Friday, October 03, 2014

Harry Potter and the three tropes, a.k.a. what else is wrong with Harry Potter, part 2

I wasn't going to post this to my blog because I don't want to be buried in comments telling me I'm a mean, bitter Harry Potter hater, but... I figure there's maybe seven people reading this blog, so what the hell. If at any point you feel compelled to write me such a comment, please at least read the disclaimer on part 1 before doing so.

I've followed the Harry Potter series as a fan from around the time the second or third book came out, and now that it's been over for a bit, we re-watched the films this past spring, and I have unfortunately spent some time reflecting upon the whole thing.

My opinion of it has suffered an adjustment. It's not as bad as Twilight (where the fun is in making fun of it), but in retrospect, I feel like my enjoyment of Harry Potter was mostly a question of getting caught up in a wave that your friends are caught up in -- and it would have been so much more awesome if we'd all been caught up in something equally fun and imaginative, but better. I'm sure such works exist, it's just a question of which one randomly hits the critical mass to become a superstar phenomenon.

Anyway, with that preface, I will outline my analysis of work's most critical flaws so I can close this book and stop thinking about it.

The story of Harry Potter rests squarely upon three of the stupidest, laziest, most over-used tropes in modern popular literature.

1. The evil villain who is evil just for the love of evil.

Every story needs a conflict, and if you can't think of an interesting one, there's always this standard go-to option. This trope pisses me off not just because of the phoning-it-in aspect, but also because it happens in real life exactly never.

At this point, the attentive reader is probably going "but... Hitler!!" But even Hitler was more complicated than that. As Orson Scott Card impressively demonstrated, you can write a tale about a genocidal monster, and if you tell it from his perspective well, you can convince millions of fans not only to forgive him, but to love him.

This trope also encourages people to view their rivals as simply evil, and to view the struggle for your own interests as the fight for Good with a capital-G. This is exactly the wrong message in our modern interconnected society where we need to understand that other people have their own perspectives and legitimate interests and deserve to be treated fairly, even if they have some weird language and culture that we don't understand.

In Harry Potter's case, the Voldemort character is just so pointless, and his followers' motivation is completely absent. They have no reasonable expectation of getting anything good from him, yet they're constantly walking on eggshells because he just might kill or otherwise horribly punish any one of them on a whim at any time. Even the suggestion that the serve him because they fear him doesn't hold water because the people of their universe are clearly a lot safer from Voldemort simply by staying far away from him and doing nothing to attract his attention than they are while serving on his team.

2. Mom's sacrifice

This one would be less annoying if it were less common, and Harry Potter's use of it is less egregious than the use in Ice Age, for example. Still, I think it sends a very negative message that the most valuable thing a mom can do with her life is to sacrifice it completely for her child. The fact that mom can't find a way to save herself as well as saving her child is not only a negative statement about her skill and ingenuity, but also about the value of her life. Why should she bother to save herself when she has saved the person who's really important?

If you object by asking "What was Lily Potter supposed to do?" I say: nothing. Lily Potter is a fictional character. The author, on the other hand, is a real live person who didn't have to write the situation that way, but chose to.

3. The Prophecy

This trope bugs me because it is just. so. stupid.

So, there's this prophecy, and no one ever doubts for a minute that it's true. And of course it comes true because it's the prophecy!

Even in Harry Potter -- where magic is real -- this is ridiculous because it's clear that divination doesn't work in general, and the character who made the prophecy is well-known for being completely incompetent at predicting the future. Yet, for some unexplained reason, one of her predictions is the most accurate and important statement of what will happen in their universe.

This is one of the reasons why I love the Lego Movie (more on this to come). The Lego Movie turns this trope on its head in exactly the way it deserves to be turned on its head.


But the three tropes aren't even this biggest structural flaw in the Harry Potter series. The biggest problem (as I said earlier) is the fish-eye-lens focus on Harry -- who is an interesting character, but not interesting enough to carry seven weighty tomes.

