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J.k. Rowling (#110 of 12)

Grappling with Intellectual Disability Michael Bérubé’s The Secret Life of Stories

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Grappling with Intellectual Disability: Michael Bérubé’s The Secret Life of Stories
Grappling with Intellectual Disability: Michael Bérubé’s The Secret Life of Stories

Michael Bérubé’s The Secret Life of Stories: From Don Quixote to Harry Potter How Understanding Intellectual Disability Transforms the Way We Read is that rare book that manages to speak to its specialized academic audience while imagining and addressing a much broader readership. Bérubé, who’s the Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of Literature and Director of the Institute for the Arts and Humanities at Pennsylvania State University, has crafted an accessible, if still rigorous, study of the way fiction grapples with intellectual disability.

“Representations of disability are ubiquitous,” he states in his opening sentence, “far more prevalent and pervasive than (almost) anybody realizes.” Take Disney’s Dumbo: You maybe wouldn’t use the language of disability to describe the oversized ears of the titular elephant, but at the heart of the 1941 film is a message about overcoming—embracing even—one’s differences in order to succeed. By the end of Bérubé’s book, you’re likely to start spotting the way disability is often used as a trope in films as diverse as Minority Report, Total Recall, and Mad Max: Fury Road. But Bérubé wants to push us further than merely understanding the ubiquity of disability in pop culture. This is especially important as disability (both physical and intellectual) is often used as a metaphor or character trait in popular art, significant only in the way it teaches us something about a story or a character with rarely any nuance with regard to the disability itself.

Week with a Wizard, Day 8: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2

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Week with a Wizard, Day 8: <em>Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2</em>
Week with a Wizard, Day 8: <em>Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2</em>

Amid the apocalyptic overtones of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, a moment of real magic and rare levity occurs when Minerva McGonagall (Maggie Smith), after summoning an army of knight statues to protect Hogwarts from impending attack, excitedly admits, “I’ve always wanted to do that spell!” Yes, professor, and we’ve always wanted to see you perform it; or, at least those of us who have slogged through seven books and seven movies. To see Maggie Smith deliver these words with the wonderment of a child fittingly captures the sentiments many viewers will have about seeing this long film journey reach its end. Most of the characters shown in the moments to follow—as an orb-like shield slowly forms around the castle—have either played a key role in one entry in the series or have been in the background through many of them. But that hardly matters; because after so many films these faces become embedded in a world we have seen unfold across a decade’s worth of cinema.

The aforementioned scene is a microcosm for Deathly Hallows: Part 2. Director David Yates seems to want this final installment in the series to capture the excitement of the moment but also to strike up nostalgia for all that has gone before. It achieves both of these in various moments throughout, but it doesn’t quite sync with what has building in the previous two or three films, somewhat to my disappointment. To try to make sense of this requires some back-pedaling, if you will indulge me. I have written these commentaries from the perspective of knowing many of the ins and outs of author J.K. Rowling’s opus. I have argued that as the films have grown more confusing to those who have not pored over the novels, they have grown more interesting filmically on a roughly parallel track. Despite the often-clunky writing and plotting, each of the films (perhaps with the exception of Goblet of Fire) dating back to Prisoner of Azkaban has developed its own beat and affective state. I have noted previously that Alfonso Cuarón’s Azkaban will likely be recalled as the film that allowed much of this to happen.

Week with a Wizard, Day 7: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1

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Week with a Wizard, Day 7: <em>Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1</em>
Week with a Wizard, Day 7: <em>Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1</em>

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 (2010) is the first film in the series not to be based on a full novel. It is instead rigorously adapted from roughly the first three-fifths of J.K. Rowling’s final tome. Both the studio and filmmakers took heat when they announced that the book would be split into two movies. To categorize this decision as anything other than a ploy to generate more revenues would be difficult; suffice to say that it was perhaps inevitable for reasons of storytelling, as well. For starters, Rowling’s exposition-heavy approach in the later novels veers on exhausting. This, coupled with the strict established approach of Steve Kloves’ adaptations, dictated that the film follow the novel closely and all but demanded that the adaptation be cut down the middle. Given the circumstances, Deathly Hallows: Part 1 inescapably feels truncated. As such, it lacks concrete structure and is more episodic than other installments. These might be considered flaws if we’re measuring by a certain standard. But as an experiment in stuttering and disrupting the narrative flow established and honored over the six previous entries, the movie is a curiously compelling beast.

Narrative structure is one of the steadiest elements of the Potter films. Each tale picks up at the end of the summer with Harry and company preparing to return to Hogwarts. After some rudimentary setup they arrive at school, where the story generally stays put. Here, Hogwarts has no presence. Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) dodge their final year to journey across Britain in pursuit of horcruxes that hold pieces of Voldemort’s soul. The urgency to find the horcruxes is counteracted by the trio’s lack of leads as to how to acquire them. Throughout their journey, Harry, Ron and Hermione return to places they have visited in films past—such as the Weasley home and the Ministry of Magic—before ending up in the wilderness, away from most of civilization but not from danger.

