Lessons from the final Potter film
Editor’s Note: This review contains spoilers.
By Thomas S. Hibbs
July 15, 2011
There has never been anything quite like J. K Rowling’s Harry Potter, the hero of a hugely popular series of seven books followed by a successful set of eight movies. The decision to split the last book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, into two films turns out to have been a wise one. While part one, which ended abruptly after covering two-thirds of the material from the book, was somewhat anticlimactic, part two is a lean and dramatically satisfying finale. Director David Yates, who has been at the helm for the last three books in the series, and screenwriter Steve Kloves, who has penned all but one of the film scripts, move effortlessly between the large and the small, between grand battle scenes and moments of intimate, human interaction. The special effects are dazzling and the human drama gripping. The film also strikes a nice balance between the serious and the humorous, between tragedy and comedy.
In an age of increasingly decentralized media, in which sub-cultures of interest in TV shows, films, and music abound, Harry Potter is the common, unifying cultural marker for individuals between the ages of ten and 30, and perhaps well beyond that age. If the fictional characters and story-lines are woven into popular culture, the actors are equally well known, particularly those who play the three main characters: Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe), Hermione Granger (Emma Watson), and Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint). All three give fine performances in the last film, as do Ralph Fiennes as Lord Voldemort, Gary Oldman as Sirius Black, and Matthew Lewis as Neville Longbottom. The battle for, and at, Hogwarts, whose culmination is the ultimate faceoff between Harry and his nemesis, Voldemort, allows for the return of a host of well-known characters, all of whom are aware of what is at stake.
Given the malevolence of Voldemort, the books become darker as the story progresses. Particularly in Deathly Hallows and its immediate predecessor, Half-Blood Prince, deaths of major characters occur. Beyond her creation of memorable characters and plots, Rowling has crafted a mythical universe where remembering and preparing for death are central virtues. She revives the medieval theme of memento mori, the virtuous cultivation of the memory of death, as a counter to modernity’s vacillation between unhealthy obsession with and tragic forgetfulness of death.
This theme is powerfully coupled with repeated illustrations of (a) the unnaturalness of the project of overcoming death and (b) the way the practice of evil, murderous arts destroys the practitioner. In Half-Blood Prince, Dumbledore informs Harry that Voldemort’s pursuit of immortality has “mutilated” his “soul beyond the realm of what we might call usual evil.”
The contrast between Harry and Voldemort’s approach to death is palpable. The opening of Yates’s Deathly Hallows Part Two finds Harry and Voldemort occupied in two quite different activities. Harry, refusing to use magic, is physically digging the grave of his friend Dobby, the loyal house-elf who gave his life defending Harry. Meanwhile, in an act of desecration of the dead, Voldemort is stealing the Elder Wand from the grave of Albus Dumbledore. At various points in the story, the Elder Wand is cited as one of three components (along with the Cloak of Invisibility and the Resurrection Stone) of the Deathly Hallows, the possession of which is believed to make one a “master of death” — the object of Voldemort’s quest.
At the center of Voldemort’s search is his performance of the darkest of dark arts: the creation of horcruxes, which preserve splintered pieces of his immortal soul, and which can only be created by committing murder. As Harry and his pals seek to discover and destroy the horcruxes, the only way that Voldemort himself will die, Voldemort pursues invulnerability and permanent rule over the world of wizards. The scenes featuring the destruction of horcruxes are among the most spectacular in the entire series of films, even as they heighten the dramatic tension and the sense of inevitable, final confrontation.
With threats imminent, there is no longer room for self-pity or teen angst — elements that were tiresomely common in the middle, overly long books in the series. Friendships deepen and in some cases blossom into love; the film contains two brief (and very nicely scripted) moments of passion, one between Ron and Hermione and another between Harry and Ginny. But this film is about what the books and previous films have always been essentially about: the practice of the virtues of friendship, loyalty, courage, and leadership.
