Monday, June 13, 2011

Meddling With Harry Potter Book 4

In Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, the fourth book in the series, Harry visits a Quidditch tournament which is interrupted by the death eaters, followers of the evil wizard Voldemort. Then he returns to his school Hogwarts which is hosting a tournament of its own. Harry is not chosen as Hogwarts champion, but his name gets entered anyway and he joins the contest. In the finale, it turns out that this whole thing was trap to steal his blood and resurrect Voldemort. This plan succeeds, but Harry gets away to warn everyone of the coming evil. (I’ll illustrate these posts with stills from the movies, but limit my discussion to the books...)

Some Strengths of the 4th Book:

  1. After hinting at the coming of Voldemort for three books, it was time to deliver, but how could Rowling do that without betraying the tone of the first three books? No worries: She darkens the tone at a very careful and deliberate pace, with a nicely building drumbeat of ominous-ness.
  2. It’s wonderful that Harry’s first “romance” with fellow student Cho Chang is such a big fizzle. Too many children’s books feed kids the flattering fib that the first romance is always the best romance. Instead, Rowling gives us a very believable half-hearted series of dates that Harry stumbles into and out of without any great drama.
  3. This has one of the most bone-chilling and rousing finales of any of the books, in the form of a terrifying graveyard confrontation between Harry and Voldemort.
  4. The moral strength of Dumbledore’s speech about the return of Voldemort is stirring. I know more than one person who cited it a few months later during 9/11 without looking ridiculous.
  5. This was a great time to allow Ron to finally become bitterly jealous of Harry’s endless fame, money, and accomplishments. Fourteen is just the right age for that to strike, and Rowling depicts it with her typical emotional acuity.
  6. Rowling took “write what you know” to heart and let Harry learn the fickle dangers of fame at the same time as his author. This allowed Rowling to release her own anger against the tabloids in the form of Rita Skeeter, a wonderfully sleazy reporter who literally becomes an insect in order to ply her trade.
  7. Rowling kept inventing wonderful new teachers throughout the series and the paranoid Mad-Eye Moody is no exception. A great way to personify the problems of over-vigilance.

Some Weaknesses of the 4th Book

  1. Harry has suddenly become utterly passive! He merely watches the Quidditch competition, merely watches the Death Eater attack afterwards, passively accepts when someone else enters his name into the tournament, sort of wants to win but sort of doesn’t, never investigates any of the many irregularities of the tournament—He’s not even trying to solve the mystery! What happened to the Harry we know and love??
  2. Without an active moral mystery, the plot can’t mirror the theme, if there is one. I suppose the theme would be glory vs. humility, but the characters never get to make actual choices around that theme and the payoff has nothing to do with it. Rowling seems to imply that Ron has a point in being mad at Harry for glory-seeking, but Harry didn’t actually enter himself, and doesn’t even really want to win that bad, so it doesn’t work. Harry spends the whole book confronting minor obstacles (how to win each round), not actual dilemmas.
  3. Here’s the big problem with the tournament: the stakes are too low. We don’t care if Harry wins, and worse, we don’t buy that it’s really going to be dangerous for him to lose. In “The Hunger Games”, the stakes feel high because the gamemasters are clearly callous, and we see a lot of people die. But here, even though the Hogwarts staff doesn’t want to host it and they keep saying they fear for the contestants’ safety, we still trust them to keep everybody safe. And indeed there are no permanent injuries from the actual games. This drains away all of the thrills until the very end.
  4. Dobby the house elf was the weakest element of the second book and he comes back big time. This is tied into Hermione’s newfound love of “activism” in the blandest sense of the word. Hermione’s sudden conviction that House Elves are slaves that must be liberated just doesn’t work on any level, storywise. Slavery is not an issue that has two reasonable sides, so when our heroes agree to disagree about it, it makes it very weird to continue to sympathize with all three. Hermione seems to have the stronger case, but even Dumbledore rolls his eyes, implying that we aren’t supposed to take her seriously. This is just too dark of an issue to treat in this offhand manner. Besides, Hermione has already seen a lot of injustices that she could more believably throw her energies into.
  5. Why isn’t everybody still worried about Sirius Black? He’s still on the loose and nobody besides our four central characters figured out that he’s innocent.
  6. The reveal that Moody is an imposter feels like a cheat because we later find out he was replaced before he ever entered the story, so we can’t go back and look for clues that he had changed. Also, the idea that a death eater has to imitate a Voldemort-hater is fun, but it would be more motivated if the people he was trying to fool had met the real Moody.
  7. As in almost all of the books, too much of the plot is revealed after the climax.
  8. After very cleverly interweaving the massive backstory into the previous books a piece at a time, here Rowling begins to panic and introduces her clunkiest device: the pensieve. This device is “cinematic” in the blandest sense of the word. Yes, it visualizes the flashbacks, but in a totally passive way. It turns Harry into a popcorn-eating moviegoer, rather than an active questioner.
  9. The reveal that Harry’s mother, not Harry, killed Voldemort, is very important but it lands too softly. This is a great “loss of a place of safety” moment, but the emotional impact never hits Harry, because he quickly finds another way to be safe: the connection between his wand and Voldemort’s. I realize that Rowling needed another way to keep Voldemort scared of Harry and delay the final confrontation, but she should have allowed Harry time to think about the fact that he has no special ability to kill Voldemort after all.

