What's wrong with Harry Potter? Sophistication.

In The Atlantic, David Thier describes How the ‘Harry Potter’ Movies Succeeded Where the Books Failed. I haven’t seen all the movies or read all the books, so I can’t comment on their relative merit, but notice this in Their’s post:

The basic story in Harry Potter is an old one, and a good one. The boy of destiny is plucked from ordinary circumstances and becomes incredulous when he’s told the truth behind his real identity. Some training, trials, and a crisis of self-confidence later, he emerges as the true hero ready to defeat ultimate evil.

In real life, it seems like the problem isn’t often defeating ultimate evil: it’s identifying ultimate evil. Or recognizing that ultimate evil doesn’t exist very often, and more often there are banal evils, or inadvertent evils, or people just trying to get along but harming others as they do, or working in favor of malign self-interest, or some variation on these themes. Adult literature tends to recognize this. Children’s literature seldom does. Even The Lord of the Rings spends a lot of time trying to decide how to respond and who should wield power. Harry Potter seldom does that, from what I can recall: Harry is destined from birth. I don’t appear destined from birth to do much of anything; neither does anyone else (more on that below).

Robin Hanson says something similar to the preceding paragraph in “Beware Morality Porn:”

[. . .] movies usually focus more on whether characters have the strength of will to do what is obviously right than on whether they have the wisdom to discern what is right. And movie characters rarely have to choose between the praise of associates and doing the right thing – key associates usually support doing the right thing.

He uses Lord of the Rings as an example, although I don’t think it’s as appropriate as some others. The book version of The Lord of the Rings makes a point of showing how Aragorn, Gandalf, and other “good” characters work to limit their own power and define what the “right” thing is, beyond the defeat of Sauron. In the past, the Elves and Númenóreans repeatedly treated with Sauron, to their detriment. It’s not completely obvious what the “right” thing to do is: in the “Council of Elrond” chapter in The Fellowship of the Ring, proposals about using the Ring against Sauron are debated. It’s true that, by the time we get to The Fellowship of the Ring, it’s pretty clear Sauron’s the bad guy, but only because of past book-time experiences with him.

As mentioned above, I think movies and books have a larger problem (and one that, if I recall correctly, Harry Potter does address to some extent): virtually no one is “destined” to do anything. People who accomplish major deeds often just have the right combination of circumstances, luck, tenacity, and ability. Arguably only the last two are influenced by the person themselves. Taken together, the problems with pre-destiny and automatic right/wrong might go under the header of “sophistication.” More sophisticated novels (or movies) will tend to recognize and/or deal with these problems. Less sophisticated novels (or movies) won’t.


If you’re interested in Harry Potter, A.S. Byatt’s “Harry Potter and the Childish Adult” is worth reading.

One response

  1. Not to be churlish, Jake, but I really think you should have read the entire series and seen all of the films before you attempted this kind of analysis. Some of your conclusions rest on faulty assumptions. For example, you say “Harry is destined from birth”, but this is quite incorrect. He isn’t destined from birth at all. It is the decision of Voldemort which marks Harry — figuratively as well as literally (the latter in the form of the curse-scar) — as Voldemort’s equal, and that choice is what destines Harry to be the Chosen One. But Harry was a year old when this occurred. The Chosen One could equally well have been somebody else. Indeed, the whole series is much more about choice than it is about destiny, which makes it much more like real life than might appear at first blush.

    Your argument also assumes (or appears to me to assume) that the more closely books resemble real life, the “better” they are. Or that books for adults are “better” than books for children. I don’t see any reason whatsoever to take either of these premises is as a given. You raise some very interesting and important questions here, but you barely nibble at them, and your post comes across as little more than criticism of the Harry Potter series, criticism without full knowledge (as you yourself admit). Even the title of your post presumes there is something wrong with Harry Potter and furthermore presumes to identify that problem as a lack of sophistocation. But who says so? I don’t automatically accept that there is anything wrong with the series; neither do I agree the series is unsophistocated. Convince me? But start by reading the rest of the books! :)

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