Monday, April 2, 2012

Harry Potter Audiobooks: Team Dale vs. Team Fry

Search for Harry Potter on or and here’s the banner ad you’ll see.  Apparently Pottermore Shop now has exclusive rights to downloadable audiobook editions of the novels.
When Pottermore Shop opened last week (and I went on an unmagical adventure trying to download a DRM-free epub file of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone) I discovered there were 5-minute samples of both the Jim Dale and Stephen Fry audiobook readings of all 7 Harry Potter novels.

I was eager to compare them.

Since we live in New York, my wife and I have bought for our daughter the Jim Dale readings of most of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books.  But choosing Dale was less a preference than a requirement.  Bloomsbury holds the UK rights to the books and Scholastic holds the US rights; each was entitled to license audiobook subrights separately for its territory.

Any Potter Audiobook You Want So Long as Its Dale

So if you live in one of the 50 states your choice is Jim Dale, and in the Commonwealth it’s Stephen Fry.  It’s a little like Henry Ford’s famous comment about the Model T: Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it is black.  In the US you can choose any Potter audiobook you want so long as it’s Dale.

Though Pottermore Shop is happy to tease you with samples read by both actors, its servers appear to recognize where you live and won’t permit you to buy Fry’s readings if you live in the US or (I’m guessing since I haven’t quizzed anyone shopping from London, Glasgow, Dublin, Ottawa, or Melbourne) Dale’s readings if you live in the UK.  More about that later.

Let’s begin by listening to Dale and Fry reading the beginning of chapter 1 of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, which is what the marketers for Scholastic in New York insisted Rowling’s first novel be renamed when they were told the original UK edition would be called Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone—because (according to Wikipedia) they knew American kids wouldn’t read any book with the boring word philosopher in the title.

NOTE: I’m using the European music-sharing site Soundcloud to host my Dale and Fry audioclips.  Please accept my apologies if the site is down and you’re unable to listen to them.

Here's Dale:

And here's Fry:

For some time I’d been under the mistaken impression that the central difference between Dale’s and Fry’s reading styles was Fry’s refusal to devote himself to the kind of voice impressions that Dale relishes.  But listening to all the Pottermore Shop samples makes clear this isn’t the case.  While the chapter 1 excerpts above don’t offer much variety in voices—most of what we hear is an interior monologue by Mr. Dursley—I recommend those of you unfamiliar with Fry’s readings listen to his other samples.  The difference in voice characterizations isn’t nearly as dramatic as I’d been led to believe.

The Long (Fry) and the Short (Dale) of It

Indeed, I stumbled on the most measurable difference between Dale and Fry by accident when I noticed that Dale’s samples encompass a larger slice of the book than Fry’s.  For instance, in the brief excerpts above Dale reads these lines that Fry doesn’t reach:
Mr. Dursley always sat with his back to the window in his office on the ninth floor.  If he hadn’t, he might have found it harder to concentrate on drills that morning.  He didn’t see the owls swooping past in broad daylight, though people down in the street did; they pointed and gazed open-mouthed as owl after owl sped overhead.  Most of them had never seen an owl even at nighttime.
Just as surprising is that Dale’s excerpt, though it bites off a bigger piece of the book, is actually shorter than Fry’s:  4:52 vs. 5:13.

What I found extraordinary about this discovery was that I hadn’t noticed Fry’s leisurely pace at all while I was listening to him.  As deeply familiar as I am with Dale’s approach I hadn’t found myself becoming impatient with Fry or even considering that he was speaking more slowly than Dale.  Yet the differences in speed between the two really add up—especially in the later, longer books.

For instance, Pottermore Shop lists Fry’s reading of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince as 20.5 hours and Dale’s as 18.5 hours, while Fry’s reading of Rowling’s longest Potter novel, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, runs 29.25 hours versus 26.5 hours for Dale.

Of course, no one wants to speed hear an audiobook.  (Unless it's about, say, how to improve your leadership abilities ... or earn that first million.)

Fry: A Leisurely, Nuanced Read

And thanks to being given the chance to compare Dale and Fry word for word I did notice, in just these short excerpts, Fry offering more nuanced interpretations than Dale.  As he reads Rowling’s description of Mr. Dursley—“He was a big, beefy man with hardly any neck, although he did have a very large moustache”—Fry seems to delight in this nonsequitur, changing inflection to note blithely that having a very large moustache has nothing to do with having hardly any neck.

