In this essay I intend to discuss the use of formulaic structure, specifically in the form of genre and how it provides enjoyment for audiences, I will do this with specific reference to Harry Potter, both the series of books and also in film form. I will be discussing the ways in which the books conform to specific genres, as well as merge them to create generic hybrids and also the ways in which Rowling defies the norm and does not conform to conventions in her writing of Harry Potter. Despite numerous criticisms, mainly regarding standardisation, I believe that generic conventions and formulae can be a positive thing, for the audience, but also for the producers of popular texts and the industry as a whole, which I will also discuss. In order to discuss genre in relation to Harry Potter, I believe it will first be necessary to discuss genre as an isolated set of theories and ideas, including its use of formula, codes and conventions, I will do this with specific reference to Richard Maltby’s discussion of genre, I will also briefly discuss the idea of formula and will then continue to apply these ideas to popular fictions, specifically Harry Potter. In order to do this I think it will also be beneficial to briefly discuss the history and background of Harry Potter and the author J. K Rowling.
Genre is one of the most recognised ways of defining and categorising popular cultural texts, and, when referring to film, ‘dividing the map of Hollywood’ (Maltby, 1995: p107). Genre can be used to discuss a wide range of different texts, from literature, music, art, film and television, among others. According to Richard Maltby genre is a device that is used by many; ‘audiences, producers and critics all discuss movies in generic terms’ (Maltby, 1995: p107), this is because genre is one of the most accessible ways to understand and discuss texts, this can be applied to a variety of forms of popular cultural texts other than films, such as books, television programmes, and music. Genre is useful to audiences in a number of ways, in deciding which texts they will enjoy and which to avoid, this is due to the way in which genre works, placing a text within a certain genre applies certain conventions to that text, for example, horror films will have certain formulae, the victims will be primarily female, and villains or killers will be mainly male, actors and actresses are also often typecast within certain genre’s, for example, Hugh Grant is largely associated with romantic comedies. Genre is also a useful tool for critics as it allows them to discuss texts more easily and in terms that are widely understood and recognised, also, from a producer’s perspective, genre helps to judge what audiences want, as audiences, to a certain extent, like the familiar, and that is one of the reasons why genre can be so successful.
However, there are often problems when it comes to defining different genres, because although there are formulae and conventions, they are not rigid, they can played with and are susceptible to change. Often rules are intentionally broken to confuse or interest the audience, Maltby discusses this and quotes Andrew Tudor who states that ‘genre is what we collectively believe it to be’ (in Maltby, 2003: p75). Despite this there are a number of ways in which people have attempted to define genre, one of which is the way in which a text affects its audience, such as a thriller, whereas other definitions are concerned mainly with the content of the particular text, for example, when discussing film we might refer to the musical or the western (Maltby, 1995: p108). There is also the issue of generic hybrids, whereby one genre fuses with another; this is much liked by producers of texts as it widens their potential audience. Maltby discusses a survey in which it was discovered that women dislike ‘mystery and horror pictures, gangster and G-Man movies, war movies and westerns’ (Maltby, 2003: p77) but also showed that they liked love stories, a genre generally disliked by men, who seemed to like war movies, as Maltby states, ‘Hollywood’s solution was to combine to two’ (Maltby, 2003, p77) and subsequently reaching the largest possible audience. Examples of generic hybrids include the romantic-comedy (often referred to as rom-com), the musical western, among others; these are just as recognised as the genres they are combining. There are also sub-genres, further categorising popular texts, examples of sub-genres are the psychological thriller, or the triangle romance, and slapstick comedies, these too are widely acknowledged, although they are more useful to audiences and critics than to producers who do not wish to narrow their potential audience.
Another important concept is that of formula, according to John Cawelti ‘all cultural products contain a mixture of two elements: conventions and intentions’ (1997: p71). He goes on to explain that conventions are things that both the producer of the text, and the audience are aware of from the beginning, giving examples, ‘favourite plots, stereotyped characters, accepted ideas, commonly known metaphors and other linguistic devices’ (1997: p71) whereas inventions are ideas and concepts that are new, and ‘uniquely imagined by the creator’ (1997: p71). While he discusses the importance of both elements, in maintaining stability while responding to change, Cawelti places great emphasis on the importance of conventions stating that ‘if the individual does not encounter a number of conventionalized experiences and situations the strain on his sense of continuity and identity will lead to great tensions and even to neurotic breakdown’ (1997: p71). While this may seem melodramatic, there is still some truth, as we have previously mentioned, audiences do in fact crave familiarity and this is the point that Cawelti is trying to convey. However we must also note that he acknowledges the significance of inventions, claiming that ‘without new information about his world, the individual will be increasingly unable to cope with it and will withdraw behind a barrier of conventions as some people withdraw from life to compulsive reading…’ (1997: p71). Again while this seems extreme, the overall argument that Cawelti seems to be presenting is that cultural texts require a balance of both elements in order to be successful. Producers of popular texts are, for the most part, aware of this, and this is apparent when observing such texts.
