Image: Daniel Adel

Personally speaking, my difficulty with Hogwarts School for Witchcraft and Wizardry has always been the girls. Because at my elite British boarding school, you understand, there were no girls; gray cloisters and shadowy halls, yes, and ringing bells, and triangles of cold toast at breakfast, but no girls. When Matron applied the anti-headlice ointment, combing up our schoolboy mops into reeking little pompadours—no girls. When fainting swept the school like some hot new dance, and we slumped from our pews in morning chapel—no girls!

At Hogwarts, however, the remote and castellated establishment where Harry Potter pursues his studies, there are girls everywhere: eccentric girls, stalwart girls, mean girls, ghost girls who live in the toilet, girls you get crushes on, girls you can kiss … Is this how a sorcerer is made? By shaking a leg at the school dance? Shouldn’t his education be more like mine—which is to say, a lonely flare of unrequited hormones?

James Parker follows Harry and his cohorts through an enchated but awkward school dance

Perhaps, perhaps. But then, J. K. Rowling, bazillionaire author of the Harry Potter series, didn’t write the books for me. And to her global readership, a girl-less Harry Potter, who waves his wand in an erotic vacuum, is no Harry Potter at all. The movie adaptations of her work have served as a sort of time-lapse study of puberty: we’ve seen Harry (played by Daniel Radcliffe) sprout up from a round-faced minor, blinking through the fumes of his latest supernatural act, into a bony young man with the pallor and intensity of an English First World War poet. He’s grown moody, complicated, agonized even. And the closer he gets to sex, the trickier things become. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, released in 2007, almost finished him off, as his hesitant courtship of a fellow Hogwarts student (the demure Cho Chang) proceeded simultaneously with the onslaughts of a rampant snakelike essence from within his own brain. “Look at me!” he implored the great mage Dumbledore, headmaster of Hogwarts. “What’s happening to me?!”

How to handle this blend of teen drama and high fantasy is part of the peculiar challenge that Rowling’s work has posed to filmmakers. (This July sees the release of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, the sixth and penultimate movie in the series; the last one, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, will be a two-parter, with its first installment scheduled for late 2010.) Rich as they are in basilisks and Triwizard Tournaments, her books advance, narratively, at an absolute crawl. There’s the paralyzing obsession with bureaucracy, for instance: hearings, edicts, exams, disqualifications, issues of procedure, administrative reversals … Can you think of another children’s story-cycle that features so many frigging committees? Add to this Rowling’s perpetual, enveloping burble of talk, as Harry and his chums puzzle earnestly through the latest goings-on, and you have a sense of pacing that is more Thirtysomething than Lord of the Rings. The younger reader—for whom reality actually moves like this, in close whorls of micro-plot—is delighted. The adult, less so; which father or mother, reading Rowling aloud to small, pricked ears, hasn’t sighed at the onset of another four-page debriefing of Harry by Hermione and/or Ron?

Attempts to filmically infuse this material with a Tolkien-esque sweep and drive will fail, as the thudding Prince Caspian—the second adaptation of C. S. Lewis’s Narnia series—failed: the intimacy evaporated, the pageantry became stultifying, the audience went zzzz. How then to keep the asses in the seats? Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, both directed by Chris Columbus, clanked rather obviously between their megabucks set pieces—Quidditch matches and dueling wands and so on. (In a minor mode, though, Columbus did do a lovely job with Moaning Myrtle, the dead girl who haunts the Hogwarts bathroom like a spectral plumber’s friend: “I was sitting in the U-bend,” she gurgles, “thinking about death.”) Alfonso Cuarón had a gift for magical detail—for the realism, if you like, of the violently fantastic. His Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban was a string of moments: Harry’s godfather, Sirius Black, getting nihilistically face-sucked by a dementor, with tiny white-hot filaments of soul drifting upward from his parted lips; or the hippogriff Buckbeak, swooping low with Harry on his back, trailing innocent dinosaur knuckles in the waters of the lake.

Then there was saucy Mike Newell, director of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, whose camera candidly appraised the bottoms of the beautiful French girls from Beauxbatons Academy as they sashayed across the flagstones of Hogwarts. Newell and his fellow Englishman David Yates—director of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, and future director of both installments of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows—have a good grip on teenhood. Newell’s touch is lighter; we remember Harry’s friend, the sallow and sturgeon-lipped Ron Weasley, sitting stricken in the wake of one of the aforementioned French girls: “There she was, walking by.” He moans. “You know, I like it when they walk … Always like looking at them from behind.” Harry in Yates’s Order of the Phoenix is gaunt, stormy, traumatized: “Out there, when you’re a second away from being murdered, or watching a friend die right before your eyes—you don’t know what that’s like.” But he also shares a lovely kiss with Cho beneath the hovering mistletoe.