By contrast Dale’s reading is far more routine.

Then, too, Fry picks up on the parallel description of Mrs. Dursley having “nearly twice the usual amount of neck”, appropriately emphasizing nearly twice to make clear the distinction between Mrs. Dursley’s long neck and Mr. Dursley’s short one.

Dale, unfortunately, fails to convey this difference to the listener.

Lest Dale fans protest that I’m picking on him, rest assured I love his readings—especially his energy, theatricality, and otherworldly voice for Dobby the house elf.  In looking around the web for preferences about Dale and Fry I ran across someone defending Dale’s readings by observing that he recorded three of the Potter books before the first movie adaptation was released—and that his voices seem to anticipate those used by the film actors.  Indeed, it’s hard not to see Robbie Coltrane when listening to Dale’s Hagrid, or Dame Maggie Smith when listening to his Professor McGonagall.  Though I’d imagine the same is likely true of Fry’s voices for these very distinctive characters.

How to Flout (Maybe) Pottermore Shop’s Audiobook Copyright Safeguards

Ultimately, though, true Potter fans should be given the chance to hear both readings unabridged and judge for themselves.  So it’s vexing to discover that Pottermore Shop hews to copyright laws that keep Americans away from Fry and Britons away from Dale.

Someone, however, has noted a workaround for this problem.  I haven’t tried it and can’t guarantee that it works, but it sounds plausible.  Pottermore Shop’s product pages encourage giving all the Harry Potter works as gifts, and when you click the Buy as a gift link you see this popup:

Take a closer look.  This instance of the gift popup appears if you’ve selected one of Stephen Fry’s readings—so the default location shown for Where do they live? is United Kingdom, which is where you’d ideally be residing to be entitled to listen to his work.  (I’m guessing Canada and a number of other UK commonwealth countries would also work here, but why fuss?  Let’s stick with the default!)  Pick your own email address as the email address for the gift recipient—though make sure it’s not the same address you’ve used to establish your Pottermore Shop account.  (Does Pottermore Shop know a random Gmail or Yahoo! or Hotmail account belongs to a US resident and not a UK resident?  Seems unlikely.)  You should shortly be sent a download link for the audiobook of your choice.

Again, I haven’t tried this ploy and can’t honestly claim it works.  And technically I’m obliged to remind you that even if it does work you’re violating international copyright laws by exploiting it.

12 June 2012 Update: I have confirmation from a visitor that the Buy as a gift stratagem does indeed work!  However, based on this visitor’s personal experience (and difficulties) it’s advisable that once you’ve completed the gift purchase you log off Pottermore Shop and either flush your browser’s cookies or open a different browser entirely to complete the gift download.  It’s also advisable to send your gift to an email address that differs from the one you used to open your Pottermore Shop account.  Still, gratifying news for Potter fans who’d like to broaden their audiobook horizons.

Whose Team Are You On?

On the other hand, if it does the trick I’d love to hear from anyone who’s been successful with it.  While you’re at it, let me know whose team you’re on.


  1. As a devout Harry Potter fan, I have listened to both Dale and Fry read Harry Potter. Or rather, I've listened to Fry read it and Dale perform it. I'll admit Dale has a few literary flaws, the but about the Dursleys necks is one, but the voives Dale uses are far superior, the quality of the story is much more potent with Dale, it's just better. One thing I felt is that Fry reads it as if he's reading exclusivly to children. Dale manages to encompass a fuller range audience with his telling

  2. Thanks for weighing in on the debate. Despite the compliments I pay to Fry in my post my sympathies lie with Dale, too -- but that's inevitably because he's pretty much the only one I've listened to. And thanks to the copyright divide I'd wager that those who prefer Fry do so for the same reason. More's the pity, though, because I think anyone who loves the Harry Potter stories should be entitled to give both narrators a fair hearing. Each brings something unique to the party, and I consider it incontrovertible that both actors invested themselves fully in the story -- to borrow a baseball metaphor "they left it all on the field". About Fry reading as if "exclusively to children": certainly the first Harry Potter novel is geared to a younger audience than the last ... but perhaps you mean Fry reads this way throughout all 7 books? I've got to return to Pottermore Shop to hear the clips of Fry reading from the later novels to see if you're right.