The author of the series of Harry Potter books (to which I will apply the ideas discussed above) J. K Rowling, was born in Gloucestershire in 1965. In 1990, she moved to Manchester with her boyfriend, where on a train ‘the idea for Harry just kind of fell into my head’ (Rowling, quoted in Nel, 2002: p18). Six months after Rowling first got the idea for Harry Potter her own mother died, and she later stated that she had given Harry’s character her own sense of grief and sadness. Rowling moved to Portugal in 1991, where she taught English while developing her ideas regarding the Harry Potter series. She married a Portuguese journalist in 1992 and gave birth the following summer, however she returned to England in 1993 without her husband, and so became an unemployed single mother, she later stated that she identifies with Harry’s close relationship with his friends as at this point in her life she claims she would have been ‘lost without them’ (Rowling, quoted in Nel, 2002: p18). Struggling for money, Rowling experienced depression and she has also suggested that this may have manifested itself within the books in the form of the dementors (Nel, 2002: p20). Encouraged by her sister, Rowling applied for and received a grant from the Scottish Arts Council, using this money the first book Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was completed in 1995, and was published later that year by Bloomsbury after several rejections from other publishers, although they did request that they published the book using her initial rather than her full name, as boys would be more likely to read it if it were not so obvious that a woman had written it. (Nel, 2002: p20-21).
In terms of formulae, and rules, it could be argued that Rowling stretches the boundaries of her particular genre, according to Cockrell she ‘has done something new and bent a number of the ‘rules’ of the fantastic’ (2002: p15) one of the main ways in which she does this, according to Cockrell is the abandonment of the imaginary to a certain extent in favour of the real, in terms of setting, a large portion of the series is set in the world as we know it, and that which is not, such as Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, is still placed within ‘the world we inhabit here and now’ (Cockrell, 2002: p15), for example, Diagon Alley can be accessed via a pub in London by tapping on bricks in a specific order and we encounter bankers and a government (the ministry of magic), however she stays within the norm of the fantastic by adding magical elements to these locations and things, such as the enchanted ceiling and moving paintings within Hogwarts.
Another way in which Harry Potter series does not conform to the norm is the way in which good does not consistently triumph over evil. Cockrell refers to book four Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire wherein we not only see the death of a key character within the book (Cederic Diggory) but also see Lord Voldemort return to power after fourteen years using extremely dark magic. If Cockrell had been writing later she may also have referred to books five and six (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix and Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince) where we see the death of Sirius Black, Harry’s only living relative other than the Dursleys (book five), and the murder of Professor Albus Dumbledore by Professor Serverus Snape, a cruel, but previously trusted (by Dumbledore) character (book six). However, ‘Rowling manages something else unusual in a tale with as dark a theme as hers: she is funny’ (Cockrell, 2002: p16).
The majority of the Harry Potter books are set in or around Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry; this places it, to some extent within the same genre of schoolboy fiction as texts such as Just William, at the same time it also fits comfortably into the fantasy genre, merging the two are subsequently creating an extremely unusual hybrid, and Cockrell briefly discusses the ‘juxtaposition between the schoolboy humour with the battle against the darkness…’ (2002: p17). This is a difficult thing to consider because while the books are conforming to conventions in the sense that they fit easily into two separate genres, the unusual combination of genres that are being hybridised suggests the opposite, that Rowling is once again defying the norm. Hiebert- Alton appears to agree with this notion stating that ‘Harry Potter contains only elements of the genre rather than conforming to it absolutely’ (2002: p143), she goes on to describe elements of violence within the books, for example, the afore mentioned murder of Cederic Diggory, and while she states that they are characteristic of pulp fiction, she also acknowledges a comparison to horror stories. (Hiebert- Alton, 2002: p143).
Hiebert-Alton also discusses the Harry Potter series in relation to the schoolboy genre more specifically, claiming that ‘in terms of structure, the series contain a few of the elements of the generic school story pattern’ (2002: p150) however, she does also go on to say that Rowling achieves this in a way that does not conform to the expected. Hiebert Alton describes the general narrative for this genre in some detail, explaining that ‘a boy enters a school feeling somewhat nervous but also ambitious, suffers from loneliness and the discipline of his schoolmasters…gradually makes a few friends and begins to flourish…eventually learns duty, self reliance, responsibility and loyalty as a prefect…’ (2002: p150), she then goes on to explain the different ways in which Harry Potter challenges these conventions, suggesting that although Harry is nervous at the beginning, it is not for the usual reasons, but rather because he is recognised by the entire wizarding community for something he does not really remember, and that his ambitions are in a sense to become less rather than more (2002: p151). School story conventions can be seen however, in the way in which the Harry Potter series depicts school life with an element of realism, by including very different aspect of school life, such as friendship and study but also ‘practical jokes, sports [and] mischief’ (Hiebert Alton, 2002: p151).
