By Govindini Murty. The final film in the Harry Potter series is a pleasant surprise. Directed by David Yates, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II offers a satisfying conclusion to the eight-film Harry Potter saga, finally allowing some light into the dark and providing a rousing depiction of the forces of good fighting back against the forces of evil. Deathly Hallows Part II moves along at a brisk pace, keeping things to a lean 2 hours and five minutes. The film provides a number of well-crafted action and suspense sequences, while not short-changing key emotional moments in which the characters reveal themselves in manners that are both dramatic and affecting.
This is all welcome because the prior installment, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I, had been a rather melancholy affair. In Part I, the evil reign of the villainous Lord Voldemort had extended itself over all of England – with the forces of good apparently unable to fight back. Albus Dumbledore, the kindly and wise Headmaster of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry had been killed by the treacherous Professor Severus Snape. Teen wizard Harry Potter and his best friends Hermione Granger and Ron Weasley had dropped out of Hogwarts in order to hide from Voldermort’s forces while hunting down the “horcruxes” or splintered pieces of Voldemort’s soul that Voldemort had hidden away in order to evade death. Voldemort himself was on his way to possessing the “Deathly Hallows” – a set of three magical objects consisting of the all-powerful elder wand, the cloak of invisibility, and the stone of resurrection – that would make him immortal and invincible. The film’s bleak coloration, air of inescapable doom, and depiction of Voldemort as an all-powerful Hitlerian figure who installs a racist, Nazi-style regime that massacres non-magical human beings (known as “Muggles”), had made for rather depressing viewing.
Fortunately, in Part II things start to turn around as Harry Potter and his allies finally rally and fight back against Voldemort. A series of long-laid plans start to come to fruition, and we finally see revealed the full details of Harry Potter’s destiny. After a number of sequences that include a dramatic infiltration of a goblin bank, an escape on a white dragon, and the hunting and destruction of more horcruxes, the action culminates in the Battle of Hogwarts. A fantastic array of good witches and wizards, plucky Hogwarts faculty and students, animated stone statues, magical shields, swords, and spells are used to defend Hogwarts against Voldemort’s supernatural army of evil witches, wizards, ghouls, giant ogres, enchanted snakes, and shape-shifters. This could all make for rather busy and frenetic action, but director David Yates has managed to weave all these disparate characters and thematic strands into sequences that are coherent and compelling.
In doing so, this last Harry Potter film illustrates what may be the key achievement of the entire series, which is to create a complex fantasy world that fuses mythological and cultural symbols from a number of traditions, while still maintaining a forward-moving momentum and narrative clarity.
My Libertas co-editor Jason Apuzzo commented recently on the information-dense, “palimpsestic” quality of Michael Bay’s Transformers films, and I have to say that that quality very much characterizes the Harry Potter films, as well. In fact, it may be the defining characteristic of the major fantasy/sci-fi film series of the modern era. This trend most notably began with George Lucas’ mythologically-rich Star Wars films, continued through the Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter films, and is now fanning out into innumerable other fantasy and sci-fi novels and movies.
As was famously the case in the Star Wars films (which similarly centered on a gifted orphan boy with a mysterious destiny linked to a dark lord), Lucas synthesized the mythological studies of Joseph Campbell, Japanese samurai culture, European medieval chivalric lore, Wagner’s Ring cycle of operas, and early twentieth-century sci-fi (such as the Flash Gordon movie serials) into a brilliantly imaginative whole that is still the sine qua non of the sci-fi adventure genre. In the latter trilogy of the series, Lucas even expanded his set of references to include the Byzantine, Indian, Tibetan, and Renaissance Italian cultural traditions.
The Harry Potter films are not quite as vast or cosmopolitan as the Star Wars films, as they mostly stay within the ambit of the English/European tradition, but they still contain such a wealth of mythological references that they have spawned an entire sub-genre of books dedicated to explaining the terms and lore of the series.
