As I originally stated, I came to the Harry Potter series informed – or spoiled – by the films. I enjoyed the films and think they’re relatively faithful adaptations of the books, but didn’t find them particularly compelling as stories. The films suffered from frequently switching directors and not having a clear vision, so they lack the thematic and narrative coherence of the books.
I found myself surprised therefore to find that I not just enjoyed Harry Potter, but also came to respect the books and J.K. Rowling’s skill as a storyteller. These books are simply easy and fun to read. In this final post, I talk about some of the things Rowling got right.
Harry Potter and the Arc of Characters
What the Harry Potter books might lack in world-building and plot they make up for with rich characters. Quite simply, Rowling created a full cast of characters who feel well developed and likable. The characters are – excuse the pun – charming. It’s hard not to love Harry, Ron, Hermione, Hagrid, the Weasley twins, and the dozens of other wizards at Hogwarts. Each characters has unique quirks and traits that help them stand apart; there are few truly forgettable characters (it also helps that the films nailed the casting).
Rowling managed to give not just the primary characters but also many of the secondary characters their own arcs over the course of the seven books. It’s impressive that Harry, Ron, and Hermione each have such a well defined arcs. It’s amazing that Neville Longbottom, Draco Malfoy, Ginny Weasley, and dozens of peripheral characters also have their own arcs, some just as compelling as the main characters’. One really gets the sense that, as Harry suggests in Deathly Hallows, under different circumstances Neville could have grown up to be the Chosen One. Because of this, the wizarding world feels like it is populated by real people who have lives even apart from the main characters.
Even more impressive, Rowling included several major twists and revelations that force readers to reevaluate the adult figures in Harry’s life. After Order of the Phoenix, we learn that the “good guys” in the wizarding world aren’t always “good” guys. Dumbledore, James Potter, and Sirius Black all have skeletons in their closet. Yet, to Rowling’s credit, the series doesn’t go the easy route and treat them as merely “morally ambiguous” (i.e., the Game of Thrones approach). We are never led to doubt that they are fundamentally good people with good intentions. Instead, the books suggest that even good people have their flaws.
Snape’d backstory demonstrates a similar process, but in reverse. Through the Pensieve, Harry learns about Snape’s history with his mother, Lily Potter, and his role as a double-agent. Through Snape, Deathly Hallows acknowledges that people often have complicated reasons for their actions. In real life, few people choose to become heroes or villains. We often choose our paths based on our relationships with friends and loved ones. Importantly, the book doesn’t try to absolve Snape completely.* Snape was an abusive and spiteful individual. Dumbledore even calls him out for not giving Harry a chance. The book doesn’t try to justify that behavior. Instead, it asks readers to accept that the bravest individual whom Harry ever knew was not necessarily the nicest.
Harry Potter and the Layers of Maturity
The character arcs exemplify something else the Harry Potter series does incredibly well: appeal to different audiences. Rowling managed to make the books fun and exciting enough for kids, but meaningful enough for adults. I never got the sense that the books dumb down the story or talk down to kids. Indeed, some of the character developments, not to mention the many deaths, would probably scare kids. At the same time, even Order of the Phoenix, the darkest of the books, maintains a sense of fun and adventure. It’s a difficult balancing act but Rowling generally pulls it off.
One reason for her success is that Rowling imbues the story with multiple layers. Kids and adults can read the series and have very different experiences. Unlike Game of Thrones, which thrives in moral ambiguity, Harry Potter resides in a “black and white” system of morality. Voldemort and Draco Malfoy certainly aren’t subtle in showing their hatred of muggles. At the same time, the story contains grey areas for adults reading between the lines. Although kids might focus their hatred on Voldemort and Malfoy, adults might wonder why the Ministry of Magic tolerates their anti-muggle bigotry. In a sense, the real villain in the series is society’s apathy towards evil. Fortunately, kids who miss that subtle point can still root for Harry to defeat Voldemort.
For all the fighting and death in the series, there’s never any gore or bloodshed because wizards fight with wands and spells rather than swords or guns. The closest to true gore comes when George loses an ear in Deathly Hallows, but George deflects the seriousness of the injury by making a joke about becoming “holey” (a pun on “holy”). The fighting is sanitized enough for younger readers. That said, the series doesn’t cheat readers; unlike many young adult books, the heroes don’t achieve victory without cost. Many major characters die. War has consequences, and adventures don’t end with a “happily ever after.” By not avoiding death but treating it with dignity, the Harry Potter series manages to be mature without being MATURE.
Of course, ever since the Harry Potter success, book publishers have frantically combed the Young Adult genre for books with the potential to appeal to both kids and adults. I think it’s telling that nothing has come even close to the cross-generational, cross-cultural appeal of the Harry Potter books. Some scholars even claim that the books have influenced the political outlook of the millennial generation. Like many others, I find it hard not to like the series. I still have too many issues with the plot to really love it, but I enjoyed my time in the wizarding world more than I thought I would.
This concludes my review of the Harry Potter series. Later this year, I will be revisiting the Earthsea series, which was a major inspiration for the Harry Potter books…
* Although the Deathly Hallows Epilogue comes close in having Harry name his son after Severus and calling Snape the “bravest” man he ever knew.