“Harry Potter” vs. “Twilight”

January 7, 2009 at 6:00 pm | Posted in Book Blather, Children's Book, Fiction, Young Adult Fiction | 40 Comments

I feel compelled to do this comparison, though I just Googled the phrase “Harry Potter vs. Twilight” and got over 600,000 hits.  Yes, I’ve read all eleven books in both series, a total of 6,709 pages, so I feel equipped to judge.

Okay, first of all, according to reviews like this,* not only are these books not worth your time, but reading them has such a pernicious effect that it might even make you immune to the salutary benefits of Real Literature.  (Pronounced Litt-ra-tyuuure, don’t you know).  I think this is pure snobbery, a snobbery that has prevented untold numbers of people from approaching any sort of book with genuine interest out of fear that books make one socially feckless.  I have credentials, too:  I have a BA in history, I’m a Mensan, and I can read at least bits of six languages in five writing systems.  I read mostly nonfiction, though I have tackled – and understood, mind you – many of the greatest works of literature of every nation.  I know whereof I speak when I say that it is entirely possible to enjoy popular fiction, even popular children’s fiction, while retaining the capacity to appreciate Finer Things.  I also think we should accept that not everyone reads at the same level (not that we can possibly tell what that level is by observing someone read any one particular book), and it is wrong-headed to think that every person must aspire to Faulkner, Joyce, and Dostoyevsky.  Remember what happened to John Stuart Mill.  ‘Nuff said.

What do HP and Twilight have in common?  Obviously, they’re both tremendously popular series of thick fantasy novels.  Both involve teenagers with mystical powers, groups of friends, rainy weather, food, and high school.  Both have protagonists who prefer their fantasy existence to the mundane family life at home, attract the attention of supernatural adults, and are frequently injured.  Both were written by young mothers who had no inkling how popular their imaginary worlds would become.  Both succeed because they follow the guidelines for compelling series:  a large cast of easily distinguishable characters, detailed attention to setting, strong rivalries, lots of action, continuity, plot twists, and plenty of interior monologue.

Other than that, I think the books could hardly be more different.  We’ll start with the superficial and progress from there.

Harry Potter is an orphan who longs for family and becomes recognized for his unusual athletic powers.  He has a beloved pet who is a major character.  Bella Swan has both parents, though she can’t wait for the day when circumstances will prevent her from seeing them ever again, and she’s a colossal klutz.  She has no critters at her house.

Harry is a slob; Bella is tidy and does all the household chores.

Harry inherits all sorts of money, but his best friend is quite poor and he falls for a poor girl, too.  Bella comes from modest means, but hangs out with a wealthy family and falls for a rich man.  Harry is fascinated with shopping, though he does it rarely, while Bella claims to hate it but does it all the time.

Harry finds out he was born with magical powers.  Bella wants to die in order to develop magical powers.

J.K. Rowling kills off major characters.  Stephenie Meyer does not.

The adults in Harry’s world are powerful, wise, perceptive, and sometimes dangerous.  The adults in Bella’s world are clueless, immature, and largely irrelevant.  Harry is a child in a world of adults, forced to age quickly; Bella is the adult in her family, and longs to freeze herself as a teenager for eternity.

Faced with the choice between acceptance by an elite group or friendship with a more lowly group, Harry chooses the commoners.  Bella chooses the elites.

Harry’s world revolves around a battle between good and evil; he becomes more mature and responsible over time.  Bella’s world seems to revolve more around the predator/prey relationship and clan loyalties.  She aims for an eternity of hedonism.

In Rowling’s universe, the fear of death and desire for eternal life lead to ultimate evil.  In Meyer’s universe, the desire for eternal life is an almost unmitigated good, the ultimate fantasy.

Rowling raises the complexity of each book with the age of the characters and their audience.  Meyer writes to one age.

Rowling’s work addresses totalitarianism, diversity, integrity, and the inner battle of man’s dual nature.  Meyer’s work addresses passion, mortality, loyalty, and romance.

Ultimately, the Harry Potter series is a great set of children’s books, while the Twilight series is an absorbing set of romance novels.  It’s not such a simple thing to write books that children or teens will love and read enthusiastically; the same goes for popular fiction of all stripes.  It’s the old Wagnerian debate:  who decides what is great art, the artist or the audience?  If we insist that the artist decides, we’re in for a lot more esoterica, while if we insist that the audience decides, we’re in for a lot more pabulum.  Sometimes.  (At least both sides agree that the critics do not decide what is art).  I’m partial to Harry Potter because I think the stories teach some very strong ethical and even moral values, almost without the kids even noticing.  I hesitate to make similar claims for Twilight, though I still think reading anything at all is better than spending the same hours drooling in front of a television.  Reading escapist fiction is not inherently wrong!

*Bloom is wrong about his claims in the seventh paragraph; if he’d read a bit further he would have found out why Harry was placed with a Muggle family – a detail intrinsic to the larger plan of the saga.  I also take issue with his belief in the third paragraph that he’s read the best of the series.  Most readers seem to agree with me that each book in the series was better than the one before.  Ah, who cares about his opinion, anyway?

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