Harry Potter and the Disagreeable Analysis
So lately I’ve been thinking a lot about this guy.
I’ve enjoyed the last few Harry Potter movies a lot, and both parts of The Deathly Hallows comprise a pretty powerful send-off to the biggest (and most insanely profitable) franchise of all time. But though they follow the plot quite closely, they nevertheless strongly diverge from the books, as many of the films since The Prisoner of the Azkaban have been wont to do.
There’s one small change that stood out to me since the first trailer for Deathly Hallows was released. The most minor of alterations to the text, from one of the most perfectly executed sequences of the film.
It’s the last line said by Ron in the clip below…
“You have no family.”
For all the divergences he’s made, writer Steve Kloves (who penned every film except the fifth – quite an achievement, given it’s meant working with directors of differing styles) understands Harry Potter. He understands exactly what the message of the saga is – or should be – where the story draws its power from, and what, ultimately, is the real magic of the tale.
At least, that’s what I think, and I’m sure many will disagree.
That line – a minor, natural addition to text lifted nearly verbatim from the book – clarifies what the scene should be trying to achieve, and puts me in mind of what I love most about the series, what my favorite book of the series has always been, and who my favorite Harry Potter character is.
My favorite book first. It’s the fourth: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.
This is one of the books that, much like the first, is hard not to love. The tournament-structure of the plot is effortlessly engaging, the romantic undertones are brought to the forefront for the first time, and the epic scope expands an already-large magical world into something even richer. And of course, it marks a major turning point in the saga.
That’s all on the surface. Going deeper, Rowling’s prose is at its absolute best, mixing the sinister suspense of Agatha Christie (especially in the first chapter) with Dickensian humanism and Dahl-ish imagination – all three of which have been there since the first book but not quite integrated at this level. Lots of people (who frankly don’t know any better) scoff at Rowling’s prose for lack of inventiveness, when it has never tried to be anything more than it is, and here the brilliance of her casual, involving approach shows best. Goblet of Fire also achieved a perfect balance of light and dark elements, whereas all other Potter books to follow struggled and, ultimately, stumbled.
And while a lot of people like to call the fifth book (Order of the Phoenix) the first of the “serious” and “mature” installments, pointing to how it fearlessly took on ideas of racism, dystopia, and propaganda…I honestly though it did so pretty ham-handedly. Which probably would have been fine for a children’s book…if not for Goblet having already integrated such weighty themes in a far subtler – and more successful – manner.
But the real reason Goblet succeeds – and why it resonates so well when you read it – is that it perfectly encapsulates what (at least for the first four books) Harry Potter was really all about.
“Uh, yeah. Love, right?”
Well, sure. Which sounds lame.
Except that more specifically, Harry Potter is about family.
Obvious enough, but it’s easily forgotten in the midst of romances, Horcruxes, prophecies, and the war on Voldemort. Still, there’s no mistaking it as what the series should be centered on, even as it drifted away from that with the close of the fourth book.
The saga begins with the death of Harry’s parents, and Harry left an orphan, thrusting him into the classic Dickensian setup from Great Expectations, David Copperfield and Nicholas Nickleby. He is forced to live with his only relations, the Dursleys of Privet Drive, who subject him to a cold, harsh upbringing. The Dursleys are not immediately sadistic people, or they wouldn’t endlessly pamper their own natural-born son. Rather, they are cruel to Harry because they don’t consider him family.
When Harry gets his letter from Hogwarts, it’s not the idea of him becoming a wizard, of learning magic and wielding a wand and having special powers that excites him. The misery of his childhood was never rooted – as would have been typical of prepubescent tales – in isolation or inadequacy. He is simply happy to leave the Dursleys…and more than happy to follow his first new father figure, Hagrid, who brings him a birthday cake, buys him ice cream, defends him, gives him presents… someone who can at long last take him away from these people, for any life must be better than living in a home that rejected him from the start.
At Hogwarts, Dumbledore tells Harry that the most important magic of all is love. Though it takes him a while to understand it, Harry has known this all along. Love is what he was denied for those eleven years he spent with the Dursleys, and what he’s entered the magical world hoping to find. Yes, Hogwarts can represent the “limitless potential for children to grow and develop new talents and see new sights and yada yada yada…” but that’s not really what matters to Harry, is it? It never was. Harry’s actual education at Hogwarts is never the focus (except when certain lessons introduce plot points that tie into the storyarc). Magic is merely an encompassing metaphor for the brighter, warmer life that awaits Harry, a life where he can finally find family and happiness and love.
