I feel like a jerk for not caring whether Harry Potter lives or dies. He’s such a nice fellow, friendly, self-sacrificing, destined to vanquish the forces of evil, and humble. You couldn’t want a finer friend than Potter. Yet I find myself far more moved by the fate of Groo, that evil, galloping skag from the movie Despicable Me.

I understand why people love Harry, and I’m in no way criticizing them for adoring the world-famous wizard. He has a crew of fascinating and devoted friends who assist him in fighting the evil Voldemort. Groo just has tiny yellow minions who squabble like the Three Stooges and create disasters that make their master look like a dork. True, the tiny minions number in the hundreds. Then again, Harry’s friends seem to number in the hundreds too, especially when you try to keep track of them through all seventeen movies. (I’ll double-check that number later. There might have been eighteen movies.)

Harry Potter’s story spans an impressive scope. We follow him across his teenage years, through the magical and mundane worlds, from hero to criminal and back. He’s as noble as Sir Lancelot, and he bounces back from defeat like Godzilla. Yet my buddy Groo walked on the outer skin of a rocket ship headed roughly towards the moon; that’s impressive, right? Maybe Harry has neat toys like invisibility cloaks and wands and such, but Groo has a couch shaped like an alligator.

Perhaps the virtue, nobility, generosity and cleanliness Harry displays across his entire adolescence have put me off. If he’d gotten drunk one night and slipped a horse into Dumbledore’s study then I could better relate to him. But instead he starts off good and remains good throughout the tale. Groo starts off planning to destroy the world, and he ends up tucking little orphan girls into gutted bombs. That’s character development.

My friends anticipated the release of the final Potter film like boa constrictors dangling above an unwary tourist in the rain forest. Song parodies about Harry Potter are flourishing on the internet. Fans will hold Harry Potter movie marathons to enjoy good fellowship, Dorito-overdoses, and brutal gang fights between would-be Gryffindors and Slytherins. Wholesome fun for everybody. But I just can’t find the Joy of Harry within my soul.

I admire Harry. He’s a great role model. I applaud the people who love him. But to help you understand my ambivalence over Harry’s goodness, I recently wrote a story in which a man chases a wounded, fleeing ruffian, knocks him down, and casually kills him. I asked my wife, “Is this character too cruel to relate to?”

She said, “I’m probably not the best person to ask.” When I persisted, she said, “I’ve been with you for 20 years, so my viewpoint has been affected.”

I pointed out that I’ve never chased down and murdered a helpless person, to which she replied, “But if it were allowed, you know that you’d do it.”

I sincerely hope everyone has a good time at the theater and enjoys all things Harry. You are all fine people. If you want to reach me in the meantime, my friend Groo and I will be hanging out on his alligator-shaped couch.

This Independence Day my wife and I patriotically supported the economy by going to the movies. She chose the movie, which was fine with me. I like movies of all kinds. I’m not prejudiced against any genre of movie. I’m prejudiced against movies that suck, regardless of genre. When I say “suck”, I mean poorly written, badly acted, unimaginatively filmed, and so trite that the corpse of a blind flat-worm could see the plot twists coming through a concrete wall.

In these days of Netflix and Hulu, traveling to an actual movie theater seems unspeakably dowdy. Yet I don’t look at it that way. Driving to the multiplex, parking a quarter-mile away, and paying $5.00 for 28 cents worth of popcorn all feel like part of a cherished ritual. The annoyance they cause is in itself oddly comforting. Perhaps it reminds me that I should be expected to put forth at least a little effort if I want to be entertained.

I dislike one part of the experience however. I do not care for previews. I know that some people like them, but to hell with them. When I buy my ticket I have some inkling of whether the movie I’m attending will suck. But watching previews is like being forced to eat a box of demonic Twinkies. Some may contain creamy filling, but some will reek of bile and the corruption of the human spirit.

Theaters think about their preview strategy, of course. They show us the previews they think we’ll like based on the movie we paid to see. For example, if a theater is playing “Descent Into Hell” then it will probably not show a preview for one of the My Little Pony films, unless it’s “My Little Pony – The Reckoning”. They try to target the trailers, but that doesn’t change the fact that lots of the previewed movies suck, and therefore the trailers will suck as well.

