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.