Friday, December 15, 2006

Dumbest Harry Potter Interpretation Ever?

Galley Reader P.G. sends us this short piece about new Harry Potter David Yates, who's at the healm of the film version of Order of the Phoenix. Here's a clip from the piece:
"Phoenix," the fifth book in author J. K. Rowlings's series, is by far the most ideological, and seems allusive to post-9/11 politics. Harry knows that the evil Lord Voldemort has been reborn and is building an army, but the wizarding government, the Ministry of Magic, refuses to believe him. At Hogwarts, a new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, the ministry's Dolores Umbridge, won't teach the students actual defense spells, under the pretense of protecting them. As the world grows more dangerous, and Umbridge restricts more and more of the students' personal freedoms, Harry and his pals form a secret club to teach themselves how to battle Voldemort and his minions. "It's like the French Resistance movement of the 1940s," Heyman says. Which is right up Yates's alley. "There's a really interesting principle at the heart of this story," says Yates, in an exclusive NEWSWEEK interview. "The ministry is this bureaucratic authoritarian regime trying to impose a fundamental doctrine on this liberal wacky school. The ministry isn't very good at accepting the beauty of differences. Everything has to fit in a box, and if it doesn't fit, it must be removed. The wonderful thing this story tells kids is that it's OK to be different."

Except that that's exactly not the point of Order of the Phoenix. The message is more properly understood as: The world is a dangerous place and sometimes, no matter how deep in the sand you try to stick your head, bad people will try to kill you. If you refuse to fight back, you're a willing accomplice to evil. Hogwarts isn't a whacky liberal enclave--it's Sandhurst, where Churchill is teaching a rising generation of warriors how to fight the battle their parents shirked. And the Ministry of Magic isn't John Ashcroft's Justice Department or the Catholic Church or whatever other repressive, patriarchical, neanderthal hive Yates might want to equate it with: It's the frackin' League of Nations.

At least, that's what I took away from Order of the Phoenix. But maybe I'm just a neocon warmonger. Tell me where I'm wrong.


jon said...

JVL, You're expecting moral and political clarity from Hollywood? Wow! I'd have hoped you'd know better from your wonderful interpretation of the Star Wars movies.

One I just came across: Superman Returns. Mentions of Superman standing for "truth" and "justice" were made. They seemingly forgot the "American way" part. This couldn't have been a coincidence.

What is happening is that even though conventional drama has the need for the hero in whatever conflict is going on--man v. man, man v. Lord Voldemort, etc.--current sentiment is to fold before admitting that there're somethings worth fighing for and some people in need of an asskicking. That position suggests of moral certitude, and the only thing that any of these "culture" types are certain of is that the only remaining evil is moral certitude.

E.g., Obi Wan: "Only a Sith speaks in absolutes." Uh, isn't "only" an absolute?

The only remaining option is for a Straussian sit-com.

Jacob said...

I'm pretty sure that the "Only a Sith speaks in absolutes" was intended to be ironic. Asides from the fact, as you've pointed out, that it is itself a statement of absolutes the Sith are complete moral relativists. Remember Palpatine's "point of view" speech?

jjv said...

To answer your question, you are both 1) correct about Harry Potter and 2) a neocon warmonger. Can't wait to see how it ends.

jon said...

Remember Obi Wan's "point of view" speech to Luke on Dagobah? I suspect the Sith are at least aware of the incoherence and hence more philosophic.

arrScott said...

Hogwarts as Sandhurst training a new army to fight the battle the prior generation shirked is more than a bit of a stretch. First off, the previous generation didn't shirk the battle against Voldmort. It lost the battle against Voldemort. Which I suspect is why Dumbledore most explicitly is not training his students to be magical warriors against the Death Eaters.

If Dumbledore is so Churchillian, why doesn't he provide his students with a coherent course of study in the defense against the dark arts? Hogwarts is just like Sandhurst, assuming that Sandhurst cancelled or hired a series of visiting amateurs to teach all its military classes. Instead of teaching his students to fight Voldemort, Dumbledore mostly just gives speeches encouraging the kids to be brave and honest and to love one another.

Keeping in mind that Voldemort won the last all-out magical war, but that the pure love of a single brave and honest woman destroyed the Dark Lord's power for a generation, Dumbledore's somewhat Christ-like approach is probably more likely to succeed than any amount of Churchillian arming and drilling of the rising generation.

Kathleen Nelson said...

Really, all I care about is that he gets two things right:

1. Umbridge's evil detention quill.
2. The Weasley twins' exit from Hogwarts.(And really, they must give the Weasley twins their due or I'll really be pissed off!)

And that's it.

That aside, you're both right---and wrong. There is a resistance element to the Order of the Phoenix, but there is also a greater theme of not helping evil along by ignoring it. But where you're wrong is comparing Hogwarts to Sandhurst, and he's wrong in bringing in a drippy hippy, "reject the patriarchy" comparison. Hogwarts is a normal school. Despite the fact that Dumbledore runs it, the school itself is neutral. After all it produced Percy Weasley and educates Draco Malfoy, but it also accepted Luna Lovegood as a student. I didn't see Dumbledore rejecting applicants simply based on their parents' political beliefs or professions. They're on either side of the spectrum---but just like the real world, the majority reside in the middle. Harry's preeminent battle in Order of the Phoenix is in compelling the middle to take the threat seriously, and then getting them to act, which is no small feat, particularly since their leaders in the Ministry of Magic are completely opposed.

On the whole, it's much more subtle ground to cover than just choosing good or evil, and subsequently squaring up for a battle royale, and I applaud Rowling for taking it on. How does evil present itself? Will you recognize it when you see it---particularly when evil tries to manipulate you into believing it's not, in fact, evil. How hard is it to reject it, and what price will you pay for it? Is inaction and refusing to choose make you just as bad as those who would actively choose evil? Is keeping your head down a wise choice or is it cowardly? While moral clarity is a wonderful thing, it takes time to reach it, and there is always a price to be paid, no matter where you place your loyalties. That's the real lesson of these books: that you must look at the situation in total, act against what you see is wrong, no matter how hard it might be, and be prepared to pay a price for your actions. It will be a confusing process and you will invariably make a wrong step somewhere along the way, but you can overcome both with determination and conviction.

Crank said...

I knew it was bad news when they dropped Cornelius Fudge's Neville Chamberlain moment from the end of the fourth film.