Fri 31 Jul 2009
K and I watched the five DVD movies and saw the latest in the theater. We’re now reading all the books one after the other in rapid succession (my mind is a salt water crocodile when it comes to a culture binge). She and I had a good amount of chuckles and thoughtful moments discussing the various permutations and shortcomings of the movies.
Yes, I recognize the irony of someone who finds the series generally awful exposing themselves to the whole kitten caboodle. I have no regrets, as it was an internal impulsion moving me to explore the series. Now that I believe I’ve found an answer to the attraction for people, and had a chance to examine the franchise with my small microchip brain, I find myself less negative about the series. But don’t ask me to wear the t-shirt or eat those gosh-forsaken beans.
Looking at the fantasy world of Harry Potter in general, as portrayed in the movies, there are several things I find unattractive and a few things I found myself identifying with.
Probably my biggest complaint against the series is the division of people into wizards and non-wizards. People with magical powers and those without (known as muggles). The Star Wars prequels made a similar mistake in making one’s power to access The Force dependent upon the number of magic ant-farms you were born with.
This automatically divides people into haves and have-nots. Almost nobody is going to identify with the have-nots because they don’t get any cool powers. Meanwhile, the have-nots almost always become lower class in the social structure and thus pawns in the Great Game between the Good Guys (who want the have-nots to remain ignorant and obedient) and the Bad Guys (who want to shoot have-nots into a brick wall with a cannon because it’s fun).
There are stories that take this and make for compelling drama. The Harry Potter movies, however, treat this with a combination of whimsy and over-the-top theatrics that frankly made me uncomfortable. Harry’s muggle parents are depicted as outlandishly stupid and hostile.
I mean, I have relatives I’ve wanted to strangle, and some of them have been incredibly clueless at times. But caricatures are so cliché, I can’t identify with this. It makes Mommy Dearest look understated and makes light of real family dysfunction.
It’s not clear to me what makes a person capable of wielding magic. It looks like they are born with it. Doesn’t that make muggles recessive carriers and thus precious? Even if they aren’t, they’re people and thus moral agents. Shouldn’t they be allowed to make decisions about magic too?
I understand the need to control one’s powers around people (though there seems to be a lack in that area among wizards, the makers of the movies need to learn about self-discipline and martial arts with regards to the ability to cripple or kill people with bare hands), but keeping non-wizard people in ignorance?
Well hey, those great wizards are born with superior intellect and thus more capable of making these kinds of decisions. Kind of like the “men of best quality” who set themselves above their fellows and declare themselves above regular human beings. It’s the same old republic run by representatives of rich people. Only in this case it’s wizards.
I have to ask, what do wizards in this world do? I mean, what are Harry and the other students learning exactly besides the ability to use magic? I know it’s just a fantasy. It’s just that if you are going to place magic in a real world setting these things have to be attended to. Otherwise, the fantasy won’t stand up to even a moment’s reflection.
Do wizards go around building wells and schools for communities in third world countries? Do they perform shows to raise money for charity? Do they go around like troubleshooters, protecting non-wizards from monsters and undoing harm by rogue wizards?
Or is it that even in the “upper class” of wizards there must be a janitor class of wizards who maintain all the awesome buildings and enchantments of the folks at the top of the pyramid? Not everyone can be an ideological gatekeeper teacher with a cushy teaching job molding young minds.
I mean, in a magical world where anything can be conjured (kind of like Star Trek with its matter-replicator economy), why even use coins at all? The Weasleys are referred to as poor, but their cottage and the farmland around it look pretty nice to me. They just must not have been born with a lot of magical ant-farms. Only so many nice pieces of furniture and flying cars per year I suppose.
Well, if you have a hierarchical system of haves and have-nots, then you need a training school for the haves who will serve the wizard management. The professors and minister bureaucrats need to be educated so they can internalize the interests of the ruling class of wizards after all.
And that means Hogwarts boarding school for the privileged!
This is my other big squirm factor. For me, the English boarding school system represents harsh discipline and repression of the young. Both by professors and one’s own peer group. I always think of the teacher scenes from the Pink Floyd movie The Wall, or the deranged repression of the rebellious students from the movie If…
For me, the main forms of indoctrination displayed in the movies are the enforced identity politics of the four student houses and the violent two-team blood sport of quiddich.
Both encourage students to cooperate only with their in-group and to direct external aggression towards an out-group ritually personified by “the other house” or “other team”. In the case of the student politics between houses, the professors decide who is most obedient while being the most competitive through the capricious allocation of points. Students must obey orders after all, while maximizing their ability to serve effectively.
The sport of quiddich blew me away with the terrible risk to life and limb, both to players and spectators. You have people flying around in the air at high speed, moving projectiles around capable of wrecking large sections of the arena when the magic malfunctions. There’s no physical or magical safety system of any kind that I can detect. As long as you are not obvious, magical tampering with the game is possible.
One can only guess at the minds of people who willingly take part in this spectacle, the likes of which Roman emperors could have only dreamed about. Harry and his antagonists take quite a few nasty lumps while playing. But I wondered what happened to the players without plot immunity when they slammed into a pavilion or another player.
I think of those Halloween decorations of the witch slammed into a flat surface that people hang on trees or the sides of their house’s wall.
This is the same kind of social adaptation that trained soldiers to charge the machine gun nests in World War I.
Hey! Teacher! Leave that kid alone!