Harry Potter and the Big Zipper

I’m working on a project for some people, a family movie that deals with fantastical goings-on. The producers have politely requested that I create a script that will make for a series of movies as popular as Harry Potter. Problem is, there’s something missing from the source material, some nugget of narrative drive that isn’t allowing the material to cohere in the way we’d like.

In the room, the producer and I struggle to define this missing element. The source material has many fine, delightful moments but lacks a focus, a sturdy structure that would make them fly like eagles instead of puttering around like pigeons. It’s a spine, I offer, the story needs a strong spine to hang its muscles and organs on. But that’s not exactly right. Later on I think it’s more like a clothesline, a strong cord that stretches from beginning to end, and the different set-pieces hang on it like colorful clothes snapping in the breeze. But that’s not quite it either.

Then I hit on the idea of a zipper. There are multiple plot-lines in the source material and we need to see that they’re not random events that somehow add up to a story, but rather they’re the teeth of a zipper and the slider needs to move along, gathering them up and placing them in mesh with each other to form a tightly-knit bond to a water-tight narrative.

If the Harry Potter movies have a problem, it’s that they, too, have many wonderful set-pieces that aren’t necessarily related to the main story (and the books, from what I’m told, dramatically more so). And yet, they are phenomenally popular. So I thought I’d take another look at the Harry Potter movies to see what their zipper is.

Early on in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, it is revealed that Harry Potter is the sole survivor of a child massacre (they don’t call him The Boy Who Lived for nothing). He Who Cannot Be Named was wiping out infant wizards (and their parents) in an attempt to destroy the child who one day will grow up to destroy him (that is, HWCBN). When that little narrative tidbit flew by the first time I thought “yeah, sure, standard-issue hero’s journey stuff, what happens next?”

UPDATE: It seems I am incorrect in the particulars of Harry’s beginnings.  In the movie, it is stated that Voldemort rose up and became evil, and killed anyone who stood in his way, including Harry’s parents.  No one, we are told, survived this assault, except Harry.  I put two and two together and mistakenly believed that they had shown Voldemort slaying an innocent child, when what the movie shows, apparently, is Voldemort leveling his wand at the young Harry’s forehead.  I thought they were showing another child’s slaughter instead of Harry’s failed murder.  I maintain that a child would not get the nickname “The Boy Who Lived” if there had not been Boys Who Died, but there is no specific child massacre mentioned in the movie.

This changes, slightly, the viewpoint of the observations below, but I don’t think completely devalues them.  There still exists the threat of child sacrifice by the unnamed (or, in this case, unnamable) evil and the assault on education by the oppressor (which I hope to get to in more detail in upcoming posts).

Now then, I’m reading David Mamet’s recent book on anti-Semitism (spoiler alert: he’s against it) and I come across this observation:

“The memory of absolute wrongs causes absolute trauma in a race, just as in the individual. Incalculably ancient race memory of dinosaurs persists to this day, transformed as an affection for the dragon. Memory of the most traumatic of cultural acts, child sacrifice, can be seen, hidden in plain sight, as ceremonies of transformation, redemption, and, in fact, of jollity. Like the Santa Claus myth, the Akedah, the Crucifixion, are ineradicable race memories of infant sacrifice, and of the deeply buried wish to resume its practice, so racism must be the unresolved race memory of slavery.”

(In a footnote, Mamet explicates on his Santa Claus reference: “The Santa Claus myth is a straightforward account of child sacrifice. It must, however, be read in the mirror. Children can be good or bad. They put their stockings out, and, in the middle of the night, a man comes into their home with a bag. If the child has been bad, the man puts the child in a sack and takes him away. All that is left of him is his stocking, hung on the foot of the bed…It is no great stretch to see, here, the anguish of a family in antiquity, knowing the tribe will choose, at the winter solstice, some child to be sacrificed and to see the parents wish to extend the child’s period of exemption from terror for as long as possible.”)

To the Akedah (that is, the story of Isaac), Santa and the Crucifixion, I will add the Ten Plagues of Egypt, Herod, Noah and King Arthur. JK Rowling has tapped into one of the grandest, most disturbing themes of human history, and that she did so within the context of a “children’s book” about magic and wizardry counts as a stroke of true genius. For, as Mamet notes later in the same book:

“There is an aesthetic quality in fundamentalism, in jingoism, in jihad — a pure joy in the rejection not only of reasoned religion but also, indeed, of science.

“‘Belief’ is such a potent force that it may replace logic: we may burn the heretic books that speak of ‘evolution,’ and we may say the cost is huge: the loss of scientific method, but this is not a loss at all but a gain, the repeal of the taxing concept of cause and effect.”

And I’m going to go ahead and add here that a lot of humanity’s modern anxiety comes from the fact that science, for all its given us, has not satisfied our need for myth, for magic, for surrender to mystery. For tens of thousands of years, the sun came up and went down and waxed and waned and we didn’t know why and there was nothing we could do about it — crops would die, animals would freeze and the big bright circle up in the sky seemed to periodically hate us to death, when the other big circle in the sky wasn’t trying to drown us with swollen tides and the big puffy things in the sky weren’t trying to strike us with bolts of lightning. The mystery of the elements is so deeply ingrained in our ancient psyches that we secretly long to return to the days of paganism and helplessness before Sol Invictus.

Rowling has smushed together magic and science at Hogwarts to come up with something altogether revolutionary. Harry Potter was born to be the savior of his people, the only survivor of a child massacre. He gains knowledge (that is, science) through his education at Hogwarts, but his science is expressed as magic (and, lest we forget, Asimov [or Clarke, see below] once observed that any science, sufficiently developed, is indistinguishable from magic) and through his education he fulfills his destiny. Fundamentalists are always in an uproar against Harry Potter, and now I can finally see why — he needles them from both directions. He’s a wizard, which is heretical, but he’s also a scientist, which is even more heretical. He spends his narrative gathering education about magic, education and magic being two things no fundamentalist can stand. No wonder they want to destroy him.

