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How Harry Lost His Magic: A (Non) Video Essay by Gaith

Gaith

Well-known member
Faneditor
Well, folks, here it is - my long-promised magnum opus of Harry Potter criticism, that I've been sitting on (and had largely forgotten about) for two or so months. Ideally, for maximum Internet impact, the following text would be recorded, and set to footage of the films described - but since I doubt I'd ever actually do that, here's the plain ol' basic "script", as it were. Hope you all enjoy! :)




How Harry Lost His Magic: A Video Essay by Gaith

While not without certain ominous flaws, the first four Harry Potter novels were fun and inventive kids' books that promised to build to an overall grand, seven-part epic. But, starting with Year Five, the series took a disastrous stumble from which it never recovered, thus making the series as a whole a noble but ultimately failed effort. The following essay will explain why.

But first, a brief disclaimer: because this is a video essay, I'll be using footage from the movies to make my points. I consider this to be entirely valid because, owing to the movies' remarkable fidelity to their source material, they contain nearly all the books' larger storytelling missteps and failures. So, no, I don't want to hear anyone whine that the movies "don't really represent” the books just because they had Neville and not Dobby tell Harry about gillyweed, or some minor crap like that. If you want to see a movie that really gets its source wrong, watch The Golden Compass, which isn't a bad movie on its own terms, but definitely fails to convey much of Philip Pullman's subtext and drastically alters the narrative, as well. Say what you like about what details the Potter movies condensed, tweaked along the edges or just plain left out; the fact remains that nearly all the books' key story points and themes made it through the adaptation process more or less intact. For this reason, I'll be referring to franchise's installments as Year this or Year that, unless a given element is specific to its particular book or movie.

So, without further ado, let's dive into just how the Harry Potter series lost its magic:


1. After Year Four, Harry's world shrinks.

In every Year leading up to Five, J.K. Rowling's Wizard World got bigger, more detailed, and more interesting. The first Year, of course, introduced us to the story, from Hogwarts to Diagon Alley and the Forbidden Forest. The second Year mostly focused on Hogwarts itself, though by showing us the Chamber of Secrets and a glimpse of the young Voldemort that pretty much told us everything we ever needed to know about him (he's the sole direct descendant of the uber-evil Slytherin, and was pretty much always evil himself), we still got a deeper sense of the surrounding world. The third Year extended our heroes' paths to Hogsmeade, told us lots about Azkaban and the Dementors that haunt it, and fleshed out the backstory of Harry's family history. And then the fourth Year blew things way open by introducing the student bodies of two foreign schools, showing us a Quidditch world cup, and finally bringing Lord Voldemort himself back in the flesh. Now that the big villain was restored to life, one might have expected Harry's surroundings to keep expanding.

Alas, not only does this utterly fail happen, the world around our heroes then shrinks for the duration of the series. While Dumbledore urged international anti-evil cooperation in his big speech at the end of the fourth Year, we never really hear about those other schools again, much less whether there are any other magical societies of note. The fifth Year does finally shows us the Ministry of Magic, the governmental head of Wizarding Britain, but it's frankly a giant letdown. For a spectacular location, it'd obviously be nearly impossible to top Hogwarts itself, but Rowling didn't even try, giving us a mere underground bunker-complex beneath London. The most power magical people in the world couldn't have found a bit of a more impressive headquarters than a big-ass basement under one of Muggledom's most colorful cities? And things get worse from there, with much of the fifth and sixth years delving far deeper into Voldemort's past and childhood than was ever necessary (turns out he was pretty much evil from birth), and, when the trio finally does leave Hogwarts, instead of, say, going abroad, to recruit help from other societies, they dick around in a series of forests before going back to the Ministry, back to school, and ultimately back to Platform 9 ¾. Remember how far Frodo and Sam ended up from the Shire, and how epic and terrifying it felt to have gotten there? Yeah. We just don't get that here.


2. Why Exactly is Voldemort So Powerful?

The question of the source of Voldemort's strength is one of the main weaknesses in Rowling's overall narrative. Many grand coming-of-age stories begin with the hero growing up in an overlooked part of a much larger, scarier world where the bad guys are in charge: think of Luke Skywalker growing up in the shadow of the Galactic Empire, the Hobbits living in blissful ignorance of Sauron's massive armies, or Lyra Belacqua never dreaming what horrors are being done to children just like her outside the Oxford walls. Harry, on the other hand, enters a Wizarding Britain that's doing remarkably well: there's no wars, no mention of rising Hogwarts tuition fees, and even allegedly poor families such as the Weasleys have pretty kick-ass houses and lives. Their world is a great place to live, which is important in terms of giving the first years their much-loved whimsy, and their sense of a good state of affairs worth defending.