Perhaps this is the sort of story-telling that we get in the mature stages of a civilization: that characterized by dense, detailed plots, synthesis of many different cultures and traditions, baroque levels of complexity and contrast, webs of references to other films, artworks, and works of literature. These movies are like intricate tapestries, or vast mosaics made up of millions of tesserae, such as those found in late imperial Roman villas. They are virtual repositories of the past, cinematic museums that preserve our cultural traditions, while presenting them to us in a transfigured form.
Movies like Star Wars or Harry Potter remind me of the famous ‘memory palace’ of Matteo Ricci, the 16th-17th century Jesuit scholar who went to China and instructed the Confucian elite in the art of memory. Ricci’s technique was to mentally construct an elaborate palace with many rooms, and in each room place a memory as if it were an artwork or piece of furniture. One sees echoes of this in the central edifice that looms large in the imagination of the Harry Potter series: the Gothic building complex of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Hogwarts’ vast castle-like edifice is a kind of ‘memory palace,’ with its many rooms, galleries, and passageways containing treasures and secrets that make it a repository of the European historical and cultural tradition.
This tradition as it is referenced in Harry Potter includes the English Gothic romantic novel, the German coming of age novel or Bildungsroman (exemplified by Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister novels), medieval occult and alchemical lore, European Romanticism, and Greco-Roman pagan mythology – interwoven with concerns about the 20th century’s totalitarian mass movements.
And this is another point to make about the Harry Potter films: they present the Western religious and mythological tradition, but in an altered/cloaked form.
In the Harry Potter movies we get a melding of Christian and Greco-Roman mythology – the twin pillars on which rest the Western humanistic tradition – but cloaked in the outward forms and symbols of the ‘heretical’ or ‘ dark’ side of that tradition, which is witchcraft. It makes for an at times uncomfortable viewing experience, and is what makes me unable to wholly give myself to this series, however much I may like many aspects of it. (Full disclosure, I’m not a Christian myself, but I have tremendous respect for Christianity as a vital component of the Western tradition).
I know perfectly well what ‘witchcraft’ and ‘wizardry’ traditionally stand for, and it isn’t anything wholesome. And yet it seems that in a self-conscious, neurotic age that has trouble dealing seriously with themes of religious faith or romantic love, these themes must be disguised under the mantle of the occult in order to be acceptable to audiences. Just look at the Twilight series; it is the only major romantic film series in many years, but it has to be oriented around vampires and werewolves in order for its rather traditional love story to be accepted by modern audiences.
J.K. Rowling has herself stated that she is a practicing Christian, but that she deliberately downplayed any Christianity in the Harry Potter stories. Thus, in a movie series that is replete with every form of supernatural activity, there is a studious avoidance of any mention of a God or of a higher divine force. There are some hints in the films, but generally they’re in the background, and it makes this otherwise very detailed world seem incomplete. Witchcraft, sorcery, demons, goblins, and elves are the obverse side of the normative Christian tradition. With that normative tradition downplayed or taken out, it leaves a lot of unanswered questions in the Harry Potter films.
What higher spiritual dimension there is in the films is represented by the Gothic cathedral-like architecture of Hogwarts, by a magical deer of light that guides Harry, and by a heaven-like realm of light that briefly figures in the film. The main religious symbolism belongs, though, to the architecture of Hogwarts. For example, on several occasions when there are significant confrontations between good and evil in the film, the camera lingers on the Gothic arches or stained-glass windows of Hogwarts, with a soft light shining through them – as if to indicate the presence of a higher divine power.
One shot in particular, at a pivotal moment in the film, reiterates this. The shot is of a shattered Gothic building on the edge of the Hogwarts complex. It stands, with its arch still intact, against a silver grey landscape of hills and trees, with a lake in the distance, and a soft light shining down upon it. It reminds me of German Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich’s famous painting The Abbey in the Oakwood (1809-1810), in which a ruined Gothic church stands in a snowy wood amongst black, leafless, wind-blasted trees. In this dismal scene, a soft light shines through the arch, coming from the torches of a group of solitary pilgrims. The church represents European Christianity, blasted by the storms of the Protestant Reformation and the French Revolution, but still standing, and still with a residual glow of vitality as long as there are worshippers left to believe.
