define what the “right” thing is, beyond the defeat of Sauron. In the past, the Elves and Númenóreans repeatedly treated with Sauron, to their detriment. It’s not completely obvious what the “right” thing to do is: in the “Council of Elrond” chapter in The Fellowship of the Ring, proposals about using the Ring against Sauron are debated. It’s true that, by the time we get to The Fellowship of the Ring, it’s pretty clear Sauron’s the bad guy, but only because of past book-time experiences with him.

As mentioned above, I think movies and books have a larger problem (and one that, if I recall correctly, Harry Potter does address to some extent): virtually no one is “destined” to do anything. People who accomplish major deeds often just have the right combination of circumstances, luck, tenacity, and ability. Arguably only the last two are influenced by the person themselves. Taken together, the problems with pre-destiny and automatic right/wrong might go under the header of “sophistication.” More sophisticated novels (or movies) will tend to recognize and/or deal with these problems. Less sophisticated novels (or movies) won’t.


If you’re interested in Harry Potter, A.S. Byatt’s “Harry Potter and the Childish Adult” is worth reading.

What’s wrong with Harry Potter? Sophistication.

In The Atlantic, David Thier describes How the ‘Harry Potter’ Movies Succeeded Where the Books Failed. I haven’t seen all the movies or read all the books, so I can’t comment on their relative merit, but notice this in Their’s post:

The basic story in Harry Potter is an old one, and a good one. The boy of destiny is plucked from ordinary circumstances and becomes incredulous when he’s told the truth behind his real identity. Some training, trials, and a crisis of self-confidence later, he emerges as the true hero ready to defeat ultimate evil.

In real life, it seems like the problem isn’t often defeating ultimate evil: it’s identifying ultimate evil. Or recognizing that ultimate evil doesn’t exist very often, and more often there are banal evils, or inadvertent evils, or people just trying to get along but harming others as they do, or working in favor of malign self-interest, or some variation on these themes. Adult literature tends to recognize this. Children’s literature seldom does. Even The Lord of the Rings spends a lot of time trying to decide how to respond and who should wield power. Harry Potter seldom does that, from what I can recall: Harry is destined from birth. I don’t appear destined from birth to do much of anything; neither does anyone else (more on that below).

Robin Hanson says something similar to the preceding paragraph in “Beware Morality Porn:”

[. . .] movies usually focus more on whether characters have the strength of will to do what is obviously right than on whether they have the wisdom to discern what is right. And movie characters rarely have to choose between the praise of associates and doing the right thing – key associates usually support doing the right thing.

He uses Lord of the Rings as an example, although I don’t think it’s as appropriate as some others. The book version of The Lord of the Rings makes a point of showing how Aragorn, Gandalf, and other “good” characters work to limit their own power and define what the “right” thing is, beyond the defeat of Sauron. In the past, the Elves and Númenóreans repeatedly treated with Sauron, to their detriment. It’s not completely obvious what the “right” thing to do is: in the “Council of Elrond” chapter in The Fellowship of the Ring, proposals about using the Ring against Sauron are debated. It’s true that, by the time we get to The Fellowship of the Ring, it’s pretty clear Sauron’s the bad guy, but only because of past book-time experiences with him.

As mentioned above, I think movies and books have a larger problem (and one that, if I recall correctly, Harry Potter does address to some extent): virtually no one is “destined” to do anything. People who accomplish major deeds often just have the right combination of circumstances, luck, tenacity, and ability. Arguably only the last two are influenced by the person themselves. Taken together, the problems with pre-destiny and automatic right/wrong might go under the header of “sophistication.” More sophisticated novels (or movies) will tend to recognize and/or deal with these problems. Less sophisticated novels (or movies) won’t.


If you’re interested in Harry Potter, A.S. Byatt’s “Harry Potter and the Childish Adult” is worth reading.

Early July Links: Neal Stephenson's Remade, Amanda Knox, procrastination, sex / violence double standard, marriage (with infidelities), the Rolling Stones and art, and more

* How did I miss this?! Neal Sephenson has a new novel coming out in September, this one called Remade. I only discovered it through Amazon’s see-also feature from The Magician King‘s page.

* The Neverending Nightmare of Amanda Knox: How a naive kid from Seattle was coerced into confessing to a brutal murder and wound up sentenced to 26 years in an Italian jail. The story of justice gone wrong is, frankly, bizarre.

* From “What does procrastination tell us about ourselves?

. The philosopher Mark Kingwell puts it in existential terms: “Procrastination most often arises from a sense that there is too much to do, and hence no single aspect of the to-do worth doing. . . . Underneath this rather antic form of action-as-inaction is the much more unsettling question whether anything is worth doing at all.” In that sense, it might be useful to think about two kinds of procrastination: the kind that is genuinely akratic and the kind that’s telling you that what you’re supposed to be doing has, deep down, no real point. The procrastinator’s challenge, and perhaps the philosopher’s, too, is to figure out which is which.

* Court reaffirms: Sex much worse than violence, and Americans are afraid of sex. Not that you needed a court to point this out.

* Browse the Artifacts of Geek History in Jay Walker’s Library.

* Marriage, with Infidelities, an NYT discussion of Dan Savage.

* The bicycle dividend, which may occur in part because there’s lots of low-hanging fruit, so to speak, in creating bike lanes, while pretty much every area that could be efficiently paved for car traffic already has been.

