Saturday, July 7, 2012

Fabricated Fantasy: Harry Potter and His Dark Materials

Despite what many of them facetiously spout at interviews, writers do not write for themselves. There is a difference however between writing in order to get a message across to a target audience and sheer pandering or exploitation. In most cases there is an obvious tendency to play to social trends or sink to the good old lowest-common-denominators of sex and power (like Burroughs' old John Carter books against which i recently railed.) In some cases, it can be a bit more subtle.

Fantasy literature tends to appeal to the same part of all of us which looks to religion for comfort. In fact, most fantasy books tend to have gods in the background, reassuring readers that there is a purpose behind it all, maintaining that safety net between our inquisitiveness and nihilism. The success of book series like Narnia and Redwall is hardly surprising in this light but they are at least honest about what they're feeding their supposedly impressionable young audience.

It is slightly more nauseating to see cold-blooded exploitation of the predictable weaknesses of character present in the core niche audience of fantasy books. Many of us turn to fantasy and science fiction as nerdy, outcast youngsters. We seek not only escapist fantasies but reassurance that personal ability will be rewarded with social status and fulfillment of the usually repressed sexuality of an outcast teenager. Books like the Harry Potter and His Dark Materials series play on this desperation in the most nonthreatening way possible. Whatever merit they may have pales when compared to the evident effort put into worming into readers' insecurities.

I will admit to only having seen one Harry Potter movie. I've never read the books. The basic setup is itself as trite as any summer action movie: a hero that's just 'special' in a way which doesn't threaten the audience by making them feel stupid like Ender Wiggin would is given a love interest and a comic relief sidekick and is placed in the school we nerds and geeks all wish we'd attended. I don't mean the bit about magic, but the instructors capable of recognizing and siding with a more gifted pupil. Does he get to sit at the cool kids' table too?
His Dark Materials starts out slightly less blatant and by the second book even acquires a satisfying anti-religious slant but by the third book degrades to one of the most idiotic endings i can remember. The multiverse gets saved because two teenagers acknowledge their sexuality? Really? All the potential for showing a vast, nihilistic cosmos in which myth loses its sheen to harsh physical reality, a la George Martin's Fevre Dream, is lost in a halfhearted feel-good commentary against religious celibacy and adolescent sexual frustration.

The sad part is just how susceptible we are to this sort of manipulation. I would like to think of scifi/fantasy nerds as a more discerning audience than the brainless masses, but it's obvious that the insecurities we acquire during our childhoods leave gaping holes in our mental defenses, easily exploited by anything that encases our seventh-grade wish fulfillment in flowery smokescreens passed off as fantasy worlds.

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