This depresses me.
There are a great many books and book series which are better written and more enjoyable for both kids and adults (some of which have been reviewed right here! And also here! Wasn’t that thoughtful of us?) that now seem to be shuffled to the side, discounted, and/or otherwise had their significance reduced or ignored due to the sheer amount of press that Harry Potter has received.
Now, I will say upfront that I don’t completely hate the Harry Potter series. The first few books were decent for what they were, and it’s not like I would rather have my armpits infested with the fleas of a thousand camels than even think about reading a Harry Potter book again, but the series overall is so fraught with issues and problems (and I say that not just because it is fun to use the word “fraught”) that I find it quite undeserving of the praise and hype that still gets heaped upon it.
So here, presented to you in some kind of particular order (though what kind of order is up to you to determine), are all the various reasons why I find the Harry Potter book series to be completely overrated and just not very good.
The Main Character
Yes, Harry himself — he who managed to get his name at the beginning of the title of every single adventure (not even Indiana Jones managed that feat!). I don’t think he makes a good main character, for a few different reasons. For one, he’s not really that good at anything. Okay, yes, he is good at flying, I grant you that, and one could claim that he is also good at the Patronus charm, though I could counter that by saying that was just a function of him being taught it earlier than the rest of his class and having the chance to practice. Other than that, what was he good at? Magic? Schoolwork? Mischief? It always seemed that all other characters just assumed that he was good at any/all of the above, so there never was any reason for him to actually be good at any/all of the above. I’m not saying that he necessarily should have been, or that the main character in general needs to be, “The Best” or anything, but throughout the series, Harry is touted by others as being a wonderful and excellent wizard for no discernible reason.
This itself always bugged me, how it seems most everything that occurs for Harry is a directly due to others and not Harry’s inherent skill. Hermione was the power behind most magic and essentially all schoolwork; Harry’s skill at sneaking around was solely due to his invisibility cloak (with help from the Marauder’s Map – now that was a nifty piece of work… why couldn’t Harry and his friends try to do something like that?!); and even his defeats of Voldemort were due to outside circumstances. But all this, annoying as it is, wouldn’t necessarily be a huge problem if it weren’t for Harry’s attitude.
His attitude, particularly in the middle books, removed any sense of connection I felt with the character. For a series to work, one needs to like the protagonist, and starting in the fourth book, there is little to like. I found his apathy in Goblet of Fire to be rather grating — here he is in what is supposed to be this grand spectacle and trial of wizarding (more on that later. Oooh… foreshadowing), and he does… nothing. He has to be hand-held and guided through the entire thing. Granted he was participating in the Tri-Wizard Tournament (Quad-Wizard Tournament?) against his will, but couldn’t he at least try to put in a little more effort himself to be prepared for the various tasks considering how “dangerous” they were?
But apathetic Book 4 Harry doesn’t hold a candle to angry, arrogant, bratty Book 5 Harry. If apathetic Harry made me apathetic toward him, angry Harry made me actively dislike him. After all he had gone through in the previous books to that point, don’t you think that he would take a second to attempt to look at the bigger picture and not be so completely selfish? Perhaps try trusting Dumbledore? Stop lashing out at his friends? “But wait!” you say, “He was just acting out like a normal teenager would!”
Ah, I’m glad that you brought that up, as that brings me to my next problem with the series.
The Transition from Children’s to Young Adult to Adult
Since when is Harry a normal teenager? Considering the circumstances, his sullen, bitter, sulking self just seems out of character. But it’s just a symptom of a bigger issue. As the series progresses, J.K. Rowling tries to transition from a Children’s series to a Young Adult series to a more Adult series, and she isn’t particularly successful at doing so. Children’s literature is full of black and white situations. The good guys are obviously good, the bad guys are evil caricatures, and the situations are regularly completely and unreasonably over-the-top (well, “unreasonable” from the standpoint of more adult fiction – perfectly reasonable for childrens’). Look at the first book in the series: how Harry had been living in a tiny cupboard under the stairs when we first met him, the lengths his uncle went through to keep Harry from receiving his invitation to Hogwarts, or how the best traps that the top professors could come up with to protect the Sorcerer’s (or Philosopher’s, if you prefer, not that I, as an American, have any idea what that is, apparently) Stone were ones that could conveniently be bypassed by 11-year olds. That’s not a slam against the first book by any means – children’s fiction can (and possibly should) be over-the-top. The problem comes in when grey areas are added. If you are not going to be as over-the-top, then you need to be not over-the-top. Mixing some grey areas with the black/white caricatures just results in the mess known as Book 5.
Look at the character of Umbridge, as an example. She is ridiculously exaggerated as a villain, getting away with much more than she should be able to (how does she cancel the entire Quidditch season? As big as Quidditch apparently is, wouldn’t the entirety of the alumni of Hogwarts object?), which — had she been introduced in the first or second books — would have fit. By Book 5, however, when the series has supposedly turned more adult with more grey areas, this caricature of evilness just seems quite out of place. Obviously (and disturbingly) so, in my opinion.
But it is not just the over-the-top-ness portion of this mix that doesn’t quite work. An example of a not-so-good grey area: Harry’s father. As the series progresses, Harry continually learns the ways that his father wasn’t perfect. Okay, fine, learning one’s parents aren’t perfect is part of growing up. The problem is how it was handled. I never felt like there was a good reason for this. Was it just to help Harry grow up? Possibly, but why not then give some good along with the bad – as the series progresses, Harry doesn’t really gain any new insights or stories about good things his Dad did, just how he mistreated Snape in school. So was the reason to give backstory and motivation for Snape? Possibly, but as we learn, his motivation was more about Harry’s mom than his dad. It really just boiled down to “Dude, your Dad was a jerk!” and that was it. An attempt to add some grey that didn’t really have any purpose.