In the midst of battle, there are revelations, small and large. We learn about the courage of Mrs. Weasley and Neville Longbottom, though Yates prunes important elements from Rowling’s version of their stories. Matthew Lewis is just right as Longbottom, capturing Harry’s rather plain and self-effacing classmate, who in the final film best combines valor and wit.
But the big revelations involve Snape and Dumbledore. The greatest reversal in the estimation of a major character in the entire series concerns Snape, who has throughout appeared to be Harry’s enemy and the Dark Lord’s servant. Realizing that Snape is of more use to him dead than alive, Voldemort bluntly informs him that his services are no longer needed, stuns him with his wand, and sets his snake, Nagini, to feed on him. Harry, Hermione, and Ron arrive just as this brutal murder begins. With Voldemort and Nagani departed, Harry finds Snape within seconds of his death. A tear falls from Snape’s eye, and he tells Harry to store the tear and take it to the Pensieve, a device for uncovering memories. As Harry captures the tear, Snape’s last words are, “You have your mother’s eyes.” Using the Pensieve, Harry learns the truth about Snape’s deception, not of him or Dumbledore, but of Voldemort. Snape had in fact vowed to protect Harry, out of his love for Harry’s mother, Lilly, even as he elicited from Dumbledore the promise “never to reveal the best” of Snape to Harry. The revelation enables viewers to re-think the entire arc of the epic series, to see the plot from Snape’s vantage point.
A further revelation concerns the afterlife. Injured by Voldemort, Harry has a vision of Dumbledore, who reappears in his proper role — a teacher of the young. Harry and his deceased mentor are at King’s Cross, which looks like a cathedral bathed in light. Dumbledore instructs Harry on life and death. The fundamental lesson concerns the true way to conquer death: Do not cling to life but be willing to offer one’s life for the sake of others. This theme in Harry Potter calls to mind C. S. Lewis’s notion in The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe of the deeper magic, a magic unknown to those who pursue vengeance and immortality by their own powers. As Wardrobe’s Aslan explains after he returns from the dead, “When a willing victim who had committed no treachery is killed . . . the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backward.”
Throughout the series, Rowling has stressed the way in which evil, instead of freeing, enslaves; instead of increasing, diminishes. Indeed, after his first attempt to kill Harry, Voldemort becomes a disembodied shell, kept alive only by his horcruxes, a parasite feeding off the blood of innocent unicorns, seeking a body in which to lodge his wandering spirit. In the end, the very devices he chooses to gain absolute control turn against him, in an illustration of another classical teaching, namely, that vice is its own punishment — that it harms and ultimately defeats the perpetrator.
In the course of their final duel, Harry manages to extract the Elder Wand from Voldemort’s clutches. With that, Voldemort is defeated. Harry’s final decision, to destroy the Elder Wand, reiterates a theme that goes back to the first book and the philosopher’s stone, which promises limitless life and wealth. Some of the things men desire most are precisely the things most likely to destroy them. Here Rowling calls to mind, not so much Lewis as Tolkien and the ring of power, whose destruction, rather than use, is the only sure means of fending off evil.
In her description of Harry’s retrieval of the Elder Wand, Rowling writes that he caught the wand “with the unerring skill of a Seeker.” Of course, Seeker is the position Harry plays on Gryffindor’s Quidditch squad. But Harry’s character is also that of the classic seeker, an individual on a quest with personal and social significance, a quest to defend the innocent and fend off evil, a quest for self-knowledge rooted in a profound awareness of mortality. Hooked by the plot of the first book, readers were likely unaware that such a quest could be anything other than morbid. In Rowling’s hands, coming to terms with death is not tragic; instead, it is a comic affirmation of life over death, love over hate, and community over isolation. It is a mark of the success of Yates’s film version that it will lead viewers to feel and affirm the final words of Rowling’s sprawling series: “All was well.”
— Thomas S. Hibbs, an NRO contributor, is the author of Shows about Nothing.