The trouble is, therefore, that while Voldemort is undeniably one bad, bad dude, it's unclear just why everyone's so afraid of him. Sure, he's powerful, but even though he's secretly invincible right up 'til the end, he's still afraid of being captured: why else did he run away from Dumbledore and the others at the end of Year Five, rather than just killing everyone outright? And how are he and his thugs able to just take over the entire Ministry of Magic, and thus also Hogwarts and the rest of Wizarding Britain, without causing an immediate and open civil war?

Sure, we see glimpses of giants and Dementors helping him out, and the books make a few more vague references to stuff along those lines, but it still doesn't explain why a national or even international police force doesn't take him out the moment he comes out of hiding. JK Rowling could easily have fixed this by having him ally with an entire other, twisted magical society – say, Russians, or, even better, Germans, since the Death Eaters are basically Nazi stand-ins anyway – but since the story is technically set in the present day, that might have offended some countries, and thus dented book and ticket sales there. And we wouldn't want that, now, would we?


3. Just What Are the Stakes, Anyway?

But this failure to internationalize the story also creates another problem, which is that we never really know what the stakes are. Sure, we're given to understand that if Voldemort wins, a few good guys will be murdered and Hogwarts admissions standards will become more restrictive, but while undeniably bad, that wouldn't exactly be the end of the world. Does Voldemort intend on genociding the entire worldwide nonmagical population? Now that'd be a scary threat, but it would also force the saga to extend its scope beyond a bunch of British forests and fields, in that Rowling would have to tell us how other countries' magical societies feel about all these goings-on. (And I know those these other societies do exist, because I've read that Quidditch Through the Ages spin-off book. But maybe other countries are only really worth discussing in the context of sports?)


4. The Diminution of Ron and Hermione (Due to an Excessive Fixation on Backstory)

By providing Harry with two sharply contrasting sidekicks – one an easygoing guy from a magical family, the other a highly motivated gal with no prior connections to the Wizarding World – Rowling balanced Harry's audience-surrogate blandness with supporting personalities who reacted to plot developments in different and engaging ways. But, as the series progressed, it became less and less interested in the development of its three leads, and more and more focused on backstory: Which friend of Harry's parents betrayed them to Voldemort? Who told young Voldemort of the secret lore of horcruxes? Was young Voldemort always evil? (Answer: yes.) Who wrote that book of nasty spells and called himself the “Half-Blood Prince”? Has Snape been a good guy this whole time? Is it because he got a crush on Harry's mom decades ago? Where did Voldemort hide his horcruxes? Who was the “RAB” who destroyed the one from the lake? Who's been in possession of the Elder Wand all this time? Was Voldemort always evil? (Spoiler Alert: Yes. Yes, he was.) Just how many horcruxes did Voldemort make? Why did Dumbledore and his brother stop speaking to each other? Finally – and, believe it or not, this actually turns out to be a major set-up for the climactic battle – how does the ghost of one of Hogwarts' founders feel about a piece of jewellery her mother once owned?

Make no mistake: fictional backstories are indeed crucial to establishing emotional tones and maintaining a coherent sense of overall continuity. But Years Five through Seven are so fixated on slowly revealing who once did what when, thus granting this or that unsuspecting character a hidden advantage or hindrance, that they end up overshadowing the present-day plot, to the detriment of our heroes. This isn't a huge liability for Harry, whose blandness is more or less unaffected, but it definitely works against, Ron and especially Hermione. Sam got to carry Frodo up Mount Doom, and Han, Leia, and Lando took out the second Death Star; compared to that, the Potter sidekicks' climactic destruction of a horcrux in the face of, uh, water feels like a glorified footnote. Hermione and He-Ginny deserved better.


