Harry Potter and the Doorstop of Voldemort


Check out this article in the Toronto Star. Clearly, whoever reached noteworthy Canadian filmmaker Don McKeller for comment caught the man on the cusp of a very bad day. Maybe some wizard set his cornflakes on fire, I don't know, but he does go on about the book, doesn't he?

At the risk of alienating the vibrant fandom that I so recently joined, however, I'm going to have to say that Don McKeller is more right than wrong. The bloat that has taken hold of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series has gotten a little ludicrous, and somebody, either a trusted friend of J.K. Rowling, or a man behind a desk at Bloomsbury, needs to attack her work with a blue pencil. I'll give her credit for getting children to read the equivalent of The Lord of the Rings (at least in terms of word length) over the summer, but her inability to control the length of her books smacks of sloppy writing -- or, more likely, non-existant editing.

Joe Clifford Faust of the Word Foundary has a good article describing "King Bloat" (so named after the burgeoning books of Stephen King). A writer who gets famous (as J.K. Rowling undoubtedly is) sometimes becomes too famous to edit. After all, why tamper with what so obviously works? Or, why risk putting Famous Author into a snit and taking his business elsewhere? Thus the writer is left to his or her own devices, and without the control of an editor, writes whatever fancy takes hold. Works become sloppy and, if left unchecked, the writer becomes a parody of himself.

Joe Faust states "I haven't read any of the Harry Potter books, but I have to wonder if J.K. Rowling's increasingly swollen word counts are a sign that she has contracted King's Bloat". Well, I have, and I would have to say that King's Bloat is about one-third to one-half responsible.

Half of the time, J.K. Rowling is trying to top herself, and each story is more ambitious and mature than the last. They started as a story about a neglected boy ushered into a magical world of witchcraft and wizardry, but they've grown to be much more. The second volume introduced themes of racism. The third volume raised troubling questions about prison life. Romance is entering the narrative, and the wizardry world is tipping over into war. Harry witnessed the first death of a sympathetic character near the end of The Goblet of Fire and rumours abound that a popular character, known to the readers since the first book, is going to meet his end.

But J.K. Rowling also does a lot of recapping in her books -- entirely too much for my taste. At the beginning of The Goblet of Fire, we are reintroduced to 4 Privet Drive and given a brief rundown of Harry's life so far -- everything that 99% of the readers already know. It's possible that this is a sign that J.K. Rowling is still writing for a younger audience (which, she feels, needs the extra recaps), but just by assuming that the reader of the fourth book has already read the first three and moving ahead with the narrative, Ms. Rowling could have cut twenty pages from The Goblet of Fire.

Then there are some elements, especially in the fourth book, that don't advance the plot, but remain because of their inherent coolness. The World Cup of Quidditch takes up a substantial portion of the fourth book, but contributes little to the plot that couldn't be told in under a couple of pages. The World Cup should have been cut, or released as a separate book. It's similar to the time spent on the Quidditch matches in the two Harry Potter movies; it doesn't advance much plot for their length, but they look cool... to most people. Erin, however, found The Goblet of Fire to be quite boring, with the exception of the confrontation between Harry and Voldemort and the Yule Ball. While the Yule Ball is superfluous to the plot, it does substantially advance the characters of Harry, Ron and Hermione, especially with regard to their relationships.

Lord, if I'm ever lucky enough to be published and famous, let me not run into editors who are afraid to edit me. Editors are underrated. They're seen as intruders, seeking to corrupt and curtail a writer's vision. I know a friend who once got very aggravated that I'd dared change a handful of sentences in his fan fiction submission. He sees no role at all for the editor other than catching typos and putting the work into print. As editor, I did not pursue his work as hard as I should have, as he was my friend, and this was only fan fiction, but my friend's attitude is hardly uncommon in people trying to write professionally.

Nor am I immune to it. I bleed for every swipe of the red pen against my narrative. Editors, however, are uberreaders. They represent the people you want to read your work, and if an editor thinks that something you've written doesn't work, chances are, a large number of your readers will agree with him. The differences is, there's still time to accept the editor's advice and change your work.

In writing Rosemary and Time, I produced a draft that was 42000 words long. After revision, I handed the story to Erin, and by the time she was done, the story was 39000 words long. That's 12 manuscript pages; if you've written, look at your own work, and see if you could eliminate 12 manuscript pages off the top of your head. Not so easy, is it? Writers can not effectively edit their own works, but an editor can. The editor has no preconceived notions. The flow of the narrative hasn't been passing through his brain twenty-four hours a day for the past six months. Only if you set aside your work, and then return to it with an eye of reducing X number of words can you hope to match the editor's effectiveness, and that's only with a lot of self-discipline.

The overwhelming majority of editors are working to make your work better, and you must have the courage to let them at it. It's not that they don't understand your vision; they understand better how readers are likely to interpret your vision. They're the ones that can find the stray stones on your sculpture that is preventing your vision from being seen clearly. Let us give thanks to our editors.

A separate issue to this is the transferring of books to screen. Don McKeller probably knows better than most what it would take to get The Goblet of Fire and The Order of the Phoenix on screen. Listen to him. Although I've stated that I'm willing to go to a film to see a four-hour Lord of the Rings movie (as long as there is an intermission), there are limits to how long movies can run and still be commercially viable. It's asking a lot to expect a theatre full of children to sit still for three hours -- can you imagine six? There are already rumours that The Goblet of Fire may have to be released as two separate movies in order to get everything in; what about The Order of the Phoenix. Has J.K. Rowling promised us seven books but given us fourteen films?

There is a reason why every theatrical release of The Lord of the Rings ditches the hobbits' trek through the Old Forest and the meeting of Tom Bombadil. Movies can't encapsulate everything a book has to offer. As Don McKeller says, to make the Lord of the Rings movies work, Peter Jackson not only had to resort to making the full saga ten hours long, he had to find the stories within the story, focus on them, and ditch all the rest.

J.K. Rowling's contract stipulation that subsequent films feature everything contained within the books that they are filming takes faithfulness in literary adaption way too far. It simply can't be done as a theatrical release. The books have to be cut, unless J.K. Rowling wants the franchise to collapse under its own weight. If you want a complete Lord of the Rings saga or Harry Potter release, commission a 24 hour mini-series on TBS. Don't subject our children to six hours in a crowded theatre.


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