Part of the problem is that Rowling takes Harry from underdog to top of the world in the first book, and then is obligated to come up with increasingly ridiculous ways to try to reset him to underdog status at the beginning of each subsequent book. The fact that the resets are ineffective is demonstrated by the number of readers who end up despising Harry instead of sympathizing with him, and it is illustrated in the satire Potter Puppet Pals.

Additionally, it makes their universe weirdly small and contracted since nothing important can happen without Harry being a major player in it. But the worst part is the effect Harry's gravity has on the other characters and their lives and motivations, or lack thereof.

To become a Hogwarts professor, do you have to take a vow of celibacy or something? There are lots of teachers, and yet none of them are in any kind of long-term relationship. This is a striking contrast with most of the other adult characters, who are all married because their role with respect to Harry is not teacher but parent (of school comrades). It's like the author couldn't be bothered to write the teachers as whole people -- once they're out of Harry's view, they go on the shelf in the closet.

Then there's the terrible marriage of Harry's two side-kicks, Ron and Hermione.

These two are not just wrong for each other for the obvious reason, namely that Hermione deserves to be with someone exciting and doesn't deserve to spend the rest of her life nagging a boring husband, as she does in the epilogue of the last book. The pairing is even worse for Ron.

Ron's biggest problem throughout the series is that he is the tag-along. First he's in the shadow of his older brothers, and then he becomes "that guy who hangs around with Harry and Hermione while they're saving the world."  By marrying Hermione, he guarantees that he will never solve this problem as long as he lives.

A happy ending for Ron would have been to break up with Hermione shortly after their adventure, and to go to some other country where the people are less familiar with the details of what happened to Voldemort, where he wouldn't be immediately recognized. There, he would have his own adventure in which he is the protagonist, and someone would fall in love with him without even knowing any of the people whose shadow he had lived in. Then he could bring his bride back to England and hang out (occasionally) with his friends and family on his own terms.

But... Why should the author bother to take Ron's problems seriously and address them? Once he and Harry are both married off and no longer roomies, Ron's problems no longer directly affect Harry, so who cares?

And probably the most egregious example of makes-sense-from-the-author's-perspective-and-Harry's-but-not-from-the-character's is what happened to Snape.

First off, there's Dumbledore's brilliant plan to have Snape kill him. This plan makes perfect sense because the author wanted to end the second-to-last book with a big reveal that Snape had been a villain all along -- and then have the last book contain the even bigger reveal that Snape wasn't a villain after all! And the plan was pretty successful at its objective. From the logic of within the story universe though...?  Not so much.

Way back when Dumbledore was hatching this plan (before Harry and the audience knew about it), it was clear that this was a suicide mission for both Dumbledore and Snape. In the worst case scenario, Snape would be killed directly by Voldy and the Death Eaters (which is what happened), and in the best case scenario, Snape would survive as their universe returned to normal, at which point Snape would have the privilege of being "the guy who murdered Dumbledore." Somehow I don't think "No, really, he asked me to do it -- it's right here in my memories!" would hold up in court. So, in the best case scenario, Snape would have to go into hiding or end up in Azkaban.

And it's worse than that. Dumbledore knew that he was the master of the elder wand, and that killing him would make Snape the master of the elder wand, and that Voldemort would likely figure this out and consequently want to kill Snape (which is what happened). And if I recall correctly, Dumbledore didn't even bother to warn Snape of this additional danger before assigning him the task.

Now you're probably protesting that Snape agreed to this suicide mission for the sake of their world because he was brave and good, etc. And I'm willing to believe that, except... When you assign/accept a suicide mission, it should have an objective. Having Voldemort "trust you more" is not, in itself, an objective.

To what end? Was it to allow Snape better access to Voldemort to have the opportunity to kill him? No, Harry had to do that. To have the opportunity to destroy one of the last few horcruxes? Apparently not. The only critical task that Dumbledore assigned Snape (aside from killing him) was to tell Harry (at the critical moment) that Harry needs to let Voldemort kill him because that is the one thing that would kill Voldemort.