* Transformers negs delivered by critics are hilarious; my possible favorite: “To [Bay’s] credit, during the first hour and a half or so of this two-and-a-half-hour epic, there are several lucid stretches … At times, the chaos he creates within the film frame is so abstract and exaggerated — think of him as Action Jackson Pollock — it can feel exhilarating, but the relentlessness is exhausting.”

* Cisco helps China spy on its citizens. I wonder what it would’ve done during the Holocaust.

* Another critique of a dumb WSJ editorial.

* Robin Hanson:

[. . . ] movies usually focus more on whether characters have the strength of will to do what is obviously right than on whether they have the wisdom to discern what is right. And movies usually show key associates as supporting the moral action, so characters rarely have to choose between praise of associates and doing the right thing.

* Final thought: is the culture of spurious credentialism is toxic to intellectual exploration? Discuss. Charlie Stross, hilarious.

* There’s a fascinating WSJ article about the Rolling Stones that’s really about the artistic temperament. I noticed two bits:

As for Mr. Richards, he wasn’t much interested in toying with history. “My point of view on the new stuff,” he said, “is I didn’t want to repaint the smile on the Mona Lisa.”

In other words, you’re not beholden to the past, even if you should be aware of it. The other:

“Once the band got to work,” he said, “it never mattered to me or the other guys.”

Working through the night, recording songs, partial songs and riffs that had the potential to develop into a song, the Nellcôte sessions dragged on. Said Mr. Chess, “The way the Rolling Stones works is the opposite of deliberate.” Reconnecting with their musical influences at times provided a sort of focus. “They were reacting to soul music. All of their influences are in there.”

In other words, be productive. If you keep doing whatever your art is, you might be surprised by what you find in your own work.

* Apartment developers bypass suburbs, target Seattle.

* CIA’s ‘Facebook’ Program Dramatically Cut Agency’s Costs.

Early July Links: Neal Stephenson’s Remade, Amanda Knox, procrastination, sex / violence double standard, marriage (with infidelities), the Rolling Stones and art, and more

* How did I miss this?! Neal Sephenson has a new novel coming out in September, this one called Remade. I only discovered it through Amazon’s see-also feature from The Magician King‘s page.

* The Neverending Nightmare of Amanda Knox: How a naive kid from Seattle was coerced into confessing to a brutal murder and wound up sentenced to 26 years in an Italian jail. The story of justice gone wrong is, frankly, bizarre.

* From “What does procrastination tell us about ourselves?

. The philosopher Mark Kingwell puts it in existential terms: “Procrastination most often arises from a sense that there is too much to do, and hence no single aspect of the to-do worth doing. . . . Underneath this rather antic form of action-as-inaction is the much more unsettling question whether anything is worth doing at all.” In that sense, it might be useful to think about two kinds of procrastination: the kind that is genuinely akratic and the kind that’s telling you that what you’re supposed to be doing has, deep down, no real point. The procrastinator’s challenge, and perhaps the philosopher’s, too, is to figure out which is which.

* Court reaffirms: Sex much worse than violence, and Americans are afraid of sex. Not that you needed a court to point this out.

* Browse the Artifacts of Geek History in Jay Walker’s Library.

* Marriage, with Infidelities, an NYT discussion of Dan Savage.

* The bicycle dividend, which may occur in part because there’s lots of low-hanging fruit, so to speak, in creating bike lanes, while pretty much every area that could be efficiently paved for car traffic already has been.

* Transformers negs delivered by critics are hilarious; my possible favorite: “To [Bay’s] credit, during the first hour and a half or so of this two-and-a-half-hour epic, there are several lucid stretches … At times, the chaos he creates within the film frame is so abstract and exaggerated — think of him as Action Jackson Pollock — it can feel exhilarating, but the relentlessness is exhausting.”

* Cisco helps China spy on its citizens. I wonder what it would’ve done during the Holocaust.

* Another critique of a dumb WSJ editorial.

* Robin Hanson:

[. . . ] movies usually focus more on whether characters have the strength of will to do what is obviously right than on whether they have the wisdom to discern what is right. And movies usually show key associates as supporting the moral action, so characters rarely have to choose between praise of associates and doing the right thing.

* Final thought: is the culture of spurious credentialism is toxic to intellectual exploration? Discuss. Charlie Stross, hilarious.

* There’s a fascinating WSJ article about the Rolling Stones that’s really about the artistic temperament. I noticed two bits:

As for Mr. Richards, he wasn’t much interested in toying with history. “My point of view on the new stuff,” he said, “is I didn’t want to repaint the smile on the Mona Lisa.”

In other words, you’re not beholden to the past, even if you should be aware of it. The other:

“Once the band got to work,” he said, “it never mattered to me or the other guys.”

Working through the night, recording songs, partial songs and riffs that had the potential to develop into a song, the Nellcôte sessions dragged on. Said Mr. Chess, “The way the Rolling Stones works is the opposite of deliberate.” Reconnecting with their musical influences at times provided a sort of focus. “They were reacting to soul music. All of their influences are in there.”

In other words, be productive. If you keep doing whatever your art is, you might be surprised by what you find in your own work.

* Apartment developers bypass suburbs, target Seattle.

* CIA’s ‘Facebook’ Program Dramatically Cut Agency’s Costs.

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