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

Warner Brothers

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.

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.

It’s striking that is Rowling was so careful to keep modern technology out of her novels given the way they coincided with the rise of the Internet. 1998, the year Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was published in the United States, just 26.2 percent of American households had internet connections. By 2007, when fans got their hands on the final novel, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, that figure had risen to 61.7 percent of households, and 50.8 percent of American households had broadband connections. The spread of that technology made it easier for love of Rowling’s books to go from a solitary pleasure to an international craze. It doesn’t matter if no one you know in real life likes Harry Potter, or headbangs to “Voldemort Can’t Stop the Rock!,” or is convinced that Harry’s godfather Sirius Black and Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher Remus Lupin are meant to be together, if hundreds of thousands of people who share your passions are just a click away.

But is the embrace of Harry Potter a product of our particular moment, or are the books to be considered a significant entry in the literary canon? J.K. Rowling’s novels are beautifully plotted and full of deft characterization, but she is not a perfect prose writer, and it’s clear that as the series progressed, she was edited less. But taken as a whole, her seven novels are a significant achievement of both storytelling and moral argument. By contrast, the movie adaptations are both artistically uneven and don’t consistently engage with Rowling’s political vision.

That failure to recognize that Rowling’s moral arguments are as important as the visual and emotional spectacle of her novels is particularly evident in the changes David Yates made to Rowling’s narrative in second Deathly Hallows movie. Eliminating a scene where Harry tries to use the Cruciatus Curse on a Death Eater but fails misses a chance to reinforce the basic immorality of torture. Similarly, shortening Neville Longbottom’s account of life at Hogwarts in Harry’s absence cuts out crucial details about how those same teachers forced students to hurt each other, an illustration of how once-aberrant behaviors become normalized. In the novel, Ron and Hermione’s first kiss comes after Ron makes a stirring statement in support of the liberty of the Hogwarts’s house elves, whom he once considered willing slaves. In the movie, it comes after he and Hermione destroy a Horcrux together. And perhaps most crucially, the movie cuts the explanation of who Albus Dumbledore really was, and why he came to consider himself unfit for political office. Rowling’s indictment of love of power for power’s sake is a striking statement about choice and self-control—especially set in a world where almost all the characters have extraordinary abilities.

Potter ’s themes may be painfully salient in the world after September 11, but the present day is hardly the only time that ordinary people will have to grapple with questions about how to use power appropriately and how to confront great evil. And even if the movies fade, it seems likely that successive generations of readers, young and old, will turn to Rowling’s novels for escape and for counsel. The books’ initial wild success may have been the lucky product of talent and timing. But Rowling’s great accomplishment was to make the Hogwarts School for Witchcraft and Wizardry a vehicle for her values and a place that exists in time out of mind, no matter how the years wheel around it.