Wednesday, August 8, 2007

In Which I Follow the Trend Lately and Talk About Harry Potter


relating to Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

A week or so ago I finished Deathly Hallows, then last night I saw Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix in theaters. Deathly Hallows... I liked it. It was what I had hoped for, resolution and redemption and all that fun stuff. I've since read several online discussion threads in which people reveal that they really don't understand the novels at all, especially not the nuances of the last three, which are not children's books, not like the first few.

I have an enormous respect for Rowling, and not just because she's managed to create a set of seven books that all together have sold over 300 million copies and are published in 64 languages, but more because she is a very powerful writer. She is a thinking writer; she has unbelievable levels of detail and clearly really knows this world she has created at a level only the most die-hard fans can even think about approaching.

I really appreciate, though, the themes she's chosen. Specifically, bigotry. Good versus evil, the power of love-- those are common themes in fantasy and children's lit and had that been her only focus the stories would not have been quite as powerful. But how she handled bigotry in the novels struck a chord with me.

In the first book, you don't see it that much-- there's just a taste of it, mostly through a few little references by Malfoy. It's enough so that you know that there is bigotry in this world, but it's far from the center of the plot. Which, if you think about it, is how most children start out understanding racism and prejudice. They know it's there, they see it occasionally, but it's not that big in their lives. Bigotry is a pretty adult theme, especially at the level which Rowling explores it, and she does not show it in it's entirety in the first book.

Then, the second book-- bam. That's when you learn about the most obvious form of bigotry in Rowling's world-- that against the Muggle-born, the children of non-wizards who have magic. Most wizards accept that to be against Muggle-born wizards is bigoted and unfair. Thus, the supporting characters, the major influences in Harry's life, can all say, "This is wrong" with definitive authority. Also, there is the introduction of the concept of house elves, as a bit of a comparison-- house elves are accepted as inferior by most wizards, and indeed, they consider themselves so as well. But the house elf she introduces is Dobby, who everyone describes as weird, not your average house-elf; also, the nature of how house-elves are viewed by those wizards who are not "evil" is glossed over.

However, the third book blurs the line. There you have the question of werewolves-- Lupin, an old friend of Harry's father, is clearly a good guy. And yet the bigotry against him just because he is a werewolf-- bigotry from everyone who doesn't know him, not just from evil wizards-- is obvious, clear, and raises questions about the real nature of this world. Rowling is beginning to show that it's not just the Muggle-born that are targeted.

The fourth book focuses on the house-elves again, through Hermione, and we begin to see just how disdainful even good wizards like Ron are of the creatures. Then you see the anti-giant bigotry surrounding Hagrid. The fifth book again focuses on the elves with Sirius' relationship to his intolerable house elf Kreacher, and Umbridge's disdain for pretty much everyone who isn't a fully human wizard (I know, she's not fond of Muggle-born either, but that doesn't show up until the seventh book).

The seventh book, in fact, is where it all comes together. Wizards in Rowling's world may accept Muggle-born, mostly, but anyone who isn't fully human is inferior, and the Muggle-born aren't very liked either. And, ultimately, the fact that Hermione sees this as the bigotry it is, and convinces Harry and Ron the same, saves them. They have an ability that Voldemort does not have-- the ability to see the value not only of the strong, but of the weak, the "inferior." House-elves are the most important example-- they are powerfully magical creatures, very strong and capable of many things that wizards are incapable of. But Voldemort looks at them and sees weak, sniveling little servants. He can't appreciate their magic and their importance, which hurts him in the end as it hurt the Malfoys in the second book. The ability of the three main characters to see all intelligent magical creatures as equal and worthy of respect serves them well and differentiates them, the "good," from the Death Eater, the "evil."

Okay, so I like how she approaches bigotry-- what's my point?

The movies? Aren't touching that AT ALL. Okay, they got the bit where the pureblood Death Eaters don't like Muggle-borns, sure. But the house-elves rarely appear (in the second movie, there's really no way to avoid Dobby, and the fifth one Rowling TOLD them they should put Kreacher in, or they would have trouble sorting out the plot holes later on); and Umbridge's animosity towards half-breeds was only touched on in the very end of the fifth movie, so it seemed like it was just thrown in there.

The movies are clearly focusing on the love and good vs. evil themes, because those are themes that are common and everyone recognizes. They're ignoring the more controversial message-- that you must treat EVERYONE with respect, even if they seem at first glance to be weaker than you. I think they're backing themselves into a corner in the movie series-- they CAN'T do the seventh book while ignoring/minimizing bigotry and if they put it in, it will seem odd to those who haven't read the books but who see the movies (and yes, such people exist). I'm curious as to how they will squirm out of this one.

Also, I would like to note that the only form of bigotry that Rowling's characters do not seem to recognize as evil is bigotry against Muggles themselves. It's like they want you to treat all magical beings as the same, but as soon as a being doesn't have magic, they are unworthy and unequal, unable to so much as know the magical world exists. I wish I could ask Rowling about that.


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