Back to Goblet of Fire. It memorably begins with a clever parallel and inversion of the first chapter of Sorcerer’s Stone, setting up the return of Harry’s nemesis, the big bad Voldemort. The inversion is a powerful one that establishes their similarities and difference; Harry’s real family was killed by Voldemort, leaving him with an adopted family that rejected him. Voldemort, on the other hand, was denied by his real father, and so later hunted his real family down and killed them. That’s all you need to know about both of them, and all that drives the dark conflict surfacing as the book unfolds.
Yet throughout the first act of Goblet of Fire, as Harry joins his friends Ron, Hermione, and the entire Weasley family to see the Quidditch World Cup, what becomes clear is that Harry – at this stage – has already overcome that conflict…because he already has found a family. The mere thought of spending the rest of a gloomy, Dursley-controlled summer with them instead casts all worries (even the return of Voldemort) from his mind.
But in a mostly comical sequence of the Weasleys extracting Harry from Privet Drive, we’re given one brief, surprising beat of gravity…
“Well…’bye then,” Harry said to the Dursleys.
They didn’t say anything at all. Harry moved toward the fire, but just as he reached the edge of the hearth, Mr. Weasley put out a hand and held him back. He was looking at the Dursleys in amazement.
“Harry said goodbye to you,” he said. “Didn’t you hear him?”
“It doesn’t matter,” Harry muttered to Mr. Weasley. “Honestly, I don’t care.”
Mr. Weasley isn’t quite Harry’s surrogate father – there are plenty angling for that role – but he shows a touching degree of filial concern at how emotionally distant the Dursleys are to their nephew. He adamantly keeps Harry from coming with him until Uncle Vernon gives a proper goodbye, and it’s the first sign of anyone actually trying to encourage a reconciliation between Harry and his relatives. Harry doesn’t care – but Mr. Weasley knows the value of family. For him, Harry should care.
The Weasleys are given more focus in this book than in any of the others: Mrs. Weasley frets and worries over Harry as one of her own; we see the older brothers Bill and Charlie for the first time; Fred and George tie into one of the key mysteries; and Ron, for all intents Harry’s brother, brings conflict into the Harry-Ron-Hermione trio, as we explore his jealousy of Harry and his feelings for Hermione. Ron has always been my favorite of the trio, the everyman who actually remains an everyman, and who probably never fully gets over his insecurities, inadequacies, and immaturities – as none of us really do. Despite being the only full-blooded wizard of the three, Ron’s perpetual conflict is that he’s just too human, and Goblet delves into this most deeply.
And then there’s Percy. His immediate significance is introducing us to the pivotal Barty Crouch, but he also represents an interesting aberration in the Weasleys. While all of the Weasleys unquestionably care for each other and value how closely-knit their family is, Percy determinedly sets himself apart – to be expounded in later books, but here the seeds of it are planted in mostly innocent fashion, as his ambitious drive pushes him to adore and venerate figures of political power. None more so than Barty Crouch, his boss, whom Percy longs to be accepted by as a surrogate son. It’s bitterly ironic, given that he already has the perfect father in Mr. Weasley, and that Mr. Crouch can’t even remember his name…and that’s not to get into later details that make gravely clear what Crouch’s idea of fatherly affection is like.
Later, when Harry returns to Hogwarts and finds himself in the dangerous Triwizard Tournament, the community that protects him solidifies further. His godfather Sirius Black – at risk to his own life – keeps regular contact with Harry, guiding him every step of the way. Hagrid, the first of his father figures (and keeper of keys, who opened the door for Harry into the world of magic) gives his sincere, heartfelt support through the adversity, his faith in Harry never shaking. A new character, Mad-Eye Moody, raises Harry through the path of nature, steeling him for the physical ordeals to come. And Dumbledore – sensing the unseen threat – begins making his transition from a background grandfather to a more forefront fatherly position. By book’s end, Dumbledore is in full assertive force, and undoubtedly cares for Harry as a son. It is no surprise to learn, in Order of the Phoenix, that Dumbledore puts Harry’s happiness before the defeat of Voldemort.
Yet even with his friends all around him, Harry begins the tournament in a downtrodden, somber state…because he temporarily loses Ron. Ron was the first to genuinely welcome Harry into a magical community, to extend him the hand as friend and then brother under no one’s orders, and so when Ron turns against him – his envy reaching a breaking point – it weighs on Harry more than any of the challenges he has to face. Indeed, when Harry completes his First Task of the tournament, what he celebrates above all else is regaining Ron’s friendship and trust – carrying over into the Second Task as what he must defend.