5. At the End of All Things, a Failure of Imagination

Finally, we come to the ending itself. Great endings can end with a celebration, an understated note of finality, a sense that more adventures await, or any number of alternatives. But the one thing great endings can't do is leave us with the sense that little has been learned or accomplished, and that's exactly what the conclusion of The Deathly Hallows imparts. Sure, Voldemort has died, and Harry and Company have finally attained what we can only assume are peaceful, quiet lives in Wizarding Britain. But isn't this pretty much what would have happened if Voldemort had been finally and totally killed when he tried to murder the infant Harry? For all the hardship he's gone through, the Luke Skywalker at the end of Return of the Jedi is a very different, wiser man that he would have been if R2-D2 had never shown him that message. Frodo is so scarred by the War of the Ring that while he returns home, he can never regain the peace of mind he once knew. Even Marty McFly, who just wanted to play his guitar and sing, winds up learning valuable lessons about controlling his temper, and his future is forever changed for the better as a result. Now, we can pretty safely assume that after the Death Eaters have been ousted from power, Harry, Hermione and He-Ginny make up their lost school year and graduate from Hogwarts, but what else? Through seven increasingly long Years, we've seen them learn all sorts of magical minutia and face all kinds of challenges, but apart from Hermione's interest in the political status of house-elves – a subplot so thinly connected to the main story that the movies quite wisely omit it entirely – their struggle against Evil with a capital E is the only thing that defines them. And that's a trait they started out with! Little has been learned, and even less has changed.

This failure is particularly acute in light of the grand elephant in the chamber, being the Wizarding World's hiding from the rest of humanity, despite the murder of a number of Muggles by bad guys, and the literal brain-assaults of innocents by the good guys. I'm betting that, at the very least, magical cops could teleport around the world, bringing all sorts of war criminals to the Hague, and thus saving countless lives by spreading peace, to say nothing of the medical advances that might be gleaned from a cooperation between magic and science. Now, it's true that coming out of the magical closet would probably be very difficult, but taking on arduous tasks is what makes heroes heroic in the first place. Because Harry and his friends are targeted for murder from the start, they never really choose to take on any challenges of note; the entire series is one big reactive/defensive action. And I'm not saying that actually showing a magical coming-out process would make for a good story; indeed, it probably wouldn't. But it would make for a deliciously mind-bending sendoff, in the manner of Neo's promise to wake all of humanity up at the end of The Matrix. An equally bold and bittersweet finale would be to suggest that magic is somehow fading from the world, a la exodus of the Elves from Lord of the Rings. Instead, while Rowling did off a few sympathetic side characters here and there, she overall went with the safest, easiest ending imaginable. Too bad it was also, ironically, an utterly unmagical one.


Conclusion

So, there you have it: despite a very promising first half, the Harry Potter series made the gigantic mistake of delving into its own rather underwhelming backstory instead of constructing a coherent threat or sense of stakes, and further failed to ever really challenge its leads by thrusting them into a larger, more international story that the early Years themselves promised. And since no story with a poor second half can be considered great, I personally am forced to conclude that the Potter saga as a whole ultimately failed to meet its own goals. The first four Years are memorable, yes, but a grand unified epic for the ages, this ain't.
 

TomH1138

Well-known member
Great comments all around, Gaith!

DISCLAIMERS:

--There's gonna be more HP hatin' in this thread. Feel free to skip it if it bugs you.

--Spoilers ahead, but why are you reading this thread if you don't already know the HP story?

--I'm talking about the movies in all cases. If there's something different in the books, I can't comment on that.

As noted in the other thread, I watched the HP movies first with the intention of reading the books when I was finished, so that I could go in without preconceptions. The series started OK, got really good, and then ended quite poorly. I now have no desire to read the books.

The problem (my theory, anyway) is that J.K. Rowling wrote the first four books before the movies came out. Then after that, it seems, she stopped thinking like a writer and started trying to write as many special-effects scenes as she could, jettisoning believable characterization or interesting plotting out the window in favor of "How much spectacle can I cram into this story?"

I wish Rowling could have finished all the books first, so that the people constructing the movies could decide what was important and what wasn't, and also, so that HP fans could see if they were really interested in seeing a movie if they knew how atrociously the series was going to end. (Honestly, I know a lot of hardcore HP fans, but none of them say that they like books 5 through 7 - that is, half the series! When the first movie came out, the fans were still riding off the high of the Goblet of Fire book.)

On to some specifics:

After Year Four, Harry's world shrinks

YES. Absolutely. In the first few stories, it seemed that Hogwarts was the only game in town; that only a few people had magic abilities (in comparison to the rest of the population of the world). And if, say, a kid in Italy was found to have magic powers, they'd have to go to Hogwarts in England (and undoubtedly have a magic translating spell).

