Dumbledore: Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell


I was all set to write about J. K. Rowling’s announcement that Albus Dumbledore, headmaster of Hogwarts, was gay, but Jason Mittell over at JustTV beat me to it. Rather than reiterating his excellent post, I’ll just point you to it with this link.

Here’s a segment of the comment I left on Jason’s blog, highlighting what I see as a particularly odd aspect of the whole event:

On a structural level, it’s interesting to note that Rowling is commenting on and characterizing an absence in her text, a profound lacuna. It’s not just that Dumbledore’s queerness is there between the lines if you know to read for it (though with one stroke, JKR has assured that future readers will do so, and probably quite convincingly!). No, his being gay is so completely offstage that it’s tantamount to not existing at all, and hence, within the terms of the text, is completely irrelevant. It’s as though she said, “By the way, during the final battle with Voldemort, Harry was wearing socks that didn’t match” or “I didn’t mention it at the time, but one of the Hogwarts restrooms has a faucet that leaked continuously throughout the events of the seven books.” Of course, the omission is far more troubling than that, because it involves the (in)visibility of a marginalized identity: it’s more as though she chose to reveal that a certain character had black skin, though she never thought to mention it before. While the move seems on the surface to validate color-blindness, or queer-blindness, with its blithe carelessness, the ultimate message is a form of “stay hidden”; “sweep it under the rug”; and of course, “Don’t ask, don’t tell.”

We’ve got two more movies coming out, so of course it will be interesting to see how the screenwriters, directors, production designers, etc. — not to mention Michael Gambon — choose to incorporate the news about Dumbledore into the ongoing mega-experiment in cinematic visualization. My strong sense is that it will change things not at all: the filmmakers will become, if anything, scrupulously, rabidly conscientious about adapting the written material “as is.”

But I disagree, Jason, with your contention that Rowling’s statement is not canonical. Come on, she’s the only voice on earth with the power to make and unmake the Potter reality! She could tell us that the whole story happened in the head of an autistic child, a la St. Elsewhere, and we’d have to believe it, whether we liked it or not — unless of course it could be demonstrated that JKR was herself suffering from some mental impairment, a case of one law (medical) canceling out another (literary).

For better or worse, she’s the Author — and if that concept might be unraveling in the current mediascape, all the more reason that people will cling to it, a lifejacket keeping us afloat amid a stormy sea of intepretation.

Visualizing Harry Potter, Part 1

Recently, a couple of quotes caught my eye and got me thinking about the ongoing enterprise of visualizing Harry Potter – of taking J. K. Rowling’s seven-book series and translating, or to borrow Lev Manovich’s term, transcoding them into moving-image media like film and videogames. In this post I’ll explore some issues around the movie adaptations, centering on the use of special effects and visual effects to create Harry’s world of wizardry and magic. In part two, I’ll take the argument in a somewhat different direction, considering the impact of the movie versions on Rowling’s storytelling.

The first quote is from Roger Ebert’s review of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (David Yates, 2007). Although Ebert didn’t like Phoenix as much as some of the other installments in the series, he praises the film as a technical object, closing with a line that I found rather remarkable:

There is no denying that “Order of the Phoenix” is a well-crafted entry in the “Potter” series. The British have a way of keeping up production values in a series, even when the stories occasionally stumble. There have been lesser James Bond movies, but never a badly made one. And the necessary use of CGI here is justifiable, because what does magic create, anyway, other than real-life CGI without the computers?


The second quote is from Jason Mittell’s blog, and probably deserves a spoiler warning for those who haven’t yet finished Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. I’ve omitted a few details in order to keep from giving away too much:

DH features the best action scenes in the whole series, with a completely engaging and clear set of battles at the end, and what might be the best action sequence in the series, [SPOILER REDACTED]. At the end, I felt Rowling was issuing a challenge to Warner Bros. to see how much they’d be willing to invest in special effects to film the [MORE SPOILERS REDACTED] …


Here too, the last line speaks volumes (even with bits missing) about how special effects function nowadays – and more important, how they are imagined as functioning within a transmedia economy. Ebert suggests not just a metaphorical but an actual equivalence between that old saw “movie magic” and the “actual” marvels of magic that belong to Harry Potter’s storyworld. Certainly he views both as fictions – Hollywood trickery versus a writer’s fanciful imagination – but what comes through in his statement is something different: a new faith that visual effects, specifically computer-generated imagery or CGI, can bring the impossible into existence. By characterizing magic as “real-life CGI without the computers,” Ebert’s words do double ideological duty, simultaneously glamorizing and deglamorizing the “magic” of special effects. In the present day, he seems to be saying, CG artists possess a godlike power of creation. In the fantasy realm, meanwhile, witches and sorcerors can be considered “mere” technicians – skilled entertainers doing their job.


One could take Ebert’s words as signaling a collapse of reality into illusion, a conflation of the spectacular and the material a la Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle (1967). His comments could also be seen as redefining technology in such a way that its hardware (and by association the economic basis of its production and deployment) disappears from view; “CGI without the computers” suggests nothing so much as the joyously overblown rhetoric (and equally overblown vilification) of the virtual-reality (VR) movement in the 1990s. My take on it is slightly different. I think Ebert speaks, more or less unconsciously, from a moment in media evolution where the replication of fictional “worlds” across a variety of platforms – including videogames, in whose interactive arenas special effects become weighty matters of “life” and “death” – has granted those worlds an indeterminate status, weaving them into our daily reality. The world isn’t becoming “faker,” but stories, their events, and characters are becoming “realer.” CG effects are merely the most visible site of this realignment.