The epic scale, however, can be irresistible, even for directors as crafty as Newell and Yates. Shots of Hogwarts that begin at skydiver altitude and then plummet inward; wizards wielding their lightnings; etc. It’s hard to retain an essential smallness under such provocations. Consider Voldemort, Harry’s nemesis, otherwise known as the Dark Lord, He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named or (less formally) You-Know-Who. The obvious comparison is with Tolkien’s Sauron. Voldemort menaces, he gets about—like Sauron, he is always “on the move” or “gathering his forces”—but he never achieves the Sauronic heaviness, that power-drone of malignancy broadcasting steadily from the tower of Barad-dûr. His true nature, in fact, is that of a lavishly ruined human. He is weak, needy; he must have Harry’s blood to prolong his existence. In the movies he is played by Ralph Fiennes, his features smeared and flattened as if pressing into the world through a thick film of ill will. He corresponds, perhaps, to a more Augustinian conception of evil than Tolkien’s: he’s a negative, a “loss of good.” There’s pathos here, people—an anagram of “I am Voldemort,” I have just discovered, is “To maim Dr. Love.” None of the movies so far, invested as they all are in his spellbinding badness, has quite caught the vulnerability of this character.

An overstatement of the spectacular may carry other hazards, too—hazards not aesthetic but (ahem) moral. The young reader lowers her copy of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and looks blinkingly about her bedroom; she hears her parents downstairs in the kitchen, accompanied by their usual battery of domestic sound effects. A question forms in her soul: Is she special like Harry, an undiscovered superstar in the hidden world of magic? Or is she just—oh, crap—a Muggle? Because the ordinary, unmagical human race, as presented in the Harry Potter books, doesn’t appear to have much going for it. The Dursleys, among whom Harry spends the first 11 years of his life, are the sort of people the poet John Betjeman had in mind when he invited the friendly bombs to fall on Slough: suburban barbarians who “talk of sports and makes of cars / In various bogus Tudor bars / And daren’t look up and see the stars / But belch instead.” Decent, non-supremacist wizards are supposed to stick up for Muggledom, but these people are ghastly. They live at Number Four Privet Drive, and go pottering off in their car to the Best-Kept Lawn Competition. They hate magic. They hate Harry. Rendered doubly grotesque in the movie adaptations (Richard Griffiths hissing and squealing like a large, pink kettle), the Dursley household is little more than a boot camp for anarchism.

Is it this touch of contempt for ordinary mortals that inspired Father Gabriele Amorth, the Vatican’s exorcist in chief, to declare that Rowling’s work bears “the signature of the Prince of Darkness”? Probably not—though the Christian response to Harry Potter has been interesting. Michael O’Brien, the Catholic novelist and author of A Landscape With Dragons: The Battle for Your Child’s Mind, has deplored Rowling’s neo-Gnostic tendencies, her promotion of the practice of sorcery, and her overly rosy view of human potential. “There is no original sin in Potterworld,” he complained in 2007, upon the publication of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. (Really? The fact that Slytherin, one of the four houses of Hogwarts, is by tradition full of rotters and wrong ’uns and Voldemort sympathizers—that bad-egg-ness has, so to speak, an institutional claim on the school, and a fixed percentage of its soul—suggests to me a fairly undeluded view of human nature.) Then there are those Christians who find Potterworld quite congenial—charged, indeed, with the Good News. Like John Granger, author of Looking for God in Harry Potter:

I am convinced that the fundamental reason for the astonishing popularity of the Harry Potter novels is their ability to meet a spiritual longing for some experience of the truths of life, love, and death taught by Christianity but denied by secular culture.

So which is it? Is J. K. Rowling a sneaky occultist or a mistress of pious allegory? Both. Neither. Her books contain infernal hints, Christological echoes, centaurs, phoenixes, house-elves and Moaning Myrtle—a postmodern superfluity of myth and invention into which she dips and dips and keeps on dipping, because it will never be exhausted, and it will never quite add up. The movie adaptations, gorgeous and thrill-packed but somehow incoherent, bring all this to the surface. There isn’t a Middle-Earth-style cosmogony to be extrapolated here, or a glimmering Narnian vision: the pleasures of the Harry Potter saga are more local, more eccentric. If you haven’t read Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, for example, and are planning to attend the movie, you can look forward to discovering the identity of Hogwarts’ new Defense Against the Dark Arts professor. The post’s previous occupants have all come to grief, one by one, like drummers from Spinal Tap: Quirinus Quirrell (Voldemortian possession), Gilderoy Lockhart (amnesia), Remus Lupin (lycanthropy), Alastor Moody (identity theft), Dolores Umbridge (humiliation, retreat) … Who’s next? Very important for Harry. The whole matter should be discussed, at length, with his two best friends—the lovely Hermione, the loyal Ron. And after that, homework. Enchantment, ordinariness, and a dab of nonsense—it’s a portrait of the wizard as a young man.

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