Monday, July 18, 2011

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.

21 comments:

  1. I hated the epilogue, too. I imagined great things for Harry, but the author's vision for him (I can only assume her idea of a happy ending) was this boring existence as a family man. I found it both disturbing and distressing, despite my love for the series as a whole. In other words, happy family man might be nice for real life, but an epic disappointment for an epic hero.

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  2. I'm with you on Luna, but I do think Harry was ultimately the hero at the end. He knowingly sacrificed himself for the greater good. It doesn't get more heroic than that.

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  3. This is definitely true. There's been so much in the HP books over the years that irritated the heck out of me (mostly in the last three books) but I reread them all over winter break and I forgave J.K all those mistakes. Because her characterization is beyond wonderful, and because she created a world which so many of us are just dying to step into, again and again. It's worth holding out through a few moments of wanting to chuck the book across the room just to go back to Hogwarts. :)

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  4. Some quibbles (pun intended):

    --Although the movie muddled this distinction, in the book it's clear that Neville's killing the snake didn't directly kill Voldemort. It was Voldemort's killing curse, rebounding on him when Harry's final disarming spell prevailed, that killed Voldemort. Also: if Harry hadn't voluntarily let Voldemort kill him, the Horcrux element in Harry would have kept Voldemort alive. Harry's action in sacrificing itself, while not action-hero stuff, was crucial to Voldemort's defeat.

    --In the movies, I completely agree that (a) Harry and Ginny had little chemistry and (b) Harry and Luna would have made a nice couple. In the books, there's a somewhat better foundation laid for Harry and Ginny as a couple, including them actually spending some time together at the end of Book 6.

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  5. @Brittany - Well put!

    @KAWylie - Agree that the books do a better job on both counts. But other than making out in the woods at the end of Book 6, Harry and Ginny's relationship is pretty weak. My point about the Horcruxes was that Harry, alone, doesn't kill Voldemort. Without Neville, Hermione, Ron, and Dumbledore destroying the other Horcruxes, that final spell couldn't have worked.

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  6. "Real fans will recognize yours faults, and they will continue to love you anyway."

    Yeah, and if you're popular enough, an entire sub-industry will develop around your fans making fun of your faults. Just look at Star Trek.

    (Ha! And I just noticed a typo in that sentence I copied. How deliciously ironic.)

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  7. @Ben - I hang my head in shame! Consider it fixed.

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  8. I wonder if maybe the epilogue serves as a "no, seriously. I am NOT writing another book," type of message? I do like epilogues if they really are for the last in a series...provided that they make sense, of course.

    I laughed at your reasoning for Harry getting together with Ginni. They even look awkward on screen. I would have preferred Harry to be gay, though. Then he could do bad things with the Weasly twins, and...[Googles for fanfic]

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  9. I'm not saying the series is perfect, by any means. (I will never forgive Rowling for putting the attempt-on-Snape's-life BEFORE Snape's-worst-memory. That's just plain ridiculous and, I think, more to do with Rowling's timeline issues.) But since your interpretation of a few things was completely different from mine, I had to speak up. :)

    1. I figured after the Pettigrew incident, Dumbledore wasn't about to trust something as important as Snape solidifying his loyalty to Voldemort with anyone else. And Snape could hardly tell the Order after he killed Dumbledore, because they'd be more inclined to destroy him than sit back and let him explain. My opinion is that Snape is a total asshat, but he's not evil.

    3. I thought it was pretty clear that Voldemort had no intention of going after the Longbottoms. Dumbledore says a few times that it was Voldemort's choice that made Harry the one who could defeat him. That's why I loved the inclusion of Neville; it showed that fate isn't really fate, it's a series of choices, and at any point it could have gone differently.

    4. Might want to review Order of the Phoenix. Harry himself is very adamant that he is nothing without his friends. Which is really the point. Voldemort isn't defeated because he is evil, he's defeated because he doesn't care about anyone as much as himself. (Which is why the Malfoys got away fine; they love each other.)

    5. Here I totally agree. I was a huge Harry/Luna shipper. :)

    6. I don't mind the epilogue that much. Though I'm amused as hell that the movie didn't even have the one part of the epilogue that Rowling says is the ENTIRE REASON she wanted the epilogue in there.

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  10. Yes! Harry and Luna, all the way--not immediately, though. The idea for me would have been for Harry to be standing on his own at the end of the series, and if we must have an epilogue, then it's a nice surprise to see Harry and Luna together years later.

    I also would have liked it if Harry's place as the Chosen One had been questioned more, particularly since it could just as easily be Neville (or as I like to call him, "My Boo").

    And now I have to re-read the series, searching for clues relating to Neville's true spot as the Chosen One. That, or visit fanfiction.net. Either way.

