Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
November 5, 2001
First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times
, Greensboro, NC.
Next week the Harry Potter movie will open, and it will be far and away the
highest-grossing movie of the year.
It may even be the best movie of the year -- which would be astonishing,
because it has a director, Chris Columbus, who is famous for making extremely
expensive dumb films, and for taking very fine actors and coaxing utterly soulless
performances from them.
If "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" is a good movie, it will be
because it is faithful to a great book.
Or, perhaps I should say, the first volume of a great book. A story so
powerful, a book so brilliant in its artistry that it has made readers out of a
famously illiterate generation and struck terror in the hearts of the elite of the
Month after month the Harry Potter books rode the top of the New York
Times bestseller list. As each new book in the series appeared, it joined the others,
so that the first, second, and third positions were often occupied by Harry Potter.
The American literary elite was so mortified by having the lists dominated
by a children's book series that they kicked it off the NY Times list entirely,
putting the Harry Potter books on a new "children's" bestseller list -- a childish,
cowardly, mean-spirited move that would have discredited the NY Times list if not
for the fact that it was already a joke.
What infuriates the literati? Oh, they talk about how Harry Potter is just a
fad, how children's books aren't "literature," how these books are proof that
English-language readers are even dumber than they thought.
But the truth is, in fact, the opposite. Unlike Pokemon or the Teenage
Mutant Ninja Turtles, the Harry Potter movement is reader-driven. Kids who
thought they hated to read because they had hated everything anybody tried to
make them read in school suddenly became avid readers of big thick books that
were extraordinarily demanding, not just in vocabulary and syntax and culture, but
in moral reasoning and character development.
Harry Potter is making a generation of children smarter and better.
And those who sneer at these books as sub-literary are just as dim-witted as
the people who warn that Harry Potter is promoting witchcraft and satanism. (To
those who actually believe this, I can only say that the children who read these
books are sane enough to know the difference between fantasy and reality, a skill
that the adults who want to "protect" them ought to acquire.)
It is obvious that J.K. Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter books, has
already earned a permanent place in world literature, alongside Louisa Mae Alcott,
Robert Louis Stephenson, and Mark Twain, who also wrote books that children
loved, and who also were phenomenally popular during their lifetimes despite the
harsh criticism of literary elitists.
In fact, one can make a good case for the idea that children are often the
guardians of the truly great literature of the world, for in their love of story and
unconcern for stylistic fads and literary tricks, children unerringly gravitate toward
truth and power.
That's why great literature often "trickles down" to children where it
becomes beloved and endures. One thinks of Jane Austen, Charles Dickens,
J.R.R. Tolkien, Margaret Mitchell, Isaac Asimov, Frank Herbert, and many other
writers whose books were written for adults but have become the favorites ofgenerations of younger readers.
These past few months, I have read the books aloud to my seven-year-old
daughter, except for the portion of the fourth book we listened to on tape during a
recent car trip to Florida. Zina was enthralled, of course; but so was I, and so was
my wife, who only entered the series with the fourth book.
These aren't children's books, really. They are morally subtle, deftly
humorous, with a depth that rewards repeated reading and a satirical edge that only
adults can fully appreciate. J.K. Rowling is not just talented, she's also smart and
wise and just the tiniest bit viperous as she takes on the world around her and
shows it for what it really is. These are, in fact, serious books by a first-rate
It may well be that when Rowling finishes the presumably seven-volume
Harry Potter series, we may have on our hands a work of such enduring value that
it will be counted among the great works of literature, regardless of the age of the
So when you hear someone sneer at the Harry Potter books, either they
haven't read them, and are therefore too ignorant to be listened to, or they haven't
understood them, and are therefore not clever enough to take part in serious adult
And whether the movie is good or not hardly matters, because the books
will outlast the movie -- as they will also outlast all of the books that won the
adult literary prizes in the years when the Harry Potter books appeared.
Briefly noted: I thought the best movie so far this year was "Shrek," but
there's a new one that may well be better: "Monsters, Inc." This animated movie
from Pixar shows that once again these filmmakers know how to tell a story with
wit, originality, and heart. You don't have to have a child with you to enjoy it.
John Goodman and Billy Crystal do terrific voice work in the leading roles, but
they are completely blown off the screen by the brilliant performance of the
unknown (to me at least) actress who voices the part of the toddler whose antics
drive the plot.
Last week's news: I can only suppose that Harris-Teeter must have spies at
the Rhino Times, because the night before the appearance of the column in which I
whined about how they keep removing all my favorite items from the shelves, I
went into the Pisgah Church store and found, for the first time in more than two
years, the Planters chocolate-covered cashews and the 7-oz. paper cups. To which
I can only say: So where are my smoothies, my Yoplait Light Key Lime Pie
yogurt, my Scrunges, my Job Squad towels, and my DiGiorno fresh pasta?