Rowling proves that magic doesn’t happen just on the big screen

By JAYSON JACOBY Baker City Herald July 24, 2009 03:36 pm

Watched the latest episode of the Harry Potter series Sunday at the Eltrym, and the film erased two and a half hours as effortlessly as did the five movies that came before it.

Even without malted milk balls or red vines to sweeten the experience.

I expected as much.

The filmmakers entrusted with the intimidating task of translating J.K. Rowling’s books know their business, obviously.

Transforming hugely popular novels into motion pictures is a job fraught with peril, mainly, of course, because readers are intensely protective of the world that exists only in their mind. They tend to get sort of grouchy when some director barges in with clever camera angles and fancy computer-generated techniques and fouls up the scene.

But moviemakers also are at a disadvantage, it seems to me, because movies retain the reputation, despite their immense popularity, of being a comparatively crude art form.

This is a fair criticism although hardly an unqualified one; a deft director working with skilled actors can wrest the same powerful emotions from his audience as a writer can from hers.

In any case, I always feel a special little thrill when I settle into my seat to see the film version of a favorite book.

I suspect all readers are similarly fascinated when the pictures which had previously existed only in their mind’s eye — which can after all come out sort of grainy — suddenly appear on a screen as wide as a house, and punctuated by Dolby surround sound that produces sufficient decibels to force the grease in your popcorn to ooze through the kernels and puddle at the bottom of the bag.

The Harry Potter film crews cleared the tallest obstacles years ago, of course.

They cast the right actors, whose faces are so familiar after six films that fans can simply revel in the story and not be troubled by the nagging notion that, say, Hermione doesn’t look quite like they had imagined she should.

In fact I’ll bet many readers — me, for instance — can never again re-read Rowling’s novels (and who among us is satisfied with a single run through?) without mentally seeing Daniel Radcliffe as Harry, Rupert Grint as Ron, and so on.

Rowling has done something I doubted was possible in the 21st century: She created a cultural phenomenon that captivates kids and adults, in print and on the screen, and with main characters who when the epic begins aren’t yet teenagers.

Her accomplishment seems to me all the more impressive because she lacks the talent of some other writers who created fantasy plots populated with child characters.

E.B. White, for instance, in my estimation wrote the most elegant prose of the 20th century. Yet his “Stuart Little” and “Charlotte’s Web,” though they’re still beloved after more than half a century and have spawned several films, rank as minor blips on the cultural radar compared with the tempest of Harry Potter.

Unlike Rowling’s work, which defies age categories, White’s books are regarded in the main as “children’s novels,” an unfortunate appellation which suggests no one who’s graduated from junior high would get through the first chapter.

White had a lot going for him besides his inimitable skill, too — in particular he didn’t have to compete with anything like the array of enticing alternatives confronting Rowling.

When “Stuart Little” (1945) and “Charlotte’s Web” (1952) were published, radio was still the predominant electronic medium.

Rowling, meanwhile, has had to vanquish such heavyweights as the iPod, the Wii and the text message.

Perhaps White should have written about wizards and witches rather than spiders that speak English and mice which do that and drive cars as well.

Predicting the staying power of any art form is by nature nothing but a gussied-up guess, of course.

But I’ll wager that a century from now the Harry Potter books will still sell in respectable numbers.

Even stripped of its sympathetic characters and frequent humor, Rowling’s series will persist, I think, because at its heart it tells the oldest, simplest and most compelling story of all: the battle between good and evil.

Rowling is hardly unique in basing her work on that struggle. Yet she has managed to infuse her interpretation with qualities that elevate it above other practitioners’.

In one sense, then, I don’t think the Harry Potter movies matter much.

We’ve been accustomed, at least since “Star Wars” in 1977, to seeing people pitch their tents on sidewalks so they can claim tickets for the first showing of a blockbuster movie.

But J.K. Rowling convinced people to go out at midnight, many of them wearing strange costumes, just to buy a book which has no pictures and emits only the negligible whisp of noise when its pages are turned.

Magic, indeed.

Jayson Jacoby is editor of the Baker City Herald.