Placing is protagonist at the center of some of our most powerful anxieties surely counts as a very big zipper indeed and I suggest is a strong reason for Harry Potter’s popularity.

As a postscript, anyone out there know What Voldemort Wants? Aside from power, I mean? What’s his Monday Morning plan? When all the threats against him are destroyed, what is his plan for ruling the wizard world?

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Harry Potter and the Bone-Head Screenwriter

About ten years ago, a courtly, genial Brit named David Heyman sent me a book, for my consideration to adapt into a feature film. I was in the middle of a bunch of other projects and was not looking for work, but Mr. Heyman was very polite and my representation assured me he was a real guy. So I said I’d take a look.

It was a paperback of a boy’s adventure novel, not yet published in the US, titled Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. I’d never heard of it or its author, and frankly, the front cover didn’t look promising. I flipped it over and started reading the back-cover blurb: “Harry Potter is entering his first year at the Hogwarts Academy of Wizardry — “

And that’s as far as I got. I rolled my eyes at the cutesy names, breathed a sigh at what felt like labored whimsy and handed the book to my wife, who is a children’s librarian and an expert in kid lit. “Could you do me a favor?” I asked. “Read this and tell me if it’s any good.”

She read it and said it wasn’t very good. She felt the plot was sluggish, the protagonist was too passive and the narrative devices were simply a cobbling-together of things that had worked better in other authors’ work. I politely declined Mr. Heyman’s offer and Harry Potter was never heard of again.

No, wait, that’s not what happened. What happened was that Harry Potter went on to become a publishing phenomenon on the scale of the Bible and I did a rewrite on Valentine.

I was not alone in my disinterest in Harry Potter; many other writers turned down Mr. Heyman, before and after me, before Steve Kloves, legend has it, found the title on a list of open projects and was intrigued. Soon after, the book exploded in a super-nova-like blast of sales and an A-list movie franchise was born.

I followed the development of the movies with interest, heard all about how the book’s author was making all kinds of outrageous demands, was stunned at the four generations of Great British Actors they got to be in the first movie, grumbled at my wife every time we drove under a billboard for one of them, but somehow never got around to seeing any of them. It wasn’t out of spite, my career just kind of seemed to always be heading somewhere else.

Anyway, now all the studios are looking desperately for the next Harry Potter and I am shown every kid-lit magic adventure with whimsical names under the sun, all of which aspire to the sales figures of Harry Potter, if not his ambitions. Which means that I get shown, frankly, a lot of shallow, irritating, poorly thought-out crap about magical kids and goofy adults with names like Flipperus Flappy and Stumblebum Stinknose and Percy Peddiwig, stuff that is trying, without trying hard enough, to copy the Potter magic. It then, naturally, falls to me to try to make it more like Harry Potter, while making it completely different from Harry Potter. So, in recent weeks it has become my duty to finally sit down and watch these movies and see what they’re all about.

Know what? They’re pretty good.

No author in history, including God, has been better served by Hollywood than JK Rowling. The production of the Harry Potter movies is probably the most lush, attentive and sympathetic in cinema history. Reviews of the new one, Order of the Phoenix, have all been like “yeah, it’s good enough I guess,” and I have to wonder what movie those people watched, because Order of the Phoenix, like the rest of the Potter movies, is exquisitely produced, cast and acted, and hugely entertaining. I suppose The Prisoner of Azkaban was scarier and snappier than the others, but it wasn’t better plotted than Chamber of Secrets, and Goblet of Fire is better plotted than Azkaban. In script terms, I would say that the Potter movies keep getting better and better, with the caveat that they are only getting better as Harry Potter movies — that is, like James Bond, Harry Potter has become his own genre, with expectations and habits all his own. The “year per movie” device is the enemy of typical cinematic narrative, which demands events follow hard upon each other. But now that that has become a formal given, it allows the Harry Potter movies to explore the life of its teen characters with a complexity and depth that I don’t think I’ve ever seen explored before, certainly not in movies aimed at children. The stories are deeper than Star Wars, scarier than Jurassic Park and more fun than Lord of the Rings, but at the same time we care about Harry and his friends because we literally see them age from movie to movie, and while I still haven’t read the novels, I’m guessing that “coming of age” is a strong theme of Rowling’s mega-narrative.

The casting — hoo boy, what casting these movies have. I expect old pros like Michael Gambon and Alan Rickman to bring depth and subtlety to characters with names like Albus Dumbledore and Severus Snape, but those kids! They’re miracles. I have the same feeling watching Daniel Radcliffe as I did watching Jody Foster as a teenager — not watching a “kid actor,” but watching a great actor, who happens to be a teenager. Radcliffe is amazing in these movies, and the great thing is that, like Foster, I’m confident that he’ll shed his Harry Potter skin the moment he needs to and not end up like, say, Danny Bonaduce. Radcliffe is not Roger Moore, he’s not Jerry Mathers, he’s a real actor and he’s going to be fine. But Rupert Grint and Emma Watson are great too, giving three-dimensional, living, breathing performances, and it’s, frankly, breathtaking to see them literally grow up in these parts. In their own way, the Harry Potter movies constitute a daring cinematic gamble, placing long, complex, subtle, grown-up narratives (far more grown-up than most “adult” narratives in the marketplace today) in front of a “children’s” audience and hanging their leads on three unknown, untested actors, who then have to sustain the quality of their work through what are traditionally the most tumultuous and torturous times of human maturation. Growing up in public, as it were.

I also understand there’s a new book out — is this true?

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