Let's say you haven't seen a movie in a long time. Let's pretend, in fact, that you went into a coma at the age of 10 early in the '60s. You wake up 40 years later, in 2001, and the first thing you want to do is go see a movie. You soon learn that the stuff you watched as a kid at Saturday afternoon matinées in the Academy Theatre are now international hits taken seriously by movie reviewers as both great art and great entertainment.
About two years ago I wrote a letter to Steven Spielberg asking him not to film Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (renamed … Sorcerer's Stone in America). Variety had announced that the non-Disney auteur most associated with the "magic" of childhood was set to direct the first adaptation of Scottish author J. K. Rowling's internationally popular kids' books.
My argument was simple: Don't mess with Rowling. Don't take something delightfully literary and make it literal with computer-generated wizardry and the dominating faces of actors who usurp the clingy visualization that a reader – young or old – brings to the books.
My advice would have been impossible to heed, of course, because once a movie of Harry's proportions gets rolling, it rarely if ever reverses direction.
I'm a little tired of Harry Potter now, but the first two Rowling books struck me as legitimately witty. They also had an agreeably dark view of life, or at least the acknowledgement of a dark view (Lemony Snickert's series about the Baudelaire clan is much darker). The first four Rowling books (of a projected seven) may not yet have the depth of Philip Pullman's truly subversive His Dark Materials series, but the verbal wit has a comforting deftness that in a way harks back to the best of screwball comedy.
To turn these books into movies is to freeze in amber something that needs the freedom of imagination. But I'm making a tired old argument, aren't I? People have been complaining about the imagination-crimping commercialism that kids lit suffers in the movies since the first adaptation of The Wizard of Oz, back in 1910.
Actually, I never wrote that letter to Spielberg. It would have been a beau geste. But I thought about writing it. Then time slips away and more pressing matters dominate the mind. Spielberg soon left the project anyway (he wanted to cast Haley Joel Osment as Harry Potter and Rowling had forbade any non-British thespians). Rowling's book ended up with Chris Columbus (the Home Alone series), who had a rep for working well with kids. Now Columbus is back, with the second adaptation, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, and it has been dominating the screens off and on since November 15th, 2002, only to be matched by the another kids film, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, which made its debut December 18th.
Has anyone else been wondering why the biggest hits of 2001, and now of 2002, were glorified kids movies based on pop genres reconfigured with big budgets and A list British actors? Sorcerer's Stone made $317 million dollars in the U.S. alone and garnered three Oscar nominations. LOTR was nominated for 13 Oscars, won four, and made $313 million in the U.S. We are just now emerging from a second round of Harry and Lord films, each making even more money this time around than they did the first time, with a third round just nine months away when DVD releases and Vanity Fair covers conspire to keep the films in the forefront of our minds.
If as a viewer I am slightly more disposed to the sweeping repetition of LOTR it's not just because it is the better film; it's mostly because the director, Peter Jackson (Heavenly Creatures), has a visual personality (Harry is corporate and personality-free) and really believes in the project and its source material and that enthusiasm is infectious even when you have no idea what the hell is going on.
The Lord of the Rings was first published in America in the mid-'50s. At the time, Edmund Wilson read the books to his seven-year-old daughter. Here's what he later had to say about the trilogy in The Nation: "It is essentially a children's book – a children's book which has somehow got out of hand … There is never much development in the episodes; you simply go on getting more of the same. Dr. Tolkien has little skill at narrative and no instinct for literary form. The characters talk a story-book language that might have come out of Howard Pyle … An impotence of imagination seems to me to sap the whole story. The wars are never dynamic; the ordeals give no sense of strain; the fair ladies would not stir a heartbeat; the horror would not hurt a fly." Wilson was more frank in a letter to James Branch Cabell. "I am enclosing a review of Tolkien. Do you know his work? I think it is awful."
Speculating why the books should prove so popular, Wilson went on to add that, "certain people – especially, perhaps in Britain – have a lifelong appetite for juvenile trash. They would not accept adult trash, but confronted with the pre-teen-age article … they squeal; they coo; they go on about Malory and Spenser."
Hollywood has been flirting with the kid stuff mentality for years, but at no other time has the childhood relationship with movies been the primary target of so many studios. On the one hand, it is probably a coincidence that Harry and LOTR appeared in the same year. On the other hand, it's the culmination of a drift in cinema initiated by George Lucas and Steven Spielberg (whom I both frankly like in many ways). By continuing to make these movies the studios denude the viewers of their adulthood.
Yeah, life is hard but do these childish fantasies make us feel better? Harry Potter is an orphan who goes to a different place where he finds he has special powers. It's Superman all over again, but without the social conscience the super-hero had. What Harry Potter the movies emphasize is the most boring parts of the book: the "wonderment" has Harry seeing such things as messenger owls and floating brooms for the first time, or the intricacies of that godawful game Quidditch. I challenge anyone to explain clearly and simply what Quidditch, as presented in the movie, is all about.
Perhaps the real reason for this sudden and overwhelming surge in barely disguised kid films is that the art form itself is infantilizing. The movies do everything for you. They are loud and big and bright and cater to your fantasies and ask you simply to sit back and dream. High art is distinguished by what it takes away from the cinematic experience. Sound (Bresson). Scenery (Dreyer). Familiar actors and music (Von Trier). Comforting tales (Bergman). The occasional fantasy can be rejuvenating if there is an underlying honesty and link to reality, but very few of us are wizards or swordsmen and to be offered a steady diet of swords and sorcery is to trade the richness of life with all its hardships for a permanent pair of soiled diapers.
This essay originally appeared in the second issue of Black Lamb, October, 2002.