The Harry Potter Cycle – a review – part two

The brilliance is the simple concept – a boarding school of magic. This carries most of the first six episodes. The last book is probably the weakest, as a book, in that the strength is the school, and most of the seventh book takes us on the run outside school; Rowling’s weaknesses as a writer come through.


Book v film – the first three


1. Philosophers Stone

Introduces the world. When I first read it, it seemed a well done version of one of those stories; tight, clever, funny, but not obviously superior. The film was an adequate adaptation. Limited due to the age of the characters and the story, but fun to revisit on knowing the ending; many character introductions become a lot neater.


2. Chamber of Secrets


Even despite that intolerable fucking elf this is easily the best, and certainly the most enjoyable, of the movies. Features the most satisfying arc, the best plotting, the best emotional resonance, the best archetypal structuring. Pitch perfect. Takes the world and expands it.

Features a fabulous turn from Kenneth Branagh. And hell, any movie that features a magical duel between Alan Rickman and Kenneth Branagh that is played for laughs has already won.

The book seemed fine. Some interesting slight deviations; in general I prefer the film.


3. Prisoner of Azkhaban


The movie brings a massive change in tone – the look and feel, the camera angles and palette, are totally different from the first two. The movie really didn’t work for me, especially 2nd time through. Just off; basically, it isn’t fun. Which is a shame, because the content is really good.

Interestingly, this is the one I had been told was better, but by people who I know who like film, but not fantasy, and didn’t “get” the rest of the series. I suspect they were blinded by their affinity for film: a great cast (Thewlis! Oldman!) and a different director of greater repute; despite this, it just misses in important ways, particularly the feel.

I read the book after watching the film a second time.

Holy shit.

On the strength of this book, now I can see why the series took off. It is a genuinely good read, tight, interesting, unexpected. And also that it is a shame that no-one was willing to edit Rowling from this point on, as the books grow ever vaster.

Azkhaban is really tight, and cleverly plotted. The film is in fact a bad adaptation – it shrink, simplifies, and distorts in ways that are wrong. In the film, the time travel plot is expanded and dragged out; the whys of things are occluded, character’s motivations vanish and become incoherent, revelations are not revealed. The book is also, critically, way more fun. The tone is in keeping with the rest of the series, but the adaptation loses the fun.


Book v film – the next three


And this is where everything shifts. Harry Potter became a phenomenon, and Rowling stopped being edited.

I watched movies 4, 5, and 6 in the space of a few days, skim reading each book after watching the film.

The filmic contractions of the books are generally clever, and many of my favourite moments in the later films are not in the books. They shrink lengthy revelations into pacier delivery, generally by creating excellent character moments. However, the latter movies also suffer from this concatenation in adaptation, as much colour and depth is removed. Fantasy is about immersion in the world, and the details are crucial to this. Also, the minor characters suffer.

(Taking a side-trip into weirdness: Alan Moore (and others) talk about the imagination as an actually existing fourth-dimensional ideaspace – in a sense these forms exist in a real way in another place. Something I found fascinating was how easy it was to interact with the forms, the characters, and the world, in my imagination, after coming upon it when it was an entrenched phenomenon – ie a massively shared area of ideaspace; this was in direct contrast to the experience of writing at the time, which was charting a new area of ideaspace on my own. The difference was palpable.)

Anyway. The books become bloated, losing their previously excellent tight plotting. Things become very drawn out, there are some self-indulgent side plots which are usually (rightly) culled from the later films; though they do turn out to matter a bit to character development. Some truly massive chunks of exposition, and they generally get a bit turgid at times. Though, granted, this is without reading them properly.

The films effectively become the edits that the books never received, but in a different medium, so they don’t sit quite right as films; though the weirdness of structure in a way makes them more interesting than a more rigidly filmic formula. Still, lots of fun.


4. Goblet of Fire

The cast expands, almost unmanageably. Probably the most altered from book to film, since the book was so bloated. Lots of fun stuff from the book omitted in the film. Utimately if you really get into it, you will probably want to read all the character bits, important details and elements of coherence scattered through the books. Weirdly structured, remains quite a lot of fun, though.

5. Order of the Phoenix

Definitely one of the most fun/successful episodes. Features the best villain of the piece, the absolutely intolerable Umbridge. The supporting cast gets its longest moment in the sun.

Have only skimmed the book; suspect it will be pretty good.

6. Half Blood Prince

One of the least satisfying episodes. Partly due to the overall downer tone. But really the only interesting stuff is the character interactions and romances. All the horcrux and Voldemort history stuff is just astoundingly dragged out, even in the film. Effectively the exposition episode of the cycle.

Have only browsed the book.


