I never really liked the Harry Potter books, and for years I’ve been trying to articulate to myself why. Probably part of it is the determination to be suspicious of anything for which there’s a lot of hype. They didn’t quite take with me when they first came out, even after the girl I was dating made me read the first one. It wasn’t until years later, when I saw the first part of the seventh movie with the same girl (who was by that time my wife) that I decided the story was getting gritty enough to make me curious. I read each book over the Thanksgiving/Christmas holidays one year in graduate school, pausing after each volume to watch the movie adaptation. It was fun.
Now we’re doing the same thing with our twin eight-year-olds. This time, each time they both finish a book we’ve been watching the movie adaptation in the planetarium. We had a few of these “Harry Potter Parties” over the past summer and have made it up through Order of the Phoenix. After we finished the fourth movie, I figured I’d jump back in. I hadn’t read any of them in years, and Goblet of Fire had always been my wife’s favorite.
I still don’t get it. Part of me does, sure: it’s fun. Better than anything else, Rowling captures something (I’m not sure what) that makes you want to go back to Hogwarts with the three main characters each year. The magical boarding school aspect is fun. And as the novels progress, the growing threat of You-Know-Who’s return starts to become compelling. Pulling that out across several novels and following the Orwellian machinations of the Ministry of Magic to deny it eventually starts to build nicely.
But so many other books do this sort of thing so much better.
I had difficulty finishing Goblet of Fire. For one thing, I knew how it was going to end, so there wasn’t really anything driving me to finish it. (I honestly don’t understand how people read these books over and over again.) There’s a mystery, but Harry doesn’t really do anything to solve it. In fact, in this book Harry’s frustratingly passive. He spends most of the narrative complaining about how he doesn’t understand what’s going on, and the story plays out around him. This becomes quite a trend in the later books, aggravated by Harry’s growing adolescent angst. Maybe this is one of the reason the books appealed to kids who read it at a time when they were going through similar things in their lives, at least as far as feeling kind of powerless and at the mercy of circumstances.
Maybe Goblet is a good volume to analyze (though I’m really not going to spend much time doing that) because it’s a microcosm for my primary complaint about the series. As much fun as it is, and as much as Rowling has done just enough world-building to make it work, the whole series is stuff happening to Harry. Possibly that starts to change in the later books (which I don’t recall as sharply as this one I’ve just reread), but as far as book four Harry continues to be a fairly self-centered character who bumbles from one near-disaster to the next, shepherded through by people who are either trying to kill him or trying to protect him.
I guess the character I resonate with the most is Snape, because I kind of share his evaluation of Harry. And, though this isn’t directly relevant to Goblet, Snape’s ultimate fate is still my biggest (and in my opinion most credible) complaint against the series as a whole. A single outstanding question runs through the entire series, which is basically: which side is Snape on? And though we get an answer (not in Goblet), we never really get a resolution. Or rather, we get a resolution so pathetic as to not be worth the multi-book build up.
But I’m trying to give a review of Goblet. As far as the series goes, it illustrates that things are getting serious in the most blatant way possible: by killing a character. But as far as a stand-alone book, a tidy little puzzle gets wrapped up through last-minute revelations and Harry’s participation in the Tri-Wizard Tournament. Sure, the movie leaves out a lot of “plot details,” but it captures the essence: stuff happens to Harry. Serious stuff. But his friends help him out. Also powerful wizards.
But come on, give the kid a break. He’s really dealing with a lot of stuff right now. You know how his parents died, right?
To be absolutely fair though, watching my sons read through them and seeing how excited they got has been fantastic. I don’t have to be a huge fan to enjoy their enthusiasm or to enjoy watching them attempt to walk down the stairs, eat lunch, or do various household tasks with their noses in a pair of a five-hundred-page books. If Rowling is a gateway drug to Tolkien, Lewis, Le Guin, or L’Engle, then a million points to Gryffindor.