Director: David Yates
By Marilyn Ferdinand
A fantasy 10 years in execution, wildly popular as both a book series and film-adaptation franchise, can bear a multitude of commentary. So, while my colleague Rod has tackled the finale of the Harry Potter saga with his usual brilliant description and analysis, I thought I might give it a go myself.
In contrast with Rod’s comment that adult Potter fans were generally in the closet when the series began, I found myself knowing several very enthusiastic adult readers of the series. My generation, especially in the United States, was characterized by a search for the kingdom of heaven within ourselves; if you hadn’t read Siddhartha, Steppenwolf, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy when you were in your teens or early 20s, you were out of it, living in a backwater away from popular culture and consciousness. Consequently, although I did not read J. K. Rowling’s books, I was more than up for seeing the films, hoping Harry’s lightning bolt Mark of Cain would strike me the same way Star Wars did when I saw it in 1977.
I was not disappointed. The tale the Harry Potter films tells is perhaps the most extraordinary coming-of-age story in cinematic history. A baby orphaned and marked for a dramatic destiny while still in the crib, Harry would have a relatively miserable childhood with his Muggle (human) aunt and uncle, constantly being put down in favor of the smallest accomplishment by his atrocious cousin Dudley, and always feeling out of place. Hasn’t every child felt this way, felt like they were kidnapped at birth from their rightful home where surely they would be appreciated as the extraordinary person they really are? The first Potter film, which many people think superficial and light, is, to my mind, the perfect world for a young audience looking to escape from the torments of family and school and travel to a place where they are special. I was personally enchanted by Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, a very special English public school familiar in many ways from books and films like Tom Brown’s School Days and The Browning Version, but filled with the kind of wonder children have when they learn how to unlock the mysteries of their own potential.
Of course, children grow up, and Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and his friends Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) and Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) start to discover what hurts in their world, what betrayals await them—from a carelessly obtuse Ron failing to notice Hermione’s major crush on him to Harry betraying himself and his entire cause by allowing Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) to enter his thoughts and discover his plans. Destruction, repression, and death—not a magical future for kids whose ability to cast spells and make their wands an extension of their wishes would seem to mark them out for a charmed life. I admit to being a bit disappointed as the dark clouds descended, preferring to extend the buoyant feeling of the first film ad infinitum, but the progression better serves the young readers and viewers who are looking for the signposts that match their own lives. Unsurprisingly, adults like me watching the Potter films were perhaps served less well than adolescent audiences because there are certainly more relevant, mature films to help us deal with the vagaries of life, and a certain amount of tedium with the plot set in for me, though the fine filmcraft and performances kept me highly engaged to the bitterly triumphant end.
As it turns out, Harry’s lightning bolt truly was the Mark of Cain, though not one involving a blood tie. Harry’s strange link with Voldemort was finally accounted for in the finale: Harry had a piece of Voldemort’s soul locked inside him in infancy from the rebound of the hex the Dark Lord used to kill Harry’s mother. Alien though this fragment might have been, Harry was marked from the beginning as the slayer of a part of himself. Unlike the followers of the dark arts or even the good guys in Dumbledore’s army, Harry recognized Voldemort as the Buddha in the road and killed him in good New Age, if not Buddhist, fashion.
But, of course, philosophies are never simple in modern mythologies, exposed as we are now to influences from around the world that become grafted on to our established belief systems. Harry Potter is inflected with the concerns of a religiously conflicted Christian woman growing up in a country whose memories of the Blitz and Hitler were alive for years after the end of the war. Voldemort and his minions are certainly an embodiment of the maniacal thirst for absolute power and racial purity of Nazism, including the destruction of any impure (half-human) wizards and witches and the general enslavement of the human race to the needs of the elite. Harry’s discovery that his death is needed to render Voldemort mortal certainly smacks of the passion of the Christ, yet resurrection requires Harry only to believe in himself.
It is perhaps this egotism that bothers me the most about the Harry Potter finale and that points to the mediocrity awaiting Harry and his loyal friends 19 years after their defeat of Voldemort, a development Rod took issue with as well. Satisfied with revenge and the preservation of Hogswarts and its generally sunny way of life, Harry, famous and extraordinary during his entire youth, abandons the greater good. He settles into middle-class normalcy with his witch wife, Ginny Weasley (Bonnie Wright), and assures his Hogwarts-bound, hellbent-to-be-a Gryffindor son that even if the Sorting Hat thinks he belongs in Slytherin, it offers some wiggle room by taking the wishes of the student into consideration. Not much, mind you—England is as trapped in its class distinctions as ever, and I have to wonder if billionaire Rowling has discovered that money will never buy her the privilege of respect a blueblood automatically achieves, and thus written about geneology as destiny in more ways than one. Harry could have ended the clannishness of the system—he united all to the cause of defeating Voldemort—but he seems content to ride out his days in the quiet comfort of tradition.
From a cinematic perspective, my druthers for this final film would have included the epic struggle the trio of friends experienced in finding and destroying the “horcruxes” that contained fractions of Voldemort’s soul—present in the penultimate film, but not in this one. Simply stabbing the generally compliant horcruxes with a snake tooth was so perfunctory as to make the task seem hardly worth the effort. Generally speaking, if the filmmakers knew they were going to split the ending into two parts before production, why not make a full movie at the end? Even if they didn’t, surely there must have been ample opportunity to flesh out some of the more interesting aspects of the narrative, from the horcrux hunt to how the battle might have affected the Muggle world. While some scenes work beautifully, for example, the infiltration of Gringott’s and the climbing, crashing escape of the captive dragon that guarded its vaults, the feeling of sprinting to the finish line dropped this film a bit below the high watermark of careful, full-bodied construction I have associated with other entries in the series.
The appearance of Dumbledore’s brother (Ciaran Hinds) leaves me trembling with trepidation that Warner Bros. may try to spin off another series featuring Potter fils and Ron and Hermione’s youngsters. Certainly the battle between good and evil will never end, but as for Harry Potter, this ending was well done, fitting, and conclusive.