The term best-selling franchise really is an understatement. Harry Potter is such a fandom, such a sensation, that Barnes and Noble stores were mobbed at midnight release days. Having spawned seven books, nine movies, and a nearly unnumerable amount of spin-off material, Harry Potter is a resounding success, as well as the definitive Young Adult franchise.
But why? Why do we identify so much with Harry Potter? And what does is it trying to tell us? With the revival of the Harry Potter franchise via Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, I thought it might be a good idea to take another look at the films, the themes that they are exploring, where those ideas take us, and what connection they have to the Christian worldview. Starting, of course, with the one that started it all.
Warning: Many spoilers lie ahead.
To start with Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone, we really have to start with the Dursleys. In the opening scene, McGonagall describes them as “the worst sort of muggles,” and it’s hard to disagree with her. While they never quite resort to physical abuse, there’s certainly a lot of emotional abuse going on, putting Harry in a closet under the stairs, blaming him for everything that’s ever gone wrong, and keeping him from any outside contact.
At its heart, the film appears to be the dream of rescue from abuse for a boy like Harry, but that motif is almost immediately left behind in the pursuit of magical cinematic wonder.
Or is it? After all, Hagrid seems like a caring uncle, Ron like the brother Harry need had, Hermione the bossy older sister, and Dumbledore the compassionate (and enabling) grandfather. At Hogwarts Harry finds a family of his own. It’s no accident that is mentioned in the very first lines he hears upon the school grounds (“Your house will be like your family”).
But there’s a curious thing about this family that Harry builds around him: they’re all Gryffindors. Even Dumbledore (though we don’t know it yet) is a Gryffindor, and Harry clearly chooses sides. Mere seconds after we see the sorting hat put Malfoy in Slytherin, Harry learns that Snape is head of Slytherin House. Not long after that, Harry and his friends become suspicious of Snape, ultimately deciding that he’s trying to steal the Sorceror’s Stone, which gives eternal life. And the thought of that greasy head being around forever? Perish the thought.
And yet, Hagrid and Dumbledore never doubt the professor for even a moment. That’s quite remarkable, seeing how the latter of these two is essentially this world’s God character (keep this in mind as we delve deeper into the world with later installments).
Not surprisingly, Harry turns out to be wrong. The fact that he is wrong is rather significant, for the story on a thematic level as well as character development for Harry. Because Harry was launched from an abusive home to instant stardom, he and his friends became highly confident in themselves. Their basis for finding their villain, however, was not based in true facts so much as it was a heavy bias in their observations. But when the truth is revealed, it’s easy to see that, although Harry could hate his family for their prejudice against him for magical blood, that’s not so different from a prejudice based on house alone.
The connecting piece here comes with the final reveal and climax. The unassuming Professor Quirrell is the true villain, and keeps Voldemort in the back of his head (yeah, I know, just keep reading). But when Harry touches Quirrell, he disintegrates. Why? Well, as Dumbledore says, it’s because love is the most powerful magic of all – magic that can’t coexist with evil.
But love for whom? Of course, Dumbledore is speaking of Harry’s mother Lilly in this scene. But it shouldn’t escape our notice that Hagrid and Dumbledore, the ones who never doubted Snape, are the most loving characters in this story. That’s especially true of Hagrid, whose compassion extends even to dangerous dragons. Even more so, it makes us think of Snape, who protected Harry, even though he doesn’t like the boy in the least.
You might notice that I haven’t said much about the cinematic quality of this first adaptation. I could certainly talk about how much I love Alan Rickman and Maggie Smith, or Chris Columbus’s flair for fantasy, or how mesmerizing the quidditch matches are. But more than the cinematics, there are important things in the story that deserve to be fleshed out.
Prejudice becomes a major theme in the following installments of the Harry Potter universe. But it’s very telling that J.K. Rowling started with an internal look at our hero’s own prejudices before looking outward. How much do we use our own sets of good and bad guys and look with bias and disdain on others?