And not having a purpose leads me into my next point:
Plots that Don’t Make Sense
Some of the plot points of the books made so little sense that it took me out of the story — I was too busy saying “Now wait a minute…” One example would be the Tri (Quad) Wizard tournament from Book 4 (you knew I was getting back to this). So students from two other schools are forced to come to take classes (were they even taking classes?) at Hogwarts just so that one student from each school can participate in this grand challenge that only entails three tasks over the course of the entire school year? And all other students aren’t allowed to take part in their normal activities such as Quidditch because of this? Really?
Well, that doesn’t make much sense, but once again, Book 4 fails to hold a candle to Book 5 (I didn’t like Book 5 at all. Could you tell?). In particular, the infamous Prophecy that was at the center of the entire book (and in some ways, the center of the entire series). The problem is that this prophecy doesn’t really mean anything. It essentially says that Voldemort and Harry will fight to the death. Deep, that. So why exactly did Dumbledore and everyone keep that from Harry? Why did it matter so much to make sure Voldemort didn’t hear the end of it? If it was really that big of a deal, why couldn’t the good guys destroy the recording held at the Ministry of Magic? The big fight at the end showed that those globes were easily destroyed, and they already had a copy themselves in the form of Dumbledore’s memory. The entire conflict of the book could easily have been avoided by one 30-second conversation. The phrase “Gah!” was heard loudly and quite possibly repeatedly upon finishing Book 5.
Another question: At the end of Book 5, didn’t Dumbledore promise not to keep things from Harry anymore? So why did he immediately start keeping things from Harry in Book 6 about the Horcruxes? Why drag out that whole plot/discussion throughout the course of the book when he could have sat Harry down and explained things in one go?
There are lots o’ questions that can be asked such as these. What they all have in common is:
I just don’t think J.K. Rowling is a good writer. She has a great imagination and sense of whimsy (usually), but being whimsical can’t make up for weak writing. Besides the aforementioned plot issues, questionable character decisions, and attempts to transition from children to young adult to adult, other examples of her writing style that just don’t work would be the way she handles character deaths. An example: Sirius’ death at the end of Book 5. He is stunned and falls through the curtain between life and death? That’s it? What could/should have been a dramatic and poignant death (ignoring how ludicrous the plot was that lead to it to begin with – see above) was just plain stupid. I honestly expected Sirius to come back in some form or another by the end of the series, which would have somewhat justified how he “died”, but nope, ‘twas not to be, and that “death” really was final.
And the dichotomy in how the various deaths in the final book were handled was rather strange. Some felt they had the proper weight (such as Snape’s), but others were mentioned almost in passing, enough so that whilst reading it, I didn’t even realize the characters were, in fact, killed – Tonks and Lupin, for instance.
One of the overall issues with the writing is Rowling’s penchant for going for convenience rather than consistency. She invents new uses for magic to be used in specific instances seemingly without thinking of how that would affect or change the world she’s created. An example: how wizards travel. In Book 2, the floo network was introduced. Book 3 had the Knight Bus. Book 4 had portkeys. And Book 5 and beyond focused on apparating. Why do these earlier options exist considering these later options (and why, with all these travel possibilities, do students at Hogwarts still travel by train)? I suppose you could try to come up with reasoning behind each, but it just seems like Rowling needed other ideas in later books to fit the plot points she wanted to make — it was purely a matter of convenience.
Another example: the time-travel device that Hermione uses in book 3. That’s some pretty freakin’ powerful magic there, and yet it never shows up again in the series despite many instances where the ability to go back in time even an hour would have helped considerably. Why didn’t it? Because it was needed for the Book 3 plot but would have interfered with the later plots! Same with the truth serum (veritaserum, I believe it was called) introduced in Book 4. It appears in Book 5, true, but the sheer existence of such a potion seems like it would have made a lot of things in the wizarding world much easier (couldn’t it have proven that Sirius was innocent, for instance?) and yet was only used for certain plot points only.
It reminds me of the episode of The Simpsons with Lucy Lawless at a Q&A at the comic book store. She is asked all sorts of nitpicky questions from Xena fans, and her response is along the lines of “whenever you notice an inconsistency – a wizard did it” which lucky for J.K. Rowling is an eminently usable excuse for lazy writing.
But it’s not just the writing, but also:
You may have noticed how many of my issues stem from Books 4 and 5 (and past). This, along with the fact that as of Book 4, all the books were significantly longer than the first three is not coincidental. I first became aware of the Harry Potter books after Book 3 came out, which seems to be about the same time as the massive hype machine started running. As such, it seems as if the editors didn’t want to tempt driving their new star writer away by daring to actually edit her work. Books 4 and 5 are way too bloated, Book 6 is just all setup for Book 7, and as for the final book itself – well, when you have entire sections about characters aimlessly wandering around wondering what is going on and what they should be doing, well, that’s a sign that perhaps the book could use some better/more editing.
Bottom line: the Harry Potter series is not bad (my esteemed colleague makes some excellent points, particularly about Hermione). It’s just not that good, and in no way deserving of the hype and praise it receives. The first three books? Pretty decent. After that? Not so much. But at least the series got kids to read. Yay, reading!
Now they can go and read something worthy.
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