Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Harry Potter and Neo Skywalker

Once upon a time, on a planet pretty much here..

There lives a gentleman called George Lucas. He wrote a very good story (on paper in long-hand), could not direct them very well, sort of invented CGI, and along with good friend Steven Spielberg (a more accomplished movie-maker), changed the face of Hollywood and global cinema as we know it.

For me (and maybe more of my ilk), used to the kind of cinema which the critics call kiddie stuff for grown-ups , studios call blockbusters, and we call thrilling fantasies, Star Wars is an engima. All the movies I have enjoyed since, ET, Superman, Spider Man, X-Men, definitely Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight, can potentially be attributed to Lucas Inc. He is supposed to have sounded the death knell for Martin Scorsese and his Raging Bulls. At a time when in India, Amol Palekar and Nasseruddin Shah were winning Filmfare awards at the expense of ruling deity Amitabh Bachchan, Rocky trumped Taxi Driver for the Oscars.

From the movie and the path-breaking technology point of view, the closest cinematic phenomenon I have seen to Star Wars in our times is possibly Matrix, more of Gita (the self-discovery of Neo) to Lucas' Mahabharata (the space fights and the clan feuds were supposedly borrowed from oriental mythology). However, the merit of Lucas' story is proven by how badly the Wachowski brothers tripped with their sequels. Lucas himself was then making relatively ordinary prequels, but the way he had twisted his original stories to marry the good against the Dark side with father versus son, also kept pace with the box-office acceptance of the characters (the sibling relationship of Luke & Leia makes their kiss in Empire Strikes Back so incestuous).

For my generation, against the power of the force of the 70s, we had the Pottermania, a combination of the Chosen One in a fight against the Dark Lord and his Death Eaters. Books are a far more evolved, and demanding form of popular art. I have hardly been a consistent reader, and my jobs have further eroded the little habits I had.

Harry Potter as a phenomena took off when I was still studying. I first noticed when a faculty member I held in some esteem mentioned that Rowling writes quite enchantingly (how apt). My initiation happened only through the movie, directed by Chris Columbus (his Home Alone with Macaulay Culkin was a huge childhood favourite), by when the best book of the series Prisoner of Azkaban had been released (ensuring Goblet of Fire was a pre-sellout), Pottermania had taken full effect, and JK Rowling possibly had the lucrative deal with Warner Bros in mind when finishing the remaining three books. With the successful release of the film, and to cater to the wider grown-up audience, the books kept getting darker. While in Chambers.. conveniently no one dies, Harry progressively starts losing one major character in increasing importance in every book since Goblet... (before the body-bags pile up in Deathly Hallows).

The Potter world, with its quidditch, transfiguration and magic, is made for the cinemas. The film series also takes a turn towards the eventual darker tone when the superb Azakaban was filmed as competently by Alfonso Cuaron (the child Emma Watson also turned in to a teenager and caught my imagination the first time). However, I was totally hooked only when David Yates' filmed the most voluminous Order of Phoenix so well. It introduced the 'prophecy' which fascinates me, of mutually assured destruction, of there being no winners in the battle between good and evil (dare say, the prophecy gets undue importance).

The release of the Order of Phoenix film coincided with the release of the final volume by Rowling, Deathly Hallows. And just like three decades ago, all rumours like Luke Skywalker betraying the Jedi cause and joining Darth Warder were laid to rest when Potter did not meet his end at the hands of the Dark Lord.

Though we had an early bird copy of the Deathly Hallows, I was strictly advised by competent authorities to read all the novels in sequential order. To be fair to Rowling, one could have picked up any novel from the middle and sort of followed the story. However, the excitement of figuring out a minor detail in the larger context (and admiring her imagination) would have been missing. Again to prove a point for books, one cannot say the same about the films. The film Half-Blood Prince will be impossible to follow to the rare uninitiated.

For me personally, Harry Potter is the latest addition to my quirky list of fascinating heroes: Arjun, Sherlock Holmes, Tintin, and James Bond. Rowling did not create high literature (thankfully, it was not Da Vinci Code either). What she did do was create a fascinating world, a world possibly not dissimilar to Frank Baum's in Wizard of Oz (another childhood favourite). To give it a dose of realism, the canvas she paints has an uncanny resemblance to our part of the world. Order.., with the lurking menace of Voldemort and the denial by the Minsitry, resembles India. Half-Blood Prince, with the Ministry out of control, is like Pakistan. And by the final ..Hallows,where the Ministry has fallen, the scenario is like Afghanistan.

