Thursday, June 16, 2011

Meddling With Harry Potter Book 7

In “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows,” Harry and friends blow off their senior year (didn’t we all?) to hunt horcruxes. The death eaters take over the ministry and Hogwarts, making the fugitives increasingly desperate. Eventually, they realize that Voldemort is on a quest of his own, to get three magical items called the Deathly Hallows. Finally, the two quests converge in a big fight at Hogwarts. Voldemort seemingly kills Harry, who has a ghostly talk with Dumbledore, then resurrects and kills Voldemort. Years later, we see him as an auror married to Ginny.

Some Strengths of the 7th book:

  1. The posthumous revelation of Dumbledore’s many flaws is a masterful touch. A beloved but idealized character is belated granted all of the complexity he deserves.
  2. Rowling suddenly remembered that the villain shouldn’t just be trying to stop the hero’s plan, he must have a desire of his own, so she whipped up a delightful new mythology around the Deathly Hallows. It made the plot of the book dizzyingly complex, but she somehow pulled it all off.
  3. Rowling also pulls off one of her classic “plot meets theme” reversals: One of her major themes for the series is the power of naming and/or refusing to name. Until now, Voldemort’s opponents have drawn moral strength from their unique willingness to say his name, but now that he is in charge, their great strength ironically becomes their great weakness as he curses the word that only they will say.
  4. For the most part, Rowling does a great job rounding up dozens of old characters and locations and giving almost all of them a fitting emotional send-off. The scope is epic and the emotions are intense.
  5. The action scenes are absolutely breathless, which explains why most of the book-reading world was able to devour this brick-sized tome in a day.

Some Weaknesses of the 7th book:

  1. All that endless waiting! Why do they wait all summer to begin? Why do they procrastinate so much like Achilles in their tent? We get multiple passages that say “they spend the next month reading that book for clues,” or “they spent weeks going over their plan…” Why should this process take so long? It’s presumably because Rowling felt that she was tied down to the structure of the previous books, but here it makes no sense and it creates massive character inconsistencies: Hermione never even seems to care that she’s missing school!
  2. They blew off their seventh year—so why are they done with school at the end? No matter how grateful the teachers are, they can’t really give them anything but honorary degrees if they don’t come back and actually do the classwork, right?
  3. There is a massive overreliance on the same few magic tricks, all of which had already been exhausted in previous books. Rowling has gotten too logical in her plotting when she should be inventive. This is fan-like thinking: “Gee, if I were in that world I would use polyjuice potion all the time so that nobody would ever know who I was, and I’d never take my invisibility cloak off, and…” Sure, that makes sense, technically, but it’s Rowling’s job as storyteller to take those tools out of their hands when they’ve lost their novelty for the reader. How hard is it to write “Oh no! Voldemort has now got polyjuice and invisibility cloak sniffing dogs!” After six books of constant invention, she spends too much of this last one coasting on old ideas.
  4. I’m all for keeping kids’ books relatively sexless, as long as you don’t flaunt the sexlessness in our faces. This book has coed pairings of seventeen year old high school drop-outs spending month after month camping in a tent with nothing to do, fearing for their lives. And they never have sex? Nope, that’s not the way the world works. She should have avoided this awkward situation.
  5. I understand that she was going for a “war is hell” vibe and she wanted to get pitch black before the dawn, but the grimness at times becomes ludicrously exaggerated. In addition to all the death, Lupin turns into a crappy husband and father, then he and Tonks both die offstage, orphaning their baby?? That’s just an undignified end for two beloved characters. What a relentless bummer!
  6. But the biggest problem was that, in the end, it really was just all about killing Voldemort. Maybe I was spoiled by the Star Wars trilogy, but I’ve always had a marked preference for stories about heroes who find a more spiritually redeeming goal than revenge. Harry doesn’t even feel bad that it had to end this way!
  7. Even worse, Harry is merely fulfilling the prophecy, which cheapens his achievement. Is that really a fitting reward for Harry? Doesn’t he want something different than to simply become what everybody expected him to become?
  8. In the epilogue, I was also disappointed that Rowling fell for the classic flaw of so much children’s literature: implying that getting the job you wanted as a child and marrying your childhood sweetheart is a good thing. It usually isn’t a good idea to get shackled for life by the limited perspective you had as a teen. I would hope that Harry would learn and grow as a result of his quest, or as a result of his subsequent freedom from responsibility, and form new goals.