The Triwizard Tournament offers a lot of lighter, imaginative diversions for the second act. Intentional or not, I like how the three tasks can represent three of the classical elements – the dragon for fire, the lake for water, and the grass-grown hedge-maze for earth – that together negate the Quidditch season, representing air (or perhaps the Quidditch World Cup can be counted as a similarly important event, rounding out the elements). The Yule Ball awakens the trio to romance – and throws Harry into his own brush with jealousy as he meets failure on that end. It’s well time for him to finally explore that dimension, though, even if he may be years away from taking it seriously and tying into the filial aspect of it. Goblet also naturally plays with mature underlying societal themes through the House-Elf Liberation Front and the outing of Hagrid as kin to the banished race of giants.
These issues of social equality, as well as the larger theme of international community the Triwizard Tournament is meant to foster, call to mind the broader aspects of family and unity. Most of all, it plays into the idea that family is not a matter of blood, but of choice. Dumbledore repeats ad nauseam that our choices are what define us – that the measure of a man is not what he is born as, but what he chooses to be, and though unspoken, he clearly considers family at the center of that choice.
It all comes into play for the final act. As Voldemort’s rise becomes inevitable, we are fully introduced – in the Pensieve scene and in a convenient piece of exposition from a returned Sirius Black – to his servants, the Death Eaters. And as the Dark Lord himself tells Harry during their twisted reunion at Goblet’s climax…
“Listen to me, reliving family history…” [Voldemort] said quietly, “why, I am growing quite sentimental…But look, Harry! My true family returns…”
Having been denied by his father, and having killed his natural relations,Voldemort has chosen a surrogate family of his own – a family that he bullies and punishes, but that he nonetheless remains strongly attached to, praising and rewarding those Death Eaters who serve him well. Indeed, he may be more loyal to them than they on the whole have been to him. It’s the path of nature, but it remains remarkably filial (and frankly not too removed from certain real-life households). No doubt that the Dark Lord considers some of these servants as family, and it is not at all beyond him to turn sentimental (in holding both grudges and affection, even if more on the former).
As we are to learn from one servant in particular, that feeling can be mutual…
“The Dark Lord and I”, said Moody, and he looked completely insane now, towering over Harry, leering down at him, “have much in common. Both of us, for instance, had very disappointing fathers….very disappointing indeed. Both of us suffered the indignity, Harry, of being named after those fathers. And both of us had the pleasure…the very great pleasure…of killing our fathers to ensure the continued rise of the Dark Order!”
This leads into the big revelation that Mad-Eye Moody, one of Harry’s surrogate fathers for most of the book, is actually the disguised son of Barty Crouch – and one of Voldemort’s most devious servants. It’s a nice play on the Man With Two Faces from Sorcerer’s Stone (as his concealing potion literally allows him a hidden face), but moreso it brings down the theme of choosing family – and choosing fathers – as the most crucial instigator of the entire plot. More than any belief in Death Eater ideals, the true reason Crouch’s son sided with Voldemort is because of the bitter rejection he felt from his own cold, callous father (again, Percy Weasley has chosen the absolute wrong person). And so he opted to oppose him, going so far as to feel genuine affection for the Dark Lord.
Most interestingly, Voldemort understands this power of family, of how merely offering acceptance to those denied can sway them to your ideals, no matter what they may previously believe. Dumbledore knows this too, and knows that Voldemort is but a word away from calling the banished giants to his side…
“Extend them the hand of friendship, now, before it is too late,” said Dumbledore, “or Voldemort will persuade them, as he did before, that he alone among wizards will give them their rights and their freedom!”
Smart man, that Voldemort. He knows how it works. The end of Goblet is definitely his shining moment, and a poisonous turning point in Harry’s life. He nearly completes his victory by killing Harry as well, who escapes by the slimmest of chances – a rare magical event caused by the shared nature of their wands, the predominant symbol of their inverted relationship. It might be too convenient a plot device, but as a pure once-in-a-lifetime miraculous moment, it works (unfortunately they had to unnecessarily bring it back into play in the final book, robbing it of a lot of its power and further questioning its technicalities).
It allows us to see, through an unexplained kind of energy, the first true meeting between a grown-up Harry and his dead parents, bringing things full circle. And that is appropriate enough, for it marks a period to the notion that, in his darkest hour, Harry’s family is there for him.
