The Harry Potter books are, of course, amazing. When I think about being a kid I think about devouring the tales of Hogwarts, about going to the cinema to see the latest film dressed as wizards, about being so effected by the book as a young child that I was utterly terrified of some poor performers dressed up in death eater costumes during a school visit to Warner Bros Studios. When I was fifteen. The world of Harry Potter is my world. J.K Rowling created a place, and a cast of characters, that grew up as I did, and became inseparably ingrained within me because of it. So like I say, Harry Potter, for me, is completely amazing.
But reading is haaaard. I love it when I get a new Patrick Ness book because he is a fairy and I can read his books with a rare and intense hunger. It usually takes me a day or two to finish a Patrick Ness book. With anything else? It’s a little longer than that. A few months longer. Which is a roundabout way of saying I can never get myself to relive the magic of the Harry Potter books through reading them because I feel like I should be reading something new, and my reading time is something to be spent well. But the familiarity, the comfort of the Harry Potter books, is something I’ve been craving for recently. Like a nice hot water bottle, I want to hold them to my chest, flying away to a time, and place, much better than the here and now.
Which is where Stephen Fry comes in. He has opened a door I never knew existed, letting me step back into the wizarding world of Harry Potter and look down on it like some vague, mysterious god. I can tune in and out, paying attention when something I had forgotten takes my interest, and turn my focus onto other things when endless repeats of the films have taught me every motion of a scene. I can see them again, Harry, Ron and Hermione, and I can do it while I’m trying to fall asleep, while I’m cycling to work, while I’m shooting people in the head (virtually, of course). I don’t have to fully commit my attention because I already know the stories so well, and I don’t feel like I’m wasting time that should be spent reading something new because I’m experiencing it in those moments I couldn’t possibly have a book in my hands. Which is all just a description as to why audiobooks in general are great, but there’s something very special about the way Stephan Fry presents the stories.
Somehow, in some impossible coincidence, a coincidence that isn’t actually an accident at all but instead an intense understanding of the words being read, Stephan Fry’s Harry, Ron and Hermione are exactly the same as my own. Imagine watching the movie of a book you’ve read and thinking they had done it exactly right. That’s Stephan Fry’s performance; it’s perfect. That’s perhaps too subjective, but there’s a lot that I think feeds into my response. His voices for each of the characters change, subtly, as they grow older. The Harry from book one sounds different to the Harry from book six, and that change fits brilliantly with the shifting tones. The way Fry adjusts his voice when changing characters isn’t even all that significant, instead appearing to be mere diversions from his natural way of reading. This in itself creates a powerful effect, giving the impression that this is a story being told, that a man is recounting all these wondrous things rather than putting us right there in it. Instead it lets us experience the stories how I expect many people around my age first did, through listening to our parents, eyes closed, hands gripping bedcovers tight from the excitement. It doesn’t have to put its effort into transporting you into Hogwarts because the text does such a good job already. Instead, Stephan Fry’s reading takes you back to the first time you heard the stories, when they were at their most powerful and surprising. It’s a double dose of magic, the joy of the wizarding world only enhanced by the evoking of such childhood passion.
Then there’s the silliness of it. One thing I don’t think the films ever truly captured, for me, was the bizarre, childish nonsense that so many of the most magical moments in the story conjured. It’s refreshing, then, to hear Stephan Fry’s shrill, whining impression of Winky the house elf, or his playful interpretation of Ludo Bagman. They’re over-the-top voices, stupid, even, but they’re right. They fit seamlessly into the narrative, never feeling too ridiculous, and yet they are indistinguishable from a well-meaning parent who’s put just a little too much effort into getting into character. It makes me smile, more than anything else, and when it comes to a story as personal and welcoming as the Harry Potter books, that can’t be valued enough.