Thursday, November 17, 2016

Theory Thursday (Book Edition): "Prisoner of Azkaban" is the Best Harry Potter Novel

Welcome to a weekly column called Theory Thursdays, which will be released every Thursday and discuss my "controversial opinion" related to something relative to the week of release. Sometimes it will be birthdays while others is current events or a new film release. Whatever the case may be, this is a personal defense for why I disagree with the general opinion and hope to convince you of the same. While I don't expect you to be on my side, I do hope for a rational argument. After all, film is a subjective medium and this is merely just a theory that can be proven either way. 

Subject: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them opens in theaters this Friday.
Theory: "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban" is the best Harry Potter book.

The phenomenon surrounding the Harry Potter franchise is so massive that it would be easy to pull a topic for Theory Thursday. With Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them coming out this Friday, I felt that exploring the world created by J.K. Rowling would lead to promising results. However, I am not big on the movies. I have always felt that they're adequate adaptations that get the point across, but never met the match of the text. So with that said, I am doing something rare. I am going to dedicate this week's column to the literary world of Harry Potter. After all, it is one of the most popular book series in history and turned a generation of children onto reading. I wouldn't say that Rowling was the sole proprietor of that for me, but she definitely has a special place in my childhood.

So the question now comes: what's so special about the books? In all honesty, Rowling's smartest move is something that isolated other writers. She grew with her audience. "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" is such a silly little mystery that mostly works because of her world building skills. There is a hokey sense of awe in every detail that makes it stand out as more than a generic young adult novel. Subsequently, each novel has taken itself more and more seriously. The emotional growth is a thing of beauty and one that makes each book feel essential to understanding the mythology. Of course, Rowling did have a gift for secretly planting clues for later books early on. Overall, her work remains an anomaly that no author has matched. For instance, think of the cults around Suzanne Collins' "The Hunger Games" or Stephanie Meyer's "Twilight." They are there, but they both lack the cultural relevance by large extents. Basically, neither Collins nor Meyer has a theme park or official literary website dedicated to the ongoing story.

For the sake of this piece, I am going to pose the question: "Which book is the best?" In all honesty, it can be difficult and dependent on what you expect from a Harry Potter novel. If you like wonder and awe, then the early titles will suit your fancy. If you like emotional depth and dark twists, then you may start liking the series towards the middle. If you want catharsis and tragic dramatic twists, then you'll find joy in the final two books. It's part of the appeal of a series dedicated to magic and wizardry. With all of this said, I am one of those rare readers who actually prefer the early titles to the final stretch. If I was forced to argue what the last great book was, it would probably be "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire." I'm not saying that the others are bad - "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows" is an excellent finale - but they lack the balance of darkness, mystery, and childlike wonder that the early titles did. It may not bother some, but it is the reason that I haven't thought too often about "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" or "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince."

So, which is the best? My answer has been, for over a decade (possibly longer), "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban." The third book has always struck me as a perfect balance of everything that has made the franchise so enduring. Following two admittedly silly tales that could isolate older readers, "Prisoner of Azkaban" saw the story start to build its mythology in significant fashion while expanding on the potential of the occult culture. It also introduced a variety of significant characters, specifically that of Harry's godfather Sirius Black. Along with being the only book that didn't feature perennial villain Voldemort, it was the moment where elements like time travel, werewolves, and shape shifting were added to the text. The Marauder's Map also served as a fascinating literary plot device.

This may all sound ridiculous, but it is the beginning of Rowling exploring magic not only as a tool to fend off bad guys. It was now a tool to understand society and different cultures. The world was expanding, and it only became more fascinating as things became scarier. The central characters were still kids. They went on adventures that were like a fun version of Tom Sawyer. Rowling's plot construction also helped the new settings to be effectively woven into the plot. This included Hogsmeade, which plays an integral role in the third act. There was also time travel that featured Harry trying to save Hagrid's beloved Buckbeak from impending doom. Rowling manages to lay the clues in early and make the third act's use of time travel feel logical to the situation.

I think that the easy answer as to why I consider "Prisoner of Azkaban" to be the best is this: it's still fun. Where most series would be content to not expand their landscape after three stories, Rowling had the sense that she was just getting started. Everything was getting dark and the presence of Sirius Black and the Dementors were integral aspects going forward. It's not even that they were extemporaneous. They all had a place that adds emotional depth to the larger understanding of this universe. However, they weren't taken into the world of Harry's hormonal conflicts and existentialism. That wouldn't come for awhile. "Prisoner of Azkaban," despite being where the pieces start to click, was still an effective action fantasy story that took the reader into fascinating potentials.

My second favorite is "Goblet of Fire," which is where the tables began to turn. It still had the whimsy, but the third act featured a famous death scene that shocked readers. It was starting to favor seriousness over fun. The characters were becoming mature. The only upside is that the Triwizard Tournament is such a fantastic concept that is so much fun to read about. It was an obstacle that played into Rowling's penchant for action descriptions. There was hardly a dull moment when reading about Harry's battle with many, many dangerous beasts. It is something that the later books don't have. Everything is more scary than exhilarating. It does work with the aging style of writing, but I do miss the days when magic was fun.

I'm not sure if this is all a controversial opinion, especially since I don't see much consensus on what the best book is. To be fair, I don't really hate any of them. They all have a special place in my youth. It's just that the later titles don't resonate with me as much. Maybe I wasn't interested in the series going dark and investing in perilous pursuits. I don't know. However, I keep coming back to "Prisoner of Azkaban" because I feel like it condenses everything that worked for the series in one story. Maybe the books - especially "The Order of the Phoenix" and "The Half-Blood Prince - deserve a revisit now that I'm older. Maybe I will find their stories more interesting. Even then, it'll be hard to match the excitement I get even thinking about "Prisoner of Azkaban." It's just such a great book (fun fact: "Prisoner of Azkaban" was released on my birthday in the U.K., and "Goblet of Fire" was released on my birthday in the U.S.).

I admit that I am not the biggest Harry Potter fan nowadays, but I still appreciate its impact on my generation. It's bizarre to think that literature could be that much of a phenomenon nowadays, let alone ever. I am thankful to have grown up during the height of it all (yes, even the movies). With all of this said, I would love to hear what everyone's favorite Harry Potter book is in the comments section. I would love to hear a convincing argument for why the later titles are the best and why I should revisit them at some point over my winter break. 

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