Speaking of Harry Potter…

Weren’t we speaking of Harry Potter?  Well, we should have been.

I’m looking forward to the last of the eight movies coming out in a month (we’ve been watching the previous seven this last bit).  I have as long a relationship with Harry Potter as most people, and breathlessly waited for the seventh book, like most people who read good stuff.  I’ve enjoyed the movies and been impressed with the developing “replacement” Dumbledore and the terrific growth in Daniel Radcliffe as he learned how to act.  This is a harder thing than most people realize, for a twelve-year-old to essentially grow up on screen with his every move scrutinized by a few million people.  He’s done it with grace and charm and he’s now a pretty decent actor, as are most of those he’s grown up with.

A little bit ago, J.K. Rowling introduced a new website, called Pottermore, and there’s been a fair degree of buzz and speculation about what that site will become.  I’m with the smart money right now, and that it will become a MMORPG.

I’m in favor of it, though I think it will never become a gigantic success.  I’m mostly in favor of it because it will force Rowling to lay down, at long, long last, some actual rules for how magic is used in the Harry Potter universe.  Because let’s face it folks, that’s been a gigantic hole in the series.

NOTE: Wikipedia says that Rowling spent five years deciding on the rules for magic in the Potterverse.  Either Wikipedia is full of it, or Rowling is lying.  A competent creator could have come up with better and more consistent rules for magic in an afternoon than what we see in the Potter books.  There are attempts at explanations in the reference material, but those explanations are so convoluted that they couldn’t have been rules.  They are attempts to make it look like there were some rules in the first place.

ADDITIONAL NOTE: I should allow a caveat to the below, and that is that much of what I’m complaining about comes from the movies, and not the books, and I understand that Rowling, like all authors, is only somewhat responsible for what happens on screen.  However, given the authoritarian nature of Rowling’s interaction with the rest of the world in regard to how her characters are used, I’m inclined to blame her rather more than I blame, say, Stephen King, when the books and the movies obey completely different magical rules.

See, magic has rules.   When Rowling writes about it, unfortunately, the rules seem a bit arbitrary, capricious even, and worse, they’re occasionally nonexistent.  This problem is worse in the movies than in the books, because in the books you’re getting some shorthand about the action.  When Rowling says “Harry shot a spell at Draco”, you can fill in that he said something like “Stupefy!” at the time, to compensate for the lack of specificity.  In the movie, though, that often doesn’t happen.  Harry points the wand (or doesn’t, that part doesn’t seem relevant much, except when it’s necessary to advance the plot) and fires the bolt of whatever-it-is and blows up a vase or a bookshelf.  We don’t know what spell he uses.  That appears unimportant.

I could go on in this vein for some time.  Sometimes you need a wand, sometimes not.  Sometimes you have to say something, sometimes not.  Sometimes a spell can be blocked and sometimes not.  Sometimes spells can be cast, and sometimes not.  It’s all quite random.  For a practical example, Potterphiles, tell me what “Expelliarmus!” does.  Expelliarmus is the single most powerful spell in all wizard-dom, and the one we see used the most often, and what do we know about it?  Sometimes it gets rid of the wand, and sometimes it blows holes in things, and sometimes it kills Voldemort, and sometimes it tosses Malfoy around like a rag doll.  That’s some spell.

But the worst of it is that magic seems to come with no price.  This is silly.  What it leads to is everyone in creation being able to do any spell he or she likes whenever he or she wants.  This might be the rule for this magical universe, but if it is, what is Hogwarts for?  To teach you…what?  If you can do the unforgivable curse (for which, it seems, one can fairly easily be forgiven, except that nobody even cares that you used it in the first place) just by flicking your wand out there and saying “abracadabra”, then why not?

Oh, but some spells don’t work that way, I guess.  It takes forever and a day to learn to do “wingardium leviosa” (“swish and flick”) but you can do “crucio” as soon as you learn to speak.  Producing a patronus is really, really hard – even experienced wizards have trouble with it – but “imperius” can be done by students.  “Imperius” is one of the least-thought-out curses in the book, as well, producing effects so amazing that if they were replicable, they’d require that any evil wizard use that curse on everyone in sight.  But I guess Voldemort can’t do that.  No idea why.

The power of the wand matters, or else it doesn’t.  Speech impediments matter, or else they don’t.  Even really good wizards seems to have trouble casting spells without saying words – Harry never learns how – but once they HAVE learned how, they only sometimes do it, even when duelling, which is why you learn to do it in the first place.  What sense does this make?  Rowling seems not to have thought about any of this at all.  The MMORPG is going to make her make some decisions, and about time.

I know.  Most of you are saying, “dude, it’s a movie!  Just go with it!”  That’s the problem.  The rules are what make it so you CAN go with it.  If I have to stop myself every few seconds and say, “why doesn’t he just bat-bogey hex that guy?” then I’m out of the story, and I can’t go with it.  This isn’t Rowling’s exclusive problem.  Star Trek has had it forever (do the communicators require tuning or not?  Do they have channels?  When you tap your chest to talk to the Enterprise, do you have to say “Picard to Enterprise” or can you just start talking?  Can the Enterprise beam you point-to-point or not?  If it can, what’s the transporter room for?  What good are cloaking devices if Data can work out in half an hour how to track your enhanced tachyon emissions?  How come next episode he forgets that he could do that?  Why is it that space has only two dimensions?).  Superman suffers from the same malady.  If he can really do all those things he supposedly can do, there wouldn’t be any plot.  So sometimes he has to be able to do things that next time he can’t do, or forgets that he can do.

It’s bad writing.  It’s lazy and sloppy.  It shows a lack of forethought, and a writer more interested in money than craft.  It won’t work at all for gameplay.  In games, the rules are pretty clearly defined, or the games are hard to play and don’t do well.  I guarantee that you will not be able to hit someone with “crucio” the day Ollivander gives you your wand.  Those kinds of curses only come after a lot of study and experience, prices you have to pay to be able to cast those spells.  In real magical universes, magic costs.  Sometimes it costs blood (this is pretty common for dark magic), and sometimes it costs study, and sometimes it shortens your life, or sometimes the effort to cast the spell is so great that spells have to be rationed or they’ll kill the caster.  But there is a cost.  There is always a cost, otherwise – basic economics – there are too many wizards and they cast too many spells, and quickly everyone is dead.

I’ve always wanted to see what a Harry Potter universe would look like in the hands of someone that understood this.  Perhaps I will get the chance.

And I should add that I have enormous respect for Rowling and what she accomplished with Harry Potter.  Despite the problems I’ve outlined above, she hooked me thoroughly into the stories.  Her characters are supremely believable and interesting, she understands very well the struggle between good and evil, and when she’s not getting paid by the word, she’s good at pacing and plot.  She’s a good writer that sometimes writes sloppily.  True of all of us.

One Response to “Speaking of Harry Potter…”

  • Gordon Jones says:

    Maybe she will tell us where Neville got the Sword of Gryffindor, last seen in possession of some goblins in the vaults of Gringotts. Inquiring minds have often wondered.


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