The Collective Imagination and its Compensatory Function

Our family went to see “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” tonight, having heard that it was the “best” of all these films, and we were quite disappointed, I must say.  Let me hasten to add that my daughters and I are in love with the actual novels; in my opinion, J.K. Rowling’s books are proof of something I’ve always felt, which is that really good children’s literature is appealing to both children and adults. And I’ll also admit that few films ever equal the books they depict.  In fact, I can think of only one series, Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” films, that were absolutely satisfying and complementary to the books so many of us loved.  Oddly, both “Harry Potter” and “LOTR” have the same failing:  the films wreak havoc with the original plots, far too much is left out (understandably, I suppose), and much of what endeared the books to their readers gets ignored.  However, there is a difference, for Jackson’s films seem to underscore the deeper meaning of the “Trilogy,” and provide, if not an accurate account of the books, the perfect complement to them.  Visually and musically, it seems to me (Howard Shore’s soundtrack is destined to become a classic for our time), the films underscore what touched us most in the books.   

And then there’s “Harry.”  Well, the first one was directed by the father of children who loved the books, and he made a perfect and perfectly reverent version of “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” yet somehow, he just didn’t…get it.  It’s hard to say why, but much of what struck so deeply in Rowling’s writing somehow just didn’t get communicated.  The subsequent films each tried successively to get it right and while there were moments when they worked, there were more when one wanted to just go home and re-read the book and experience it all again the way it was supposed to be.   As for this latest film, it was worst of all.   I had the feeling that the general attitude around it was “hey, we’re going to make a trillion dollars anyway, so why bother?”  It was as if the film was made for the viewing pleasure of a group of uncritical six-year-olds.  Instead of trying to really illustrate the darkness and pain of Rowlings’ novel, the filmmakers found it easier to just make all the scenery a little darker and everything a little more depressing.  Instead of at least making a stab at telling the story accurately, much was changed (one had the feeling to save money),  and the most delightful moments of the book–as when the Weasley twins made their “last stand,” were shortchanged by not even making an effort to be true to the plot.   None of the characters were given range for what had made them appealing in the past, and I had the distinct feeling that anyone who hadn’t read the book would be extremely confused by the movie, and my husband, who indeed has yet to read the books, said that this was true. He said, “But I remember you telling me about this book as you were reading it; didn’t you say in the book following Cedric’s murder by Voldemort that he yelled a lot at people, that he displayed lots of misplaced anger, that he had PTSD?  Where was that in the movie?”   What a disappointment. 

As we near the climax of the story that has held so many of us in thrall for these last years, it would be great if there could be a really brilliant denouement….but things are not looking good, although I expect the final book will be as good as the rest of them were, to varying degrees. No one has been able to make the films right, but Rowling sure wrote the books right.   

I’m beginning to feel like a film reviewer here, and that wasn’t quite what I had in mind when I started this. For about six-and-a-half years, those of us who live in the USA have had good reason to feel a lack of light, or hope or rightness or justice in the world.  God knows, this plane of existence is a dark place, and although we’ve always fancied ourselves as somehow being above those tragedies and injustices that plague the rest of the world, it’s rough all over.  I think perhaps that while the initial act that triggered these times was wrong, it has been good for us to go through “911,” and the dark times that have been. But it’s interesting to me that, during this time, some of the greatest artistic creations have emerged from the collective consciousness of the planet. One remembers that Tolkien’s books were a product of war-time Europe, and depicted both the tragedy and the soul-making in what human beings were going through. Same with the films, and the same with Harry Potter and some of other great works that have emerged during this time. What’s that saying–“desperate times call for desperate measures”?  It seems that desperate times also birth meaning, as if there is nowhere else to go without going mad–and meaning is what makes it all bearable.  When we feel most hopeless, we have the opportunity to either give up–or to become great.  We want to understand, we want someone to tell us a story, to help us create a narrative that makes sense of our time here, and it is in these times that the most memorable narratives emerge, the stories that get us through.   I feel very grateful for all that awakens our nostalgia for the truth in humankind.  

If it’s said that “imagination is our memory of the future,” there is hope.  I suspect that imagination also evokes our nostalgia for our origins, perhaps even more so.   Meanwhile, our family tries to laugh when we refer to “he who must not be named,” pray for the next two years to go fast, and we are grateful to be offered the opportunity to consider that there is more here than meets the eye.

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