Now, which situation would make Snape's task easier? Still being at Hogwarts acting as a double-agent where he has unlimited access to people who are in communication with Harry? Or hanging around in Voldemort's inner circle while Harry is convinced that he's a villain who is actually on Voldemort's team?

Then there's the little matter of Snape's death. Snape's death made perfect sense because his work with respect to Harry was done, and if he were to survive and have to go to trial and/or into hiding, that would have been a complicated distraction from what is happening to Harry. Plus it might make readers notice how half-baked Dumbledore's plan was. So much simpler for the author just to kill him when she's done with him. Problem solved!

As "How it Should Have Ended" brilliantly explained, from the logic of within the story universe, it makes no sense for Snape to have been killed at that point. He knew what kind of danger he was in while hanging out with Voldy and the Death Eaters, and he had amply demonstrated in the earlier books that he was up to the challenge.

From the drama of the scene, it seemed like once Harry was about to find out about Snape's broken heart, Snape suddenly remembered that he'd lost the will to live, after all these years. And the fact that Snape would have been pining for Lily Evans Potter for all these years also makes perfect sense -- from Harry's perspective.

From Harry's perspective, of course his parents were the most wonderful people ever! They're the loving parents he wished he could have known if only they hadn't nobly sacrificed themselves for him! They don't need any further positive qualities to make the audience sympathize with them, duh. Obviously if someone had had any kind of relationship with Harry's angelic mother, that would be the high point of that person's life (as indicated by Snape's patronus charm).

In reality, a childhood friendship that ends in humiliating unrequited love (as the love-object immediately throws you over for a bully who torments you as soon as the lot of you hit puberty) is not something that would be a fond and happy memory. As someone who grew up unpopular (and who has plenty of friends who were in the same boat), I can tell you that the happy moment isn't that magic moment when the popular kids were nice to you. The happy moment is the moment when you grow up and realize that the popular kids don't matter. At all.

Not that the popular kids were evil villains or anything. We were all simply immature, and learning about relationships. As a grown-up, you discover that the friendships and relationships you have after you've all got a little maturity and relationship-experience under your belts are so much better than any childhood friendships. And this is especially true for kids who had trouble making friends, but later grew up to be fairly successful and respected, like me. And Snape.

From the author's perspective, this (unrequited love) reveal served to increase sympathy for Snape, in case the reader hated him for being so mean to Harry. But the problem is that at this point in the story, Snape is already the unsung underdog, not Harry. If you were already rooting for the underdog, more sympathy is overkill, and the reveal serves merely to add insult to injury.

Now, at this point -- if you're still with me -- you should be saying "Wow, you have thought about this waaaaaaaaaaaaay too much!!"

And to that I answer: "Yes. Yes I have." And I wish I could have that time and mental energy back!! I wish I'd shared a fun and imaginative series with friends that didn't make me go "WTF?!?!?!?!?" so much that I end up obsessing about it until I have to put it to rest by writing a completely pointless essay such as this one.

And this isn't all. I could write another essay about how awful it would be to live in a world where everyone is carrying around a deadly weapon at all times, including children as young as eleven -- not to mention the fact that the people are so dependent on magic that they're practically handicapped if their wand is broken or stolen, etc. But I won't bother.

To be honest, as I said earlier, it is way more fun and less stressful to obsess about what's wrong with Harry Potter than to worry about real problems that affect us for real, like climate change. So, really, I should be thanking J. K. Rowling. (Thanks, JK!!! if you're reading this...)

And, really, all of this doesn't even mean that Harry Potter is without value or enjoyment. It just means that I have to adjust my expectations. I can't approach it in accordance with Mark Twain's quip: "It's no wonder that truth is stranger than fiction. Fiction has to make sense." I have to approach Harry Potter the way I approach Star Trek or The Year Without a Santa Claus, and accept that it's not supposed to make sense.