[various spoilers for the whole series]
I am part of what the media likes to call The Potter Generation. I was eight when I began reading them and sixteen when the series finished. Along with the books themselves, I’ve absorbed innumerable pop culture byproducts of the Harry Potter world; I’ve made home movies with Potter Legos, memorized “The Mysterious Ticking Noise,” read “My Immortal” and thought very seriously about my wizarding world alter ego (McGonagall) and Hogwarts house (probably Ravenclaw). I’ve wished fervently for Skiving Snacks, Occlumency lessons, a pet owl, and a Time-Turner. I’ve seen Harry and the Potters live, twice.
I can’t explain why children (and adults) respond so positively to Harry Potter in such overwhelming numbers, but I remember liking the first two books for many of the same reasons I liked Roald Dahl’s books: nasty parent figures, humor, exotic settings, made-up words. There was considerable danger, but defeating it was thrilling and adventurous. It was the perfect escape because it wasn’t much like real life in any way, but it felt real through the power of good writing and sheer volume—it just kept on going year after year, and there were so many characters and facets to the world.
Despite the obvious social critiques in the books, I never consciously drew parallels between the wizarding world and my world. I wanted Harry Potter to exist in a vacuum. But as the books went on, the backs tories grew more complex, the danger became more insidious and intimidating, and the fantasy world turned out to be as confusing and terrifying as my real post-9/11 adolescent world. I dreaded the release of the last two books, knowing I would endure them more than I enjoyed them, but the idea of simply abandoning the series never even crossed my mind. Not only did I not want to analyze the books as cultural products or actively criticize them, I was and still am basically incapable of doing so (if you would like a really feminism-centric response to Harry Potter, Sady Doyle has a good one). Because I grew up reading these books, I have internalized the messages that I uncritically accepted in a way I only really could when I was a kid. As far as I’m concerned, it’s word of God, and I don’t think I’m the only one who feels that way.
The series is a pop culture tour de force that has generated billions of dollars and driven up child literacy rates. It has inspired burnings, bannings, parties, and thousands of pages of fanfiction. The series is a collective dream. It’s a religion. Among a certain age group, its characters are an almost universal cultural shorthand, reinforcing the mythology; people of a wide age range gather in public to read and to celebrate the books; organizations like the Harry Potter Alliance dedicate themselves to celebrating the series and exercising the values championed therein. As someone who was brought up with a very ambiguous definition of God and an almost complete ignorance of organized religious history, understanding Harry Potter is the closest I have ever come to understanding religion, particularly Christianity. Not only because the culture surrounding the series resembles religion, but because the story itself (as many people, including J.K. Rowling, have pointed out before me) contains some Christian elements. Harry isn’t an allegorical representative of Christ, but he’s definitely a Christ-like figure, and although the world of witchcraft is pagan by definition, Rowling uses it to deliver a very modern-Christian message of faith, loyalty, self-sacrifice, and the centrality of love. The message of Deathly Hallows, in particular, is: fight against evil with love, no matter what. Those who do not have love have nothing, and when you split your soul apart in fear of death you might as well not have a soul at all. Also, everyone you love dies. Even the structure of war itself, which dominates the last three books, mirrors the sense of power and purpose that religion gives to individuals. I mean, they’re entering each others’ minds and battling over souls—do I really need to spell it out?
The Harry Potter books have not converted me to Christianity, but they have helped me to understand faith and religion slightly more. I understand how powerful it is to learn values through stories in your formative years, and how doing so makes it nearly impossible to even conceptualize those values outside of the story context. I understand a little better how someone you know only as a character in a book can seem more real, more important, and more immediate to you than anyone you’ve ever met in meatspace, and why it often seems like you should use that character rather than your own roiling gut as a moral compass. I have gained empathy for an experience that is completely different from my own, and that’s one principle of Harry Potter. I feel kind of duped, but in a good way.
There’s also another reading of the series that has always affected me, and that’s how much the series reflects an immigrant sort of ideology. Harry’s parents lived in a world that was at war; they went into hiding and eventually gave up their lives so that he could grow up and go to school safely. He carries the memory of his ancestors and their sacrifice in everything he does. He is the Chosen One not because of any divinely ordained coincidence, but because of his parents’ struggle, and he has an obligation to take on the responsibility of fighting in their memory. They’re embroiled in what is essentially a race war, and the responsibility is squarely on his shoulders.
Which brings me (finally) to the movie itself. I’ve never been into the movies much, and actually have not seen Deathly Hallows Part 1, Half-Blood Prince or Order of the Phoenix. I think being intimately acquainted with the books made the movie versions harder to enjoy, and maybe that’s why I liked Deathly Hallows Part 2 so much—I only read the book once, four years ago almost to the day, and didn’t understand a good deal of it. I didn’t expect to be terribly affected by the movie, but I began crying about twenty minutes in and continued to snuffle on and off for the entire runtime.
What the film adaptations have managed to produce is a movie that is purely action. It’s not a silent movie or anything, but it operates on the assumption that viewers have seen all the films, or at least Deathly Hallows Part 1, and makes little effort to explain any of back story not explicitly revealed in the second half of the Deathly Hallows book. It moves at a furious pace, balletic in its minimal dialogue, but because of its place at the end of the series, manages to be more emotionally resonant than any other movie could be. Highlights include Neville Longbottom’s sweater, the dragon ride out of Gringotts, and Alan Rickman speaking incredibly slowly. If you were wondering about the epilogue: yes, it’s shown, and yes, it’s pretty cheesy. But after watching scene upon brutal scene of troll battle and beloved Weasley twin death and piecemeal soul destruction, I was willing to eat a little bit of cheese.
Q: Ron and Hermione?