How Hollywood De-fanged Potter’s Radical Politics
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows 1: more than a movie review
ABSTRACT: An examination of the relationship between Harry Potter, human rights and politics. A short summary is that
a) politics is important in Harry Potter
b) the movie removes the political message in favour of…
c) focusing on a romantic triangle that isn’t really in the books
d) this is silly, because young people are getting ever more involved in politics, especially in Britain
The Harry Potter novels include a significant political subtext, which is at least as important as the teen romance or coming-of-age aspects. In Deathly Hallows the novel, the political subtext becomes the main storyline as a holocaust-style persecution of wizards without ‘pure blood’ begins. But perhaps inevitably the movie adaptations do not do justice to the political themes. The recent movie adaptation of part of the last book, Deathly Hallows 1, heavily sidelines the radical politics of the novels in favor of focusing on a love triangle between the main characters. This makes for a weak storyline that de-fangs the important political message in the book – that sometimes illegal, principled opposition is not only desirable but necessary in the fight against evil.
Author J.K. Rowling is often represented as having been, pre-Potter, a desperate single mother on welfare writing in coffee shops. While the novels were written under these conditions, Rowling was also a well-educated and experienced activist. She worked full-time in Spain for Amnesty International, a very competitive position that requires a serious commitment to human rights. Probably because of this background, Rowling has an excellent understanding of political persecution, and especially details the way state bureaucracies can be the impersonal agents of evil policies under a cloak of legality. In the novels, Harry fights not only against the evil Voldemort and his minions, but also against an entrenched bureaucracy and a culture that hides inequalities under a seemingly stable society.
The basic plot, which cannot be ignored even in the films, is that Harry, Hermione and Ron give up everything for their political struggle. They drop out of high school, they go illegal, defy the government, belong to an underground organization [The Order of the Phoenix], operate out of safe houses and forests and even raid offices of the government and banking offices. This is all done in principled opposition to the Dark Wizard Voldemort and a corrupt bureaucratized government that has been heavily infiltrated with his evil minions. This is revolutionary activity. But the movie version does not present it as such or emphasize these radical aspects of the plot, thereby entirely missing the dramatic sweep and action present in the first half of the last novel.
The persecution of muggle-born wizards is barely shown in the movie [Muggles are ordinary, non magical humans]. In the book, the magical legal system – always unfair – is completely perverted and used to legally strip muggle-born wizards of their wands and their freedom based on blood purity. Minor inequalities and prejudice (such as that against werewolves) always present at a low level throughout the series, turns to serious persecution in Deathly Hallows. There are deliberate analogies with the first phases of the Holocaust. Rowling skillfully presents a picture of magical bureaucrats as similar to Hitler’s desk-murderers-bureaucrats who commit horrible atrocities with the stroke of a pen.
The novels recognize the importance of alternative media for political struggle. The mainstream press [The Daily Prophet] is shown as unreliable and unprincipled, eventually deteriorating into a fear-mongering propaganda machine for the Voldemort-controlled bureaucracy. For a while the alternative but above ground media [The Quibbler] publishes the real news, but it ceases to print after the daughter of the publisher is kidnapped. In the book, friends of Harry [Lee Jordan, with Fred and George Weasley as frequent guests] start broadcasting the real news from an underground radio station, encrypted with a password. This radio station becomes a critical link for the resistance, which is scattered and weak. Although we are treated to some radio broadcast updates in the movie, they are delivered by a disembodied and professional sounding voice, not our friends the Weasleys. This undermines the important message – a guiding principle behind the media coop – that in a serious situation it becomes necessary to produce your own media and not to rely on ‘professionals’.
The novel makes it clear that in this phase of the struggle the characters romantic lives take a backseat to their political activity, as Harry breaks up with the love of his life [Ginny Weasley] so as to avoid making her a target for Voldemort’s forces, who are known to use torture and kidnapping as tactics. The ‘love triangle’ that becomes the focus of the movie isn’t even really present in the books. In the books, the relationship between Harry and Hermione is totally platonic – Ron is shown as jealous, but the feeling is entirely without foundation. In the book Harry says to Ron: “I love her like a sister and I reckon she feels the same way about me. It’s always been like that. I thought you knew” (pg 378, DH US Hardback). This conveys that men and women can be close comrades and friends without being involved romantically. But in the film, Harry and Hermione are shown dancing romantically, and Harry’s line to Ron about his brotherly feeling towards Hermione does not even make it into the film. This completely undermines the important message that jealousy is counter-productive and has toxic effects, which is an important feminist message for young people.
This ‘love triangle’ focus of the movie completely sidelines the most important – and exciting – political aspects of the book. De-fanging the real message of Harry Potter makes for a much weaker movie, but probably one that is supposed to be ‘more palatable’ to mainstream audiences. Young adults are shown as slaves to hormones – preoccupied with their personal lives even as a life and death struggle unfolds. It strikes exactly the wrong chord at a time when the youth of Britain are rising up, filling the streets in protest against a political system that refuses to represent their interests.