Saturday, September 22, 2012

Author review on J.K. Rowling

So this is a post that I’ve thinking about writing (and writting about writting) for some time.  With J.K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy coming out this month, I wanted to write up an author’s review on her first (massive) contribution to literature before she begins her next chapter.  (Word play!)  I’ve said it more than once - J.K. Rowling is one of the cleverest women out there, and I’ll tell you why that’s my impression of her….

By now, we all know the story of J.K. Rowling.  Unceremoniously dumped by the father of her children, Rowling was living in a precarious financial position.  In order to make ends meet (and I suspect, recover some confidence), she started writing about a boy whom she had been thinking of for some time – Harry Potter.  The rest, as they say, is history.  The first three HP books were released in the UK to some acclaim, but it wasn’t until the third that the series started getting traction in North America (at least, that’s my impression of the situation).  However, once they broke on this side of the Atlantic, the HP series quickly became a global phenomenon and Rowling became filthy stinking rich.

A word on the books themselves.  The Harry Potter series, for those of you living under a rock, is a set of seven books that trace the school years of Harry Potter.  Harry’s parents were killed when he was just a baby, and he was sent to live with his mother’s sister and her family.  Turns out, Harry’s parents were killed by a wizard who was looking to become ruler of the magical society which exists just below the surface of our own society.  The books cover various adventures of Harry and his friends, but they all contribute to the larger story of the return of this evil magician, and Harry’s fight to stop him.  

Now, when you read that without the context of the books, it sounds silly.  But it isn’t.  This is the first piece of evidence I have to support the fact that Rowling is a wily genius.  She has taken a thoroughly ridiculous concept, one which adults could easily laugh off, and turned it into some of the best written plots, most thoroughly developed settings, and highly engaging characters that the literary tradition has seen in generations.  And she’s consistent.  Book one is just as engaging and just as high-quality as book seven.  

This arc of quality has a lot to do with my second point of why this woman’s smarts should be studies by book-scientists.  Before she started writing book one, she (claims) she knew where book seven was going to end.  Genius!  Over seven books, there are at least 3,000 (maybe 4k) pages of plot development that have to happen.  The fact that she planned out how she was going to get from page 1 to page 3,500, how she was going to develop her characters, how she was going to create her world, shows just how brilliant this woman is.  Want an example of how horribly wrong things can go when you don’t plan out your end game?  Twilight.  ‘Nough said.

This arc of quality also allows for the reader to grow up with Harry.  Let me explain that statement.  In book one, we’re introduced to Harry at age 10.  His concerns are that of a 10 year-old; does he look silly with this hair cut, will he make friends at his new school, the world will cease to exist if he doesn’t pitch in and help?  (Okay, that last one might sound a little dramatic, but all kids seem to think they play a huge part in history – that fact that Harry actually does in his world isn’t the point here.)  In the next book, Rowling ratchets things up a notch – those concerns are still there, but now Harry is playing with a bit more fire, and things are starting to get a bit darker.  Cut to book seven where beloved characters are dropping dead left and right.  The genius of Rowling is that she’s written books that grow-up and mature, much like her readers.  By the end of the series, at 17, Harry is on the cusp of becoming a man, and has to make choices that really do result in a level of maturity that takes him into full-blown adulthood.

Next piece of evidence: the movies.  No shit.  The books made Rowling a household name – the movies made her rich like Midas; everything HP touched turned to gold.  Opening box offices for the HP movies always won at least the first weekend, and consistently won the first few.  The flicks played in theaters for months, then were released VOD or on DVD.  By a twist of fait (which Rowling obviously had nothing to do with), the movies were also released throughout the introduction of Blu-Ray, so Warner Bros (and Rowling) were able to double-dip on the video sales.  Undoubtedly though, Rowling’s ability to sell the movie right and maintain the level of control over the material she did proves her wily-ness.

How do I know she had a high level of control in brining her books to the silver screen?  Well now, that brings me to my next piece of evidence: the title of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.  The seventh and final book of the series builds on the discovery in the sixth book of the existence of the horcruxes created by the evil wizard to ensure his immortality (again, see point one – it’s more amazing than it sounds).  By all rights, the seventh book should have been titled HP and the Deathly Horcruxes: Shit’s about to get real, people!  But, she didn’t go there.  Instead, she chose to name the book for a new sub-plot story line that was introduced.  Why?  I think it’s because she knew that a two hour movie was never going to do justice to the type of ending her books needed to see on film.  By naming the book after an easily droppable plot point (and, I think the screen-play writers could have easily glossed over it in favour of the big finish that the over-arching story has), she ensured that there was no way in hell her characters were going to get short-shrift from Hollywood.  And it worked.  Warner Bros decided to split the final movie in two, and the edit job makes it clear they should be watched back-to-back without so much as a bathroom break in between.  J.K. Rowling, in an effort to protect her characters (since this last book was written after the movies had gone into production), named the book in such a way that guaranteed Warner Bros couldn’t cheep out on the film franchises’ ending.  Genius!

And, speaking of franchises… This broad knows how to ride a gravy train.  The books would probably have set her and her children up financially for life.  The movies are going to make sure that her kids and their kids get to go to really good schools and live in really nice houses for ever and ever.  The tie-in books, board games, and amusement park are enough to ensure that in six or seven generations, the Rowling decedents will still have enough money to cover up a ‘suspicious death’ (Kennedy-style).  Yes, she created a whole host of indelible characters, plot-lines and imaginary worlds, and yes, she deserves to get whatever she can out of that, but at a certain point, you have to ask: when is enough enough?  (I will take this opportunity to caution Rowling – please don’t head into George Lucas territory.  No one wants to see Harry Potter and the Crystal Scull, or in 30 years, the re-release of the HP movies “now in 3-D, with special effects!”  Know when to say no, I beg you.)

Finally, the last point in my litany of examples that prove Rowling is the smartest and wiliest author the world has ever know – The Casual Vacancy.  This woman could have sat back and rested on her laurels for life.  There was no reason she ever needed to put pen to paper again.  She could have ridden the HP train into the grave, and I don’t think anyone would have asked if that was the best of ideas.  But, Rowling has decided to try her hand at writing once more.  She fully acknowledged when this book deal was announced that it might not live up to her HP reputation, and that it would be a complete departure from what the world knows of her.  And she did it anyway.  If you think The Casual Vacancy isn’t going to rock the number one spot on all the best seller lists from now until Christmas, you’re out of your mind.  And, the funny thing is, Rowling can drop a literary duce on those pages, and she’s still going to make a killing, because everyone loves Harry Potter so damned much, we’re all waiting with baited breath for her next literary efforts.  Again, I call genius on this chick.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is my evidence for why we need to consider J.K. Rowling to be the most brilliant of authors.  From humble beginnings, Rowling has managed to create an empire and a future for herself from thin air – one might almost say, what she did was magic.  (Again, word play!)

Update: Check out my review on The Casual Vacancy here!

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