My fixes for the 7th book:

  1. Harry and friends reconvene two weeks later (Let’s include the wonderfully sad scene that the movie added of Hermione’s parents forgetting about her.)
  2. They reconvene for the wedding (which happens earlier in the summer) and the plot goes pretty much as it did in the book, just much faster. They try to finish their quest in time to be back by senior year, but they realize that they’re making slow progress…
  3. …When the time comes, Harry and Ron both expect Hermione to go back for school, but she won’t leave them, which gives her a little “how much I’ve changed” moment (though her constant grief at playing playing hooky should provide running comic relief)
  4. Continuing through the events of the book at a doubletime pace, we get to the climax before Christmastime.
  5. Let Harry actually speak to the dying Snape, rather than have Snape clear his name posthumously, as he did in the book (As I’m sure you guessed, in my version of book 6 from yesterday, Snape had already whispered to Sirius that he couldn’t save him, only ease his pain, so when the death eaters arrived Sirius surreptitiously grabbed and drank another poison to save Snape’s cover, which earned Snape’s appreciation, which is why he smiled…)
  6. Harry does not get everything explained to him again by Dumbeldore at the end (death should have consequences!) but that’s okay because he knows what Dumbledore would have said to him anyway.
  7. In the finale, Harry comes to a dawning realization…. He begins to suspect that there are actually eight horcruxes, the last one is one of the objects from Voldemort’s miserable youth at the cabin, which he has around his neck.…
  8. Sure enough, they destroy the seven horcruxes but Voldemort doesn’t die. Harry is about to destroy the last one he’s discovered, when he realizes something pitiful: the last Horcrux was the first part that Voldemort split off from himself, because it was the small part of him that was good. It’s the only part of him that’s left now, so he is left small, wretched and wracked with guilt at what he’s done.
  9. Harry suddenly loses his bloodlust. He tells the small circle of friends within earshot that they should let him live out his days, coping with the guilt of his crimes in Azkaban. Most agree, but Neville (who was always shown to be more traumatized by his own parents’ deaths than Harry was) is horrified by the thought, so he impetuously picks up Gryffindor’s sword and shoves it through the horcrux and Voldemort, killing him permanently. The gathered forces of good, unaware of what was said at the end, see this deed and suddenly remember that the prophecy could have applied to either Harry or Neville. They instantly switch their idolatry and begin a massive celebration of the true chosen one, Neville.
  10. At first Harry is incensed, but then he realizes that this is the greatest reward he could have won: the chance to be a normal wizard for the first time, freed from the burden of history and expectation. He is disappointed in Neville’s act of vengeance, but happily lets him take the credit.
  11. The teachers invalidate the death eater-run semester and agree to give everybody credit for a foreshortened school year crammed into the second semester. One chapter breezily sums up this happy, uneventful semester.
  12. They graduate, Hermione gives the valedictory (taking the place of Dumbledore’s words of wisdom at the end of the other books) and they all go their own ways. Harry tells Ginny that he’s sick of violence and no longer wants to be an auror, so he’s got to go out in the world and decide what he wants to be. She says that he should make sure he really wants to come back to her too, and they agree to re-evaluate their relationship when or if he comes back. They sadly part…
  13. But, in the final chapter, twenty years later, Harry is revealed, after much suspense, to be married to Ginny after all (after years apart) and acceding, after fifteen years as Defense Against the Dark Arts professor, to be the new Headmaster of Hogwarts. Ron and Hermione, who work for the now insufferable Neville at the ministry, attend the ceremony.

