Too Good to Be True: How the Final Potter Film Shortchanged the Character of Severus Snape
Abstract: I argue that the second “Deathly Hallows” film failed to clarify what happened with the Snape/Lily relationship, and also oversimplified Snape’s complex character motivations in protecting Harry. I suggest some brief canon sections that could have been added to the film to remedy these points of confusion for “Potter” film fans who have not read the books.
Like so many other Potter fans, it was difficult for me to complete the books without the infamous Severus Snape becoming the character whom I simultaneously love to hate and hate to love. He has resonated with me, as he has with so many other readers, because of the incredible complexity that JK Rowling so brilliantly weaves into his development throughout her writing. For this reason, I was particularly excited and anxious to see how the second DH film would wrap up his story in its own rendition of The Prince’s Tale. The result was, for me, admittedly disappointing. I will clarify that this disappointment is not at all derived from Alan Rickman’s performance, which was wonderful and heart-wrenching. Rather, I left the theatre feeling that the screenplay created a lot of ambiguity around Snape’s character, particularly in regard to his relationship with Lily, as well as his larger motivations for protecting Harry. I have heard these points of confusion frequently echoed by people who are fans of the films but have not read the books. I will address these ambiguities here, as well as offer my own suggestions as to how the screenplay could have done better justice to portraying the complex character of Snape.
I know that many people do not think it is fair to compare film adaptations to the books they are based on, and usually, I agree with this, as I have yet to see a film adaptation that does real justice to any well-written novel. I also acknowledge that the filmmakers have the right to use their creative license and it is thus possible that they intended to re-interpret the Snape/Lily relationship, therefore wanting the audience to leave with some unanswered questions about these characters. The filmmakers have already done this with the Harry/Hermione relationship in the first DH film, where a dance scene was added to seemingly highlight a romantic tension that simply did not exist in the DH novel. However, in the case of Snape, I feel the second DH film should have taken a few more cues from the novel in order to fully depict the complexity of his character.
The first point of confusion that I want to address is the question of whether Snape could potentially be Harry’s biological father. I have heard this question posed so many times since the final film’s release that I am convinced the screenplay did not do an adequate job of establishing the canonical terms of the Snape/Lily relationship. A number of developments within the books that could clarify such a misconception were omitted from the film for reasons I cannot quite grasp. For instance, why not include the segment of Snape’s Worst Memory from the OotP novel where he calls Lily a Mudblood? When this incident was not shown in the OotP film (even though, according to a film still that can be viewed at this link, they did shoot this scene but decided not to include it) I automatically imagined it would be included in the final film so that the reason for Lily’s decision to end her friendship with Snape would be better contextualized for the viewer. But instead, the final film’s rendition of The Prince’s Tale shows eleven-year-old Snape and Lily as friends, and then jumps ahead to an adult Snape pleading with Dumbledore to protect the Potters. The viewer completely misses any point of separation between the two characters, leaving much ambiguity as to what exactly happened during their teenage and young adult years. Therefore, in order to avoid any points of confusion for the viewers, the filmmakers could have simply added a scene with a few lines of canonical dialogue from The Prince’s Tale to clarify not only that Snape’s allegiances were with the Death Eaters as a teenager, but that these allegiances were the reason why Lily ended their friendship:
‘…I never meant to call you Mudblood, it just-‘
‘Slipped out?’ There was no pity in Lily’s voice. ‘It’s too late. I’ve made excuses for you for years. None of my friends can understand why I even talk to you. You and your precious little Death Eater friends – you see, you don’t even deny it! You don’t even deny that’s what you’re all aiming to be! You can’t wait to join You-Know-Who, can you?’
(DH, Canadian Bloomsbury version, p. 542)
Again, I acknowledge the possibility that the filmmakers did this in order for the viewers to interpret for themselves the broader implications of the Snape/Lily relationship. However, other details are omitted from the film’s rendition of The Prince’s Tale which also undermine the complexity of Snape’s character, which brings me to the second point of confusion that I want to address. JK Rowling has made it very clear that, in spite of Snape’s brave actions to protect Harry, he is not a ‘good’ guy, and he certainly did not care about Harry (see here). Since the final film’s release, I have heard it said over and over again that Snape really cared about Harry and protected him because he loved Lily. Of course, Snape protected Harry because he loved Lily, but that is not the only reason. Snape revealed the prophecy to Voldemort which convinced his master that the Potters had to be eliminated. This means that, indirectly, Snape is responsible for the death of what seems to have been his only true friend. This incident was first omitted from the HBP film (as Harry learns this shocking truth in the HBP novel, a development that greatly intensifies his hatred toward Snape), so I figured the filmmakers would be sure to make this very important detail apparent in the final DH film. But they didn’t, and I cannot quite understand why. It would not have taken up much screen time to simply add a few canonical lines in the final Potter film to clarify this point:
‘What request could a Death Eater make of me?’
