Tuesday, 4 September 2012

My Problem With Harry Potter (Or At Least The Last Book)

Harry's confrontation of Death is brave, but it turns him
into an uncomfortable Jesus analogue.
I felt like a rant. Written 1/9/12.

I've spoken about Harry Potter before, both covering the individual books and a retrospective of the films. I've been a fan since I've been able to read, and the wonderful world presented by JK Rowling is still one that I consider to be one of the best in fiction. When it comes to which medium I prefer, then I'd have to say... Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, by Eliezer Yudkowsky. Seriously, read it. In canon? Well, that's why I'm writing this article. Yesterday I watched the last two Harry Potter movies back-to-back for the first time, and was blown away by the amazing cinematography. But I also realised some of the problems endemic not only in the films' adaptation of the series, but also in the book series itself.
     My biggest beef with the final book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, came during the final battle, in which Harry realises that he contains part of Voldemort's soul and must therefore face death in order to save everyone else's lives. When he does so, he has a moment in a heavenly environment where he chats with Professor Dumbledore, and then he returns to like in the nick of time to face down the now vulnerable Voldy and save the day. Hurrah. Well, not so for me. This is an issue that I'm going to cover when I get to the end of Ashes To Ashes, and it really surrounds the way religious themes are used in fiction. Now, as much as I dislike them, I am not averse to religious themes in general. What I am averse to is the use of them when said themes aren't present in the work beforehand. LOST pissed me off because it had always presented scientific answers to supernatural phenomena, and then had a freakin' afterlife. Ashes To Ashes, which had always been a secular comadream, suddenly became an issue of Angels and Demons. And here, in a work known for being burnt by Fundamentalists for its use of Witchcraft, our hero is not just presented as a messanic archetype, but also does what Jesus does in the Gospels. Why's that such a problem? It's simple, really. The character of Harry is too good for that. This is one of only a few series where I'm invested in the characters over the world and themes surrounding them, and so it felt terrible when a character as well-rounded and well-written as Harry was fobbed off as a Christian archetype.
Voldemort turned into a cardboard cutout.
     And that leads me to another problem with the Harry Potter world - it glorifies Death. I've never understood the practice in fiction of encouraging death and destruction as if it's an honourable thing to have happen to you. This runs through the books rather well; I sympathised with Voldemort rather a lot as a man so afraid of Death that he did evil things in order to live forever, to the point where he lost his moral compass and decided to take power with it. In the films and in the final book, all of that humanisation is thrown away. In his fevered afterlife dream, Harry sees Voldemort as a skeletal child, forever alone and beyond redemption or help. He becomes a cackling madman, and all of the motivation that we saw driving him in Book Six's flashbacks seemed to evaporate. Further, the scene immediately before Harry's sacrifice sees him suing an artifact known as the Ressurection Stone to speak with the "ghosts" of his dead parents and their friends. This short scene was a lot more frightening for me than anything Voldemort did; the twinkle in Gary Oldman's eyes as Sirius called dying "quicker than falling asleep." That may be so in a world with an afterlife, but it's a stupid lesson to be sprouting for the real world, where the end of consciousness is the end of you.
     It's maybe a bit more personal, but that's my problem with Harry Potter and what I love about Yudowsky's Methods of Rationality. The end of the canon series tries for something clever with the way it treats the core dynamic between hero and villain, and in the process it ignores all of the character development that those two had had over the previous six books/films. Harry Potter is not Jesus Christ, and the many people who die across the series cannot come back in the way that he did. I just wish the series would remember that too.


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