Some Harry Potter Thoughts for the New Year

Hey! I’m back from vacation! Miss me? Over the break, the movie marathon we chose to go with this year was all 8 Harry Potter movies. (We’ll be watching Fantastic Beasts and its sequel in the next bit, as well, but we ran out of time to fit them into the schedule. Too busy eating metric tons of fudge . . . ) This was the second time I’d seen many of the movies, having watched them opening night in the theater and then not getting around to watching them again. And, as you might expect, I have thoughts.

First off, this is how I’d rank the 8 movies, from worst to best:

  • Sorcerer’s Stone–5/10
  • Chamber of Secrets–5.5/10
  • Deathly Hallows Part 1–6/10
  • Order of the Phoenix–7/10
  • Deathly Hallows Part 2–7/10
  • Half-blood Prince–7/10
  • Goblet of Fire7.5/10
  • Prisoner of Azkaban–8.5/10

Sorcerer’s Stone and Chamber of Secrets are significantly worse than the others, with Deathly Hallows Part 1 near by. Prisoner of Azkaban is easily the best, and it’s not close. The others are . . . a mixed bag. Enjoyable, with some flaws the drag them down here and there.

After watching the first two in the series, I began to seriously wonder if I’d made a big mistake committing to watching the whole series. They were just . . . blah. I think a large part of this is that the first two movies were made primarily from a “I wonder what that would look like in a movie” perspective. So they show pretty much as much of the stuff in the books that they can. Nearly Headless Nick? You betcha! And while it might have been cool back in 2000 to see what those things look like, these days, we’ve all grown accustomed to just what sort of things can be done with computers, and so the neat-o factor just isn’t there anymore. What we’re left with is just a bunch of bloated fluff desperately in need of an edit.

Thankfully, Cuaron came along with Prisoner of Azkaban and showed what a great Harry Potter movie could be like. Phew! Not a slave to the book, but definitely paying attention to it. It’s a genuinely good movie. The rest of the series, as I said, is a mixed bag. Some of that is because of the source material (the books after Goblet of Fire began to suffer, in my opinion, and Deathly Hallows really needed an edit), and some of it is Hollywood mucking around with the plot to make it flashier.

However, beyond just the adaptations, I had a couple of thoughts watching the movies brought to mind. The first is a general observation of frustration with plotting in the books. Time and time again, Harry and the gang are saved through deus ex machina. Dobby shows up to rescue them from the grasp of Bellatrix. The magic car shows up to save them from the giant spiders. Hagrid shows up to save Harry from the Dursleys. Fawkes shows up to give Harry a magic sword. In all of these cases (and many more), nothing Harry does is really earned. He just sort of stumbles his way from victory to victory, relying (it seems) much more on luck than anything else. Once or twice over the course of a seven book series is understandable. But for it to happen so often, so consistently, was more than a little frustrating. I’ll have to reread the books sometime to see if it’s a problem there as well, or if it just came up in the adaptation process.

My second, somewhat deeper observation, is more over-arching. Rowling has gotten in a lot of hot water lately over her very public statements against trans rights. I’m not going to delve into that here (Google will bring you up to speed easily), but I will say that one of the first things that struck me about the series was how racism/classism is inherently baked into Rowling’s world. You’ve got goblins, which are all greedy little monsters. Even Dobby can’t stand to not be serving when he’s freed. House Elves just want to serve. It’s what they’re bred to do. But more than all of that is the underlying problem of “Muggles.”

It’s a pejorative, plain and simple. The wizarding world looks at Muggles as very other and very inferior. And it’s not just vile people like Voldemort (wanting to rid the world of Muggles) or Malfoy (using Mud-blood as a slur). Even the “good” wizards like Mr. Weasley view Muggles as different, more worthy of study than of treating as actual people. Muggles are stupid, ignorant, and full of themselves. They’re unwilling and unable to figure out what’s really happening in the world.

As I thought about it, I wondered if this were just part of the nature of fantasy in general, where the “normals” are treated as less than across the board. I don’t think that’s the case, however. Narnia doesn’t share that sort of belief system, for example. You don’t have it happening in Tolkien, either. (Yes, you’ll have orcs and Uruk-hai which are clearly evil, but I’m talking about classes of humans. None of them are inherently “better” than others, regardless of their abilities.) As I look through the other big names in fantasy, I still don’t see it. Game of Thrones, Wheel of Time, etc. You’ll have individuals in a society that are terrible. You’ll have people who are racist. But there are exceptions, and it’s clear from the viewpoints that those individual beliefs are just that: individual.

So should it be that surprising that Rowling, years later, has proven to be less than sympathetic across the board to people who are different? Even the way she treated homosexuality and race in the books (insisting after the fact that Dumbledore was gay, despite not including textual evidence in the actual books, and saying Hermione might be Black, just because she never explicitly stated her race in the books) rubs me the wrong way. It always felt a bit to me like she wanted to have it both ways: not cause a stir with the books themselves, but also gain the accolades from the progressive left.

When I first read the books, I thought the idea of Muggles was funny and charming. Now, 20 years later, it doesn’t read that way to me at all. Am I alone in this? And I wonder if it’s just because so much has happened in the world since Harry Potter came out, or if I’m just more sensitive to the topic at this juncture. I’d be interested to hear what other people have to say about it.


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