Wednesday, August 20, 2014

What else is wrong with Harry Potter?

Before starting a post like this one, of course I have to start with the disclaimer that I am a fan. I have read all of the books at least twice (to myself, and then as a bedtime story to my kids), and I've seen all the films multiple times. It is only because of the enjoyment I've gotten from the series that I waste time contemplating it and getting bothered by its flaws. Remember the parable of criticism is a complement -- if it were total crap, I wouldn't bother to post about it at all. So I don't want to see any comments accusing me of being a black-hearted Harry Potter-hater.

My second disclaimer is that, yes, I should probably be spending my time on something more important, like, say, climate change. But since it looks like our species is heading into oblivion and there's precious little an individual like me can do to stop it, I like to take my worrying down a notch and worry instead about stuff that really, really doesn't matter. Hence this post.

I've heard tons of different insights on what are the critical flaws of the Harry Potter series. Pretty much all of them were valid criticisms. For me, though, I feel like the top problem is that -- while Harry Potter is an interesting character -- he is not interesting enough to carry seven weighty tomes. I know, he's the chosen one and everything, but the fact that pretty much everything important that happens in his universe revolves around Harry himself and a small circle of friends and acquaintances makes their world seem petty and simplistic. At one point McGonagall asks, "Why is it always you three?" -- and I spent most of the series asking the author the same question. Especially considering that the series has so many other interesting characters that I'd rather be reading about.

Then, since I've been trying to just relax this week, I hit upon the solution! Fan-fic! Who knows what amusing tales the various fans have invented for all of our favorite peripheral characters?

I decided to start with the most incongruous relationship in the entire series: Hermoine and Viktor Krum. So, this guy is one of the most famous sports stars in their entire wizarding world. He could have his pick of girls, to put it mildly. Yet, he falls for the nerdy co-protagonist, who, by the way, isn't even interested in him. I'm not saying it's impossible, but I will say that this relationship requires some explanation/motivation that is sorely lacking in the books and films. But maybe the fans will come to the rescue!

Sadly, the first one I found on this topic was so laden with technical discussion of Quidditch strategy and sports scenes, I was unable to slog through it far enough to get to the point where he takes up with Hermoine. So I gave up on that one and decided to see if I could find some back-story for Regulus Black -- a fascinating character who (as far as I recall) doesn't make an appearance in the real story at all. There I found some interesting tales of his home life with his brother Sirius in their crazy evil London townhouse with their crazy evil parents. Good fun! So I decided to read some more from the Moony-Wormtail-Padfoot-Prongs generation.

Then a curious thing happened. I found it rather upsetting to watch popular sports star James Potter and his fun-loving buddies bullying young Severus Snape -- and winning the hearts of the fans (not to mention the girl) in the process. You can try to blame the fan-fic authors, but they're merely highlighting and expanding upon a key point from the original story.

I've written about bullying before, and I like to believe this is a subject where our culture has made tremendous progress in the past few decades. In stories from the fifties, it was typical to see bullying presented as par for the course, and it was unsurprising to see an author present a scene of bullying with the clear subtext that the victim deserved it because he's such a loser -- and expect the audience to view the bully as the more likable guy overall. It's disappointing to see this happen in a modern story.

As someone who was "different" as a kid -- and consequently bullied by the popular kids -- I naturally identify with Snape a lot more than I do with James and Lily and their friends. And the worst part of the story is that -- unlike a typical real-world bullying situation -- in this case the whole "it gets better" thing didn't happen. After being traumatized as a teen, Snape went on to be a bitter, spiteful, miserable person until he died.

Don't get me wrong -- of course he was also awesome. I think Snape is hand down the best character in the series. And the actor in the films did a fantastic job of interpreting the character -- better than what was in the books alone. But the stuff that happened to him was awful.

Then I started feeling like a huge idiot because is there any stupider waste of emotional energy than sitting around feeling sorry for a fictional character? I need to get out there and find some real people with real problems whom I can help for real. ;)

In the meantime, allow me to present how it should have ended:


Aerin said...

For me, I didn't necessarily see James Potter as a more likable guy after bullying Snape. In the books, I felt those scenes were to help Harry understand his dad better, that his dad was not always a good person - and to have more sympathy for Snape. After losing his dad to a brutal murderer(and never knowing him), it must have been easy to think of his father in black and white terms; but James was a flawed person who sometimes made bad choices.

With that said, I think Snape bears some responsibility for where he ended up as well. Not that a victim bears responsibility for abuse.

But at some point, each adult must choose how to react/respond to their past and move forward - whether or not the past will govern them. It's not denying the bad stuff happened, it's processing it and not letting it run one's life and choices (if that makes sense). So it's true that Snape was a bitter, spiteful person at times, but that can't be solely blamed on what happened to him as a teen.

It's actually one of the more amazing things about so many people (and our culture); people who have been through so much are able to process it and move forward.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Aerin!!!

I agree with you that the bullying incidents themselves served to give more sympathy for Snape and served to make James a more ambiguous character (successfully). Yet, overall, I still get this vibe from the story that the bullying was understandable because, hey, James was cool and Snape was a loser.

For me it actually kind of tipped the ambiguity balance too far -- to the point where I have a hard time seeing James Potter as a sympathetic character.

Then I start wondering why Lily picked him over Snape. Then I start thinking well, Lily was a pretty boring, vapid character herself, so maybe the choice makes sense. And then it bugs me that Rowling had Snape pine for Lily for 20 years. Seriously? And (as indicated by his patronus charm) the happiest moments of his life were those few childhood moments with Lily before she became a teenager and decided she didn't like him after all...? Seriously...?! That has about the credibility level of the Hermione/Krum relationship. (OTOH, maybe Snape really is a loser, lol)

I totally get what you're saying about Snape needing to take responsibility for how he responds to these childhood incidents. But here is where I think the real problem is that we're talking about a fictional character and not a real person. A real person would have grown up and moved on. But for the sake of the narrative, Rowling needs Snape to play a certain role with respect to Harry, and that outweighed any attempt to make the character believable.