(Okay, okay, I couldn’t let the ‘shippers down, but at least let them make the final decision as adults, not kids! Those who get married at eighteen regret it!)

So thats it! This was supposed to be a quick storytelling exercise, but it quickly descended into epic vainglorious fan fiction. Its a testament to how real and wonderful these stories are to me that I’m still running them over in my head all these years later, greedily trying to take this wonderful story away from Rowling so that I can make it my own.


James Kennedy said...

Masterful as usual, Matt.

Here's my meddle to Rowling -- and apologies if this clashes too much logistically with what she had set up, since I haven't re-read the books since the series wrapped up. But I need to get this out.

The 7th horcrux should have been Harry's scar. What's more, it turns out that it's from the peculiarities of Harry's scar-horcrux that he derives his superior magical abilities. And so when the horcrux is destroyed (in some act of epic self-sacrifice?) Harry destroys Voldemort -- but ends up also destroying his own magical power.

Harry and the wizarding world become estranged. In the end, Harry must say goodbye to this entire magical world that he had been initiated into, and become a central part of, and is now alienated from. A real "putting childish things away" moment, a bittersweet ending like how Will and Lyra must be forever sundered at the end of the "His Dark Materials" trilogy. Or how Frodo can't bear to stay in Middle-Earth anymore, but most sail away to the Gray Havens.

On one level, I understand how infuriating and unsatisfying an ending this would be. And yet every time I think of it, it gives me a real tug of emotion that Rowling's ending does not -- that is, in her ending, Harry simply becomes some mildly satisfied bureaucrat-warrior at the Ministry. How much more wrenching would it be if a permanent barrier would come between him and Ron and Hermione and all his old friends, and he slowly drifts away from them.

Because *that's* the horror of growing up! And yet mercilessly accurate. For how many of our friends from junior high school do most of us still talk to?

Also, Hagrid should have died. There, now my heartless credentials are impeccable.
For Harry to be forced to walk away from the magic world at the end -- with no "20 years later" epilogue, just Harry facing a new world, kind of like Bod at the end of "The Graveyard Book" -- would have been cold water for some sensibilities, but it would be appropriately epic, salutary, and easier to respect.

Matt Bird said...

Oooh, I like yours too, James!

Laura S. said...

Guess what: I married my childhood sweetheart and got the job I wanted since I was young. And it's been a wonderful thing!

I laughed out loud at your whole take on sex because that never once crossed my mind! I never even once thought about teens in a tent together and the possibility of sex. I was too concerned and anxious about whether or not they'd find all the horcruxes and who was going to live or die!

I agree with you about Lupin and Tonk's baby (a boy, named Teddy! not a girl). It was so stupid that their son suffered a similar parentless fate as Harry. I also hate hate hate that Fred dies. HAte it!!!

Love the prologue though. Draco's little Scorpius! Hahaha, what a name.

Ellen Booraem said...

James' take is extremely interesting, but I don't think I could have stood it. After putting him through seven books' worth of hell, sending Harry into exile would be too much for me.

I'd go for the scar being the horcrux, though, and lessened magical powers after it's gone. Combined with Matt's excellent Neville-the-Chosen-One conclusion, this would have been satisfying--Harry staying in the magical world but having to find his way without his heroic legend and with only mediocre powers. (Probably would do in Matt's idea of making him DADA teacher, which also would have been entertaining.) Ginny also would have to decide whether she's in love with Harry or simply dazzled by The Chosen One.

Matt Bird said...

Whoops, thanks Laura, I'll fix that.

T said...

NEVILLE IS THE CHOSEN ONE! Huzzah! thank you for meddling with HP. i've thoroughly enjoyed your analysis.

tanita✿davis said...

