Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone wasn’t a very promising start, but I was committed to reading all the Harry Potter books, and so, I powered through the second book in the series, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. Now, if you go online and search for “worst Harry Potter book”, you will find that the overwhelming majority of people think Chamber of Secrets is the weakest entry in the franchise. Being, as I am, a complete novice to the world of reading Harry Potter novels, I must assume that all those fans must have their reasons for not feeling particularly fond of this book, but in my opinion, they are absolutely crazy. It may very well be that books three through seven are all superior to Chamber of Secrets, but there is no way it is the worst in the series, because it already is, in almost every single front, a far superior book to The Philosopher’s Stone.
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets: The Book
The truth about Chamber of Secrets, and the fact of why fans might find it relatively weak compared to the other books, is that, in many ways, it is essentially a remake of the first book with a few tweaks here and there. If my memory of the movies serves me correctly, the following books should be more diverse and original in their plot structure, and since originality is one of the most valued aspects of stories, it makes sense that fans would feel relatively disappointed by a story that feels a whole lot like the one they just read. It’s kind of easy to find the beats author J.K. Rowling was trying to repeat: the plot revolves around Hogwarts hiding a mysterious magical object, and you have our heroes suspecting of a character (Snape in the first book, Malfoy in this one) that ends up being innocent. You also have a Quidditch match in which an enchantment puts Harry in danger, and a scene towards the end of the book in which our heroes venture into the dangers of the Forbidden Forest.
I’m not gonna lie. The first few chapters of Chamber of Secrets are so casually inconsequential or pseudo-mysterious that they had me fearing I had made the wrong decision when I decided to start this series. But once the action moves to Hogwarts, the novel revealed its biggest strength, and one of the fundamental reasons why it is superior to The Philosopher’s Stone: it is a very tightly plotted mystery. Unlike the first book, almost everything that happens serves to move the plot forward. The magical elements that are introduced aren’t only there to have the reader go “ooh, magic”, they are there to reveal something about the mystery Harry and his friends are chasing after. Now, the first part of the book does feature a lot of elements that don’t really serve a purpose (floo pouder, garden gnomes), but like I said, once we get to Hogwarts, the train starts moving forward, and it rarely makes any unnecessary stops. The fact that the plot is so well connected make Chamber of Secrets feel much less episodic than The Philosopher’s Stone, getting rid of one of that book’s biggest problems.
Perhaps the smartest move on Rowling’s part in crafting Chamber of Secrets, after spending more time plotting its mystery, is that she decides to pay off many elements that were mentioned on the sidelines of the first book. Having Harry’s ability to speak Parseltongue, and the history behind Hagrid’s expulsion from Hogwarts play a key role in the mystery behind the Chamber of Secrets is not an incredibly difficult or unexpected thing to do, but it’s Rowling playing the perfect move at the perfect time, letting us know that she is trying to craft something bigger, and more epic than just the adventures of a kid wizard at boarding school. It’s basically her way of letting us know that she is taking this shit seriously, and I appreciated that a lot.
Since we are on the subject of Rowling herself, I must say that I think she got much more comfortable as a writer between the first and second book. Her sense of humor and predilection for the grotesque feel much more oriented towards the big picture of the story she is telling than just as a quirky way of making things magical, which also results in her writing feeling much more original and personal, and not so much a copy (or result of the influence) of other children’s authors. At this point, I would say that Rowling’s biggest asset as a writer seems to be her ability to plot things out, and to write thinking of the big picture. Her actual writing, in terms of style, remains a little flat for my taste. She is particularly bad at describing action sequences, such as the passages involving the flying car, and the giant spider, which are by far the weakest and most boring of the book, despite the fact that they are supposed to be thrilling and exciting. I also feel like she has trouble putting her more complicated concepts into words, as shown in the long and complicated sentences she has to use when trying to describe any moment in which Harry speaks Parseltongue.
So, the book is well plotted, but does it have any kind of thematic resonance? Well, I don’t know if thematic is necessarily the right word, but there is something that definitely spoke to me about this book. I don’t know about you, but when I was in elementary and middle school, people at my school often came up with the most ludicrous urban legends about students dying at school, or ghosts haunting the auditorium. I think there is something fascinating and essential to the nature of kids that makes them want to turn their lives in an adventure, and the idea that your school might hold many unanswered secrets is one of the easiest and most exciting ways of making that a reality. In that sense, I think the whole mystery surrounding the Chamber of Secrets, speaks wonderfully to this aspect of childhood.
Also addressing some of the questions that lingered after my reading of the first novel, Chamber of Secrets introduced the idea of discrimination and racism in the magic world. In the previous post, I wrote about how I felt a certain dismissive distance on part of the wizards regarding the “muggle” world. Well, this book, actually uses said dismissal as a plot point. We are introduced to Draco Malfoy’s father, Lucius, who is even more cartoonishly evil than his son, and who is a deeply racist wizard, believing in the superiority of pure-bloods over half-blood and mud-bloods (people that come from muggle families). And on the other side, we are introduced to Ron’s dad, Arthur Weasley, who is fascinated by muggle culture, and wants to know all about our world. This must be the point in the series in which the study I mentioned in my post about The Philosopher’s Stone, which revealed that children who read the Harry Potter books are more tolerant towards minority groups, comes into play. I see how this might be the case, but remain a little skeptical about this book’s depiction of good and evil.