So in general, if you haven’t jumped aboard, you can get away with just watching the movies, unless you get right into it, in which case you may as well read the books. They are easy reading. Except the last one. But we will get to that

The Harry Potter Cycle – a review – part one

(I am going to split this review into three parts, since, somewhat alarmingly, it keeps getting longer.)

In part 1, I will start with a grab-bag of general/meta comments, then an authorial analysis of it as a fantasy; in part 2 I will go through the episodes comparing and contrasting the books and films; in part 3 I will discuss the last episode, and end on some spoilerific comments. Parts 1 and 2 will be largely free from substantive spoilers.

In general I will be talking about the movies as much as the books, since I watched the movies first, and read the books to catch up, and very much the cycle as a whole, hence the title. (My process: read first book when it became a phenom, watched first film, ignored it for most of a decade. Watched films 2 – 6, skimmed books 4-6 after watching the films for detail that was omitted, watched 7a, read book 7. Started rewatching the films, read book 3.)

General meta grab-bag of comments

On the whole, somewhat surprisingly after having ignored it so totally, I approve.

The books are aimed at young people, so it is a mark of something that I could find it as absorbing as I did, exposed to it in my early thirties. Certainly kidult stuff is not my metier; overall I was probably looking for something darker.

In general though, the Harry Potter cycle is really fun. Like, really fun. It took a while to get into it. Watching the films was the right move for me, as I would not have read the books. The first did not grab me enough. But by about the fourth film I was digging the characters and engaging with the world in the specific way I do with fantasy, entering into it imaginatively, though albeit due to my frustration with it.

Harry Potter works best as a whole. I would argue it needs to be understood as a whole, constructed out of seven uneven parts. Rowling apparently spent 5 years plotting before writing; this is readily apparent by the end. Things and people are also excellently named, another sign of gestation.

The strength of the overall structure means the cycle is less successful as individual parts. They are best seen as episodes in a cycle rather than individual works. The early episodes are also a lot better when you know where it is going; in hindsight, early interactions are telling and funny. This is why I am covering it in one go, rather than separately.

It is probably the Star Wars of its generation, both in the scale of its success, the way it is loved, and in the way that lots of Star Wars is kind of naff when you think about it honestly, but it is forgiven because the overall arc is awesome (eg Harry is as gormless as Luke.) And I can only imagine how much more awesome it would have been to be a young teen growing up with those books.

Watching the kids grow into decent actors is fun, particularly Hermione/Emma (Emma Watson has an incredible natural smile that Hermione rarely gets to use) and Harry/Daniel. Ron/Rupert much less so, though there are some very fun moments later on. Luna is a delight. And Neville’s arc is excellent, and reveals really inspired casting at a young age. Watching the old hands settle into their roles is pretty excellent. There is certainly something to be said for having an unlimited budget and the ability to cast all of England’s best actors. Alan Rickman is inspired, and Maggie Smith gets better and better. Helena Bonham Carter chews the scenery most wonderfully. Kenneth Branagh’s turn is devastating. Emma Thompson is unrecognisable. Coltrane’s Hagrid gets annoying; the series outgrows him.


Fantasy relies on the world; in a sense, the world is the main character. (Good fantasy often takes a bigger creative investment than other genres – eg Tolkien creating languages, Erikson/Esslemont spending 10 years creating the world.) The world of fantasy is not given; by definition, it is not the real world. Every deviation from that real world must be explained. This takes up space, and can come at the cost of revealing character, and the ease of delivering the story. When the world is given, you can focus on style more easily.

Harry Potter works because of two pieces of formal structural brilliance, after which I am tempted to say it essentially could not fail. (Not in the sense of guaranteed massive success, rather that of being really good.)

First, setting it in a boarding school, which is essentially a genre of its own, and second, by pacing a coming of age tale over seven years. By stapling the arc to things so well known, enough of the world is given for the fantasy to be overlaid – a school of magic, but held together by being school, and the familiar coming of age rites – so we sacrifice none of the character or emotional depth.

The school angle grounds everything that follows in something familiar. We don’t get this from the Muggle world – the Dursleys are so shockingly unreal and awful that nothing is real there. Hogwarts is excellent, especially the castle of the movies. Weaker by far is the rest of the world – for example, the Ministry, and what little else we see of the wizarding world.

(School is the last common experience we have in many ways – jobs have similarities but greater differences; relationships and marriages are similar patterns but devilishly divergent and unique; raising children is the next commonality, but even that, I suspect, is limited to the infant years, beyond which the complexity of a family will win out over the panic of dealing with immediate demands. We can identify with the process.)

Overlaid on this is an old-fashioned good vs evil motif, with the sins of the fathers to be excavated and reconciled. Harry is an exemplary selfless hero. Voldemort is alright as a villain. Like most monsters he works best when unseen, as potential. When revealed, he is a little one dimensionally evil. He could be smarter. Giving him 30 page expository chunks doesn’t help.