Mittell takes the argument about special effects in a different but related direction, speculating that the literary version of FX – fantastical events as described on the page – work in dialogue (and, he provocatively suggests, in tension) with media industries whose fortunes depend on successful realizations of those FX onscreen. Is Rowling really setting the bar higher, “issuing a challenge to Warner Brothers,” by writing such elaborate action sequences? (Trust me, Jason’s right on this: Deathly Hallows closes with some doozies, and frankly these pages left me as fatigued as the final hour of The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King [Peter Jackson, 2003].) Or is she in a kind of pas de deux with the visualization industry, steering her stories precisely to the kind of events that fill movie screens with thousands of characters in chaotic interaction?


The situation is difficult to gauge precisely because one now reads Harry Potter with the movies in mind, accompanying the print with at least sporadic visual associations distilled from the films’ contents. Many sequences in Deathly Hallows struck me as excessively cinematic, tilted toward some future storyboard: one minor instance comes early in the book, when characters encounter a roomful of colorful paper airplanes that are really interoffice memos in the Ministry of Magic. Maybe because I had just seen Order of the Phoenix, which memorably gives form to the Ministry and its darting airborne memos, the book’s scene immediately “read” in cinematic terms. But would I have had this sensation even without seeing any of the movies? Is it possible that Rowling is just that good, that descriptive, a writer?


I’m not saying any of this is a bad thing; indeed, I’m excited to witness the gigantic syncopated rhythms of a vastly profitable and popular media system that coordinates its printed and filmic incarnations with the grace of those balletic paper airplanes. But I do think we need to carefully dissect the processes involved in the transcoding – in the visualization – and suggest that special visual effects are a central place to begin the investigation.


Coming Up: In part two, I’ll talk about the cover art and chapter illustrations of Mary GrandPre, illustrator of the Harry Potter books, and consider how these images both set a visual agenda for the stories and mutate in step with the movies’ casting decisions and production design.

Harry Potter 3D

I very much planned today’s expedition to see Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix as an experiential field trip. I’m a fan of the books, have been speeding my way through #7 (Deathly Hallows), and would have seen the film of #5 in any case. But it happened to be playing near me on an Imax screen in 3D. The last movie I saw at an Imax theater was The Matrix Reloaded (2003), and though I noted last year’s release of Superman Returns in Imax 3D, the general awfulness of the 2D, economy-sized version of Bryan Singer’s weird waxwork tribute was enough to keep me from going. But Order of the Phoenix is getting strong reviews, and I wanted to sample this latest in high-tech visual splendor.

Order of the Phoenix poster

I already knew that, as with Superman Returns, only a portion of Phoenix would be 3D. What surprised me was how explicitly this was made clear to spectators, both as a matter of publicity and in ad-hoc fashion. Warnings were taped on the ticket window: ONLY THE LAST 20 MINUTES OF HARRY POTTER ARE IN 3D. The man who tore my ticket told me the samew thing, in a rote voice, as he handed me the yellow plastic glasses. As the lights went down, a recorded announcement reiterated the point a third time, except in a tone of awe and promise: “When you see the flashing icon at the bottom of the screen, put on your glasses, and prepare to enter the spectacular world of Harry Potter in an amazing action climax” was the gist of it.

All this tutoring, not just in the timing of the glasses, but the proper level of anticipation! Calibrating the audience’s reactions, indeed their perceptions, stoking the excitement while warning us not to get too excited. It went hand-in-hand with the promos for the Imax format itself, playing before the film and describing the awesome fidelity and sensory intensification we were about to experience. It seemed odd that we needed such schooling; aren’t 3D and giant-screen technologies about removing layers of mediation?

But of course that’s naïve; the most basic theory of cinematic spectacle reminds us that special effects (and Imax 3D, like sound, color, widescreen, and other threshold bumps, is a kind of meta-special-effect, an envelope or delivery system for smaller, more textually specific clusters of effects) function both as enhancements of illusion’s power and as a reminder of the technology involved in bringing the illusion to us. At the movies, we’re perfectly capable of believing in what we see while also believing in (and celebrating) its constructed nature; this is as true of special effects as it is of the editing that strings together a story, or our perception of Albus Dumbledore as being simultaneously the headmaster of Hogwarts and a performance (of subtle strength, in this case) by Michael Gambon.

And we do need the calibration of expectation, the technological tutoring, that frames the Imax 3D experience, as demonstrated by the woman buying tickets in front of me who asked, “What’s Knocked Up? Is that 3D? Do you have a list of which movies are 3D and which aren’t?” I’m not mocking her: in our imaginations, all movies are 3D, in the sense of possessing a life beyond the play of light and shadow, in the sense that all media “realities” are to some extent already “virtual.” The interesting thing right now is that the technological assist provided by 3D is so prohibitively expensive and labor-intensive that only short sequences – those corresponding, as in Order of the Phoenix, to climactic stretches of action – enjoy it. For the moment, 3D is a sharply bordered land within the larger imaginary domain of movies. Like any border crossing, there must be signposts to let us know when we are entering and leaving the territory.

What of Phoenix’s 3D itself? I sure got a kick out of it – that final 20 is fantastic in dramatic terms, and as critics have pointed out, it’s designed perfectly for spatial amplification. I had tears in my eyes by the end of it, but partly this was due to the strange nostalgia the 3D experience brought out – nostalgia for all the promises movies make, whether in 2006, 1956, or 1906: each era offering its technological tricks so eagerly, convinced of its charms but taking time to warn us not to get too excited, lest we be disappointed and never return.