‘The – the prophecy…the prediction…Trelawney…’
‘Ah, yes,’ said Dumbledore. ‘How much did you relay to Lord Voldemort?’
‘Everything – everything I heard!’ said Snape. ‘That is why – it is for that reason – he thinks it means Lily Evans!’
(DH, Canadian Bloomsbury version, p. 543)
To me, it seems like the filmmakers are trying to oversimplify the intentions of this very complex character to make his actions easier for viewers to swallow. I remain skeptical of the ‘purity’ of Snape’s love for Lily that the final Potter film seems to overly romanticize in making such omissions. In my opinion, as much as Snape loved Lily, he hated James in equal measure, which is why he treated Harry so maliciously (a tendency that I believe is greatly toned down throughout the Potter films). Yes, Snape did everything he had to in order to keep Harry alive; he did this to honor Lily’s death, which he was partially responsible for. But Snape was not kind or caring toward the boy. In this sense, he did only what he had to in order to keep Harry alive, much the same as Vernon and Petunia Dursley did (not to undermine the magnitude of action that Snape took in order to protect Harry, which was immense). With this in mind, I don’t think it would have greatly troubled the filmmakers to add the few canonical lines to the scene where Snape petitions Dumbledore’s help in protecting the Potters, and Snape reveals that he has asked Voldemort to spare Lily’s life in exchange for her husband’s and son’s. This development reveals that, from the very beginning, Snape really couldn’t care less about the deaths of people in whom he didn’t have an emotional investment (a psychological product of his troubled childhood that we learn about in the OotP and DH novels), including Harry:
‘The prophecy did not refer to a woman,’ said Dumbledore. ‘It spoke of a boy born at the end of July-‘
‘You know what I mean! He thinks it means her son, he is going to hunt her down- kill them all-‘
‘If she means so much to you,’ said Dumbledore, ‘surely Lord Voldemort will spare her? Could you not ask for mercy for the mother, in exchange for the son?’
‘I have – I have asked him-‘
‘You disgust me,’ said Dumbledore, and Harry had never heard so much contempt in his voice. Snape seemed to shrink a little. ‘You do not care, then, about the deaths of her husband and child? They can die, as long as you have what you want?’
‘Hide them all, then,’ he croaked. ‘Keep her – them – safe. Please.’
(DH, Canadian Bloomsbury version, pp. 543-544 [emphasis mine])
Furthermore, JK Rowling has made it very clear that Snape would not have had any interest in what happened to Harry if it wasn’t for his loyalty to Lily. But even so, Snape did not switch sides until he needed to in order for Dumbledore to agree to protect the Potters. In my opinion, this means that it is very unlikely that Snape would have switched sides at all if it wasn’t for his desperation to keep Lily (and only Lily) alive. This ultimately means that, had Voldemort interpreted the prophecy as referring to Neville rather than Harry (which, as we learn in the OotP novel, was a possibility), it is very likely that Snape would have remained a Death Eater (at least until Voldemort’s initial fall, which may or may not have happened had he gone after the Longbottoms rather than the Potters). And, had Snape somehow ended up working at Hogwarts in these circumstances, I also think it unlikely that he would have done anything to protect Harry (had protection been warranted) since he would not have been carrying the guilt of being indirectly responsible for Lily’s death. Again, Snape’s lack of sentiment toward Harry could have been further clarified had the filmmakers simply added the single canonical line from The Prince’s Tale where Snape casts his doe Patronus in front of Dumbledore:
‘But this is touching, Severus,’ said Dumbledore seriously. ‘Have you grown to care for the boy, after all?’
‘For him?’ shouted Snape. ‘Expecto patronum!’
(DH, Canadian Bloomsbury version, p. 551 [emphasis mine])
Ultimately Snape was motivated to protect Harry in part by his love for Lily, but his love for her was not enough motivation to treat Harry with kindness, since even after her death he still mistreated the boy whenever he could. Therefore it was his guilt that drove him to protect Harry, and had Neville been targeted by Voldemort, meaning that Lily would not have died, it is unlikely that Snape would have protected Harry at all since he would have had no guilt to recompense. Of course there are numerous other omissions within the Potter films that seem to oversimplify JK Rowling’s multi-dimensional characters, Snape only being one of them. One of the best aspects of the grand Potter narrative is that, as Rowling herself has said, none of the characters are wholly ‘good’ or ‘bad’ because life is never that simple. While it is unreasonable to expect a two-hour film to convey all the details and complexities of such characters, I argue that a few minor additions to the second DH film’s screenplay could have better contextualized the Snape/Lily relationship, as well as Snape’s larger character motivations, in a way that would have done more justice to one of JK Rowling’s most memorable and thought-provoking Potter creations. While Snape is obviously not wholly ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ his character in the films is, in my opinion, perhaps a little too ‘good’ to be true.