Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Harry Potter

The song has no ending

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Emilia Clarke on Game of Thrones

Nearly seven years ago, when readers of A Song of Ice and Fire were anxiously awaiting the appearance of A Dance with Dragons, George R.R. Martin published a blog post titled “To My Detractors.” He noted “the rising tide of venom” that had arisen in response to the book’s lateness, and he wrote:

Some of you are angry about the miniatures, the swords, the resin busts, the games. You don’t want me “wasting time” on those, or talking about them here. Some of you are angry that I watch football during the fall. You don’t want me “wasting time” on the NFL, or talking about it here.

Some of you hate my other projects…Some of you don’t want me attending conventions, teaching workshops, touring and doing promo, or visiting places like Spain and Portugal (last year) or Finland (this year). More wasting time, when I should be home working on A Dance with Dragons.

After all, as some of you like to point out in your emails, I am sixty years old and fat, and you don’t want me to “pull a Robert Jordan” on you and deny you your book.

Martin obviously didn’t take such criticisms all that seriously. Last week, however, he published another post that was very different in tone. A Dance with Dragons had finally come out four years earlier, and fans had moved on to clamoring for the release of The Winds of Winter. Martin wrote: “You wanted an update. Here’s the update. You won’t like it.” He acknowledged that the book wasn’t close to being done, and he continued:

Unfortunately, the writing did not go as fast or as well as I would have liked. You can blame my travels or my blog posts or the distractions of other projects and the Cocteau and whatever, but maybe all that had an impact…you can blame my age, and maybe that had an impact too…but if truth be told, sometimes the writing goes well and sometimes it doesn’t, and that was true for me even when I was in my twenties.

This post was widely reported and analyzed, but few observers appear to have noted the extent to which it deliberately echoed its predecessor, almost point for point. Martin seemed to grant that the “distractions” invoked by his detractors might, in fact, have been partially responsible for the delay—and although this sounds like a concession to his critics, it feels more to me like an act of self-wounding from a writer who is already deeply depressed, to use his own words, by his own lack of progress.

George R.R. Martin

And as much as I can understand it, it saddens me. Martin is a gardener, not an architect, and as an avowed architect myself, I can speak with some objectivity about the advantages, as well the disadvantages, of the gardener’s approach. What impatient fans sometimes fail to recognize is that the very elements that they love so much about the series arise from precisely the same place as the factors that have led to these delays. Its density of detail, its attention to character, its sense of taking even its author by surprise: all are inseparable from a creative process that is inherently unpredictable. In a blog post that most famously included the line “George R.R. Martin is not your bitch,” Neil Gaiman got close to the heart of the matter:

It seems to me that the biggest problem with series books is that either readers complain that the books used to be good but that somewhere in the effort to get out a book every year the quality has fallen off, or they complain that the books, although maintaining quality, aren’t coming out on time.

And the tradeoff between time and quality—which might strike regular readers of this blog as familiar—is especially true of a series like A Song of Ice and Fire. If you want to live with the richness and unpredictibility that the gardener provides, you have to be prepared to die by it as well. And if those double-edged qualities weren’t there, you wouldn’t have been drawn to these books in the first place.

But there’s also a very real sense in which the series’s own successes contained the seeds of its downfall. (This is certainly true of Game of Thrones itself, which I’ve stopped watching largely because of issues that were invisibly contained in its conception from the very beginning.) Martin’s approach to writing isn’t wrong, but it’s problematic when linked, like a conjoined twin, to a television series that has to release new seasons on a regular schedule. The idea of a novelist finishing a book series in parallel with its production in other media isn’t unprecedented: J.K. Rowling and Harry Potter did much the same. But the movies are less hungry for plot and more forgiving of delay, and big franchises, like the James Bond series, have weathered long interruptions in production without damaging the brand. A cable series can’t do that, and the pressure on Martin, which is clearly enormous, arises from a structural tension between the kinds of novels he writes and the implacable logic of television—which doesn’t even mention the pressure from his publishing house, which is a huge machine trembling to take action as soon as his manuscript is delivered. Martin, who spent years writing for television, knows this, but he still hoped he could make it work: “I never thought the series could possibly catch up with the books, but it has.” His disappointment in himself is painfully clear, and his sole consolation should be that what he was trying to do was probably impossible. Being unable to write to your satisfaction is the worst thing that can happen to any writer, regardless of the larger systems in which he plays a role, and we can only say to writer’s block what Arya is told to say to death: “Not today.”

