The Political Parable of 'Harry Potter'

The movies have discarded the moral heft of the books, which were of this world but not in it


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Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 arrives in theaters on Friday with giants, living statues, and an incredibly creepy depiction of a damaged soul abandoned in a train station. But even though the final adaptation of J.K. Rowling’s wildly successful series doesn’t skimp on the action theatrics, it eliminates all the references to torture, abuse of power, and class that Rowling used to illustrate the enormous stakes of her final confrontation between good and evil. All adaptations require cuts, but these were odd choices that misunderstand what’s most powerful about the books: If Harry Potter endures down the years, it will be because J.K. Rowling found sly ways to use fantasy to create a timeless statement about human rights and dignity.

The movies may fade, but successive generations of readers will turn to Rowling’s novels for escape and counsel

While Harry Potter pulled in readers with strong characters and a beautifully-crafted fictional world, the books also functioned as profoundly moral novels, making the case for everything from fair pay to a ban on torture. And while the September 11, 2001 attacks made some of those values the subject of fiercely partisan debates in the United States, Rowling managed to explore these themes without alienating any possible constituency of readers.

Harry’s dreadful relatives mouth vaguely conservative political opinions meant to illustrate their close-mindedness, but fear of magic is their cardinal sin—rather than their behavior at the ballot box. The only real-world political figure to show up in the books is the British Prime Minister, who is understandably nervous about a series of violent incidents, but who doesn’t take political actions. Imagine if Rowling had written that the PM wanted to deport wizards; the move would have been read as an incendiary analogue to true-life policies like the EU's crackdown on radical imams.

In the novels, the rise of the dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald coincides with World War II, which seems fairly uncontroversial—portraying Hitler’s evil through fiction is a time-honored tradition. But even though there are obvious parallels connecting the dark wizard Voldemort and his the Death Eaters with Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda, the events of the Harry Potter novels take place between 1991 and 1998, slightly apart from our present era. That minor offset means Rowling could write about events like the Ministry of Magic’s harsh interrogations and attempts to push prisoners to despair by using Dementors—without running into accusations that she was taking sides in an ongoing debate.

Of course Rowling, who published the first Harry Potter novel in 1997, couldn’t have predicted September 11, or the Bush administration’s reliance on torture to prosecute the War on Terror. And as Rowling’s commencement address at Harvard in 2008 made clear, her views on torture and human rights were shaped by her work for Amnesty International long before the rise of global Islamic terrorism and the extreme tactics brought to bear against it. Events conspired to make her novels painfully relevant to American politics and ethical debates, but by dint of timing, nationality, and massive, transcendent popularity, Rowling’s novels were never enmeshed in the sharply partisan clashes over those issues (most of the clashes about Potter have been over issues outside the novels, in fact). Given how murky and agonized our debates over torture and extraordinary rendition have become, there’s something useful and clarifying about Rowling’s decision to place these issues in another context. Of course torture drove Barty Crouch, Jr. insane and radicalized him further. Of course good people, like our hero, avoid torture as a matter of strategy and moral distinction.

That political potency may be the most important result of Rowling’s decision to detach her novels from an overly specific timeline. But other things she does that make the world of Harry Potter feel antiquated now also ensure that it won’t feel dated in the future. It might be odd for the books' teenagers not to spend lots of time on computers or with cell phones, but that absence also means that the series won’t feel too tied to a particular moment. Past and present converge in the halls and on the walls of Hogwarts, as ghosts help raise successive generations of students and headmasters linger to offer advice.

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Alyssa Rosenberg is a culture writer with The Washington Post.

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