Harry Potter is not the hero

Some thoughts on the final Harry Potter film and the series as a whole. Note that I haven’t read all the books (I gave up after book three or four, when it looked like they were getting exponentially larger), but I don’t think that disqualifies me from an opinion. Films and books are different things, and if I can’t appreciate the film without reading the book then that’s a failure on the film’s part.

Oh, and Spoilers for the final Harry Potter film.

Harry Potter isn’t the hero. He’s the plot device. If you compare the series to The Lord of the Rings, he’s more like the ring than he is like Frodo.

From the start, Harry’s main quality is that he’s the Chosen One with the Special Destiny. He’s surrounded by people who are more competent than he is and who do most of the actual work: in particular Hermione, who seems to come up with most of the useful ideas but inexplicably lets the boys take most of the credit. Harry Potter is dragged along by a wave of destiny, continually given the hints and aid he needs by magical visions or by adults who know more than they let on.  If you take away this aid and this special destiny, he’s not any more heroic than the characters around him.

Over the course of the films/books (and especially in the final one) we learn  more about what Harry’s Special Destiny means–and I do love the fact that it turns out to mean something very specific, rather than being the vague sort of destiny that lets the author have things happen for no reason. Somewhat chillingly, Harry really is a magical macguffin, raised from birth for a particular purpose that doesn’t require any more from him than being in the path of the villain at a certain moment.

There’s the seed of a great story there, a twist on the normal fantasy formula. The hero of a work doesn’t need to be the same as the point of view character. Make the magical macguffin into a person, and you can tell the story from his point of view, as he watches the real hero or heroes get him into position and save the day. Our macguffin-man doesn’t need to be completely passive, but if his main asset is being the one with the special magic destiny, rather than having some actual useful skill, then the work shouldn’t treat him as the hero.

That could be an interesting story…but that’s not what the Harry Potter series does. It can’t seem to make up its mind whether Harry is the hero or the magic item. It explicitly tells us that Harry’s fate has been mapped out for him by others, that his only notable quality is something that happened to him as a baby that he had no control over–but it then expects us to believe that his going along with this plan makes him the world-saving hero, and expects us not to notice that most of the work is being done by others. I’m not saying he did nothing of use, but did he really do that much more than any of the supporting cast who fought and perhaps died in the final battle?

I’m not saying it was a bad film–it was very entertaining, and the story did mostly work–but I felt there was a good idea there that it didn’t properly explore.

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3 Responses to Harry Potter is not the hero

  1. Read the books, they’re worth it – the films leave a lot to be desired.

  2. Felix Pearce says:

    The thing that interests me is that Rowling was a teacher – you can quite easily parse this phenomenon within HP as a deliberate attempt to allow kids the vicarious experience of living in the wizarding world she creates, without putting them through anything too emotionally harrowing. Given the kid-lit phenomenon Harry Potter became, she may have been on to something – though I have to say I don’t think I’d change my childhood diet of Asimov and Alan Garner for the world…

  3. Jack Carver says:

    Having read all the books and seen all the films (which are little more than visual aids to the books), I’d have to agree that Harry is not the hero.
    He is, albeit, the central character, but this does not automatically make him a hero. As an author in the industry, permit me demonstrate a little literature 101 (grab a cup of tea, kick your feet up and have a look-over these paragraphs should you choose):

    There is a set of generally accepted rules regarding the how-to of writing stories. This is called “theory”. “Theory” stems from the structure of literature we have come to accept as “great”: stories that can be told to as many people as possible in the most comprehensible way. You can write however you would like, but some people may not understand your approach if it differs too much from writing theory.

    Now onto Harry Potter. Harry Potter is an attempted example of the classic “Hero’s Journey” tale; this aspect of writing theory is exemplified by a central character who is beset by some circumstance that requires change in order for them to continue their human experience. This can be seen in the form of a character like Luke Skywalker who, when confronted with the threat of the evil Empire, is required to make changes to his life in order to deal with the problem: he leaves his home, studies an ancient mythos, and subsequently matures into something better than he was (once an awkward boy, now a powerful man). This internal change in the character is referred to as an “arc”. The problems that present themselves lay the groundwork for the “drama”; the obstacles the characters face are metaphors for our own and subsequently generate empathy for the character, causing the audience to “root” for the central character. This forms the story. Without arc, there can be no drama as the character makes no change and there is no reason to root for them apart from the simple fact that they are labeled as a “hero”.

    The problem with Harry Potter is that the central character has no arc and the story itself is shallow. I’ll explain:

    The audience meets Harry in very much the same state in which the audience leaves him. He is immediately imbued with a desire to see the end of Voldemort (it happens in the very first book) and subsequently makes no change throughout the course of the entire series; he remains a steadfast opponent to evil. While this is what we would EVENTUALLY like to see happen, having a character who undergoes no change is not engaging. Imagine a Luke Skywalker who never gave into Darth Vader’s temptations and simply went about the normal affairs of Jedi training for three films straight. This is basically what Harry does: he trains as a wizard for 6 straight books in the same environment, all the while undergoing no transformation of self.

    Now here’s a really large flaw in Harry’s character; his character’s “special trait” (which, in the Hero’s Journey, is often a personality trait; either courage, loyalty or some other noble trait that carries the hero through the story), is an incident that was beyond his control in his infancy; his attempted murder by Voldemort. In Star Wars, Luke has arrogant pride mixed with insatiable curiosity about the universe. His curiosity drives him to learn about the Force and his arrogance eventually transforms into mature pride. He becomes a better person.
    Harry simply stays the same average, corner-cutting schoolboy he was from the start. He may be consistently brave, but all the trials and tribulations that occur around him don’t affect any change in him for better or worse, and this makes his character very dull.

    A character who exemplifies all the appropriate traits for a hero (or heroine) in Harry Potter is Hermione. She begin as a rather awkward and stuck-up girl with all the odds against her becoming a great witch (a society that rejects impure witches and wizards as “Mudbloods” and unworthy of their power). However, she possesses an intense desire to learn. She goes to Hogwarts, her “special trait” develops and helps her excel to become a powerful witch, and her newfound life drives away her previous snootiness and she makes a profound transformation into something better than she was. Had the plot events been centered around her, she would have made for a much more memorable central character.
    Harry really doesn’t do much for himself the whole time Hermione is advancing. He can even be seen to still be cheating in school during Book 6; for someone who was told they’re the only hope of saving the world from the most evil wizard ever known, he really doesn’t seem to be stepping up to the plate in any other way than by simply being “brave” (which in most cases involves him leaping-without-looking into some dangerous scenario that would surely be his undoing had it not been for the work of others to save him).

    In this way, Harry cannot be considered a “hero”. He can most certainly be called the central character, as the whole world revolves around him, but the appeal of Harry lies not in who he is. He is merely the set of goggles through which readers are introduced to this magical realm of Hogwarts. He is not compelling in and of himself; the events around him are.

    Ultimately, you can like whatever you want, but this is the reason that some people could never identify with the Harry Potter books. Harry’s story is in the guise of a “Hero’s Journey” and epic adventure, when no epic adventure is undertaken (unless you count going to class and getting detention for 6 straight books an “epic adventure”), and there is no Hero to undergo a Journey. We merely witness the actions and relationships happening around Harry, and while they may be fantastical and beautifully esoteric, they are nevertheless supposed to serve as background to a hero, and not vice versa.

    In this way, Harry is very much like the embodiment of his trademark broken glasses; they merely exist in their lifeless form as a means for others to view the world. Fortunately for Rowling, they were rose-colored.

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