The Real Lesson from Harry Potter

**If the select few who only experience the Harry Potter series through the movies wish to avoid “spoilers,” then consider yourself warned.**

Like many HP fans, I went to see The Deathly Hallows: Part II this weekend. I surprised myself by not crying and mostly floated through the movie waiting to see how they would present certain scenes, rather than anticipate the scenes themselves. Despite knowing what happens, and making my peace with it, I still thoroughly enjoyed the movie. I will probably see it again in theaters at least one more time.

I am a huge fan of the Harry Potter books. That statement alone feels sort of strange to say. The series has reached such popularity that saying you’re a fan is practically commonplace. Obviously I’m a fan. It’s like saying you think The Beatles are a good band, or you enjoy eating pizza. There’s a “duh” factor.

My inner fangirl loves Harry Potter for many, many reasons. The plot and characters, of course, but more than that, my admiration for J.K. Rowling’s storytelling ability is what keeps me such a strong advocate for this series. Each character (and there are many), no matter how insignificant, has some sort of back-story. We care about every single one of them, even when we can’t always keep everyone straight. Not only that, but in the hugely rich tale of why a boy must battle the darkest wizard of all time, there are several sub-plots – many of them independent from Harry and Voldemort – that are just as interesting. Beneath “good vs. evil,” there are socially relevant themes of government interference in schools (Umbridge), attack of independent media (The Quibbler), modern slavery/class systems (house elves), and feminism (Mrs. Weasley and Professor McGonagall, strong women forced to take a back seat in the man’s world of their generation.) These are just to name a few, by the way.

This is all by way of saying how much I love Ms. Rowling’s writing and how much of a connection I’ve felt toward this series for so many years. That’s why in addition to not crying, I surprised myself for a different reason while watching The Deathly Hallows. I realized something – you can be brilliant and still have flaws.

Maybe it was the fatigue of writing this series for 20 years, or pressure from her publishers to turn in the next book, or simply a desire not to make each book 4,000 pages… but our beloved Ms. Rowling leaves quite a few loose ends and rushed conclusions. For example:

1. Snape. Was he actually good that whole time? The final film does a good job of redeeming his character, but the books actually keep him pretty ambiguous. Yes, he did what Dumbledore asked him to do, but why not still be a double agent for The Order? Why not let them in on Dumbledore’s plan? Even though his heart was never in it, his choice was to give himself over to Voldemort completely, knowing he’d never be allowed to escape. Is that martyrdom or stupidity? And why is such a dick all the time? This comic puts all of your Snape questions into context. OK, we get it, Snape had a soft spot for Harry this whole time because he loved Lily. But… he is still basically evil, right? Based on the books alone, we never know the real answer.

2. Harry’s connection to Voldemort. We know why they can hear each other’s thoughts, but Dumbledore seemed to think Harry could block them out with a little practice. But because Snape’s hatred of Harry gets in the way of his responsibility to The Order (see above), he basically tells Harry to fend for himself. One of my favorite lines in the final movie was Harry’s response to Hermione when she asks whether he can sever the connection to Voldemort: “I can’t! Or maybe I can. I don’t know.” It’s such a perfect comment on the fact that J.K. Rowling  drops this storyline with no real explanation. If Harry did learn to block out Voldemort’s presence, there goes pertinent plot points for Books 6 and 7, so it’s left open for interpretation.

3. Neville! In Book 5, we learn that the prophecy labeling Harry as Voldemort’s one true enemy could have actually applied to Neville as well. It takes about two paragraphs for J.K. to explain that Neville’s parents also defied Voldemort and that Neville was also born at the end of July, but don’t worry it really is Harry who must defeat him. Wait, what? Why bother telling us about Neville then? And didn’t Voldemort mark Harry by accident? He didn’t know the spell would backfire and just leave a scar. He was trying to kill him. Maybe the spell backfiring weakened him before he got the chance to hit up the Longbottom house. We don’t know. It’s an odd thing for J.K. to include in the series so far into it. She would have had to re-write the last two books to make Neville our hero after all. Of course, changing the game so far into the series would have been a disaster for readers who have come to love Harry. So, Neville’s would-be calling becomes a red herring. Still… is Harry really our hero?