My version:

  1. Start with a quicker version of the Quidditch competition. Harry should have a rooting interest in one side and actively debates with Ron about favorite players, instead of just listening (He is a champion player himself, after all).
  2. When the death eaters attack, Harry foolishly attempts to save the day single-handedly and fails, then gets saved by (the real) Moody, who dispels the attack, and sends the death eaters scattering, impressing Harry with what a badass he is. Harry tries to talk to him about how he wants to be an auror, but Moody blows him off.
  3. At school, Harry finds out Moody is his new teacher. On the first day, Harry’s nemesis Draco annoys Moody, who turns him into a ferret and flings him around, impressing Harry even more (but disturbing his friends) Harry hesitantly tries to talk to Moody again…This time Moody is much friendlier and says that Harry is the only student he can trust, which Harry loves.
  4. After the competition is announced, Moody takes Harry aside: he has secret information that the competition is an attempt to assassinate the best young wizards. He makes Harry a deputy auror and orders him to secretly enter his name into the tournament to protect the other contestants. But he can’t tell anyone, not his friends and not even Dumbledore. He has to claim he doesn’t know how his name got entered.
  5. Meanwhile, Hermione’s “pet cause” is a pardon for Sirius Black. She wants to come forward with their new evidence, but her friends and even Dumbledore think the time is not right. Her genuinely heroic urge to speak truth to power contrasts with Harry’s false heroism.
  6. After Harry secretly enters his name, the school turns against him as a gloryhound, but his friends believe him when he says he didn’t do it. But then Ron catches him in a lie and figures out that Harry did it after all. He turns against Harry more than anyone, allowing all of his festering jealousies to come out.
  7. With a clear motivation, Harry tries his hardest to figure out each game. Sure enough, during each game, there is a hidden trap to kill one of the contestants (secretly set by Moody of course). Each time, Harry can only save them in a way that causes him to win the round. It looks more and more like he’s a glory hound, but he can’t tell anybody what he’s really up to.
  8. Even Dumbledore, who knows that Harry is lying but doesn’t know why, turns on Harry, which makes Harry feel awful, but he feels that he must keep his promise to Moody.
  9. In the final round, Moody’s trap is sprung, and the scene in the graveyard plays out the same, except the fake Moody is there to gloat in person, keeping the whole climax more contained.
  10. When Harry returns, all that’s left to do is to figure out how to rescue the real Moody, locked up in that trunk. Moody genuinely thanks Harry.
  11. In addition to the fact he now knows that he didn’t really kill Voldemort after all when he was a baby, Harry feels awful for going for glory, getting a classmate killed, and helping resurrect Voldemort. He has learned a grave lesson in humility. Of course, in the next book, he’ll have to learn when it is actually is time to stand up…


James Kennedy said...

Great as usual, but please tell me you had these loaded up and ready to go before the baby came! I'm usually in awe of how prolific your output is but this would verge on the unnatural.

Lisa Jenn Bigelow said...

Came here via Fuse #8... congrats on the baby!

I'm seriously impressed with your version of how GOF could/should have gone! Huzzah for the plasticity of storytelling.

Laura S. said...

I like the Pensieve. It's most fascinating in book 6 because it allows us to catch a glimpse of the boy who became Voldemort. Chilling!

