If a big box office take and plenty of rapturous reviews indicate anything, Harry Potter remains a cultural phenomenon: Chris Columbus’ Harry Potter and The Chamber of Secrets has already sold $200 million worth of tickets at the American box office and the source book remains near the top of Amazon.com’s bestseller lists.
At best, Chamber of Secrets is a mixed success. The special effects prove so well-integrated that they’re almost invisible. The acting—from Kenneth Branagh’s
hammy performance as a self-important sorcerer Gilderoy Lockhard to star Daniel Radcliff’s turn in the title role—is good enough that it could earn some Oscar nominations. (12 year-old Emma Watson deserves special notice for her affecting performance as Harry’s pal Hermione Granger.) In fact, the movie probably marks the best set of performances an ensemble of child actors has ever given.
With so much talent involved, why were the people around me checking their watches as Chamber of Secrets played? The fault lies in the direction. Columbus, who directed schmaltzy-but-popular movies like Mrs. Doubtfire (a hit) a Bicentennial Man (a flop) remains a second-rate—but not wholly unsuccessful--directorial talent even when equipped with a large budget, top-notch effects gurus, an above average script, and a fine cast. Thanks to the financial success of the first film, Columbus reportedly got to do the final cut on Chamber of Secrets. It shows. He’s crammed the film with pretty-but-pointless camera angles, overlong effects sequences, and superfluous reaction shots: All the things that studio executives and good film editors usually stop hack directors from including.
Given the book’s enormous sales and legion of devoted fans, Columbus and screenwriter Steven Cloves (Wonderboys) have little choice but to stick very closely to its plot. Harry Potter and his friends Ron and Hermine return to the Hogwarts academy of Wizardry and Witchcraft for their second year in school. Harry triumphs on athletic fields while Ron bravely bumbles about and Hermione shines in the classroom. The three tangle with school bully Draco Malfoy and try to solve a mystery involving a monster someone has let loose in the school. It doesn’t spoil much to say that the whole thing ends with a climactic showdown between Harry and the Evil Lord Voldemort.
Despite his manifest failings in pacing, Columbus does understand that this story deserves respect. Someone who misunderstood the book might have made a simple kids’ movie emphasizing author J.K. Rowling’s humorous turns and downplaying some scary sequences towards the film’s end. In fact, Columbus’ occasional directorial self-indulgence counts in his favor when it comes to assessing his respect for the material. And the material is worthy of respect: like George Lucas’ first Star Wars trilogy and J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, recreates older myths for a modern audience. It’s no accident that Rowling so frequently refers to Edmund Spencer’s The Faerie Queene, arguably the greatest of English-language epic poems. The child Harry Potter—marked from birth with a lightening bolt and brought up in the mundane (Muggle) world before he goes to Hogwarts—follows in the footsteps of great mythic heroes ranging from Jason of Iolcus to Frodo Baggins. These heroes go out from reasonably ordinary surroundings to accomplish great feats and, more often than not, save their worlds. It’s an old myth that just about every culture has retold (The late Sarah Lawrence College professor Joseph Campbell achieved a great deal of fame for his overwrought restatements of this thesis.) Rowling and Columbus may offer some side messages about the value of friendship and tolerance for others but Harry’s development from ordinary schoolboy to epic hero lies at the center of both Rowling’s book and Columbus’ film.
It’s not surprising, then, that the cultural studies Left has tried to bring the book down to its level. Postmodern literary criticism, at its core, denies the transcendent nature of any literature--or at least any Western literature. Last year’s Modern Language Association Conference included a panel on "Queer" Readings of Harry Potter (click here for a nuanced examination of the story’s potential gay angles) and an absurd attempt to unwrap the book’s "sexist" message has appeared in salon.com and even made CNN.
The strangest reading of the book and the one which has gotten the strongest academic reception comes from British academic Andrew Blake in his book The Irresistible Rise of Harry Potter: Kid Lit in a Globalized World. Like most of his fellow travelers, Blake can barely string together a declarative sentence but he clearly loathes Harry Potter for reasserting "class privilege" (Wizards are different) and, well, for being successful. Blake documents every twist and turn of the book’s marketing campaign--which, even he has to admit, relied mostly on word and mouth--as if it were part of a sinister conspiracy. Blake also finds plenty of time for fact-free rants about his dislike of Borders Bookstores and British welfare reform. Because Rowling doesn’t reject capitalism outright, it seems, Blake believes that the books and Potter himself are evil and destructive.
It all comes down to this: Harry Potter, on the screen and printed page alike, offers a good story and reminds children that they too, can achieve greatness. Even a flawed film interpretation does a pretty good job hammering this message home. It’s a message the Left can’t bear to hear.