The characters are the other main strength, expanding the world. Harry suffers as most heroes do from a near-terminal lack of interestingness – he is perfect and pure and interesting things happen to him, and he drives them from his selfless heroic nature, but he himself is not especially interesting, since he must always act as the hero must act. He has no flaw to make him human, just challenges to overcome. This is where the coming of age angle steps in – the growing pains and awkwardness of adolescence provide travails we can identify with, as does again the school structure.

(Interesting to compare Buffy here – in Buffy, the strength and interest resides in the supporting cast. The true hero goes through shit but has to decide as the hero must decide. Yet compare Sunnydale High and Hogwarts – there is no comparison. Sunnydale barely registers on memory, it is a backdrop; Hogwarts feels real.)

(Next: book v films)

a Moore’s law for solar energy?

Two second good news: a moore’s law of solar energy generation may be emerging. If so, the guts of it is by 2020 solar will be cheaper than coal… and then continue to get cheaper…

(Yet another entry in the utopia vs oblivion stakes.)

Hitler is angry about the Wellywood sign

I don’t think anything is gonna top that on the issue.

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top nonfiction books, according to me

Have been meaning to do this for a while.

I have had the privilege of reading widely and in depth during a prolonged period of self-education. This is a rare thing, and I am very grateful for it.

So: here is a list of the non-fiction books that are most highly recommended by the moose.

This is a really hard list to make. I want to get a sense of what has most influenced me, and what would be most useful for others to read. The real challenge is what amazing mind-blowing stuff to leave off; what entire disciplines don’t even get a mention.

I could rant at length about each of the books listed, and someday mean to, but for now the list and a brief precis will suffice.

Over time I have found the one of the most important laws of scholarship to be “always read the original”. Reading these volumes will repay truly great dividends. In some cases I am picking authors rather than books, as it is difficult to fit many thinkers into one volume.


Robert Anton Wilson: Quantum Psychology.

Wilson is like the Irish Buddha. Compassionate, funny and wise, with an uncanny ability to explain complex things in ways that make you feel much smarter than you are, as he teaches you how to think for yourself. His books are wide ranging and profound, and totally unique.

QP deals with quantum physics, language, the mind, and how we make ourselves a reality tunnel to live in; it is gentle and funny and unspeakably brilliant, and will free up your view of things by stealth with its mix of theory and practice.

Prometheus Rising, and Cosmic Trigger Vol 1, are the other two must reads of his non-fiction. They are both also pretty indescribable, but totally worthwhile. (Also recommended is the audio set Robert Anton Wilson Explains Everything, particularly the 2nd and 3rd lectures.)

His humour, and staggering originality and clarity of communication, make him the best entry point into the world of ideas that interests me.

David Bohm: Wholeness and the Implicate Order; Thought as a System.

Quantum physicist and philosopher whose thought touches on the most fundamental questions of existence. Bohm is much more than a physicist. In my eyes he is quite possibly the most important philosopher of the late 20th century.

WATIO is about his take on quantum physics, and relativity, and their implications for everything else. There is one long chapter with many equations that will be over most people’s heads (sure was over mine), but it is interesting to read along the development of the logic. Also discusses language and philosophy, putting forward fascinating and brilliant stuff as he grapples with the deepest issues of meaning and existence.

TAAS is much easier going, taking the form of a weekend long dialogue he led, and covers analagous material in a completely non-technical fashion. Both are very brilliant.

(I often feel much of my own work is covering ground that Wilson and Bohm covered better.)

PD Ouspensky: In Search of the Miraculous; Tertium Organum.

Russian philosopher from the early 20th century. Genius in his own right, while perhaps best known as a disciple of Gurdjieff.

ISOTM introduced me to the best, most lucid, most grounded and practical model of human psychology and spirituality I have encountered; a genuinely life-changing experience.

The first ten pages of TO are still probably the most comprehensively mindshattering thing I have ever read; in fact, in many ways that is where my journey began, and the return was being able to say what had already been said, but from myself, in my own words.

Buckminster Fuller: Critical Path

Visionary genius, design scientist, humanist; original thinker par excellence; world-system thinking at its finest; one of the most optimistic paradigm shifting thinkers of all time.

Want to save the world? Start here. Not easy reading, but off-the-charts brilliant. Written the year before he died; a summation of his life’s work. Almost impossible to communicate just how powerful, joyous, and uplifting this work, and Fuller’s vision, is. (Actually, we wrote a – frankly awesome – song about Bucky in Idle Faction: right click to download Go Bucky Go, which maybe captures some of how rocking this stuff really is 😉 )


Those four, in particular, are giants whom I am standing sheepishly on the shoulders of, feeling out of place.