The world of Harry Potter seems to be very clearly delineated when it comes to showing who is good and who is bad. If Harry likes the character, he or she is good. If he doesn’t, then they’re probably evil. The one exception might be Snape, but even if he isn’t exactly evil, he is kind of a huge, unfair dick, so the fact remains that Harry Potter has surprisingly good judgment for a twelve-year-old. The book also indulges in that most irritating tendency of making people who are bad also be ugly or grotesque in their appearance. This started with the Dursleys in the first book, but it continued in Chamber of Secrets, where the appearance of the Slythering Quidditch captain is compared to that of a troll, and especially in the character of Millicent Bullstrode, who we know is bad because 1. she is described as a big and manly woman, and 2. she is a Slythering.
This last aspect brings me to the thing that drives me crazy about the logic in behind Hogwarts and the world of Harry Potter. This has to do with the story of Hogwarts, but since explaining it might take a while, I’ll try to make it simple by saying that the story of Hogwarts reflects that of the X-Men, and that Salazar Slythering is basically Magneto. Now, the thing that doesn’t make sense is that, despite the fact that most everyone agrees that Slythering was a dark, dangerous, intolerant, evil wizard, and despite the fact that he fought with the other founding members and left Hogwarts, there is still a house at the school that sports his name. A house, by the way, where all the selfish and dangerously stupid students go. I am no educator, but isolating all the troubled and mean people seems to me like an incredibly problematic pedagogical decision that can only result in disaster. Like that one time when Voldemort, the most dangerous and evil wizard the world has ever since was a member of Slythering House. Not, I could excuse the existence of Slythering if Salazar had gone off and founded his own school for dark wizards, but Slythering within Hogwarts only goes to prove that wizards are stupid.
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (The Movie)
Full disclosure: it’s very late and night as I type this, and I really want to go to sleep, so my thoughts on Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (the movie) are going to be brief. Lucky for me, there isn’t really all that much to say about it. Like the book, it is essentially a remake of the first movie. Unlike the book, it doesn’t manage to be substantially better than its predecessor. Overall I think it’s a superior movie to Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, but certainly not by much.
Let’s start with the good stuff. First off, the leap in the quality of the visual effects is astounding. The Harry Potter series has always had problems with visual effects, in my opinion. Now, the quality of the effects and the quality of the movies don’t always go hand in hand, but the effects of Philosopher’s Stone were simply atrocious. Chamber of Secrets does a smart thing in which it uses a lot of practical effects instead of relying as heavily as its predecessor in CGI, which makes everything look much more realistic, and, well, magical. And even in the instances in which Chamber of Secrets does use CGI, it is of a very high quality. Dobby the house elf, for example, is a 100% CGI creation, that, while not as sophisticated as some of the work that was being done in other movies at the same time (Gollum in Lord of the Rings, for example), is surprisingly effective. The filmmakers wisely limit his appearances to dimly-lit scenes in which he wouldn’t look too fake, and they render him with a painterly texture that blends him very well into the background. Overall, they did a fantastic work integrating him into the movie.
The other huge asset of the film is Kenneth Branagh as Gilderoy Lockhart. Branagh seems to be making fun of his own grand and Shakespearean style of acting in the way he portrays the pompous and overly theatrical Lockhart. Like I said when I wrote about The Philosopher’s Stone, this series’ biggest strength was always its casting of interesting British actors, and this time around, Branagh walks away with the movie. But going into the things that don’t work about the movie, the first thing that comes to mind are the three lead children. Chamber of Secrets has the unfortunate fate of taking place at a time in Harry Potter’s history where the child actors were at their most awkward moment possible. They had gone past the cutesy amateurisms of the first movie, but they were really far from being good performers. Daniel Radcliffe and Emma Watson are painfully bad. Rupert Grint, meanwhile, is incredibly over-the-top and unbelievable as a human being, but is at least making some choices. The same goes for Tom Felton as Draco Malfoy, who isn’t good, but commits to the bitchyness of his role, giving us facial expressions such as this:
The biggest problem with the movie, though (besides Chris Columbus overall hackiness as a director, but that was a problem in the first movie too), is that the book is too well plotted, and thus, it is really fucking hard to cut stuff out in order to make a movie that moves at the pace that a fun, children’s adventure should move. As a matter of fact, the pace of the movie is kind of horrible, certainly thanks to the combination of the tricky adaptation and a filmmaker of the (lack of) talent of Columbus. Be it as it may, the movie is simply just too boring, and at two hours and forty minutes, it is an offensively long slog. Really, even if it is strictly speaking better than the previous one, there is no reason for you to watch this movie if you have read the book.
Up Next: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, but I must make a disclaimer. I am a slow reader, and now that the books are getting longer and the fall semester is about to start, it might be more than a couple of weeks between installments of this series. But I do plan to read all the books and post about them as soon as I can manage to do so!