One of the most famous characters in popular fiction is not the best role model, but there are things we can learn from him.
With the opening of the fifth of the Harry Potter films scheduled for July 11, and the issuing of the seventh and last of the books scheduled for July 21, I think it would be a good idea to look back on the series and take stock of just what J.K. Rowling has accomplished, both good and bad. Whether we like it or not, Harry Potter has had a tremendous influence on children’s literature and culture.
First of all, how valuable is the work of J.K. Rowling as an author? How does it measure up against the great children’s classics, such as Dickens and Stevenson? I’ve read all of Rowling’s books, and, while I find them engaging, they are not what I would call “classics.” The writing style is somewhat pedestrian, as is that of Dan Brown and other popular authors. That seems to be the trend in popular fiction. Story is the sole justification for a work’s existence, without any consideration of style. While that may be good enough for popular fiction, it is not good enough for classics, and should not be good enough for children’s literature.
Second, how effective is Rowling as a storyteller? Very. She is a genius of imagination, quite frankly. She has thought through every detail of her stories and they are all intriguing and compelling. The names she gives things, the way she develops her characters, the little twists and turns in plot, the quirky props and locations – all make her writing highly enjoyable for both kids and adults.
Third, how important is the subject of witchcraft to her stories? Not at all. As a matter of fact, real witchcraft doesn’t even figure into her stories, though she talks a lot about it. Witches have no more to do with broomsticks and pointed hats than Quidditch has to do with sports. These are all elements that Rowling has made up or borrowed from popular culture. Real witchcraft concerns an all-out war against Christianity in which Christ is named as the enemy, and hexes and spells are primarily leveled against the Christian community.
Not long ago, I had the chance to visit Argentina, a country plagued by witchcraft. Even though Catholicism is named as the number one religion in Argentina for about 95% of the population, witchcraft and superstition are so interwoven with their beliefs that it is sometimes hard to separate the two. Evangelical Christianity is making some headway; but, every step they take, the witching community is there to try and stop them.
In Harry Potter, Christ, Christianity and churches are never mentioned. If Harry Potter were really about witchcraft, they would be present in order to ridicule. On the other hand, nature does figure prominently in the books, as it does in paganism, which is how real witches refer to their religion. But nature also figures prominently in Christianity, so that really isn’t an indicator.
Rowling was very perplexed by the “Christian” response to her books. A real advocate of witchcraft wouldn’t have been. If one of her goals had been to villify Christ, the way true witches do, it would have been easy enough to give the villain in her stories, Voldemort, some Christ-like qualities – such as the way he was born, a savior personna, twelve followers, etc. But he has none. Instead, he is a totally ruthless and despicable character.
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Fourth, how important is magic to the Harry Potter stories? Very. That is really what the stories are about, and that is my biggest criticism. It is also my biggest criticism of Nanny McPhee and other stories of that type. In these stories, the protagonists face the same problems that real children face: negligent, absent or abusive parents; the need for self-worth, acceptance and true friendship; the need to grow into adults; a lack of love. So, how do these stories teach children to deal with their problems? Magic. That is the answer that these writers and filmmakers hand to their young audiences. Here they have the opportunity to make a difference in children’s lives, and instead they give them something that is unsubstantial and inauthentic.
I have nothing against magic per se – if, by magic, what is meant is the unexplainable and mysterious part of life, the thing that often makes life exciting and fun. I’m also not against magic if, by magic, what is meant is slight-of-hand tricks that are done on stage and at parties to entertain. But if, by magic, what is meant or implied is that we can deal with our problems by saying a few special words or wishing them away, then I am totally against it. That is the purpose for prayer, not magic words. God is the source of our power and the one to whom we turn when we’re in need – not a magic formula or a magical person. Our relationship with God is how we deal with the problems of life.
For that reason, the Harry Potter series has a totally non-Christian worldview. While I don’t feel it is harmful because it teaches witchcraft, I do feel it is harmful because it doesn’t teach dependence on God. Dependence on God is the greatest lesson we can teach children or anyone else.
Fifth, are there valuable lessons taught in Harry Potter? Certainly. Every book ends with Dumbledore interpreting the events of the book for Harry and drawing a moral conclusion. Usually these lessons have something to do with friendship or courage. There’s nothing wrong with that. A lot of children’s literature have those themes. My complaint is, to get to them, you have to walk through a mental sewer. It is a relatively mild sewer, I’ll grant you – not like the really stinky sewers present in most horror and many R-rated films – but a sewer none-the-less. While there is a lot of imagination in the J.K. Rowling’s books, each individual will have to decide if it is worth it to trudge through some of the places she takes her readers. Frankly, most of what she deals with is so forgettable that I have a hard time remembering it.
Sixth and finally, what about the film versions of the Harry Potter stories? Are they good? Actually, I find them to be quite mediocre. If you haven’t read the books, they’re hard to follow, so they will never stand on their own. The CGI created beings are disappointing – they never look as good as you would hope. There is a darkness that pervades the films that makes them “not pretty.” Young teenagers don’t seem to mind that. And you just don’t get a “good” feeling when it’s all over. It’s kind of like, “Okay, I’ve seen that. Hand me my tee-shirt.”
So, even though these films are hot at the box office, they are about as far from what makes a good, strong, memorable film as you can get. The filmmakers are playing to the book-reading audience, not the audience-at-large. Anytime you try to make the readers of a book happy about your adaptation, you are going to lose the majority of movie-goers, because you cannot be true to a book and true to good filmmaking. Books and films are different animals demanding different storytelling techniques. So, the films may make good supplemental companions to the books, but they are not good films in and of themselves.
Waitsel Smith, June 2, 2007
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Text © 2007 Waitsel Smith. Image © Warner Bros. Entertainment. All Rights Reserved.