On the inadvisability of true love

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I don’t believe in true love. At least not in fiction. In real life, it’s another story—I’ve been happily married for years now, thank you—but as a narrative device, it’s often an excuse to avoid inconvenient questions and the challenge of constructing a plausible plot. Perhaps because it’s so difficult to dramatize the process of falling in love, works of art that depict it convincingly are startlingly rare. It’s much easier to pretend that your two main characters are joined by destiny, with the universe conspiring in their favor, a convention that goes as far back as courtly romance, and has since been exploited by the likes of Nicholas Sparks and Nora Ephron. Clearly, audiences respond to it, but for me, all it does is rob characters of their most important quality: their free will. Once we sense that characters are being pushed together by the plot in which they find themselves, the choices they make cease to matter, and so does the story itself.

In a way, this is really a particular illustration of a more general problem, which is that fate or destiny has no place in most decent  fiction (with an important exception that I’ll discuss below). Plot, on its most basic level, is about characters making meaningful decisions, and while it’s certainly possible for a writer to nudge his characters one way or the other, this only works if it’s cleverly disguised. Making destiny an active player in the story automatically renders all other actions meaningless, or at least waters them down unforgivably. My main problem with the Harry Potter series, for instance, is its insistence on Harry’s exceptional destiny, as if being taken from under the stairs at the Dursleys and sent to Hogwarts wasn’t exceptional enough. Harry’s special status robs the series of much of its suspense, and it’s a testament to J.K. Rowling’s raw narrative skill that she managed to write seven engaging novels on her way to a preordained conclusion. In most other cases, however, I tune out whenever the talk turns to a Chosen One: it’s a sign that the author just isn’t going to let the characters go their own way.

Which is only a reminder that even if you believe that such forces apply in reality, they generally don’t belong in fiction. We may not know exactly how the world works, or if there’s some larger pattern in which we all play a part, and the consideration of such possibilities—no matter what you decide—is an important part of every examined life. In fiction, however, unless you’re supremely confident in your abilities, or writing for a very limited audience, it’s often necessary to exclude certain possibilities for the sake of good storytelling. Many of my favorite writers, from Chesterton to John Updike, hold nuanced religious beliefs, but very few have written readable fiction that turns on an act of explicit divine intervention, and for good reason. Not everyone believes in divine intervention, or true love, but most of us, at least in practice, believe in free will and individual responsibility. Most good fiction, whatever we hope or think in private, takes place in a world in which people are left to their own devices, in love as in all other things.

That said, there’s an exception to this rule, and it’s a negative one. As I’ve said in my post about the unfair universe, many great works of art turn on a single moment of cosmic unfairness: from Oedipus Rex to Vertigo, King Lear to The Postman Always Rings Twice, some of my favorite stories trap their characters like a fly in a web, daring them to extricate themselves, usually with unfortunate results. So why am I more happy with an unfair universe than one in which everything is destined to turn out fine? It’s far more entertaining, on an intuitive level, to see a character fight against a hostile destiny than to overcome his or her problems with the help of fate. Taken too far, this can also be irritating, as in the victim story, or those romances where a series of contrived events conspire to keep two appealing characters apart. And in general, one act of cosmic unfairness is enough. But it reminds us that what we want out of life is not always what we want out of fiction, and it’s the writer’s job to tell the difference. (On that note: Happy Valentine’s Day!)

Written by nevalalee

February 14, 2012 at 10:17 am

McKinney versus McGonagall

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On Saturday, my wife and I went to see Tabloid, Errol Morris’s hugely entertaining new documentary about the strange life of Joyce McKinney, former beauty queen, dog cloner, and kidnapper of the manacled Mormon. We went to see it at Landmark Century, one of Chicago’s leading art house theaters, and because certain shows can get pretty crowded on the weekends, I made sure that we got there forty minutes early. Once we arrived, though, I was surprised to find that the theater itself was almost dead, and we were the first ones to be seated for Tabloid. And while the other seats gradually filled, the auditorium was never more than halfway full. It was almost, I mused to myself, as if everyone else in the world was off seeing some other movie.

That movie, of course, was Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, which we ended up seeing the following day. The contrast couldn’t have been greater: although we saw Harry Potter at an early matinee on Sunday afternoon, the theater was packed, mostly with adults, all doing their part to contribute to the most lucrative opening weekend of all time. It’s tempting, then, to see these two films as extreme ends of the moviegoing spectrum. Tabloid is a modest production even by Morris’s standards—he doesn’t do any of his usual reenactments or even any shooting on location, with the entire film consisting of talking heads, graphics, and archival footage—while Deathly Hallows is one of the most expensive movies ever made. Taken together, its two parts cost something like $250 million, meaning that Morris’s entire filmography could probably be financed by the first five minutes alone.

