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.

J.K. Rowling, sexism, and literary merit

Colleen Lindsay’s The Swivet is worth reading, and from it comes an article about women in science fiction and fantasy that uses Harry Potter as a launching pad to argue that sexism animates some attacks on Harry Potter and female science fiction and fantasy authors more generally. I don’t think it motivates Bloom’s criticism of Harry Potter, and it certainly doesn’t motivate mine. The first two novels, which I read, weren’t all very good because they were cliché-laden and deprived of magic sentences. Why they’re so much more popular than the rest of the voluminous fantasy pile is unclear, and I attribute it to the vagaries and mysteries of books and place. Alas, some attackers of Rowling are fools, like at least one Harvard student:

Writing in the university paper, the Harvard Crimson, student Adam Goldenberg rips into Rowling as “a flash in the pan”, “a petty pop culture personality” who “tricked parents into letting their kids read books filled with sex, murder, and homosexual role models”. Furthermore, “writing bedtime stories is lame”.

One can, however, reach the right conclusion—that Harry Potter isn’t very good—using faulty reasoning, and just because someone uses faulty reasoning doesn’t mean their conclusion is incorrect in and of itself. If the article wanted to make a larger point not by citing Harry Potter, but one of the less-known female fantasy writers it deals with in the fourth paragraph—none of whom I know well enough to comment on.

I suppose that, being male, my argument could somehow be latent sexism emerging, though it seems unlikely given that one of the greatest fantasy, science, and speculative fiction writers of all time is Ursula K. Le Guin, who I used as an example of one of the few transcendent science fiction writers. Jane Smiley is one of my favorite modern writers—her work is uneven, but Moo and A Thousand Acres are excellent—and Flannery O’Connor’s short stories and novellas are masterpieces. Perhaps the “subtle mechanism” described only applies to fantasy and science fiction, but even there I’m not sure it’s truly at work, and separating where the many legitimate attacks on Rowling end and the possible sexism begins isn’t an easy task. Because there are so many legitimate attacks to be made, I’m not sure it can be done save through critics aren’t all that serious in the first place.

As long Rowling is in the air, I will give her credit for her commencement speech at Harvard, which has gotten a tremendous amount of deserved attention in blogs and the media: it’s funny and deep, while the temptation to keep throwing on positive adjectives is difficult to resist. I only wish Harry Potter had been up to the standards of that speech, in which case this post wouldn’t have been written.

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