the ethics of endings

In tune with all the Harry Potter hype, I’ve been reading articles, blogs and opinions about the final book. One piece which caught my attention was: So, Does Harry Potter Live?, an article which has the sub head: “Giving away the secret at the end of the last book in Rowling’s series—whether downloaded or bought legally—betrays both author and audience.

The writer, Weinstein, is a “Corporate Ethics Consultant”, whatever that might be. Sadly, I think he probably isn’t much of a reader or film-goer.

He doesn’t seem to understand that a book which is worth reading is worth reading even when you know the ending. And there’s far more to be got out of watching a film – if it’s worth even a small percentage of the money spent on its production – than just knowing who’s still alive in the last scene.

Even a traditional whodunnit can be more, rather than less, fun when you know the answer. The first time through, you’re looking for clues to see if you can guess the murderer. The second time you’re probably looking for the clues you missed. And the third time you’re admiring how well the writer wove the information into the plot so it was all there but you still missed it.

A book isn’t just a question of what happens.

If the spoilers tell us that Harry dies, this isn’t what should really matter. If they tell us that Voldemort kills him it’d be no big surprise, but (assuming we care at all) we’d still want to know what happens to everyone else, how he dies, and why Hermione and Ron Weasley aren’t there to save him and, and, and…

If they tell us that it was actually Ron who did the deed, then we’ll want to have followed every step of the way to the change in character that took Ron over to “the Dark Side” or, if it was unintentional, to agonise over the dreadful accident and to find out how everyone else reacts and what happens next.

We’ll also want to have had the pleasure of all the humour and the twists that precede the death. All the growing relationships, the character development and incidental bits and pieces that lead up to the end and that we should be expecting to find in the book. If we’ve followed the six earlier novels it’s because J. K. Rowling has demonstrated that she’s capable of providing a good read. We’d be stupid to think that the ending was the only thing that matters, it’s the whole story, the way that is taken to reach the end that is important.

It’s a similar situation with adaptations of classics for children, and it explains why these so often fail. In order to bring them in at under the word limit and at the right point in the Flesh-Kincaid Grade Level, they have to be stripped of all that makes them literature. All the “hard words”, the complex sentence structure, all the description, the incidental details and subplots have to be removed. Just like a spoiler, you get the main events in the plot without any of the pleasure of reading the book.

I’ve a suspicion, though, that it’s worse than that.

The Harry Potter books have justifiably been labelled as a “phenomenon” and J.K Rowling is credited with single-handedly reviving the reading habit amongst children in the new media age. The books are classical in spirit, showing traditional values, such as loyalty and courage, as admirable, and encouraging the idea of evil being a force to be fought. Presumably we want the readers to take these ideas to heart.

But I think perhaps it would be as well to “think outside the book”.

By encouraging the idea of the “spoilsports” who released details of the book ending before the publication date, we are propagating the idea that the ending is all that matters. And, by letting our children see that we think the outcome of the story is the be-all and end-all, we are encouraging them in the belief that the ends justify the means, that our actions don’t matter at all as long as the last page reads well. Are these really the values that we want to encourage in the next generation?

Author: don't confuse the narrator

Exploring the boundary between writer and narrator through first person poetry, prose and opinion

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