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  11. @Amy B - Fair enough, but for the Neville/Harry Chosen One conflict, I just thought that if she was going to put Harry's role into question at all, it should have been more developed. (PS: Book 5 Harry is my FAVORITE. Such a 15-year-old angst-fest! I do appreciate that he admits he's not that great without his friends, but I wish the books offered a looser definition for "hero." Despite the others' help, I think the series still relied greatly on the idea that Harry was THE ONE.)

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  12. @Sarah - *lol* While I think the series relied on the idea that Harry CHOSE to be The One. Which is why I also think Harry was the clear hero, because the story, as we watched it, was all about the choices Harry made, and those trump abilities. And of course the very first choice he made was who his friends would be. I love theme overlay. :)

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  13. Hi Sarah -

    Love this post! I have yet to see the last installment, but I can't wait. (There's another "duh" factor, eh?)

    Just thoughts on Snape: I'd like to believe his heart was in the right place throughout the series. Although I'm a staunch Ravenclaw, Snape's one of my three favourite characters from the series. From book one, I had this sneaking suspicion that while there was something antagonistic about him, he wasn't necessarily the evil one to look out for. Of course, when Dumbledore died, I was thrown for a major loop, convinced it was all a misunderstanding... I don't think I had any reason to believe that other than my enjoyment of Snape as such a complex villain. I'd like to humbly suggest that he couldn't be a double agent for the Order in the last book because of how easily he could be found out by Voldemort, but I think his heart was still in it. After all, we did see his Patronus, didn't we? I'd suggest he was more of a martyr, especially since he probably knew that it would be unlikely his character would be redeemed after his death, but he still chose to do what was right. Just some thoughts. :)

    And totally Neville for the win! Especially at that premiere. Damn boy!

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  14. Love your blunt honesty and LOL about Harry and Ginny! SO true. And no kidding about the epilogue. :)

    I enjoyed the movie, too. J.K. is amazing!

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  15. After the movie, I drove home with a fan insistent that JK Rowling tied up every single loose thread. I didn't correct her...

    I really liked the epilogue in the movie. Hated it in the book. Maybe it's because this time I knew it was coming?

    Re: Ginny/Harry... We all know Harry was meant to end up with Draco. Just look at the last movie. They had so many moments. Harry saved Draco's life, Draco wouldn't turn Harry over to the Death Eaters... *sigh*

    PS. I love this blog. I feel like it's a haven for cynics.

    PPS. Amy B, you raise a ton of good points.

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  16. I didn't like the epilogue, either -- I would've preferred to draw my own lines, and I'm generally not a fan of years-later endings anyway. Ginny got on my nerves from the beginning; the idea of Luna and Harry ending up together never occurred to me, but I like it.

    Of course, J.K. Rowling is still amazing, so I can't really complain. Much.

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  17. I wasn't crazy about the epilogue, but I disagree with the other points, as least how they were presented in the books. I think Rowling had her reasons for all of it, including the introduction of Neville as potential chosen one. She wanted to show Harry was only the "chosen one" through a series of choices, choices made by Voldemort himself. It was Voldemort acting that got him in the pickle in the first place. I thought that was a pretty cool thing to do.

    As for Snape, I've always said he's not evil, but he's not a saint either. He's ambiguous, and that's why I think he's so interesting. I don't think he should have been a double agent in the final book because he needed to do everything to convince Voldemort that he was his trusty servant so he could help Harry when it was time.

    As for Harry being the true hero, I think he is. He had help from friends, but I think that's another important thing Rowling was trying to say. But I do think, no matter all the other help Harry had, he was the one who had to walk into that forest. Only he could do that, and that took an incredible amount of bravery. He was the horcrux, no one else. He sent the disarming spell at Voldemort, causing the curse to backfire. He also disarmed Malfoy which gave him ownership of the Elder Wand. Yes, everyone else did a lot as well, but it's why I love this series so much. The characters are important.

    I have some issues with this final movie though.

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  18. I really loved the movie. I love the series though and I always considered the movies just a PART of that. The books are almost always better.

    Now, Harry and Luna? YES PLEASE! I wanted that, and I'm still mad it didn't happen. I thought Neville and Ginny would be great too...they had such a good time at the Yule Ball, and it would have been cute.

    But Harry and Luna really did have more than just making out like Ginny did. They had some serious discussions and they had the death of a parent in common, and I just love that Luna is a calming force to Harry's craziness. Sigh.

    -Lauren

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  19. "Build your fan base by getting it right, but don't become consumed by being "perfect.""

    This is really lovely advice. Thank you!

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  20. Sarah, I'd be interested to know your thoughts on the Battle of Hogwarts as well -- the changes from book to screen were jarring for me, to say the least (WE'RE SUPPOSED TO SEE FRED DIE! HARRY'S SUPPOSED TO GO TO THE HEADMASTER'S OFFICE AND BE APPLAUDED BY THE HOGWARTS HEADS OF OLD!).

    Do you think the battle played out better story-wise in the original writing or the brand-new action shots?

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  21. @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.

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