When the previews began this afternoon I knew that several trailers would be washing over us. In fact, we saw eight trailers before the actual film. But the movie we’d come to see was a romantic comedy, so I figured the previews couldn’t get truly hideous. Then an amazing trailer appeared, for an upcoming film I shall not name. It’s the story of two guys who’ve been friends for life. One’s a stressed-out family man with no more spontaneity, privacy, or sex life. The other’s a successful, workaholic sex-maniac living a shallow existence. They’re each frustrated by their own lives and envious of the other’s. In the land of movies, there’s only one logical way to resolve this dramatic tension, and of course that’s for these two men to be magically swapped into each other’s bodies, without their knowledge or consent. Then they can have all the fun of seeing how green the grass is on the other side, and then they can get into hilarious trouble, and then they can realize that they want what they had all along, just before they’re magically swapped back and learn a valuable, heartwarming lesson. I understand that this is THE ONLY WAY for movies to handle this situation. I accept that. But it seems that every possible method of magical body-swapping has already been done:

  • lightning bolt
  • gypsy fortune teller
  • magical amulet
  • magical earrings
  • breaking a voodoo mirror
  • spell cast by statue of an Aztec god
  • steering wheel blow to the head
  • malfunctioning Starfleet transporter
  • near-drowning experience
  • drink brain-exchanging serum
  • magic doodad inherited from a giant dead snake
  • magical soul transfer at the point of death gone awry
  • get drunk and have sex
  • somebody flat out casts a magic spell on you
  • brain transplant (after being captured by mutant thugs)
  • fortune cookie
  • wish that came true for some random, inexplicable reason

All of these mechanisms, and many more besides, have been employed by film makers to realize the artistic vision of the noble “Body Swap” storyline. Therefore, I viewed this afternoon’s preview skeptically. What would keep this movie from fading into the background? What creative twist could make it unique? And then the trailer revealed that these two friends will switch bodies because they’re talking about it while they’re both peeing in a public fountain!

That’s some amazing creativity right there. I can hardly wait.

I wrote the end of the middle of a book last night. This is the part where I drink some schnapps and celebrate, because writing the middle of a long story beats me down. When I write the beginning, I crackle with fun and excitement, because it’s all new and anything can happen. When I write the end, I glide in with relief and regret because I see how it all will wrap up, and I know I won’t get to write this story anymore. But when I write the middle, I feel like I’m dragging the African Queen through a leech-filled swamp—which happened in the middle of that story as I recall.

I struggle with the middle because it squats before me in a willfully ill-defined manner. Sometimes I’m tempted to write, “People do stuff here,” repeatedly for 200 pages. This problem plagues even the best writers of books, plays, and films, as the following examples show us:

Beginning – You learn about the characters and Hamlet swears revenge.
Middle – Hamlet does stuff to some people.
End – You have a bunch of dead guys.

Lonesome Dove
Beginning – You learn about the characters and they decide to go to Montana.
Middle – People do stuff while they ride a long way with a lot of cows.
End – You have a bunch of dead guys.

Star Wars (the original episodes)
Beginning – You learn about the characters and Luke learns the ways of the Force.
Middle – People fly through space and do stuff.
End – You have a bunch of dead guys and dancing ewoks.

The middle is an easy place for me to go wrong. I may kill a character that I’ll need later on. The boy and girl may get together too soon, or they may hate each other too much. I may make such a crazy thing happen that my readers become disgusted for the rest of the book. I may write a bunch of meaningless crap because I feel that I have to fill pages.

I may just get outright bored with the whole thing. The temptation to quit the difficult middle of one project and switch to the exciting beginning of something else is like being hooked on literary heroin.

One reason I wrestle so hard with the middle of stories is that I can see the end of the middle of my life, right up there ahead of me. The beginning of your life contains a lot of possibilities. Just like in a story, the middle of your life sees possibilities taken away. That’s just the way a story is—people do stuff in the middle, and that makes it impossible for other stuff to be done. As in my stories, I’d like the rest of the middle of my life not to be a series of “People do stuff here” pages. And I would definitely like to set myself up for an end that includes dancing ewoks.