"epic vainglorious fan fiction?" Not entirely -- I think you at least identified all of the flaws and articulated them in a way I, in my wordless frustration, sometimes could not (especially those bits about a.) does one really change/grow when all you ever end up being is what everyone expects of you? and b.) HELLO? Childhood sweethearts and The Perfect Job?? Really???). I think Neville as The Chosen One would have been QUITE ironic.

Anonymous said...

"I think you at least identified all of the flaws and articulated them in a way I, in my wordless frustration, sometimes could not" That is exactly how I felt - especially in book 7. Thanks for the great read.

How is the baby?

Matt Bird said...

Crap! The baby! Mustn't panic... She can't have gone far...

Spring Souffle said...

I've been lurking on this blog for about half a year now, and it's been really interesting, as a non-writer, to see how many posts have explanations that really resonate with me, and make sense of what's worked and not worked for me in various stories.

This time, what's interesting is that virtually everything you say makes sense, and very little of it resonates with me. I found the fourth book much stronger than the first three, and when you point out that Harry is too passive, or that the stakes are too low, these criticisms make sense to me intellectually, but myreaction is "Huh, that makes sense, but that didn't bother me when I read the book, and for some reason it still doesn't bother me on a gut level when I go back and think about the book now." The rules that you're using make sense, and your application of those rules to these books seems logical, but somehow the books still work really well for me (although I thought they had some other pretty serious flaws). I feel like there's comment here about when it's appropriate to break the rules would make sense, but I don't know enough about writing to make it. . .

Kate Coombs said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kate Coombs said...

I have really enjoyed reading your analysis of the Harry Potter books, but I'm a little ambivalent about this last one--at least in terms of your rewrite. For one thing, another semester of school after the final battle feels anticlimactic to me. I think Rowling is saying, to Hermione and everyone else, that some things are more important than homework. Also, the credits-and-graduation situation is a bureaucratic issue easily addressed off page.

A lot of people (yes, "they") have said that the series starts off MG and ends up YA. I would argue that Rowling's more traditional, happily-ever-after ending, little Scorpius aside, is thoroughly middle grade, while your suggestions resonate strongly of YA.

Actually, it's most often adult fiction that insists on heroes who walk off into the sunset all by themselves, sadder but wiser. Scarred, in fact. (I have a friend who said of 2010, "It was a scarring kind of year.")

Then again, I love James's idea about the 7th horcrux. And I do remember wondering as I read the last few volumes whether Rowling would go for that Neville twist!

Beth said...

I really enjoyed reading your meddling, and thank you for praising the strenghts of Book 5, which always seems to get a bad rap. But I have to agree with Spring Souffle who said that not all of the changes resonated with her.

As for the house elves, I liked Hermoine's attempt to help them and I like how it shed light on an amibigious aspect of their magical world. But ultimately, Rowling didn't know where to take it, and *sigh* you are right, Hermoine should have been advocating for Sirius Black in Book 4. Maybe the house elves-quasi-slave issue could have been explored more deeply in book 6 or book 7...but who knows.

Thank you for showing us that these great books are not perfect. So now when JKR comes out with something new, and the extreme fans compare it to Harry Potter, we will have something to show them!

Libby said...

Really enjoyed this one, too...

-COMPLETELY agree about Lupin and Tonks.

-I also think it would have been nice for Harry to become the DADA professor--my mom (elementary school librarian) was hoping for that outcome from about book 3!

-I like the twist with Neville except for him becoming insufferable or pompous--but I guess if the books are about Harry, Neville doesn't get much chance to have character growth.

-I'm another happily-married-to-my-childhood-sweetheart gal (and a hopeless romantic when it comes to my favorite books), so I didn't go for the romance changes so much (although I'm NOT in the job I thought I'd have...).

-Finally, re: James' comment, I always thought the last Horcrux WAS Harry's scar, which is why the almost death/resurrection is necessary (Voldemort blasted out that part of him from Harry)...but it's been awhile since my last reread.

-Overall, REALLY enjoyed your meddling, and have since been discovering your other posts. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Love this series and am just revisiting it...