Left to myself, the first Potter, or even the second one, was so usual that I would have never followed it up had I just read the books. However, Prisoner.. had me hooked. What sets Rowling's apart are the emotional high-points of her story. The basic theme is simple, 'to choose between what is easy, and what is right' (Dumbledore tells the students after Cedric's death; SRK used the same lines to his mother-in-law in DDLJ). While Potter's initial misfortunes sound like a Cinderella, when he finally visits his parents grave and the plaque at his cottage, you feel the pain of his uncontrolled tears. The stories rarely drag (except for some portions of the Quidditch World Cup, or the futile on-the-run camping in Deathly..). The saga does culminate in Harry's improbable triumph, with as much simplicity as Luke felt the Jedi force. But the real message is in the other famous line from the books, 'it is our choices that define us, not our abilities' (again Dumbledore in Chamber..).

The films have sort of measured up to the book, especially those directed by Cuaron and Yates. The later volumes meant lots of details needed to be skipped, or tinkered with, but overall added to the story. The romantic sagas were deftly handled (though must admit, in the latest ..Prince, Hermione's love comes across as a lot more one-sided, and Ginny's kiss a lot less spontaneous than in the books). If anything, the deaths of Black and Dumbledore do not really capture the loss for Harry as well. The book ..Prince ends on a despondent and hopeless note (as Baradwaj put it, how will Harry take on the real world experience of Voldemort). In the film, by doing away with the climatic duel, the futility and Harry's helplessness at Dumbledore's death is absent. I am sure in the final movie, some of the deaths (like Dolby's sacrifice which showcased Harry's unusual-ness as a wizard) would not even make it to the big screen.

The single biggest difference between Star Wars & Harry Potter films are the acting. In the former, apart from the then new Harrison Ford & well-established Alec Guniess, no actor managed to make his mark (Mark Hamill was particularly bad as Luke). However, Harry Potters have managed to get together an ensemble of fine British actors. Established names like Gary Oldman, Ralph Fiennes and Helena Bonham Carter have taken on crucial though low screen-time roles. Alan Rickman as Snape has been the stand-out performer. In the latest, Oscar winner Jim Broadbent is superb as Slughorn.

What has been fascinating to watch is the child actors grow, all of them including Draco & Neville. The leads were initially recruited only for the first three films, as they would supposedly have grown too big for their respective parts. However, thankfully, the filming over a decade has allowed the child actors to grow in the role suitably.

For me personally, a huge flaw in Rowling's romantic pairing was Ron & Hermione. They just seem too unlikely. In the latest film, the suspicions on Harry & Hermione' are cast again, only because they seem more obvious. The brilliant acting of Emma's Hermione and Rupert's bumbling Ron further adds to the disbelief in their long-term chemistry.

The problem with starting off as child actors is that one is not sure what would one grow up in to (the cute Kevin Arnold or Winnie Cooper from Wonder Years never really made it). As Burberry proves, it is difficult to believe Emma Watson (the best actor and the most reluctant star of the three) as the careless Hermione of the books. Rupert Grint, with his comic timing, is perfect as the reluctant Ron. If nothing else, while Daniel Radcliffe is the right Harry Potter, his weeping appears too wooden.

Rowling created a fantastic world, better than Lucas. In a couple of years, Yates will end it again. However, just to give me another memories of a Doordarshan era gone by, JJ Abrams came up with his Star Trek, taking me back on an enterprise to 'where no man has gone before'. Sigh, for childhood nostalgia!

P.S. For better reviews of Star Wars & Harry Potter, please read http://www.desipundit.com/baradwajrangan/.

P.P.S. Even by my standards, this post has been unusually long. Because of a mix of personal and professional reasons, I do not think I will manage to cope up with this blog too long. I will like to thank all readers for their patience. I hope to re-surface, sometime, in some form or the other.


Shuchi said...

Good to see you back to writing! As always very well-written piece. I haven't yet watched the latest movie, maybe this weekend.

Dumbledore tells the students after Cedric's death; SRK used the same lines to his mother-in-law in DDLJ - What an interesting parallel, nobody else could've thought of it :)

a huge flaw in Rowling's romantic pairing was Ron & Hermione - For me that is one of the strengths of the story. It would have been all too easy to pair Harry and Hermione; Rowling took a daring decision by not doing that. It was convincing to me, I think she pulls it off.

Citizen Shaker said...

That was prompt for my first post in half a year. And I agree it would have been easy to pair Harry & Hermione. Maybe it was influenced by the movies, but for me, Ron & Hermione do not seem to have enough common to make it last!

If possible, mail across your blog details to me. I will put up a link at least.

Abhilasha said...

Why have you signed off on an rather obituarish note. Very well written, though I do not understand why the date of posting says June 16, 2009. Did you post this before HBP's release?