Friday, 22 July 2011

Harry Potter and the Celluloid of Terror: Gillian Philip

I took my ten-year-olds to see Harry Potter the other day. There were three of us in that front row, trying to make sense of the slightly distorted soundtrack, and only one of us had read the book.

To the ten-year-olds, it didn't matter that for a good deal of the running time, they couldn't quite follow what was going on. It was, as Girl Child announced within five seconds of the credits rolling, the best movie they had ever seen. And with mother giving whispered side-of-the-mouth explanations of the tricky bits, the plot was perfectly comprehensible.

The cinema - an old-fashioned, sticky-floored, numb-bum relic of the golden age, and one of my favourite places in the world - was teeming with three- to ten-year olds who hadn't read the books, along with a lot of teenagers and young adults who had clearly grown up with them. I had high hopes that my two would ask to read all seven books afterwards, and when they didn't volunteer, I offered.

No takers. It's the films they've grown up with, and the Xbox games. Boy Child has spent the summer-holiday days since then watching and rewatching the earlier movies, and begging for the Xbox game. Girl Child has preferred more and more and different movies (and books) involving death, sacrifice, love, hate, good and evil.

I'm not sure they'll ever read the books, now. And I have wildly mixed feelings about that.

My strongest reaction is that these are my kids, dammit. MY KIDS, for whom the purchase of books by readers is the wellspring of the finance that buys them DVDs and Xbox games. What are they THINKING?

A subsidiary, guilty feeling, is that I'm probably even more of a movie addict than I am a book addict, and that's saying something. I'm not sure I'll read The Lord of the Rings again, however many times I've read it in the past, because the movies distilled the best of the books, while holding onto respect for them, and the pictures I made in my head weren't ever quite as good as the pictures made since 2001 by Peter Jackson.

At school talks, I torment myself and the audience with the question 'Books or Movies?' And while we all tear at our scalps shouting 'BOTH', I always advocate BOOKS with the argument that however many girls in the room love Edward Cullen, only around half think he truly looks like Robert Pattinson. For the others, he'll always be the perfect sparkly beauty they formed in their own heads, and R-Pattz will be no more than - well, not an impostor: just someone who once played the part.

I feel quite sad that my kids are unlikely to read Harry Potter as he was originally wrote - or not for a few years, anyway. They won't grow up, as so many young adults did, with a boy who grew up, slowly, on the page, along with them.

But the movies have created another part of the myth, and one of their own. My kids have grown up with Daniel Radcliffe as Harry Potter, and when I really think about it, that's fine. There are so many other books now - in great part thanks to the Potter phenomenon - that they can film for themselves, inside their heads, just like I do with my own characters while I'm writing. For them, Harry can be a movie.

Films make their own mythology. The story of the Lions of Tsavo is a true one, while the film version - The Ghost & The Darkness - follows to a great extent the template of Jaws. I honestly don't think that destroys its validity as a story. I remember being terribly upset and angry when I first saw James Cameron's Titanic, because why would anyone want to add fiction to a truth that had its own perfect tragic narrative and human pathos? Since then I've watched it often, and always cry - because I never believe in Jack and Rose, but they symbolise the real people dying in fractions of screen moments in the background.

Maybe it's distance that lends both enchantment and forgiveness - recent lies and distortions are less forgiveable; but is Troy, if it ever existed, diminished by being relegated to myth and a bloody good story? A seriously bad movie certainly didn't hurt that immortal myth.

We're humans, and we love a narrative arc. The best of them will survive in any form, and many. They start, and end, in our heads.


Keren David said...

I was the original mean mother with the Harry Potter films and refused to let my daughter see them until she'd read the books.
It worked, because she was the right age to be reading just ahead of the films coming out (although there were some late night against-the-wire reading sprees). She pointed out, somewhat bitterly, that none of her friends had to do this, but now prefers to read book before seeing the film - and in fact wouldn't allow us to see Inkheart until she'd finished the book (in the car on the way to the cinema).
We tried to keep our son to the same regime, but it was much more difficult, because he was younger and the films were coming out and we/he wanted to see them.So we read the books to him, and mostly he'd heard the book before seeing the film. I still think it's the best way around - although it does lead to very critical film-viewing.

Gillian Philip said...

I should add that if they haven't read MINE by the time they're 14, it'll be thumbscrews for the little blighters.

kathryn evans said...

I have on ein each camp - daughter who was the perfect age to gobble the stories and was, already, an avid reader - and son - who was a tad to young but had them read to him and still would rather not actually make the effort to read himself. Some people prefer to be told a story - books/audio books/film - story is the important thing - the world will always need stories and so many of the best films spring from books.

Although I'd say Inkheart was not one of them - I hated that film!

Stroppy Author said...

I have one who grew up with the books, and was slightly too old when the last one came out but read it anyway, for completeness, and she has seen all the films (at least, I assume she's seeing the last one). And I have one who was too young to read them or be read to when the first came out and who can't bear fantasy and so will never read them. She wouldn't tolerate me reading them to her, either - just not the stuff she likes. But she has seen most of the films, largely because they are a social phenomenon.

Films can be that more than books because the kids make a big event out of going together. (And there's always popcorn and messing about to dilute the film if you don't like it.)

Personally, I'd rather not see films of books I really like as the producer's visualisation does drive my own images away. Perhaps my mind has a feeble grip on its visualisations.

Anonymous said...

I hate film versions of books (mostly) - they always leave huge amounts out, never see the characters as I did on reading about them, and often change the ending too. So I haven't seen all the HPs, but I did read the books.

I think immersing themselves in fantasy and story is hugely beneficial for children and their mental health, whether or not they do it via books or film. You need a well-exercised imagination to be able to think resourcefully when life throws up problems (which it usually does).

Anonymous said...

Hi Gillian, i was just wondering when you would be putting the winners of the comp on the abba lit fest page, thanks, leah xx

Gillian Philip said...

Thanks for the comments, everyone - Kathryn, I agree about Inkheart, and that's one of my favourite books! And Eleanor, I agree about fantasy too - my H hates it (though he'll read mine under duress, i.e. the aforementioned thumbscrews) but I keep telling him it IS about real life - just told in a different way.

And Leah, I'm an idiot! That was in the forefront of my mind on Saturday and somehow it slipped to the back. I was meant to get the result to Elen this weekend (sorry Elen!) I will post that TODAY. Sorry!