Wanted to respond to something James Kennedy said further up. It may seem fitting to put away the magical world at the end of Deathly Hallows, but that would undo one of the things that makes the series novel, for me. See, I really enjoy that the Potter books *don't* submit to that trope in which the magic is lost at the end. Narnia, LoTR, Peter Pan, even His Dark Materials, as you point out... they have made this an expected trope, one JK Rowling does well to resist.

And I think she gets away with resisting it because by book 7, the magical world has long ceased to represent "childish things." It may seem to represent a child's fantasy world in the beginning of the series, at which point Hogwarts seems utterly wonderful and perfect, but our understanding of the magical world soon changes. JK Rowling draws back the curtain and shows us that the magical world contains imperfection after imperfection. So instead of allowing that world to remain fantasy (something that would make it necessary to withdraw from it back into reality in the end), JK Rowling shows us that the magical world contains many things that are distinctly "unfantastical": institutionalized racism, prejudice, people and institutions that are fatally flawed... in short, an imperfect and mundane reality. And the mundane nature of much of the magic underscores this.

This is what I love about Harry Potter. It's set in a reality, not a fantasy --even if that reality includes spells. Most of the spells help you do things we do in this world, anyway, such as wash the dishes and confront fears and travel to school.

Daniel Smith said...

I have to comment. As a Harry Potter fan (book 5 got me back into reading) I have to say I love some of your fixes. However, I don't like the idea of a sad ending. JKR wrote the entire series as MG and some of your fixes push it into YA. Maybe I just like happy endings better, but so do most movie-goers.

I would also like to clarify something for the commenters: Harry *IS* the final horcrux. JKR planned it that way from the beginning. Harry's mother sacrificed her life to protect her son. This ancient "magic" protected baby Harry and Voldemort's Avada Kedavra spell backfired destroying his body.

Fastforward to the ending to book 4 when Dumbledore *smiles* after learning that Voldemort has returned using Harry's blood to restore his body. Why? Because it was a mistake! Yes, Voldemort could now touch Harry - his mother's spell no longer searing his flesh as in the finale of book 1 - but Voldemort created an entirely new problem: he made it impossible for Harry to die from his own hand since using Harry's blood to create his body meant he inadvertently incorporated some of Harry's mother's protective magic inside too.

So in book 7, Harry is revealed to be the final horcrux. This Harry chooses to face Voldemort alone and willing die to protect his friends. This is the exact same sacrifice the Harry's mother made which had the exact same result: Harry protected everyone he loved from Voldemort thus Voldemort's spells could not control them. This is why Neville was able to break free and kill the snake. It also explains why Harry didn't stay dead. He did die, which killed Voldemort's horcrux inside of himself and was the intended consequence, but he didn't stay dead which was a surprise.

Anyway, Rowling set it up so that whoever among Voldemort and Harry died first could come back. Whoever died the second death could not. Dumbledore's bet was that Harry would grow to be strong enough to do this and he did.

Matt, I just found your blog through the recent podcast exposure and I'm now working through your old posts. They are absolute GOLD! Thanks so much.

Aissa said...

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Sean said...

I've just finished reading all your conceptual re-writes for the HPs and must say I was really impressed. I'd love to know if JK had seen them before publishing, if she would have taken on any of your changes.

I've listened to Secrets of the Story a million times and one thing I thought worth mentioning, because you mentioned it again here, is that the original Star Wars trilogy never gave the Emperor a moment of redemption, nor was it ever suggested that he was anything but evil.

When I try to imagine the Emperor as anything but pure evil, it's dissatisfying and I endure the same taste of dissatisfaction when I to do the same with Voldermort. This is pure instinct, I'm not an advanced enough writer to know why, but it doesn't make it any less true! Redemption for those he commands would work for me and be very satisfying, Dracos and Darth Vaders of the world etc, but not for Voldermort or the Emperor.