Sunday, July 19, 2009

Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince: A Picture is More Traumatizing Than a Thousand Words

Spoiler Alert: If you haven't read the 6th Harry Potter book or seen the movie and you are planning to, don't read this. It gives away the ending.

This week I took my 11 year old daughter to see "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince," better known in my house as "the 6th movie." To say that she is a Harry Potter fan would be to greatly underestimate her complete immersion in the books and the previous 5 movies. She was an early reader, and I read her the first book in early 1st grade. She read the rest of them herself, including finishing the final book in less than two days (after, of course, staying up with me until midnight and dressing in character to pick up our two copies at the bookstore the day it came out). She has probably read the 6th book the equivalent of 50 times, when you include all the going back and rereading favorite parts in addition to reading the whole thing. She has never been the slightest bit scared of anything she read.

So on Wednesday when we went to the movie on opening day, I was rather surprised by the sounds I heard coming from the chair next to me. She was scared. Not terrified to the point of needing to leave, but really scared. She was whimpering, curling her legs up in her chair, and shaking during the scary parts. But she loved it, and as I write this she's off with her father seeing it again.

Why was the movie so very much more terrifying to her (and to me, by the way) than the book? It's not like she didn't know what was going to happen or how it would end. She's certainly old enough to know that it's fiction. Why was her reaction so extremely different between the movie and the book, or even between this movie and the previous five movies?

I think there are two things going on here. The first has to do with the means of receiving the story. When you read a book with no pictures, it is up to you to "see" the story for yourself. Some people do much more of this than others when they read, but all of us do it to some extent. We imagine what the scene looks like as it is described. Our brains are really pretty good at preventing us from "seeing" things as being particularly frightening. We have an internal censor that just blips past the scariest images. We know they happen in the book, but we don't experience them as intensely because our brains won't let us. When we see a movie, however, we don't have the luxury of toning down the frightening parts. Someone else, not our own brains, has made the images, and they're not adjustable based on how scared we are. In a film, we have the sensory experience of whatever is frightening to us, not just the imagining of it.

The sensory exposure issue ought to be the same for all the movies, however. The scariest parts to every movie are scarier than the scariest parts of the corresponding book. Was this book really that much more scary than the first five? Yes, but not for the reasons you might think. To a true Harry Potter lover, Dumbledore is very real. Yes, my daughter knows he's fictional, but he is a very beloved character. She was genuinely sad when he died in the book. Watching the movie, anticipating that he was going to die, elicited an emotional reaction that didn't exist in any of the previous movies. She was not as attached to Sirius Black, who dies at the end of the fifth book/movie, or Cedric Diggory in the 4th, and all the other ones she knew that "everything comes out all right in the end." That isn't true in this movie. Everything is not all right in the end. It was scary, and in the end it was going to still be scary and sad. Knowing that removed one of her best tools for consoling herself.

I'm not sorry I took her to see this movie. She isn't having nightmares about it or otherwise dwelling upon it and, as I mentioned, she wanted to see it again. I suspect the second time will be a little easier, because she'll have seen it all before. But it does serve as a reminder to all of us that there are things that are better read about or listened to than seen, and when in doubt we should probably be protecting all of us, not just our children, from unnecessary sensory exposure to violence and tragedy.


Maureen said...

thanks for this--it confirms my suspicion that I need to pre-screen this one before allowing E to see it.

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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
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