But in Goblet of Fire, the magical world is blown wide open with international this-and-that. When Voldemort and his minions took over Hogwarts in HP7, as you said, that place should have been crawling with good wizards taking them down. After opening that world up, Rowling then just pretends it doesn't exist anymore.

(Another least favorite moment: In Half-Blood Prince, after Dumbledore is assassinated, everyone just stands around sadly and shoots off magic lights into the sky. I was practically shouting at the screen, "There are four or five dark wizards on the loose. They can't have gotten far. There are hundreds of teachers and students on campus right now. Go get the bad guys! Mourning can come later!")

The Diminution of Ron and Hermione

Again, yes. Don't get me wrong; I love the character of Neville Longbottom. But after seven movies with Ron and Hermione at the center of the action, I wanted to see them do something useful in the final story. But Neville stands up on the bus and talks smack to the Death Eaters (?); Neville isn't afraid to shout down Voldemort himself; and after Ron and Hermione spend much of the climax saying, "We've got to kill the dragon" or whatever the heck it was, Neville is the one that does the decisive action that saves the day.

Ron's mother gets a chance to participate in the action, but Ron (and Hermione) do nothing themselves.

You mentioned Return of the Jedi, and that to me is the perfect template for what the main supporting characters should get to do. But that's not what happens here. (BTW, "He-Ginny" - ha ha ha!) :)

Little has been learned, and even less has changed.

Yep. Most annoying was the lack of comeuppance or redemption or anything for Draco Malfoy. His father was a Death Eater! He planned to kill Dumbledore! (He didn't go through with it, but he was still allied with the forces of darkness after that.) And then, in the end, he's just standing on Platform 9 3/4 with everyone else, just a befuddled dad like Harry. HUH??

failed to ever really challenge its leads by thrusting them into a larger, more international story that the early Years themselves promised.

Right. Part of what was great about Goblet of Fire was not just how it emotionally paid off everything that had gone before, but how it seemed to set the stage for much greater adventures. At the end, Hermione says, "Everything's going to change, isn't it?" But then it doesn't. It's just more shooting each other with wands. The adventure didn't get deeper and more exciting or more expansive; it was just a bunch of lame fight scenes unconnected to any worthwhile characterization.

Also, at the end of GoF, Dumbledore tells Harry, "The time is coming when you must choose between what is easy and what is right." But in fact, that time has just passed. Harry already has made the tough choice on a number of occasions in this story.

When Harry is falsely accused of putting his name in the Goblet, he doesn't hold it against Cedric Diggory; he helps Cedric finds the next clue anyway. When Victor Krum gets taken out of the swimming competition, Harry goes back to save the others from the mermaids, even though it's at great personal danger and it won't help him to win the contest. While in the Hedge Maze, Harry realizes that Victor's evil actions come from being under a spell and protects Victor from Cedric (while still getting them safely out of Victor's path). Instead of trying to get the Triwizard cup for himself, Harry agrees to grab it together with Cedric.

After the portkey transports them, Harry makes the difficult decision of standing against Voldemort, even though he knows he's not quite ready, but because he knows he must. Then he breaks from the fight by listening to the wise advice of his parents, and for the sake of bringing Digory's body back.

In short, at every step along the way in this story, Harry has chosen what's right over what's easy. So Dumbledore could have saved Harry the self-important lecture.

After this story, all the good guys and bad guys are clearly defined, so Harry's only "choice" is to fight the bad guys. No difficult moral choices remain.

Other things that annoyed me:

Too many important actions happen offscreen, like Cho Chang's betrayal in HP5 and the murder of Mad-Eye Moody and Hedwig in HP7-1. Hasn't anyone ever told the filmmakers that the first rule of moviemaking is "Show, don't tell"?

Luna Lovegood starts off as a funny, interesting, quirky character. By HP7, she's just spouting exposition. Boring.

The Harry-Ginny relationship comes out of absolutely nowhere in the movies. We're supposed to have sensed that these two had an attraction all along? It would have been nice for her to be something other than just "Ron's little sister" in anything before, say, HP5.

The Ron-Hermione relationship also is completely unbelievable. That is to say, I believed in Ron hiding his attraction to Hermione in Goblet of Fire by pretending that she's pathetic; I can believe that Hermione's night at the dance would be ruined by a friend (Ron) acting piggish. In the next two stories, suddenly Hermione - the beautiful, smart, attractive girl who could have any guy she wants - is madly attracted to Ron, the bumbling nerd who can't do anything right, and is mostly oblivious to Hermione. Riiiiiight. I'll believe in the magic wands sooner than I believe in that.

