The Politics of “Harry Potter” (A Response)
Abstract: Megan, in her essay last May, raised some very valid points concerning the “neutering” of the political backdrop to the later “Harry Potter” films. This essay seeks to expand on a few of her points and tries to focus on where and why the movie-makers went wrong.
Before you read this, I’d urge you to read Megan’s essay – “How Hollywood De-fanged Potter’s Radical Politics” – which was actually the first Quibble of the Month, back in May of last year. Remember this pre-dates the release of the last Harry Potter movie, Deathly Hallows pt 2.
In this she describes some of J.K. Rowling’s background; however, if the Wikipedia biog is to be believed, J.K. studied French and Classical Studies at Exeter University, and her work at Amnesty International was in London as a translator (presumably in French again).
In fact, nothing is actually mentioned of J.K. Rowling’s political affiliations, or even her literary influences (which is probably far more important in this discussion), except that the onset of clinical depression in 1993/1994 later surfaced as the inspiration for the Dementors, who literally suck all the life out of you.
So… in terms of the wider social – and particularly political – context of Harry Potter, we have to stay much more with the text and can only imagine J.K.’s influences and inspirations.
Given her background, I can’t believe that J.K. wasn’t well-read, nor that she was unaware of world history, all of which would have fed into her writing. Megan’s analysis of the magical world descending into an equivalent of Germany in the late 1930s under Hitler is spot on. The persecution of wizards who are not of “pure blood” is eerily similar to the Nazi’s persecution of anyone not a pure-blood Aryan. There are the “disappearances” and secret trials, that any fascist regime, such as would have existed in say Chile in the 70s and 80s when JK was working with Amnesty International, would be proud of.
Perhaps the only difference between such real-world regimes and the HP world is that Harry is an actual means – a human “secret weapon” if you like – that would and does bring Voldemort’s power crashing down in one single action. Yes there is a resistance movement of sorts – The Order of the Phoenix – but it only plays a background role in the books, and is never reported as openly attacking Voldemort’s regime, as say The French Resistance would have done in occupied France during the war.
But what is clear is that the wizarding world under Voldemort is a terrifying world to live in, for all but the chosen few.
So, to come to the meat of the story, has Warner Bros. “de-fanged” the politics of Harry Potter in its film adaptations?
The first question to ask is, “how much politics in the books is there, anyway?” Not as strange a comment as you might think. Remember that every reader will overlay the text with their own thoughts, feelings, and imaginations, and each reader’s “interpretation” is different. To someone such as myself, who is an adult in their 40s, and who, I hope, is well-read and educated, the description of Voldemort’s take-over of the wizarding world chimes very loudly with my other reading and film-going, not to mention news and current events. It takes just a few brief sentences to trigger memories of books by Isherwood, Kafka, and George Orwell, or news reports about Chile and Argentina from the 80s, for example. These are very vivid, and in some cases very disturbingly graphic. Have a look at this. OK, it’s in Spanish, but there is a link to an English-translated version.
But, well-observed and keenly written as Harry Potter is, to a youngster of 12 or 13 years old, these references may well mean absolutely nothing. Yes, the Ministry of Magic is nasty… but nothing more… which brings us back to the film adaptations. And here we hit the authenticity vs saleability argument.
And this may have presented Warner Bros. with a real dilemma.
I’ve already written a Quibble on how – at least Deathly Hallows – could and should be an 18-rated (R Rated in the US) movie, based on the final battle being a direct equivalent of the first 20 minutes or so of Saving Private Ryan. But I’d go further. To show the true horror of the Voldemort regime (which would have included certain undesirables being literally tortured and then taken outside and “shot”), the movies would probably have also needed 18, if not 15 certificates.
But even if we do not see graphical depictions of torture and death – has anyone seen Midnight Express? – that overwhelming feeling of sheer terror would have taken the HP movies way beyond the child-friendly certification that Warner Bros. was so anxious to achieve. The last few HP films simply didn’t have the writing or directorial talent to depict this feeling of abject terror in a fascistic regime. It didn’t have Steven Spielberg to give us the Oscar-winning direction of Schindler’s List or Saving Private Ryan. In this sense, David Yates was way out of his depth.
But of course, Warner Bros. clearly copped out, choosing to take the “child-friendly” option. I doubt that Steve Kloves would have had the skill to do anything other than this as screenwriter; the mucking-about with the plot, putting in the “dance” with Harry and Hermione, was a pure distraction that added nothing to the plot… and that cop-out goes right back to Order of the Phoenix (although that wasn’t written by Steve Cloves).
Curious though that the production designers were spot-on with their depiction of the Ministry of Magic as something straight out of 1984 – perhaps designers and writers weren’t talking to each other. The visuals were absolutely right, while the action was certainly not.
In conclusion, I’d have to agree wholeheartedly with Megan. Commercial imperative to ensure the films had a child-friendly certification has totally overridden the need to stay totally true to the books, and the underlying political and social terror they portray.