Monday, February 15, 2016

What does "real magic" look like?

years back, before J.K. Rowling had wrapped up writing the series, I was a member of an online Harry Potter forum. The discussion of various aspects of the Potterverse was wide-ranging and could get fairly intense at times, but one particular thread -- about the nature of how magic is portrayed in media -- has stayed with me.

It started not long after the film version of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban was released. This was the first Harry Potter movie helmed by a different director (the first two were directed by American filmmaker Chris Columbus, the third by Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón), and there were many changes both subtle and blatant in the movie's look and feel -- everything from the students' costumes and scarves to the location of Hagrid's hut to the actor playing Professor Dumbledore. Some of these changes were well received; others -- such as the talking shrunken head on the Knight Bus -- were less so. In any case, Cuarón's particular vision of the wizarding world tended to provoke a stronger response than what had come before it.

I quite enjoyed the movie version of Azkaban -- not for the shrunken head, which I admit was pretty wearing, but for precisely the reason others said they didn't like it. I liked it for the way Cuarón portrayed the magic of the wizarding world. Although I can't really describe his style as "subtle," he does assume the audience will pay attention, rather than trying to lead viewers by the nose.

Two key scenes from the series should sum up the differences pretty well. First, the Diagon Alley scene from Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone:

Chris Columbus' vision of the wizarding world, and the first glimpse we see of it through Harry's eyes, is !!!MAGIC!!!, visually and audibly. John Williams is kept plenty busy here with the score; there are little musical frills and twinkles and glissandos over the least little thing Harry and Hagrid pass in Diagon Alley. Columbus takes special pains to make sure the audience notices everything that's new and different and wondrous about this new world, complete with charts and graphs, and as a result the whole scene feels staged to me -- more like a play than like a cross-section of reality.

Now, the Leaky Cauldron scene from Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban:

Yeah, Tom the hunchback is over the top, but look at the rest of the scene. Cuarón takes the time to create a wizarding world that actually works the way I'd expect things to work in a magical society. A late patron absently stirring his drink and reading A Brief History of Time, a table busser cleaning up customer detritus and putting up chairs, a government minister dictating a letter -- these are all activities that make up the background fabric of everyday life. The fact that they're being done by magic -- that the drink goes on stirring itself, that the chairs upend themselves and slide smoothly onto the table with a single casual gesture from the busser, that the minister's quill moves on its own -- is something we as an audience notice, not because the director is using large red blinking signs to point out every instance, but because we don't live in a world where magic is taken as a matter of course. The characters in that world don't pay it much mind, any more than we'd ooh and aah over a car or an elevator at work; it's just normal life to them. Cuarón trusts his audience to notice the differences. And that's precisely what makes the magic more believable to me.

Agree? Disagree? Think I'm taking drugs? (I am! It's called metformin and it's great for regulating blood sugar!) Make your comments below.


Daniel Buck said...

Also, for your "Trivia Moment of the Day", the actor stirring the drink and reading Hawking? Ian Brown, lead singer of the Stone Roses.

Soozcat said...

Oh, cool, I never would have seen that! Thanks, Dan.

Candice said...

I enjoyed this. I agree with this distinction. It also reminds me that Katelyn has been convinced lately that she is gathering magic in nature and collecting it in trees at school. Then she is going to find ways to distribute it. She says the magic was left there in creation and is invisible to grownups. I'm planning our first Harry Potter reading this October (she's turning 8, and I want to do something special for Halloween), I have never read them before, if you can believe that.