Now two which are just things any intelligent person in the West should have read, or the equivalent thereof, in answer to the basic questions of where did we come from, and how our current world and ideas about the world came about:

Richard Tarnas: The Passion of the Western Mind

The best one volume history of western thought I have encountered. A truly incredible performance, weaving together the many strands of thought into one amazing narrative.

(An excellent Eastern complement to this is Heinrich Zimmer’s “Philosophies of India”.)

Arnold Toynbee: Mankind and Mother Earth

The best one volume history of the world I have encountered. Written the year before he died, and after his mammoth 12 volume history of the world, here Toynbee brings it all together, revealing the patterns of things across time.

History, in general, is vital for any understanding of what we are. Though also a highly problematic, impressionistic art. A discipline I wish I was better read in.


While I could go on and on listing many great books, with vital insights, I am also aware they form part of my process, and may or may not be essential to anyone else.

Honestly, the above would keep most people going for quite a while, and would gird you well to take on the world; the first four in particular feel essential, and have done a lot to shape my thinking and experience.

nonwrestler: three years of free mp3s

For three years now my friend Mike (aka electronic muso Jet Jaguar, who I think I remember guys from Fat Freddy’s Drop describing as a “heavyweight musical nerd”), has been blogging a free-to-download mp3 a week of stuff he likes. It is always pretty interesting, and some of it has been excellent to my ears.

If this is news to you, you should check it out; and now is a particularly useful time to start, as he has recently posted his favourites by category from the first three years (ambientish, dancey, head-nodders, and songs.

Something I txted to myself the other day was “Curate shit that is worthwhile”. Part of my general mantra of dealing with information overload. Anyhow, it occurs to me this is a really good example of it. It also relates to Seth Godin ranting about libraries being over, but librarians being more needed than ever.


At some point, the alternative currency philosophy was going to hit the open source/p2p movement, and give us a dangerous mutant.

It has arrived in the form of bitcoin.

If you can begin to grasp the implications of an untraceable, untaxable, global, uncontrollable-by-governments currency, you ought to know about this.
Moreso if you can’t.

finished a draft

of a new novel yesterday.

A bit of a cheat, as there are about 10000 words to go back and fill in, chapters that I sketched rather than wrote, but I got to write “the end”. The whole story is there, the structure and essence.

Hard to say how long it took. Started it at the beach last year, got a bit distracted this year, nice to get it out. A few months actual writing time.

It is a fantasy novel. (The working title is Mosaic: Imago.)

Fantasy was in many ways my first love in writing. Way back when, I spent a few years creating a world and a story I never got more than a hundred pages into, then got distracted by the real world and had to process what I made of that, which turned out to take a decade or more, and materialise in the form of my first novels and non-fiction books. Now, I sort of know what I think – I know I don’t know anything, at any rate – and this idea for a fantasy kept raising its hand over the course of a year, ideas coalescing into a mass, and eventually it was time.

The process of writing is fascinating. Particularly, I found it interesting to return to fiction after several years of non-fiction stuff. Fiction seems to go deeper into the unconscious, and become a form of self-directed alchemical psychotherapy. Whatever needs to come out, comes out. This time around I was way more conscious of this aspect of the process, which was interesting.

Also, in previous novels, there had come a point where suddenly the novel went insane in a way I hadn’t anticipated. The characters demanded to go in certain directions, and I had to follow. This time round, I didn’t notice it happening, and was a little disappointed. It is only when I stop to think about where it started and where it ended up that I realise that it did go crazy, but I just rolled with it; maybe because I had less sense of where the book was going anyway, and it was more fluid; a certain flexibility comes with familiarity with the process – knowing what a first draft means, and how much changes with successive drafts, is very liberating.

The first fugly draft is a milestone, but there is a long way to go.

I look forward to reading it, and seeing what I have actually done. Right now is mellowing in a vague sense of accomplishment, blissfully ignoring the work to come.

potential talk on consciousness etc: any interest

One of the things I am toying with doing before going overseas is giving a talk about my most recent non-fiction manuscript, the practically-oriented one about consciousness.

Essentially it is asking the question: given the nature of consciousness and reality and how they interact, what is the best approach we should take to engaging with it on a practical individual level?

There is a small group interested in such matters that is the obvious audience, but what I am wondering is if there would be wider audience, and I should look at making it a semi-public sort of thing.

So yeah. If this sounds like something you would be interested in, comment or contact me.

100% pure vs 100% stupid

Govt confirms NZers will pay for any oil spill resulting from drilling offshore in deep water (

So, basically, what we are saying is, hi, foreign companies, come exploit our resources, and don’t worry if you fuck it up catastrophically, it’s sweet, we’ll cover your ass.

Not so much 100% pure, as 100% stupid.

Especially when you consider how unready we are to actually deal with an oil spill, as Jez shows with pictures so simple even John Key could grasp their meaning.

I guess this is what being blinded by ideology means.

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