Week with a Wizard, Day 5: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

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Week with a Wizard, Day 5: <em>Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix</em>
Week with a Wizard, Day 5: <em>Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix</em>

A glimpse at Platform 9¾ in the first Harry Potter film reveals a colorful, lively place where first-year students board the Hogwarts Express on their way to school. Jump ahead a few years, and it is the sight of one the many nightmarish visions of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007). In what initially appears to be an ordinary transitional scene, Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) walks across the platform and sees a motionless figure in the distance amid the smoke and activity. As he moves closer, the figure emerges from obscurity as an expressionless Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes), dressed in dark slacks and shirt as opposed to the cloak he donned in the previous film. The “Is it real or not?” question barely registers before we’re already on to the next scene aboard the train. The image is fast, but it lingers long afterwards and it recapitulates the film rather well.

Bereft of the childlike wonderment that marked previous entries, Order of the Phoenix is fixated on fear, power, and corruption. Visually and tonally, it is a close cousin to the third installment, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. But unlike that film, Order of the Phoenix externalizes its thematic and emotional overtones and is less focused on Harry himself. This may seem an odd ploy, considering that of all of J.K. Rowling’s novels, Order of the Phoenix is perhaps most fixated on Harry’s complicated emotional state. His anger and frustration are at times suggested here, but the film is more effective when it is wading deep into the political underpinnings of the magical world. It reveals an ineffectual government whose corruption is increasingly pronounced and exploited in the wake of Lord Voldemort’s return. Stark images inspired by the Third Reich abound, most notably represented by a giant banner of the Minister of Magic holding his chin high and gazing toward the beyond.

Week with a Wizard, Day 4: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

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Week with a Wizard, Day 4: <em>Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire</em>
Week with a Wizard, Day 4: <em>Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire</em>

As the middle entry in the book series, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire occupies a curious position. Much of its story is inconsequential, yet it contains sequences of wide-spanning significance that vaunt the tale into new and darker depths. This posed some challenges for the film adaptation, which needed to serve as a gateway to the later installments’ more serious storytelling. Additionally, it also had to deal with how to maintain interest in a set of characters who are so established that they may begin to grow stale. Even though the third film, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, breathed much-needed life into the series, the dramatic tonal and aesthetic changes it brought about required that each successive film provided a distinct enough vision while remaining consistent with the tropes and styles already established. This struggle is evident in the otherwise ambitious and swift version of Goblet of Fire (2005), which signals a change in storytelling rhythm right at the start.

The movie opens with a long, winding shot of a snake slinking in-between tall grass and tombstones and into a dark mansion to meet a shadowy figure assumed to be a still-weakened Voldemort. This is eventually revealed to be a recurring nightmare for Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), who we rejoin after he’s already escaped from the Dursleys. Harry and company set forth to the Quidditch World Cup, a wizard sporting event set among the English countryside where Muggles are ignorant to a towering stadium. These early passages are dense with activity and are frenetically paced, which is a welcome change after three films that take their time to unfold. Perhaps the reason for such rapidity is that the film condenses nearly 150 pages of Rowling’s long text into so little screen time. Working with a novel of roughly 800 pages, screenwriter Steve Kloves can no longer afford to slightly abbreviate the text. This turns out to be an asset to the later films, which are adapted from longer, more intricate novels and tend to find their own beats and rhythms.

Week with a Wizard, Day 3: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

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Week with a Wizard, Day 3: <em>Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban</em>
Week with a Wizard, Day 3: <em>Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban</em>

Early in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004), after an unpleasant encounter with a hooded creature known as a dementor, Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) looks through the window of the Hogwarts Express, his reflection projected against the rain-soaked night. The image wipes to the exterior of the familiar castle as a children’s chorus sings a rhythmic, medieval-sounding tune with words taken from Shakespeare’s Macbeth. We then enter the Great Hall, where a choir of students with frogs in hand concludes the song with the forceful and ominous phrase, “Something Wicked This Way Comes.” This is one of the film’s many small departures from author J.K. Rowling’s source material, which had been followed to a tee in the previous two films. Both playful and sinister, the song (titled “Double Trouble”) turns up in various capacities in the score and permeates the proceedings. But its first appearance in the scene described above boldly announces a new direction in the Harry Potter series. What once felt so clean and mechanical under the even hand of Chris Columbus suddenly bleeds with mystery and mood.

Director Alfonso Cuarón shakes up Columbus’ work with changes extending beyond small alterations or additions to Rowling’s text. Some of these changes were inevitable, such as the replacing the late Richard Harris with Michael Gambon as Dumbledore. But even with a new actor in the role, Cuarón essentially re-imagines the character as more jolly and quick-witted. Innumerable franchises have undergone reboots in the years since, so all these changes don’t seem as significant now as they did then. But for a series that is partially built on maintaining a strict level of sameness, Cuarón pushes the envelope in challenging ways, and the shift in tone and aesthetic deepens the film’s emotional underpinnings.