Ellen Booraem said...

I love these books, but my theory has always been that the first three were the only ones that got edited, either by an editor or the author. Rowling was under such massive pressure after Book Three--the last four books were produced in a huge rush, with about a minute and a half of editing time per page. They should have been shorter by at least a third, for starters.

Love your GOF plot, although I disagree about Moody being there for Voldy's big moment. In the last scene between Moody and Harry, I wouldn't want to sacrifice the reader's slow realization that something's badly wrong.

Unknown said...

I love your interpretation of all four books so far. I completely agree that Sirius's name should have been cleared instead of the house elf "pet project".

Do you think that after the first 3 books the series was no longer children's, it became a young adult series? And it's not just because of the ages of the characters...

tanita✿davis said...

Yeah, as much as I loved the ... idea of elf rights sort of correlating with human rights (I mean, that IS what she was trying to do, right? Put in a painless "lesson?"), it was a weirdly divergent storyline that came out of nowhere for me.

Matt Bird said...

Laura-- if you stick around, you'll see that I magnanimously deign to allow the pensieve in the sixth book, albeit in a more active fashion.

Ellen-- I think you nailed the problem. It could well be that the first three books were also a thousand pages before they were edited.

Hypermak-- Sure, they "aged" into YA, but that's no reason to abandon tight storytelling.

Ellen Booraem said...

I agree, Tanita...the elf rights thing never went anywhere, really, and the few plot points related to it later could have done without it. Ditto Hagrid's gigantic younger brother, whose name escapes me--I kept telling myself he'd have a big role in the last book to justify all the ink when he was introduced, and then he barely appeared at all.

Sondy said...

I love your analysis. It covers so many things I thought about The Goblet of Fire. Though you didn't mention how completely artificial it was for the competition to last a whole year -- because that was the format of the books. Of course, with your modifications, that would have worked much better.

And you made me wish you were the editor! I love your suggestions! I saw the weaknesses, but never did figure out how they might have been corrected.

Matt Bird said...

Sondy- Yes! In the shower this morning I thought, "I forgot to complain about the fact that the tournament had a to last a whole school year to match the other books!"

Yat-Yee said...

Spot on! I especially like the idea of Harry needing to win in order tosave someone's life and yet having to hide it from others. And, yes, Mad Eye being a fake May Eye felt very much like a cheat.

As for Dobby/freedom etc isn't it a set up for what happens in Deathly Hallows? Rather awkward, I agree, and doesn't really have much connection to the other parts of the overall story.

Dick Holmes said...

Thank you. This is a gift to writers and devotees of Potter and JK Rowling and C.S. Lewis and . . .

But I love the old theater painting; never knew about your site. Who is the artist and time?

Matt Bird said...

Glad you like the site, Dick. The painting is "New York Movie" by Edward Hopper.

Vree said...

5. Harry would never oppose an attempt to have Sirius pardoned, in fact he should be the primary mover if such a chance existed.
6. It kills the subplot of Ron's jealousy (over something that Harry did not actually want and which puts him in mortal danger) if Harry IS actually the one at fault. Suddenly Ron is right (Harry DID enter his name) and none of those character beats can happen.
9. This one seems to want to add a "fix" & make the graveyard scene the climax, instead of the unmasking of this book's mystery villain. The HP books work like detective novels, so the reveal comes last - I feel like you missed that.
1-2. I feel like there is another fundamental misunderstanding here, of Harry as the audience surrogate character. If new elements that are unknown to the AUDIENCE are not new to Harry, then the POV connection breaks. This is also the answer to the "passiveness" of Harry - apart from when his revenge vendetta against Voldemort kicks him into gear, Harry is a pretty normal schoolboy and should stay as such for audience immersion (who also mostly just obeyed teachers&guardians at his age).
3. This one's the only OK suggestion - I think we all agree that spending a brief time with the "real" Moody would make us more invested in him and not leave us feeling cheated that we empathized only with a fake.

To me, the big weakness of this book is that the villain's plan is needlessly and ridiculously convoluted. Turn the cup into a portkey, force Harry into the tournament, then sabotage everybody so that he wins all so that he'd grabs the cup - as someone on Twitter asked, "why not just turn Harry's toothbrush into a portkey?"