Building a world without holes

The accepted wisdom with Rowling is that her world-building skills trump her thin characterisation and flat prose and make them irrelevant, but I think that’s a myth. She’s actually not all that good at world-building. What she’s good at is ideas, but in practice they don’t really fit together to present a coherent, working reality; the corollary is that some ideas are abandoned very quickly — they have to be, otherwise they’d unbalance the whole shebang — and most others aren’t extrapolated with any confidence.

As a consequence, watching Goblet of Fire is a bit like being continually nudged in the ribs, although in this case it’s me both doing and receiving the nudging. Mike Newell does a nice job, but with a very creaky book. The film has nothing of Cuarón’s dense visual style to help save it, and the book is a significant step down in quality after Prizoner of Azkaban: the plot is that of a child, all ‘this happened and then this happened and then something else happened’, with no real shape. It’s a sickly heart, beating only here and there. Without the audacity and breathless complexity of the actually-quite-magnificent last third of Prisoner, Goblet leaves Rowling’s world-building dangerously exposed: don’t look too closely, because it doesn’t make much sense.

Quidditch wouldn’t work. It just wouldn’t work. Pass quickly by the fact that a game might potentially be over in seconds, or might last for hour upon hour — becoming less likely to end the longer it lasts, as seekers tire — and take a look at the scoring system, which is extraordinarily weighted in favour of the catching of the Golden Snitch. Essentially the players other than the seekers are quite irrelevant, both because the Snitch is worth so much, and because catching it ends the game. The non-Snitch score is only relevant in the single case that one team is more than 150 points ahead of the other — which according to the books’ accounts of the game seems to be an extremely rare occurrence — at which point the losing seeker cannot win by catching the Snitch, but must (and can) concentrate on preventing the winning seeker from catching it and closing out the game — this change of plan making it even less likely that the game will end. Here’s what’s going on: Quidditch is a Hero Game. It’s a game whose rules are quite deliberately constructed for the heroic gesture: Harry’s, of course. As with so much of Rowling’s world, the dice are weighted in favour of Harry’s heroism. Just as Hufflepuff and Ravenclaw play a role of rather condescendingly neglected support of the above-the-title Gryffindors, the Quidditch players other than Harry are set up to be nothing much more than the worshippers of his glorious moment. It’s actually quite nauseating when you look at it that way.

Are we to believe that two schools must uproot themselves for an entire academic year so that they might attend the Tri-Wizard Tournament, an event which comprises three tasks which last about an hour each? Sure, that makes sense. Further, that it’s necessary, in an event meant to task the personal resources of a single wizard, for the tasks to be separated by months, so that ‘clues’ might be solved collaboratively by everyone for miles around? Does there seem to be any reason why Harry couldn’t call for his broom in the third-task maze, just as he calls for it to defeat the dragon? None that I can see, though he doesn’t bother to try. And is there any sense in the consequence of two death-defying tasks being merely a few seconds’ start in the third? It’s the trick perfected by TV game shows: multiply the points in the final round so that the losing contestant can always come back. As part of a book’s plot, it’s an underhand narrative device.

Portkeys, portkeys, portkeys. Kloves and Newell whistle innocently past one of the biggest plot holes in the history of plot holes, one so big that it takes a while to grasp its size. If a portkey can be just about anything — as the book makes explicit but the film elides — why is it necessary for Voldemort to orchestrate the entire Tri-Wizard Tournament, including all of Barty Crouch’s complicated machinations, merely to get Harry to the trophy first? That’s essentially the entire plot of the book/film, for no apparent reason. If a portkey is somehow detectable, so it couldn’t be used within Hogwarts, why the hunt for the boot which takes them to the World Cup? And couldn’t one have been planted somewhere in Hogsmeade, or at Privet Drive? And, while we’re here, what exactly is the compelling reason why Harry must be allowed to compete in the Tournament, despite: being too young; not having actually entered his name; and there already being a Hogwarts champion? Rowling hasn’t bothered to provide one.

I’ve whined before about Rowling’s lame naming of government departments and such, but not exactly why they’re lame. Partly it’s that such long-winded names would have collapsed into either jargon or colloquialisms long before — ‘Divination’ is the process done right; ‘Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures’ is lamely explicit and tongue-twisting. But more significantly than that, far too often the naming betrays a fundmental mistake: Rowling’s world is defined in terms of ours. A ‘Ministry of Magic’ for a world where magic is the norm? I don’t think so. ‘Care of Magical Creatures’, where the creatures are magical only through a human’s eyes? Not likely. This mistake bleeds through in specific situations, too. At the World Cup, Harry enters the Weasleys’ tent and boggles conspicuously at the fact that it’s much bigger on the inside than the outside. Ignore that, for a Brit, many years of this happening in the TARDIS makes the scene old hat, and consider whether, after years of flying cars, broomsticks, floo powder, Platform 9 3/4 and so much besides, Harry would be so floored by something so simple. Unlikely. It’s a bit of heavy-handed direction by Newell. He shows Harry reacting as if he were new to the wizarding world again: he makes the mistake of presenting Rowling’s world with respect to ours, in a context where that makes no sense. The narrative problem here is that, since there’s no longer an outsider entering the wizarding world, who might serve as a plausible excuse for lots of dumping of exposition, Harry and the others must regularly assume an unmotivated ignorance for our benefit.

