Tuesday, July 26, 2005

I'm not wild about Harry

Potter, that is.

With nearly everyone kvelling about the latest installment, I feel increasingly on the margin.

Out of the six books published so far, I've read none of them.

This comes as a surprise even to me. HP would seem to be a natural fit for me, a fan of Tolkien, Narnia and Dungeons and Dragons. A couple of years ago, I even reread The Phantom Tollbooth, with hours of pleasure. Naturally, as soon as a copy of HP and the Philosopher's Stone (that's the original British title, before it was corrupted by the American publisher) reached my hands, I opened it in anticipation and started to read.

I managed to plow through the first dozen pages or so before giving up.

Sure, it was clever, though not nearly as clever as its literary predecessors. But one characteristic of the book was so blatant I couldn't get past it to enjoy the story: It read like a children's book.

The language was oversimplified, with short sentences and simple vocabulary. However clever the story, the writing was unchallenging, as if it were targeted several years below the appropriate reading level. It was like a translation of television into print. Can't make kids work too hard or they'll turn on the Nintendo instead.

The American edition, aside from simplifying the title, even "translated" a host of British expressions unfamiliar to American children, lest the listless tykes be forced to use a dictionary, or Google.

When I read J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis as a kid, I had to stretch my mind to do it. I'm clearly not a kid anymore, but when I read HP as an adult, I felt Rowling was writing down to the level of her young fans, rather than challenging them to hone their reading skills.

Incidentally, I did see the film of the first book, and I got the same impression. It was styled as a children's movie, with all the subtlety and sophistication of a Disney cartoon. Less, even. How many times did we see the same shot of Harry, mouth agape and eyes popping in wonder at some new magical encounter?

There's nothing wrong with children's books or children's movies, to be sure. But with all the hype about Harry, I was expecting something a few steps beyond standard children's fare. Instead, I got the lowest common denominator of children's entertainment.

Am I being too harsh? I expect I might feel different if I had a 10-year-old to read it with.


Ze'ev said...

I had the same issue. I am not a fan of Sci-fi / fantasy, generally speaking, but after seeing the 1st 2 LOTR movies, I decided to read the book, and I was blown away.

I went to see one of the HP movies with my wife, and for the 1st time in my life, I actually fell asleep in the theatre.

I have been trying to articuluate what exactly the difference is betwee nthe two series, and I think you hit many of them on the head. I just felt like LOTR was written for someone on an adult reading level, while HP is for kids.

Both have magic and fantasy, but LOTR just seems to draw one into the story, whereas HP seemed to always leave me feeling like it was a land of make-beleive, with nothing else to it.

Elie said...

Though I'm one of the "bandwagoners" you refer to, I do enjoy the HP books, though they are certainly not on the madreyga of LotR. But I like them a lot, on their own level. The writing has also definitely increased in sophistication, both in terms of plot and vocabulary, in each successive book.

Another point, since you mention the Narnia books. I also loved them as a kid - despite their blatant Christian overtones - but you have to admit that they were written somewhat down for children - as HP is, and as LotR was not.

Jack said...

Elie is right, the books have become more sophisticated. They have grown with Harry, it is kind of nice.

But I understand if you cannot get into them.

Zman Biur said...


Glad I'm not the only one!


It's interesting that the writing should develop from book to book. Maybe I should have started with book six...

You're right that Narnia is written for children, unlike LotR. Of course, when I read it, I was oblivious to Christian overtones!


Would it be fair to suggest that each HP book is more or less targeted to readers of Harry's age?

Cosmic X said...

I never read a Harry Potter book, and I do not plan to do so in the future.

Zman Biur said...

Whoa, Cosmic dude! What's wrong with you? Are you, like, from another planet? (Maybe that's where you got your name!)

Cosmic X said...

Sometimes I feel like I'm on another planet. When I made aliyah I left pop culture behind. I never saw Seinfeld, never read Harry Potter, haven't seen any movies since the early 1980s except "Ushpizin". Being an every day baalhabus keeps me occupied from the time I get up until I go to sleep.

Jack said...


I am not sure, I never thought about it. I haven't read the others in so long now that I cannot really answer that.

Soccer Dad said...

Incidentally, one of the things that I've noticed about Harry Potter is that the adventures have a very distinctive D & D style. Throughout the stories Harry is aided by wizards more powerful than himself or information or talismans that come his way. Granted there are no dice so the outcome is determined by JK Rowling, not chance. Still it has some of that charm.