Underneath these hints of Christian faith in the Harry Potter films, though, there is a chthonian, Greco-Roman pagan substrate. One sees this in the many scenes where characters travel down into the earth through secret caverns and passageways, encountering magical snakes or dragons who guard secrets or treasures. Early in the film Harry, Hermione, and Ron disguise themselves and make their way into the subterranean vaults of Gringotts Bank (a magical, goblin guarded bank) in order to break into the vault of the villainous Bellatrix, who has a piece of Voldemort’s soul hidden in a goblet that the trio must destroy. They make their way past a giant white dragon and walk into Bellatrix’s vault, which is full of golden treasure. However, a spell in the vault means that every piece of gold they touch will rapidly multiply and swamp them under. This is a clever re-envisioning of the ancient Greek tale of the greedy King Midas, who was given the gift of the golden touch by Bacchus, only to find that it would literally kill him by turning everything he touched to gold -including his food and drink. One also sees echoes of this in Rex Ingram’s film adaptation of Balzac’s novel Eugenie Grandet, in which the old miser who has destroyed his family out of greed for gold is in the end crushed by his chest of gold when it falls on him.
Snakes, the focus of numerous religious rites in Greco-Roman mythology, also feature throughout the film. For example, in a secret chamber underneath Hogwarts, there is the skeleton of a giant serpent, a basilisk, killed in an earlier film in the series. It is flanked by rows of rearing stone serpent statues, and is guarded by a door with multiple serpent locks.These snakes recall the many serpent deities of Greco-Roman mythology, lying as they do deep in the bowels of the earth.
For example, a chthonian, subterranean snake god was worshipped on Athens’ Acropolis, in a special temple to the god Erechtheus, close to Athena’s sacred temple the Parthenon. Snakes also played a central role in the rites of the Eleusinian mysteries, one of the ancient Greek world’s most important and revered mystery cults. And there’s the fact that in the final battle around Hogwarts, the characters use the teeth from the basilisk to slay the different parts of Voldemort’s soul that he’s hidden in the ‘horcruxes.’ These magical teeth recall the mythical tale of Jason and the Argonauts, in which Jason sows a dragon’s teeth in the fields of the sun and then battles the ‘earth-born’ men who spring up from them.
What brings all these mythological allusions to life in the film, though, is the casting – and it is in the warm, witty, colorful, and wicked characters of the film series that Harry Potter’s humanistic appeal chiefly lies. Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint are sympathetic as always in their lead roles as Harry, Hermione, and Ron. The real stand-outs, though, are the supporting characters, who are a veritable who’s who of the British stage and screen. Maggie Smith as Professor Professor Minerva McGonagall (again, note the mythological allusion to the warrior goddess Minerva) is my favorite character in the film. She is magnificent in the scenes at Hogwarts when, after having watched too much injustice take place, she finally steps up, sends one particularly villainous character packing, and leads the defense of Hogwarts against the forces of evil. Smith in these scenes is steely and dignified – but with a humorous sparkle that makes her a very appealing and inspiring authority figure.
My second favorite character would have to be the insane villainess Bellatrix Lestrange, played with daft glee by Helena Bonham-Carter, who joins Maggie Smith as being one of England’s great eccentric actresses. Michael Gambon also brings a nice warmth and dignity to his role as Albus Dumbledore. Another standout in the cast is Alan Rickman as Severus Snape, who reveals in the film new depths to his severe, saturnine persona. And obviously Ralph Fiennes as Voldemort can play these sorts of supremely villainous characters in his sleep, bringing suitable intelligence and menace to his role. The fine actors of England’s rich theater tradition are one of the great strengths of the Harry Potter films.
Overall, this final installment in the Harry Potter saga should make its fans very happy. The film wraps up the story in an emotionally satisfying manner and provides plenty of fantasy, action, and spectacle along the way. Now we just have to see which of the innumerable new fantasy series that are springing up in its wake will take Harry Potter’s place in the world audience’s imagination.
Posted on July 19th, 2011 at 9:42pm.