Even as events are about to take a dark turn, Harry needn’t worry about Voldemort. He has already overcome the challenge that the Dark Lord posed to him. He carries his parents in spirit. He has found the brothers, sisters, fathers and mothers in life that he was denied for eleven years. He’s already won.
And this takes me to the one moment of the series that I’ll never forget, and the most affecting piece that J.K. Rowling has ever written. It comes after Harry’s battle with Voldemort, while he recovers in the Hogwarts hospital wing, the aforementioned foster family standing guard all around him, never leaving his side through the night.
In one spontaneous, un-telegraphed moment, this happens…
Mrs. Weasley set the potion down on the bedside cabinet, bent down, and put her arms around Harry. He had no memory of ever being hugged like this, as though by a mother. The full weight of everything he had seen that night seemed to fall in upon him as Mrs. Weasley held him to her.
We are soberly reminded that Harry has never experienced a mother’s embrace. I’ve mentioned that his candidates for father figure are many, but there is no doubt that his mother is Mrs. Weasley, my favorite character in the series (long before her cheered “moment” at the end of the seventh book), who aches every minute to give him that particular love he has never known. Though not explicitly mentioned, it is through the deep affection she gives him that Harry comes to fully understand the power of his own mother’s sacrifice, the power that saved him from Voldemort.
Voldemort may be back – but Harry has already succeeded in his true life’s conflict.
Well…so I like to think. And it’s probably that, more than anything, that leads to my disconnect with the last three books of the series, where things seem to change from Great Expectations to Rocky IV (and that sound you just heard was all of my goodwill evaporating. But I honestly like Rocky IV). As weird as it sounds…I started to enjoy the books less when they became overly focused on Harry gearing up to take on Voldemort.
Now, I hardly thought this would be the case, but there’s a genuine lack of heart to the books whenever they seem to focus on the secret war on Voldemort – a war that frankly often feels unsatisfying, given how much of it is merely relayed to us, the major events occurring off-screen. In theory that’s the perfect path to take, because then the books can still focus on Harry’s personal story.
The problem is that said personal story becomes so firmly rooted in the outside war anyway, and that’s the biggest frustration a lot of readers had with Order of the Phoenix (the book following Goblet), where the long middle act simply made them anxious to reach the book’s conclusion and get to the important stuff.
Phoenix tries to fit in crucial elements into the middle act that seem fair enough to care about, but it doesn’t help that for one, they all feel inconsequential from the start, and second, they don’t lead to any rewarding payoff. The anti-Harry Potter propaganda of the Ministry is diverting and fulfills the book’s “social commentary” quota (in a fairly loud and, towards the end, somewhat obnoxious way, as opposed to the subtler inklings of Goblet), but feels flaccid, since we know it’ll be moot once Voldemort actually gets off his ass and does stuff (and that is indeed how it is resolved, no twist to it whatsoever). The secret club formed by Harry’s friends to learn dueling magic is interesting but, after a promising start, goes nowhere, has no payoff, and only slightly develops Harry. The one part of the story that matters to Harry on a personal level is the pursuit of his crush, Cho Chang, but it’s quickly passed off as a protracted joke.
There’s nothing wrong with any of the elements I mention above, but they’re all we get. Themes of family, identity, and choice are briefly touched upon, but in ways we’ve seen before and without a connecting thread. If the point is that we’re done with that stage of the story and meant to focus on the war instead, then the war could have been implemented better and Harry’s place in it more properly defined.
When Harry’s place in it is defined…well, I’m not a fan at all of the whole prophecy thing. Maybe that’s personal taste, but – aside from it being a pretty unimaginative answer to a mystery hinted since Sorcerer’s Stone – I think I’ve outlined above that there are more than enough connections between Harry and Voldemort that already exist. We don’t need another tangential one that pales next to all the others (and as expected, by Deathly Hallows it serves little point, save for how the unnecessarily complicated wording sort of hints at another plot element, though I still can’t make any grammatical sense of it).
Now Half-Blood Prince, the book that follows, does try to more firmly shift things back to a personal perspective, though mostly goes for lighthearted, shallow drama. I can’t too heavily fault this, and the frank immaturity of the relationship that develops between Harry and Ginny. I do wish that, in this return to personal stories, the family themes could have been played on better and with more depth. And yes, I’m personally saddened to see nothing done in this book (or the next) with the Harry/Mrs. Weasley relationship, when it could have been the perfect time to touch on it given who Harry ends up with (not to mention potential parallels with the Malfoy family). And say what you will about the film adaptation of this book, but one thing I have to thank Kloves and Yates for is how they inject gravitas into the friendships and romances that are core to Prince, making the Harry/Ginny and Ron/Hermione plots more heartfelt and genuine. They need to be for the filial themes to have proper weight.
