Moving Pictures July/August 2009

Sex and the Single Wizard

The peculiar challenge of adapting Harry Potter for the screen

The epic scale, however, can be irresistible, even for directors as crafty as Newell and Yates. Shots of Hogwarts that begin at skydiver altitude and then plummet inward; wizards wielding their lightnings; etc. It’s hard to retain an essential smallness under such provocations. Consider Voldemort, Harry’s nemesis, otherwise known as the Dark Lord, He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named or (less formally) You-Know-Who. The obvious comparison is with Tolkien’s Sauron. Voldemort menaces, he gets about—like Sauron, he is always “on the move” or “gathering his forces”—but he never achieves the Sauronic heaviness, that power-drone of malignancy broadcasting steadily from the tower of Barad-dûr. His true nature, in fact, is that of a lavishly ruined human. He is weak, needy; he must have Harry’s blood to prolong his existence. In the movies he is played by Ralph Fiennes, his features smeared and flattened as if pressing into the world through a thick film of ill will. He corresponds, perhaps, to a more Augustinian conception of evil than Tolkien’s: he’s a negative, a “loss of good.” There’s pathos here, people—an anagram of “I am Voldemort,” I have just discovered, is “To maim Dr. Love.” None of the movies so far, invested as they all are in his spellbinding badness, has quite caught the vulnerability of this character.

An overstatement of the spectacular may carry other hazards, too—hazards not aesthetic but (ahem) moral. The young reader lowers her copy of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and looks blinkingly about her bedroom; she hears her parents downstairs in the kitchen, accompanied by their usual battery of domestic sound effects. A question forms in her soul: Is she special like Harry, an undiscovered superstar in the hidden world of magic? Or is she just—oh, crap—a Muggle? Because the ordinary, unmagical human race, as presented in the Harry Potter books, doesn’t appear to have much going for it. The Dursleys, among whom Harry spends the first 11 years of his life, are the sort of people the poet John Betjeman had in mind when he invited the friendly bombs to fall on Slough: suburban barbarians who “talk of sports and makes of cars / In various bogus Tudor bars / And daren’t look up and see the stars / But belch instead.” Decent, non-supremacist wizards are supposed to stick up for Muggledom, but these people are ghastly. They live at Number Four Privet Drive, and go pottering off in their car to the Best-Kept Lawn Competition. They hate magic. They hate Harry. Rendered doubly grotesque in the movie adaptations (Richard Griffiths hissing and squealing like a large, pink kettle), the Dursley household is little more than a boot camp for anarchism.

Is it this touch of contempt for ordinary mortals that inspired Father Gabriele Amorth, the Vatican’s exorcist in chief, to declare that Rowling’s work bears “the signature of the Prince of Darkness”? Probably not—though the Christian response to Harry Potter has been interesting. Michael O’Brien, the Catholic novelist and author of A Landscape With Dragons: The Battle for Your Child’s Mind, has deplored Rowling’s neo-Gnostic tendencies, her promotion of the practice of sorcery, and her overly rosy view of human potential. “There is no original sin in Potterworld,” he complained in 2007, upon the publication of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. (Really? The fact that Slytherin, one of the four houses of Hogwarts, is by tradition full of rotters and wrong ’uns and Voldemort sympathizers—that bad-egg-ness has, so to speak, an institutional claim on the school, and a fixed percentage of its soul—suggests to me a fairly undeluded view of human nature.) Then there are those Christians who find Potterworld quite congenial—charged, indeed, with the Good News. Like John Granger, author of Looking for God in Harry Potter:

I am convinced that the fundamental reason for the astonishing popularity of the Harry Potter novels is their ability to meet a spiritual longing for some experience of the truths of life, love, and death taught by Christianity but denied by secular culture.

So which is it? Is J. K. Rowling a sneaky occultist or a mistress of pious allegory? Both. Neither. Her books contain infernal hints, Christological echoes, centaurs, phoenixes, house-elves and Moaning Myrtle—a postmodern superfluity of myth and invention into which she dips and dips and keeps on dipping, because it will never be exhausted, and it will never quite add up. The movie adaptations, gorgeous and thrill-packed but somehow incoherent, bring all this to the surface. There isn’t a Middle-Earth-style cosmogony to be extrapolated here, or a glimmering Narnian vision: the pleasures of the Harry Potter saga are more local, more eccentric. If you haven’t read Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, for example, and are planning to attend the movie, you can look forward to discovering the identity of Hogwarts’ new Defense Against the Dark Arts professor. The post’s previous occupants have all come to grief, one by one, like drummers from Spinal Tap: Quirinus Quirrell (Voldemortian possession), Gilderoy Lockhart (amnesia), Remus Lupin (lycanthropy), Alastor Moody (identity theft), Dolores Umbridge (humiliation, retreat) … Who’s next? Very important for Harry. The whole matter should be discussed, at length, with his two best friends—the lovely Hermione, the loyal Ron. And after that, homework. Enchantment, ordinariness, and a dab of nonsense—it’s a portrait of the wizard as a young man.

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James Parker is an Atlantic contributing editor.

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