Fantasy author says girls deserve better than ‘Harry Potter’
Writer David Templeton takes interesting people to interesting movies in his ongoing quest for the ultimate post-film conversation. This is not a review; rather, it’s a freewheeling, tangential discussion of art, alternative ideas, and popular culture.
It’s impossible to surmise what an author of Lemony Snicket’s morose and mysterious stature would have to say about a rip-roaring fantasy film like the brand new Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. But thanks to Mr. Snicket’s “official representative,” Daniel Handler, now rushing from the theater where said movie has just concluded, I am treated to an informed guess as to how the elusive mystery man might have behaved had he been with us today.
“Well, Mr. Snicket is something of a coward,” Handler confesses, cradling a cup of tea as we talk in a cluttered coffeehouse near the theater. “So he’d probably have been under the seat. Whenever someone was tangled up in killer vines, or threatened by a three-headed dog, he’d have been tempted to run away.
“And I’m certain he’d have objected to how loud the movie was.”
Loud? Try EAR-SHATTERING. Neither of us can recall a film played at such deafening levels. Says Handler, “The climax alone was louder than anything in Apocalypse Now, and in Harry Potter, all they do is play chess.”
: Uneven ‘Harry Potter’ casts reasonably enjoyable spell.
: Once a creature of the reader’s imagination, Harry Potter is poised to be the next corporate marketing coup.
: One adult reader first fell under the sorcerer’s spell thanks to the richness of the accents in the Harry Potter series–can the movie live up to the imagination?
Lemony Snicket is best-known, if little understood, as the author of the wicked, eight-volume Series of Unfortunate Events (Harper Collins), four of which–The Bad Beginning, The Reptile Room, The Hostile Hospital, and The Wide Window–are currently ranked at third, sixth, eighth and ninth (respectively) on the New York Times best-selling children’s books list, where they are woven around J.K. Rowling’s four Harry Potter books.
The Snicket books, targeted by Nickolodeon for their own big screen adaptation, all follow the three kind-hearted but woefully unlucky Baudelair Orphans–Violet, Klaus, and Sunny–as they suffer through a nasty series of, well, unfortunate events.
Daniel Handler, who may or may not actually be Lemony Snicket–he does tend to show up in Snicket’s place at book store appearances–admits to being the author of two critically acclaimed books for adults: The Basic Eight and Watch Your Mouth.
As for Harry Potter, the movie, Handler is confident that he and Lemony Snicket would offer similar opinions.
“He, like I, admires people who are good and true, ” Handler says, “so it’s always good to see depictions of them up on the silver screen. He, like I, sees that the story of life is more complicated than often presented, something Rowling seems to hint at in her book. But unfortunately, there wasn’t as much of that in the movie as either of us would have liked.”
“The Harry Potter stories, like the Snicket books, are constantly being celebrated, or taken to task, for their sense of darkness,” I say to Handler. “So was the movie dark enough for you?”
“Um, no,” he replies with a laugh. “But I never really thought the book was all that dark. Even so, there are moments in the book that did send shivers up my spine. In the movie, though, the hairs on the back of my neck just sat there.”
Harry Potter, as nearly everyone in the Western World is aware by now, is the scar-headed orphan boy who discovers, on his 11th birthday, that he is a wizard, the son of a magical mother and father who died protecting him from and evil sorcerer’s curse. The books describe his life-and-death adventures at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, and some exciting encounters with magical mirrors–and the all-important cloak of invisibility.
Asked what he’d do with his own cloak of invisibility, Handler muses, “Well, my first thought is that I’d try to find out what people say about me when I wasn’t in the room, but then I thought, ‘I don’t want to know that.’ I’d rather leave every room thinking I’m special. So I’d probably just use the cloak to mess with people’s stuff.”
“Back to that thought about wanting to feel special,” I interject. “Isn’t that, at its core, what the Harry Potter mythos is all about?”
“Sure,” he says. “It appeals to everyone’s existential and egomaniacal fantasy that the world’s been waiting just for them, that everything is falling into place, with one’s self at the center. Because, down deep, everyone wants to feel special.”
This leads Handler to mention his unhappiest objection to the movie version of Harry Potter.
“I wanted the girls to be special. I wanted them to do more,” he says, admitting to a certain fondness for “plucky female characters,” like Violet Baudelaire in his own–er, I’m sorry, in Mr. Snicket’s–children’s books.
“There aren’t enough good female characters in books and movies,” he argues. “Whenever there’s an opportunity squandered to do something wonderful with a female character, it seems too bad. When I first read the book of Harry Potter, no warning bells went off for me, I had no sense of sexism at all.
“But in this movie,” he continues, “it’s all over the place. Every time Hermione speaks there are two boys standing there rolling their eyes. Hermione is really smart, she’s good at the things she does, but that’s just barely tolerated by the boys. It’s never really celebrated. The implication is that there’s somehow something wrong with the fact that Hermione reads so much.
“In the book, where everything was fleshed out, it wasn’t such a problem, but in the movie’s condensed version, it really stands out. When any of the boys pulls out a fact and save the moment, they’re a hero. When Hermione does it, she’s just some embarrassing know-it-all.
“If you’re a girl seeing this movie–and you’re the kind of girl who is always reading a lot, learning lots of facts–then the lesson you’re going to get from this film is that somehow, that is not the appealing and acceptable way for a girl to behave.”
“But,” I attempt to counter, “at the awards ceremony at the end of the film, her thorough knowledge of magic and her sense of calm in the face of danger do win her fifty points. So she is finally rewarded, isn’t she?”
“Well, she’s forgiven,” Handler allows. “That’s the overall tone I took from it. Think about it–for some reason, Hermione believes that she’ll never be a better wizard than Harry Potter. But she is a better wizard than Harry. She’s smarter, better organized, calmer, just as brave as Harry, and her spells always work. Girls have it rough enough without being told–once again, in this movie they all can’t wait to see–that their role in life is to support the boys.
“Mr. Snicket ,” he adds, “Would have been appalled.”
From the November 15-21, 2001 issue of the Northern California Bohemian.