Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Harry Potter and the Battle to Be Brave

Just saw the latest Harry Potter film.  If you haven't, I highly recommend it.  Honestly, I think this series has gotten better and better with each film.   The newest is a bit longer than the last few have been, but it still feels very lean, while giving the characters at the center, particularly the kids, plenty to do.  

On a fundamental level, the Harry Potter stories are about overcoming one's prejudices and seeing the humanity in everyone, including one's enemies.  This is not always as clear in the films as in the books, and it's rarely presented too overtly. But if you watch closely you'll see Harry repeatedly taught, mostly through his own mistakes, that those whom he most despises, though he may have good reason -- Malfoy's sneer begs to be wiped off, doesn't it? -- are nevertheless neither as simple nor as write-offable (new word!) to judge as he thinks.  

Best. Teenage. Sneer. Ever.

Nor are the "good guys" entirely good -- over the course of novels we find out that Harry's dad and his pals were jerks to Snape, and that even Dumbledore has some serious skeletons in his closet. Like this outfit:

Grandma's curtains (complete with tassels).

Only Harry's mother is remembered universally as a kind, talented person. An interesting point, given the fact these books have been written by a single mom.  

Having said all that, the most recent film strikes me as focused more clearly and specifically on the theme of courage.  Every major character in the film is asked to make a decision between cowardice and bravery: to kiss or not to kiss; to reject an inadequate love or remain stuck; to risk though one might fail or to hide; to come clean with one's sins or to live a lie; to sacrifice one's life for the good of all or to flee; to kill or not to kill. (And (SPOILER) in that last case, both choices end up representing stances of courage. Snape's willingness to do a dark deed will prove bravery indeed; and Malfoy's refusal, though it appears cowardice, holds within it a great courage as well.) Truly,  the filmmakers delight in this theme, offering not only these widely varying contexts but wonderfully different tones, from the slapstick to the tragic.  I laughed out loud many times, and unexpectedly.  And I also jumped at least once.  And the ending... well, I won't spoil that if you don't know already. 

One other thing to love about this film: as much as it's about magic and good vs. evil and this strange and wonderful other world, it never ceases to be a story about kids growing up. Some of the best little moments, in fact, involve the three main teenagers just hanging out and talking to one another like teenagers do -- talking about girls, fighting over who gets the new book,the big game, struggling with teachers, bemoaning lost loves.   In fact -- and this is a very large claim to make, I know -- I bet you could be not that interested in the whole magic thing and still really love this film for the school and teenager material alone.  It's that good.  

Tell me this is not the image of every teenager you've ever known.


Annie said...

Lovely post, Jim. I loved this film as well, and I loved sharing it with my 6 year old. Discussing the films and books with him (we are currently reading #4) present the opportunity to talk about so many aspects of life. As you said, they are particularly useful when discussing how most people and situations are not black and white.

Jim McDermott, SJ said...

It's a great sort of a theme for kids, isn't it? (Not that we adults couldn't use it, as well...)

Dan S. said...

Similar themes of fellowship, courage and a non black & white worldview found in Lord of the Rings. Gollum, in the end is the inadvertent agent of the ring's destruction.