August 2, 2007

Book Review: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is a fitting and enjoyable, if underwhelming, conclusion to the exciting series of books.  Deathly Hallows was an enjoyable read, and a lot of fun.  But I have three problems with it now that I’m done; overall, I’d give it a “B” grade – above average but not excellent.  Some spoilers follow these thoughts.


First, it drags.  Particularly in its first act, the book’s characters just don’t seem to do very much after the first few chapters.  It’s not so much that they spend a lot of time sitting around talking about their feelings – they just plain sit around.  Also, the body count is not as high as I had initially thought; for all of there being a war going on between the wizards, there isn’t that much death depicted.  The book is not about making sacrifices to achieve defeat over evil; at best, it’s about patience in the face of overwhelming odds and at worst, it’s about patience in the mind of the reader to hope that Rowling will eventually get back to writing about some action.


Second, the climax of the book has a bizarre and off-balance interlude.  I would much rather that the author had found a way to realize her narrative goals for that chapter in a different way than she did and I’m sure I could have thought of at least five ways that could have been done.  Imagine if, in the big final scene of Return of the Jedi, when Luke and Darth Vader and the Emperor are all dueling and fighting, there was a three-minute flashback to a quiet moment from Luke’s training with Obi-Wan.  Similarly, the epilogue has no narrative purpose at all and could have been omitted entirely.


Third, it lacks the depth of the previous stories.  The story is a series of “find-the-dingus” mini-adventures rather than a single narrative, which will be no surprise to those who recall how the sixth book ended.  There isn’t a lot of exploration of Big Ideas along the way.  Previous Harry Potter books have addressed issues of morality, bravery, friendship, equality, and grief.  (And a healthy distrust of the potentially oppressive and abusive power of government.)  This book flirts with the ideas of acceptance and forgiveness, but only in a very roundabout sort of way.


Don’t get me wrong, there are some moments of genuine excitement, several scenes of fantastic fun and adventure, when the book demands attention and is a gripping page-turner.  The bad guys are really bad, Harry and his friends show what they are really made of and make you proud, and the story does build to a climactic finale that fans have been hoping for at the Battle of Hogwarts.


The movie that results from the book will be fun and exciting.  I think that the producers would be well-advised to film Harry Potter Six and Harry Potter Seven at the same time, before the actors playing the heroes grow too old to look like teenagers; Daniel Radcliffe, who plays Harry, is already 18 years old and it seems to take the producers about two years to crank one of these movies out.  I’m just saying.


But the senses of wide-eyed joy, wry humor, and confrontation of bigger narrative issues are, if not completely absent, nevertheless present in deficient quantities. The book feels very much like it was written because of the overpowering writer’s impulse sometimes called “fulfillment of contractual obligation” but which surely had even greater pressure behind it because of the unprecedented global popularity of the books. 


I’m sure lots of writers have books like this.  The muse sings when she chooses to, and she doesn’t care when the publisher’s deadlines are approaching.  The obviously-talented J.K. Rowling was surely under immense pressure to write this book, and she turned in journeyman work despite it.  It’s good, but it’s not the magnum opus you were hoping to read.

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