I’ll address one last peeve of mine that Prince solidifies and carries into the finale: Voldemort’s characterization. Delving into his backstory is an obvious but effective way of making the middle act more urgent and crucial…in theory. It starts off well, showing Voldemort’s ancestry and promising to construct his journey on that filial ground…and then starts to waste all of the potential laid down in Goblet, “shallowing” his character.
Again, Dumbledore frequently makes the point that it is our choices that define us, that it matters not who we are born as but what we choose to be. Again, as portrayed in Goblet, Voldemort clearly values and understands the strength of family ties, even surrogate ties, and even if we are to take Dumbledore’s word that he cannot understand the raw magical power of love (which frankly, given the evidence, I feel is misjudgment; he merely underestimates it, just as Harry for a long time underestimated it) then he still certainly uses the power of empathy. Again, Voldemort and Harry are inversions of the same card; both suffered the same denial of love and rejection, reacting to it in ways different yet at times eerily similar.
You would think the key of tracing Voldemort’s personal history in Prince is finding those crucial moments that made him who he is, that led him to choose the darker path and the darker family. This is not the case. The histories showcase his atrocities and deviousness, but fail to actually explore him. And even worse, one of the first histories presents the child Voldemort from before his time at Hogwarts as already malicious and cruel, before he even learns that his father denied him…it seems to argue the case that he was, simply, an evil boy, rotten to the core right from the start, and that being the only explanation we need to understand his later actions. Dumbledore oversimplifies him not just as someone who chooses not to feel love, but as someone incapable of feeling love.
If that’s the case, then what happened to the principle of choice – not nature – being the true measure of who you are, if Voldemort’s nature locked him onto this road from the beginning? Gone is the potential for exploring the more human side of Voldemort from those early books.
I won’t get into the Deathly Hallows book, since I simply don’t care much for it at all; in a nutshell, it carried on with most of the missed opportunities and shallower elements pushed forth by Phoenix and Prince, layered with some of the most overwrought and inconsistent prose I’ve ever read and stuffed in between a ton more unnecessary plot devices that continually filter out what little true magic remained from the first few books (if you hadn’t noticed, I kind of hate the final book. I know it has a few good scenes, but I couldn’t care less for it on the whole).
I’m a firm believer that the worst form of literary criticism is declaring how you would have written something, and passing it off as how it should have been written. So let me make clear that here I end the criticism, and stoop to the level of fan fiction (I do not deny it, and in it there’s no shame) just to suggest how things could have gone if the series had sought to maintain that powerful, sentimental, filial magic that so strongly tied together the overarching themes, characters, and motivations of the earlier books. The logical place to have taken Harry following Goblet is testing his choice of family. He has his family there to protect him, he has long won that conflict, and now that Voldemort has returned he is in place to grasp just how much they matter, and how central they have been to his choices.
Therefore, the personal journey of either Phoenix or Prince should have been a form of temptation towards rejecting that family. I felt for a while that the purpose of Harry over-focusing on how to defeat Voldemort was to set him up for a choice between either a proactive war effort, or simply lying low and being satisfied with those who care for him, as he well should be (this was not the case in the actual book; in fact, Harry’s concern for a family member actually leads to said member’s death), thus driving home the point of what really matters to him. Following that conflict, I was hoping for more of Harry realizing and accepting the Weasleys (especially Mrs. Weasley) as true surrogate parents, and maybe seeing what developments (or conflict) would arise with Ron as a result.
Perhaps most unusually, I was hoping for some kind of real resolution to his relationship with the Dursleys, so unsatisfyingly glossed over in Hallows. An attempt at reconciliation is driven not just by Mr. Weasley in Goblet, but by the device of their magical protection revealed by Dumbledore in Phoenix, yet nothing is done with either. I wouldn’t say a true reconciliation would have been the best thing, but there should have been something accomplished with these characters who have indirectly shaped Harry’s choices for life, especially as they are in every book.
Or who knows, maybe the last three books are thematically sound, and just should have been done better. But I doubt it. My opinion, of course.
And clearly I’ve been thinking about Harry Potter way too much.