Lesson 1: Rowling v Tolkein

Harry Potter v Lord of the Rings

Here in Japan everybody has heard of Harry Potter, the child-magician who was created by J. K. Rowling. Rowling’s books are bestsellers in Japan and many other countries around the world as well as in Britain. They are written for children aged between 8-13 years old. In Japan the books are widely read by adults as well as children whereas in Britain they are read mainly by children.

Millions of children eagerly awaited the release in November 2001 of the first Harry Potter film – Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. So, in December millions of British parents took millions of British children to the cinema to see it. Now millions of adults in Britain can tell you about Harry Potter although they have not read the books themselves.

While in London over the Christmas holidays I went along to The Odeon in Leicester Square to see the film. Actually, I had wanted to see The Lord of the Rings but it was sold out so I had to make do with Harry Potter.

What is Harry Potter about? It is a story about magic set in modern Britain. An orphaned baby (Harry), the son of a wizard, is brought up by a rather nasty family of ordinary people called “muggles”. In the jargon of Harry Potter, “Muggles” are ordinary people who are not magicians.

Later, Harry attends a school of magicians and while he is there he makes friends with an easy-going boy (Ron) and a precocious girl (Hermione). They experience various adventures and scary moments in search of the philosopher’s stone. I can’t quite remember why they are searching for the philosopher’s stone but, whatever the reason, it involves going to a part of the school that is strictly out of bounds. It also has something to do with one of the schoolmaster magicians who seems quite sinister.

In the middle of the film there is what many people consider to be the most exciting bit – some sort of game played on broomsticks between two of the schools “houses” or teams. As you might expect, Harry Potter wins.

Later, Harry is able to see the parents he never knew by gazing into an enchanted mirror. Then he goes back to his unpleasant adopted home for Christmas.

I am sorry if my description of the story is not very exact, but I was a bit sleepy during the film. The special effects were good enough to keep me awake much of the time. At times the film must have been rather frightening for the young children who are its target audience.

Shortly after Harry Potter and the Philospher’s stone came out another fantasy film was released – Lord of the Rings. As I said, I was not able to see the film in London. However, I did get to see it while visiting friends in York.

Compared to Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings is a fantasy created on a much larger scale in which the forces of evil seem far greater and more threatening to the unlikely heroes than anything faced by Harry Potter and his friends.

In Lord of the Rings, Frodo, a “hobbit” inherits a ring. It is no ordinary ring, but a magical ring of power, one of several. He who controls all the rings shall control Middle Earth. To prevent the evil forces of Sauron getting this ring – the only one that the wicked Sauron does not yet hold – Frodo, guided by the benign wizard Gandalf, must embark on a dangerous mission to destroy the ring in the fires of Mordor, the mountain where it was created.

Whereas the Harry Potter stories were written in the 1990s (and there may be more to come), the Lord of the Rings trilogy was written by J. R. R. Tolkien in the 1930s. In this story of how a “hobbit” came to possess a magic ring, and the dangers and adventures that possession of the ring led him into, the dark forces seem to represent the rise of fascism in the 1930s, and the dark threatening atmosphere of the story echoes the dangers faced by peace-loving people – the “hobbits” of that time. However, Tolkien denied that there were any direct parallels between his fantasy and the political situation of his day.

But people love to make analogies between the hot fiction of the moment and what is happening in the world. With the release of The Lord of the Rings comparisons have been made between Sauron and Osama bin-Laden… Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings is very famous in Britain. Many people, including myself, read another of Tolkien’s books, The Hobbit, while at school. (The Hobbit is a kind of prologue to The Lord of the Rings trilogy.) So, even though I have not read The Lord of the Rings, I was familiar with the story.

Lord of the Rings was filmed in New Zealand. The setting is beautiful, and the special effects very good too. Although the two films, Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings were entirely separate in their conception and creation, some of the episodes in Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter are quite similar. In both films there is a scene in which a gigantic but stupid troll with a big club confronts the heroes.

Which film will win the struggle to be the worldwide number one fantasy blockbuster? I am not a prophet, so I cannot say. However, just for a change, the winner won’t be a Walt Disney movie!