Beyond their scale and subject matter, the films also differ radically in their conceptions of storytelling. Tabloid is structured around an unfolding sequence of surprises: it’s best to go in without knowing anything about McKinney’s peculiar story, but even if you’ve studied it closely, you’re almost certainly going to be startled by some of the revelations in store. Deathly Hallows, by contrast, is built on a complete absence of surprise: for the most part, viewers are hoping to see the literal realization of events that they’ve been anticipating in detail for years, and in many cases have all but memorized before entering the theater. Deathly Hallows isn’t out to surprise us, but to satisfy us with the exemplary execution of a foreordained plot—which is something that it does very well.

But while I have to admit that I liked Tabloid just a bit better than Deathly Hallows, there’s room in this world for both kinds of stories. They also have more in common than you might think, at least when it comes to fulfilling our expectations. It’s absurd to expect a $250 million movie based on the most popular fantasy series of all time to surprise us in more than superficial ways. (This is the same reason why a Pixar film, as I’ve said before, generally can’t be as beguiling or strange as a Miyazaki movie.) And there’s also something predictable about Morris’s very unpredictability. As much as a Harry Potter fan goes into Deathly Hallows expecting something very specific, I go into a Morris movie expecting eccentricity, odd twists, and weird lights on human behavior. His brand, in some ways, is as consistent as Potter’s. Both are necessary; both are oddly comforting. And there’s room in everyone’s life for both.

Written by nevalalee

July 18, 2011 at 9:51 am

Potter’s wheel

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During my sophomore and junior years in college, I worked as a film critic for a currently defunct pop culture website, attending preview screenings and cranking out movie reviews at fifty dollars apiece. This was, believe it or not, my first real job of any kind, and while not particularly lucrative, it was hugely educational. (I learned, for instance, that while it may sound like fun, being forced to see every movie that comes out between January and March is a special sort of hell.) I also suggested occasional ideas for feature stories, and one day, probably in the fall of 1999, I noticed that media interest was growing around a series of children’s fantasy books about a boy wizard. I made a note to bring up the idea with my editor, then promptly forgot about it. I never did write that story. And it looks like this may be my last chance.

Now that the second half of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is finally in theaters, there have been a lot of think pieces about J.K. Rowling and the future of her creation, but one of the themes I find most interesting is the seamlessness of the franchise. This is the first global fantasy series, born from a novelist’s imagination, where books, movies, and other media were allowed to grow along with their audiences. There are those who love both the books and the movies; a significantly larger worldwide audience that has experienced the movies alone; and those, like me, who began with the books, then switched to the movies, once it became clear that the films were finally doing justice to the series. There’s also the theme park, the video games, and even, dare I say it, the fanfic. The result has shaped how we think about mainstream storytelling in ways we’re only beginning to appreciate.

As far as the films are concerned, Harry Potter was never my favorite movie franchise, but for the past ten years, it unstintingly received the full resources of one of our great movie studios, resulting in a polished Cadillac sheen that shouldn’t be underestimated. The installments by David Yates, in particular, while a bit impersonal, are among the handsomest, most lavishly mounted movies in recent memory, to the point where they’ve spoiled me for lesser franchises. These days, I get a little impatient watching a movie like Thor, which is clearly a big studio production but with obvious limits to its spectacle—meaning that it cost $150 million to make, not $250 million. And while the escalation of movie budgets is far from a good thing, there was still something reassuring about paying eleven dollars to see a Harry Potter film, knowing that you were bound to get your money’s worth.

But that doesn’t mean that bigger is always better. Of the movies, my favorite, somewhat to my surprise, is Goblet of Fire, which is also the only installment I never saw on the big screen. The first two movies are frankly embarrassing. Prisoner of Azkaban gets more respect, but while I have nothing but love for Alfonso Cuarón, I can’t get past that movie’s tonal issues and confusing final act, although much of it is smart and charming. And while the Yates installments, as I’ve said before, are big, sleek machines, Mike Newell’s Goblet of Fire comes closest to my idea of what this series should be about: not action, not special effects, but the idea of magic and of being a child. The lovingly detailed buildup to the Yule Ball, which otherwise puts the complicated plot on hold, strikes me as the most satisfying sequence in all the films. And that’s where I’ll remember Harry.

Quote of the Day

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The way it ends so totally, with nothing to put on the wall or in the bookcase. Just a lot of yesterdays, and then you have to start out all over again.

Maggie Smith, on acting

Written by nevalalee

July 15, 2011 at 7:56 am

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