JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

Spring 2003, Amazon.com says, “But hurry for Harry. Order by June 17 to take advantage of this special order.

Game Boy’s Harry Potter. Computerandvideogames.com says of it, “Ooh, if you thought Harry Potter look good on GBC, you'll shoot joyous bolts of lightening from your wand when you see him on Game Boy Advance.”

Game Boy, like the film, limits magic to mechanized special effects. There is no room for fundamentally changing the status quo.

Game Boy works out a theme of Potter lost in the school. It is a potentially good theme for children, being lost in an overwhelming environment, but here getting lost becomes a puzzle that has to be resolved and the narrative does not deepen the experience for kids.

Game Boy reduces magic to its barest minimum, usually spectacular tricks pulling things out of thin air. It remains illusionist and follows the rules of cinematic realism. In fact, both film animation and computer generated imagery have the potential to break those laws of physics and thus imagine other worlds as possible.

How the Muggles stole fantasy

Todd McCarthy’s review in Variety , cited earlier, saw no relation between Harry Potter’s blockbuster character and what he considers a text that “lacks a soul.” This soul-lessness, or homogenization to be more accurate, is grounded in the political economic realities of branding, a further development of the idea of the high concept or event film. As Fredrick Wasser indicates, Barry Diller at ABC thought up the high concept idea. He demanded film projects that could be easily summarized in both an abbreviated 30-second television commercial and in a sentence synopsis for TV Guide.[10] Logically, this commercialized cultural form came out of television, since TV from its inception had to grab viewer attention in brief attention-stealing fragments in order to sell products.

At the core of branding strategy is the need for an easy summary. Any degree of complexity creates confusion and therefore difficulty in sustaining a brand image. As Naomi Klein explains, the success of a branding strategy, driven by synergy, depends upon repetition and visibility.[11] The correct way to imagine a brand, as Janet Wasko, has suggested, is to think of it as the hub of a wheel; it branches out into various products all designed to repeat the brand image. Harry Potter as a gay icon, for example, would be problematic since it would introduce conflicts. But reducing magic to a series of special effects is entirely compatible with today’s marketing strategy, aimed towards reducing any complexity.[12] The whole film built around a branding strategy, therefore, will have the textual complexity of a commercial or a movie trailer.

In fact, as in commercials one, of the most exciting human activities Harry Potter presents is shopping. Aspiring wizards and witches press their noses into a show window, eyeing with longing the latest branded broomstick, Nimbus 2000, on display. Accompanied by a sigh from desiring children, the camera pans in the style of TV commercials to reveal the broomstick’s brand name in the show window, and it does the same kind of pan later when Harry receives the broomstick as a gift for Christmas. Like other children’s candy on store shelves today, Bertie Bott’s Every Flavor Beans comes in a “variety of disgusting flavors” and like the promotional toys that make children eat at McDonalds, chocolate frogs in the wizard world are bought to get the holographic cards they come with.

How the utopian imagination in fantasy gets tamed when it is produced for mass marketing is most obvious in how the book was transformed into a franchise. Frederic Jameson has argued that narratives covertly contain repressed desires of the political unconscious. That is, narratives bear traces of class struggle and the desire to “move from the realm of necessity into the realm of freedom.[13] Rowling’s first Harry Potter book develops a parody of the privatized bourgeois family wrapped up in consumer culture. But the book’s critical element is totally pulled out of the film. I am not suggesting that the entire book offered an unmitigated critique of consumer society. Rather, it had some critical elements elided by the simplistic film script.

The book developed its magical element, the aspect so appealing to its readers, by setting up a contrast between the wizards’s magic world and the privatized, routinized life of the Dursleys, the muggles. The film quickly and efficiently dismisses Harry’s stay with the Dursleys as a poor stepchild. In contrast, Rowling’s account dwells on the contrast between Harry and Dursley’s pampered and greedy son, Dudley. Rowling describes Mr. Dursley as a “large beefy man with hardly any neck” who is the director of a big firm that makes drills. His wife, thin and blond,

had the usual amount of neck, which came in very useful as she spent so much of her time craning over garden fences, spying on the neighbors.(1)

As extensively treated in the novel, the family is marked by an intense desire to be “normal,” fearful of any diversity, and obsessed with maintaining their own “business”, which for Mrs. Dursely is keeping her home and for Mr. Dursley, selling drills. The Dursleys’ biggest fear is that their neighbors would come to know that Mrs. Dursley’s sister, Harry’s mother, was a witch. That information if it got around would make them stand out in a typical suburban neighborhood whose neat rows of houses have nothing out of place.

In Rowling’s text the “normalcy” that the Dursleys desire is the exact opposite of imagination. In writing of Mr. Dursley’s plight upon encountering the wizards on the streets, including being hugged by a complete stranger, Rowling writes,

He hurried to his car and set off for home, hoping he was imagining things, which he had never hoped before, because he didn’t approve of imagination (5).