It's like Daphne suddenly being in love with Shaggy on Scooby-Doo, and the audience is just supposed to say, "Of course. This is the most natural thing in the world."

If Ron had been properly built up into an amazing character, then yes, I could see her falling in love with him. But he was never much more than comic relief. And comic relief doesn't get the girl. (I say that as the "comic relief" myself. And frankly, why should women be attracted to dweebs like me?)

Also, the framing sequence of the Dursleys ultimately went nowhere. In the first few movies, the Dursleys are terrible to Harry, and he still has to go back and spend his summers with them. As with Draco, I kept waiting for either comeuppance or redemption or something to happen. But, even with two movies devoted to the final story, the Dursleys are just left out of it altogether. What happened to them? Anyone who just watched the movies has no idea.

Anyway, that's enough ranting for now. Apologies if I'm remembering any of the plot points wrong. The series itself just wound up being so forgettable in the end. :p
 

Gaith

Well-known member
Faneditor
TomH1138 said:
The problem (my theory, anyway) is that J.K. Rowling wrote the first four books before the movies came out. Then after that, it seems, she stopped thinking like a writer and started trying to write as many special-effects scenes as she could, jettisoning believable characterization or interesting plotting out the window in favor of "How much spectacle can I cram into this story?"
I know very little about Rowling's process, but I believe she claims she had all seven years pretty well mapped out from the get-go. If true, then, I think the simplest explanation for the massive drop in creativity is simply disinterest in telling a really epic story - she decided to write seven books, created a huge backstory foundation - for which I give her full credit - and introduced the other two schools in Year Four as a lark, something to fill the time/pages until Voldy's resurrection. I'm glad she wrote Book Four the way she did, as it gives us a pretty good yarn, but she probably never intended to follow through on its promises.


As for Ron/Hermione: yeah, I hate it, too. I would have liked to see Ron bite it, say, at the end of Year 5, thus promoting Neville to round out the trio, and then Neville's attraction to Hermione would make Harry realize that he wanted her - yeah, I'm firmly on team H/H. But then, just about anything's better than H/R. Heck, I'd have preferred Hermione/Luna! :p




TomH1138 said:
(Another least favorite moment: In Half-Blood Prince, after Dumbledore is assassinated, everyone just stands around sadly and shoots off magic lights into the sky. I was practically shouting at the screen, "There are four or five dark wizards on the loose. They can't have gotten far. There are hundreds of teachers and students on campus right now. Go get the bad guys! Mourning can come later!")
Well, in the movies, the Death Eaters can fly, and pretty much everyone can teleport once they leave the school grounds, so they probably were totally gone pretty quickly.



TomH1138 said:
And comic relief doesn't get the girl. (I say that as the "comic relief" myself. And frankly, why should women be attracted to dweebs like me?)
Er, your vast charm, considerable wit, and keen sagacity? :)
 

ssj

Well-known member
Donor
Faneditor
charisma-deficient harry potter who's supposed to be a latter-day cheezus, for whom many people die, and then he has nothing to say to all who've suffered b/c of him? hollow.

multiple confrontations between the goodies and baddies in which almost no feeling is expressed. hollow, deftly hollow.

HP saves his rival in a perfunctory fashion, but there seems to be no emotional involvement by either party. and there you have the horcrux of the movie's problems: it's emotionally hollow in so many places. perhaps the director was worried foremost about how the CG would play out. perhaps nobody in charge really gave a hoot about how characters should react to such extraordinary circumstances.

bruce lee, slapping HP world upside the head: "we need emotional content."

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nice post, gaith. thoughtful stuff.
 

thecuddlyninja

Well-known member
Faneditor
I don't agree with your characterizations @"Gaith" and @"TomH1138" but all this talk of an author more interested in building the world than in actually satisfyingly telling the narrative is putting an image in my head...

800px-Portrait_photoshoot_at_Worldcon_75%2C_Helsinki%2C_before_the_Hugo_Awards_%E2%80%93_George_R._R._Martin.jpg



I jest, but only because I think the fourth book was not good and the fifth was bad, so I don't care if the series ever gets finished or not in print form.
 
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