4. Harry is Not Really Our Hero. Our boy who lived is an incredible wizard. There’s no question about this. He has skills beyond his years, he’s clever and resourceful, and he’s certainly not short on bravery. But if you really think about the series, Harry doesn’t really do anything at the end. He fights and wins battles the same as everyone else, but when it comes to fighting the big end-of-show evil, someone else manages to swoop in and help out at the last minute, leaving Harry to take all the credit. Hermione knows the winning spell, unexplained swords and patronuses appear out of thin air to help him out of jams, and Neville (see above!) is the one who destroys the final Horcrux, thus killing Voldemort and saving the world. Harry is a natural leader and a gifted motivational speaker, but when it comes to physical battles, he’s no more or less equipped than his friends. I’d be fine with this portrayal of Harry if that was the intention, but the series hinges on the fact that Harry really is a hero. And by himself, he’s just not. Sorry, J.K.

5. Harry’s Love Life.  After seeing Deathly Hallows: Part I, I made my disapproval of Harry and Ginny’s happily ever after known. I still find it insulting and unrealistic, but seeing Part II of this installment made me remember Luna Lovegood. Oh, Luna! Now, keep in mind I have a huge problem with Harry ending up with anyone romantically. He’s only 17 and just ended seven years of going through some serious shit. All I want for Harry is a tall, frosty butterbeer, and maybe a  vacation. The sexual tension between Ron and Hermione pays off splendidly in the end, which should be enough for readers wanting a little romance with their fantasy. But, blah blah Harry blah blah Main Character blah blah He Needs Love Too. I get it. But does it have to be Ginny? I’m a huge fan of Ginny as a character, but the two have absolutely no chemistry. The only logical explanation I can see for having Harry end up with Ginny is that Harry is too exhausted after the war to care, and he always wanted to be a Weasley anyway, and Ginny is the only girl in that family. If our boy HAS to end up with anyone, it should be Luna. (Ginny, of course, should be with Neville.) From the beginning, Harry is the only person who doesn’t think Luna is completely insane. She makes him laugh and we see them have actual fun together, as opposed to Harry and Ginny, who just give each other awkward stares. Luna and Harry also share an ability to see only what the truly bereaved can see. Plus, any time Harry is going through his woe-is-me emo phases, it’s Luna who always pops up to comfort or give him advice. This should be obvious, J.K.! Why make awesome characters like Ginny, Harry, and Luna settle for a crappy post-high school existence?

6. That F@#(@#* Epilogue. Kind readers, you know my feelings on epilogues. I will spare you all my rant. If The Deathly Hallows was a standalone title, or if the series wasn’t as popular, I’m sure J.K.’s editors would have made her remove that horrible piece of writing from the series. The level with which I hate it is akin to the S.P.E.W. sub-plot in Book 4, which is to say, quite intense.

So, does this mean that if you’re writing a series, you can cop out, be deliberately vague, and leave things unexplained? Of course not. As the series became more ambitious, so did J.K. Rowling’s writing, and sometimes adding so much more didn’t always work. But, by the time The Deathly Hallows was published, it was abundantly clear that J.K. Rowling could do whatever she wanted, whenever she wanted, and however she wanted it. Unless your series reaches that status, it’s best to stick to the script.

The real lesson here is that if you have a good story, readers will respond. If you have even better characters, readers will stick with them. Build your fan base by getting it right, but don’t become consumed by being “perfect.” Real fans will recognize your faults, and they will continue to love you anyway.

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21 thoughts on “The Real Lesson from Harry Potter

  1. @Inky – I think the film adaptations were pretty wonderful actually. Some things work better on screen the same way some things work better on the page. I think both told the best version of the story that each medium allows.

    Like

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