There is also discussion regarding the inclusion of the sports story genre within Harry Potter in the form of Quidditch, there is vast detail of at least one game in most of the books, and vast amounts of description of the rules, equipment and the games itself, including terminology such as the names of the balls (quaffle, snitch, bludger) and players (Beater, Seeker, Chaser). There are also detailed descriptions of Harry’s broomsticks throughout the series. The games are described well using a commentary by one of the students ‘…nice play by the Gryffindor beater anyway, and Johnson back in possession of the quaffle, a clear field ahead and off she goes-she’s really flying- dodges a speeding bludger- the goal posts are ahead- come on, now, Angelina- keeper Bletchley dives-misses- GYFFINDOR SCORE!’(Rowling 1997: p186). Rowling also places the reader in the position of the spectator, which is typical of this genre. (Hiebert Alton, 2002: p154).
While the Harry Potter series works against many of the expected conventions it does also adhere to them in certain way. Hiebert- Alton discusses the conventions and rules inherent in the popular fiction series and the ways in which Rowling could be seen to be conforming to them. Firstly she discusses a number of seemingly simple ideas, such as the way in which each book title begins ‘Harry Potter and…’ which indicates that they are part of a series, as does the layout of the covers, which all seem to fit together, Hiebert-Alton also mentions the colours that are used and states that they are traditionally linked to the fantastic (2002: p142). According to Hiebert-Alton, another way in which the books do not challenge the conventions of popular fiction can be seen in the fact that the audiences can quite easily identify with the protagonist, and goes on to explain that ‘all three main protagonists appeal to readers: everyone can identify with or knows someone like brainy Hermione, faithful and funny Ron and orphan Harry’ (2002: p143). She also discusses escapism and aspirations stating that ‘the books contain the wish fulfilment of most people’s need to be special’ (2002: p143) and this is typical of children’s literature.
It has been argued that Harry Potter does in fact follow a number of reoccurring patterns that are typical within its genre and style of writing. Joseph Campbell discusses this, and based on his analysis of universal myths, states that ‘the hero typically goes on a quest during which he encounters a mentor who assists him with a series of trials. The hero usually survives the arduous trials and returns home with an awareness of a new world order and boon that he shares with his community’ (in De Rosa, 2002: p163). This is a discussion of Harry Potter as a fantastical text, but this is clearly also the general outline of all of the Harry Potter books, and so could be seen as a discussion of the books as a series. However, Rowling alters the formula quite significantly, because while Harry leaves his home at the Dursley’s to go to Hogwarts, where he encounters what Campbell describes as trials, and is technically the more dangerous place, surrounded with mystery and peril, it is also the more desirable place, and in some respects provide a safe, friendly environment where ‘Harry can experience, to a degree, the physical and psychological state of carefree childhood’ (De Rosa, 2002: p163).
Hiebert Alton also discusses the Harry Potter books as a series of books, and reiterating De Rosa’s point states that ‘each book takes place over the duration of one school year and begins with Harry unhappy at home with the Dursleys; he is then rescued, or escapes to the magical world of Hogwarts where he… solve[s] a mystery involving Voldemort…Harry returns home for another summer with the Dursleys’ (2002: p146). This is clearly a valid observations and can be easily recognised within any of the six books published so far, for example in book two Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Harry begins at the Dursleys, and with the help of his friend Ron Weasley and his family escapes, and eventually goes to Hogwarts where he and his friends face several trials involving a past representation of Lord Voldemort, Tom Marvolo Riddle. Following this the school year end and Harry returns to the Dursleys. At the end of the this book, Hiebert Alton observes that Tom Riddle and his diary have been destroyed and that Harry has confirmed his belonging to Gryffindor as opposed to Slytherin (2002: p 147) and uses this as an example to illustrate the idea that ‘the strongest appeal of series fiction lies in this sense of resolution, or at least in a series of profoundly satisfying narrative or thematic closures (2002: p147) and she goes on to state that this is very true for Harry Potter and that Rowling achieves this, presenting the reader with a satisfying resolution at the end of each book.
Based on the above discussion, I am inclined to conclude that J. K Rowling is an incredibly talented author, in that while keeping readers satisfied by conforming to a number of generic conventions, such as the resolute endings, and the hybridisation of several familiar genres, including fantasy, school story, and series genre among others, she also manages to stay true to what she intended to write by refusing to conform completely to any one specific genre, and by negotiating with conventions and formula regarding the level at which she adheres to them. With every single convention that seems applicable to the Harry Potter series, there are also observable ways in which the norm, and that specific convention are being challenged, such as that of the school story genre, where the reason for nerves and the ambitions of Harry Potter differ from that which would be expected. I think that this is one of the reasons why the Harry Potter series has been so vastly popular, both in book form and on screen, simply because there is such a refreshing and enjoyable combination of the familiar and the unfamiliar present in each of the texts.
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