The Dursleys spend all their energies on their son Dudley, lavishing him with gifts. On Dudley’s birthday such gifts include a racing bike, a video camera, a remote control, sixteen new computer games, and a VCR. Moreover, they are all wrapped! To exaggerate the social satire, Dudley, the consumer, assigns value to commodities based on their market price rather than valuing them as gifts from his parents. When Dudley objects that he just got thirty six presents, one short of what he got last year Mr. Dursley responds,

Little tyke wants his money’s worth, just like his father (22).

Dudley., a bully and always greedy for more is seen “kicking his mother all the way up the street, screaming for sweets.(13)” In fact, the book can be read like a modern day socializing tale from a mother to a child, warning of the impossibility of finding happiness in market-produced commodities. By painting a picture of the consuming child as whiny, fat, and unlikable, Rowling caricatures the child consumer as a spoiled brat who has lost all imagination.

The film sidesteps Rowling’s social satire about the privatized bourgeois family by making Hogwarts, the wizard school, the story’s center. What the script then sells through Hogwarts is Englishness. This trait of Englishness is evoked in the film as a class symbol, following a tradition in children’s literature, particularly in North America and India. No alternative school, Hogwarts is in every way constructed to uphold the elitism of the British private school where the usual stereotypes of race and gender prevail. The power of money stays intact in the school.

Before the children can enter this elite institution, as befitting their class backgrounds, their families have to put out a rather large sum of money for their children acquire books, uniforms and supplies, in this case wands. Harry Potter’s parents leave him a locker filled with gold, and he shares his wealth with Ron Weasley, one of five children whom everyone in the school understands to be poor. Teachers at the school are authoritative, and relations among students marked by hierarchy and competition. The children are in awe and fear of Albus Dumbledore, Prof. McGonagall, and Snape, all of whom are referred to as professors, wear cloaks when teaching, and sit at the high table.

The choice of locations and stars rely on selling Englishness as a commodity. A twelfth century castle, Alnwick on the Scottish border was cast as Hogwarts. A tenth century Anglican cathedral located in Gloucestershire was used as the entrance to Gryffindor Hall, Harry’s dormitory. And the elaborate banquet scenes were staged on a sound set made to replicate the dining hall of Oxford University’s largest college. In this era of spinoffs, British Tourist Authority has issued a Harry Potter movie map (available at www.
travelbritain.com
) detailing sites open to visitors. The 150 year old London Rail station has been marked with signs such as “No spells on platforms,” Owls must be caged at all times,” and “No Broom Parking” to direct visitors to platform “9 and 3/4.”

The special effects, location or casting is not an integral part of the narrative. In this highly commercial film these visual aspects are the narrative itself. The plot is little more than a series of events strung together like movie trailers. From the quidditch match to adventures with the troll to the final confrontation with Voldemort, the narrative at best offers a mystery story. It has no mythic qualities of transformation.

The mise en scene tries so hard to render magic in the most realistic way possible that it plays no role in developing or revealing the inner states of the film’s characters and becomes an end in itself. This literal rendering of magic trivializes fantasy. It reduces fantasy to spectacles that look like video games. For instance, at Hogwarts school, pictures talk, ghosts roam freely, and staircases move by themselves. While these features may simply exist within a wizards’ school, these phenomena can also express children’s anxieties.

For example, a narrative could express children’s fears about finding their way around in the overpowering environs of institutions where traditions seem to have a life of their own, where elite schools are founded upon making the child feel small enough to want to conform. However, by presenting these phenomena simply as aspects of the school and not a children’s perceptions, the film turns the ghostly details into mechanical devices that a child seemingly can master, not unlike elevators or doors that children must learn to traverse. The film’s fetishization of technology comes to stand in for its absence of content. Such vacuousness was amply seen in the film’s self promotion. David Heyman boasted in the September 20th, 1999 issue of Time that the primary costs of the film would be in the special effects:

We want to make all of that as believable and fantastical as possible. Technology is now incredible.

In terms of race and gender the status quo remains ideologically intact, even in this magical school. The darker characters arouse suspicion. Snape and Quirrell are both darker while Quirrell even sports a turban. While in the book an Indian girl, Parvati Patel, goes to the wizards’ school, the film’s only noticeable student of color is the young commentator during the Quidditch match. The wise and ancient centaur, half man, half horse is cast distinctly as a black man. The gringotts who guard the bank are barely disguised Jewish stereotypes. Hermione Granger, Harry and Ron’s girl pal, is presented as irritatingly smart and well read.

The trivialization of fantasy most blatantly permeates the moments in which the narrative succeeds in sentimentalizing the notion of love. In the book, Harry learns through his life-threatening struggle with Voldemort that his mother had died trying to save his life. When a life is touched by a love like that it is indestructible. While Voldemort could now only leave a mark on Harry’s forehead, with his bare hands Harry could turn to ash Quirrell’s body, now occupied by Voldemort. This is a powerful fantasy of mythic proportions. But the film brings that image of power to the ground.

Apparently, the lessons the children learn in the book about friendship, intelligence, and love are not enough in themselves for the film version. Most important for the film’s closure is the victory gaining the house cup. The film ends with the school principal, Albus Dumbledore, announcing Harry’s house’s victory, setting the stage for a sequel. The ending also makes it clear that the film series will be a set of stories about a British boarding school and not a fantasy about another world.

Continued: Fan culture


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