June 18th, 2009

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What we don't see in Harry Potter

James Parker over at The Atlantic wrote a piece on the Harry Potter series, in loose anticipation of next month's theatrical release of Half-Blood Prince. He opens with a point I hadn't thought of:
Personally speaking, my difficulty with Hogwarts School for Witchcraft and Wizardry has always been the girls. Because at my elite British boarding school, you understand, there were no girls; gray cloisters and shadowy halls, yes, and ringing bells, and triangles of cold toast at breakfast, but no girls.
Well... are British boarding schools still largely single-gender institutions? Not having lived there, I honestly don't know. What few we still have in this country appear to be mostly co-ed (Exeter, Andover and the like,) or at least have a boys school in close proximity with a girls school (the academies in Culver, Indiana.) If that's so, then how does this go over in British culture? Do some take it as an indictment of that system? Do others take it as wishful thinking, or some suggestion of what could be? I just don't have the referents for it... in my day, Loyola was a boys-only school, but as a day school, there was still the possibility of girls after-hours. But when you live there?

There’s the paralyzing obsession with bureaucracy, for instance: hearings, edicts, exams, disqualifications, issues of procedure, administrative reversals … Can you think of another children’s story-cycle that features so many frigging committees?
*laugh* It's so true, but how many people are bothered by that? I've noted they've trimmed the scale of most of these down in the movies. That kind of pacing does not work in film. But I can't say I know anyone that's bitched about it in print. We get too much of the story there, and that's how real life works anyways. Your friends aren't always with you, so they don't share all your experiences, so you do spend a lot of time verbally filling them in later, over meals, or hanging out at home or in dorm rooms.

On Voldemort:
None of the movies so far, invested as they all are in his spellbinding badness, has quite caught the vulnerability of this character.
I wonder if we'll see more of that in this next movie, since the book spends time on the first meeting of Dumbledore and Tom Riddle. While they're never fully explored, it's very clear that Tom is riddled by some awful insecurities born of his racist extremist family and his subsequent orphan state. This boy didn't fall fully-formed from a vat of pure evil, the dude has issues. He's the kind of kid you see on an episode of Law and Order, where we get a scene of him and Dr. Skoda, and Skoda walks out with one of those expressions that says "I could spend years and not get to the bottom of him."

The real kicker is the portrayal of Muggle, non-magical life:
Because the ordinary, unmagical human race, as presented in the Harry Potter books, doesn’t appear to have much going for it. [...] Decent, non-supremacist wizards are supposed to stick up for Muggledom, but these people are ghastly. They live at Number Four Privet Drive, and go pottering off in their car to the Best-Kept Lawn Competition. They hate magic. They hate Harry. Rendered doubly grotesque in the movie adaptations (Richard Griffiths hissing and squealing like a large, pink kettle), the Dursley household is little more than a boot camp for anarchism.
Rowling shows us where Harry comes from, and where Ron comes from. But Hermione? Not at all. We get the barest introduction to her parents. What's that family like? How did they handle the revelation that their daughter is a witch, and how are they handling what stories they hear from her about school? Surely Hermione isn't telling them everything, but what does that do? Are they upset that she's secretive? How much do they know about the Voldemort-driven intrigue, and how do they handle the subsequent concerns about their daughter's safety? In a normal school, the kind of involved parents that produce such a well-adjusted child as Hermione would be burning up phone lines demanding of school officials just how seriously the threat is and what they're doing about it. And then what are the summers like? And how the hell does she handle the cultural schism? You can't tell me a 12-year old child of two dentists in 1992 doesn't have a Walkman. Since technology allegedly "fails" around places so thick with magic as Hogwarts, what the hell does she do? I would be going out of my bloody mind without mine.
Enterprise Bridge

Failure does not get any more epic than this

From a Tribune story on a new state law going into effect concerning children in foster care:
In Illinois, by age 19, about half of the females had been pregnant; by age 21, 44 percent of the males had been incarcerated, one-quarter of the youths still had no high school diploma and 16 percent had been homeless,

This is just appalling. Children whose parents fail to raise them, handed off to a state that fails them again, in spades.