Time-turners, having been introduced in Prisoner of Azkaban as something which might be used for so humdrum an expedient as allowing Hermione to double up on classes, now seemingly no longer exist. Though Rowling let the genie out of the bottle in Prisoner — and by doing so introduced a serious Superhero Problem — allowing a time-turner to be used to save Sirius and Buckbeak, apparently Cedric Diggory is out of luck. Too bad.

Though polyjuice potion provides only the appearance of its target — the comic sections in Chamber of Secrets in which Harry and Ron must learn to copy the speech patterns and mannerisms of Crabbe and Goyle make it clear that’s the deal — it seems that Barty Crouch Jr (who is mad, remember) is able to convincingly masquerade as Moody for an entire academic year. Only if we go back and look closer do we notice that we see behaviour that’s a little too Moody-like to be true. We don’t see Barty-as-Moody, behaving as Barty would behave while pretending to be Moody. We do actually see Moody, until the curtain is whipped away and we’re told that camera trickery was indeed used after all. Bah.

Well, enough.

Plot holes are fine. They can even be fun. A story must take a position relative to them, though. Sometimes that position is to make the holes so big, and to surround them with so many flashing lights and arrows, so much clearly-deliberate subverting of any consistency, that we get the picture that things aren’t meant to be processed in a conventional way. Rowling doesn’t really do that, though. This isn’t Wonderland. It’s a world which is supposed to represent some sort of alternate but functioning reality.

Another approach is to make the ideas so good that we don’t really care how consistent they are. The Marauder’s Map is such a idea. It’s so full of narrative possibility that we’re very happy to suspend disbelief, and to not look far beyond the edges of what we’re told. Yet another approach is to bamboozle the story’s audience with so much action and multi-level plot that the holes whizz past too quickly, as if in a shell-game. Rowling makes extremely effective use of both of these approaches in the last third of Prisoner of Azkaban, which stands way above anything else she’s written. We get so many fantastic ideas, all happening at once, mixing exposition, back-story, action and suspense — even character development — that we just hang on for the ride.

That level is never for a moment reached in Goblet of Fire, so the plot holes are laid bare for all to see. It’s not even terribly clear what sort of film it wants to be. It could be a very effective little whodunit, but even to the extent that’s present in the book the film doesn’t follow through: the suspects aren’t clearly delineated, and the clear presence of Barty Crouch Jr at the beginning of the film — a deleterious change from the book — gives the game away too early.

What the film probably ought to be is a drama of the interpersonal relationships between the growing students as love and jealousy become more powerful for them, with the added catalyst of the Beauxbatons and Durmstrang students, and with the Tournament as a climax, the stakes having been ratcheted up by the formation of powerful friendships and enmities. We scarcely hear a word in the film from Fleur Delacourt and Viktor Krum, and that’s very odd. But the moments during which the film is most true to itself are those within and surrounding the Yule Ball, perhaps because it doesn’t seem to be trying too hard. There are no expositional markers to be set.

For some significant script-doctoring fee, here’s what I’d do to help fix the story:

  • Move the entire tournament to the end, rather than splitting it up. Keep the three tasks, but make them contiguous, as in a triathlon. The tournament is far more dependent on the champions’ individual skills that way, and there’d be time before the tournament begins to do plenty of character development so that things are nicely tense between the champions by then.
  • Allow Harry to enter the tournament by right, and use the fact that he enters and is chosen as a point of contention between him and the others. Ramp up Ron’s jealousy and his feeling that Harry is always wanting to be the hero, always in the centre of things. Much stronger that way than to have them not believe he’d entered but lied about it.
  • Much more contact between Harry, Ron, Hermione and the significant other characters: Chang, Viktor, Fleur. Lots of conflicting desires, emotions, coming to a head at the Yule Ball, and then carried forward to the tournament.
  • Ditch the portkey plot completely. There can still be an ambush, though. Perhaps Barty Crouch might use polyjuice to take on the appearance of one of the other champions — scope for some dramatic use of the Marauder’s Map here. Perhaps all of the other champions have been switched in this way by the time we get to the tournament. Perhaps go all Hitchcock, and, rather than witholding information from the audience, ramp up the suspense by letting the audience know much more than the characters do. Our knowledge of Harry’s jeopardy would be massively greater as a result.

I dunno. Would that help? And am I taking this too seriously?

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