The release of the final film featuring the boy wizard is being treated as a momentous cultural event. But why was it all so wildly successful? And what did it really, deep down, all mean?
I am reading Critical Perspectives on Harry Potter (Part 2), in time for the release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Part 2). The film is the second half of Joanne Rowling’s seventh book, which Warner Bros have cut in two, to thrill the fans or increase their $6bn gross, depending on how magnanimous you think global corporations that cross-market wizards can be. By the end of this week, Potter on film is done; it is a beginning of an end.
I bought Critical Perspectives on Harry Potter (Part 2), not because I can’t get hold of Harry Potter and International Relations, which actually exists, but because I think it is the best example of the response to the mad existence of the Christ Wizard from Surrey. Harry is duller even than Frodo Baggins of Lord of the Rings, the hobbit equivalent of a coffee table, and more successful too, because Warner Bros, which is owned by the entertainment monster Time Warner, has used its publishing and internet arms to build his brand. It is above all a piece of marketing wizardry. Potter has conjured up court cases, book burnings, a theme park in Florida, sales of 450m and a pile of academic texts. This is the impact of Potter on earth and part of it, like a Horcrux, is in the British Library.
The many authors of Critical Perspectives on Harry Potter (Part 2) take Rowling’s world intensely seriously, which I suppose is why they didn’t stop at Critical Perspectives on Harry Potter (Part 1). They write like very intelligent children, wandering the corridors of Hogwarts seeking meaning and, although they don’t explicitly admit it, more of the contents of Joanne Rowling’s head. (I refuse to call her JK. Her British publishers, Bloomsbury, insisted on initials back in 1998 because they feared boys wouldn’t read a book by “Joanne”.) It is essentially Quidditch played with opinions in university common rooms. The economists seek clarity on the organisation of financial systems: “What is the wizarding economy based on?” The feminists are angry, because they believe gender stereotypes are rampant.
“The ‘Fat Lady’ in the portrait at the entrance of Gryffindor tower . . . has no personal name and is never called anything but the ‘Fat Lady’ or a very fat woman,” I am told. Did female weakness lead to the creation of evil wizard Voldemort and catastrophe? (Like Eve?) “If she [Voldemort’s mother Merope] had been emotionally stronger and been able to maintain better boundaries in her relationships,” I am asked, “might she had given Tom Riddle/Voldemort enough love to prevent sociopathy?” Maybe. But if you think Potter is anti-feminist, consider Lord of the Rings, where the only female characters with lines are an hysteric and two elves.
I only have a few more examples from Critical Perspectives on Harry Potter (Part 2) before I put it down, even though I can hardly bear to. Take racism. Harry Potter is apparently full of it. Dobby the house elf speaks in “racially charged pidgin” and Goblins “embody many caricatured traits of stereotypical Jews”. Animals are ritually abused. A dragon is chained up as a mere “security feature” in Gringotts, the goblin (Jew) bank. And so on, and on, until you wonder if Harry Potter is actually Richard Littlejohn on a broom.
I am a typical adult Potter reader. I came to the books late, with Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, in 1999. I have read them all – twice. I have seen the films – twice. I have sat on the tube, reading the books with their child covers, because to read a book about wizards with a faux chic “adult cover” seems to me as insane and pointless as pretending a strawberry is an olive. I went to late-night screenings and midnight book-buying trips in awful suburban shopping malls and was served by shop assistants dressed as wizards. The bookshops have gone now, a victim of the same revolution in communications that raised Harry Potter high, but he remains. For a brief period, I even had a wand, although I have lost it, or given it away, because I realised it didn’t do anything. I remember that the shopping trips reminded me of the “crazes” at school – the exciting ones before puberty and ennui – and that I wanted to beat my friend Jo, who bought the book at the same time, by finishing it first. I got a gossip-column piece out of it once, which made me feel less dirty. It was infantilism and I knew it.
Now I have read them and thrown them away, because I will never read them again, I can say that I don’t think I like Harry Potter. Does anyone? He is too whiny, racked and self-righteous; only fate didn’t make him his screen namesake, the grotesque Henry Potter of It’s a Wonderful Life. He has no sense of humour, although he does smirk. Harry Potter is an everyman, and that is why he sells. If he can save the world then so can a cat. He is, like Baggins, Dorothy and the children of CS Lewis, an extraordinarily ordinary hero and at the end of his adventures, he returns to suburban normality. To his readers.
Literary critics call Rowling a genre-mixing magpie. The books are mysteries, quests, horror stories, pulp fiction, bildungsroman, romances, school stories, sports stories and serials. There is snobbery but almost no sex, and what there is half-hearted and unconvincing. This is why AS Byatt says she reads Tolkien when she is ill: “There is an almost total absence of sexuality in his world,” she has written, “which is restful.” To some, they conjure a Dickensian past. To others, they tell the future. They incorporate aspects of every story humans have ever told. All the virtues, and all the monsters are here and at the centre is a boy so dull, any of us could take his place.
The fashionable defence for Harry Potter madness is that the books make children read books after they have finished Harry Potter. This is not true; reading, as ever, declines. So why are we over-analysing him? Is it shame? If the adult world suddenly developed a craze for reading Mr Men, and everyone was reading Mr Happy on the Tube, would we endow Mr Happy with fake depths, until he became Mr Putting a Brave Face on Some Secret Sorrow?
Yes, we must. We must search for homophobia. Back to Critical Perspectives: “Professor Flitwick is characterised with words and images that are crude cultural stereotypes of gay men.” He drinks cocktails with umbrellas and squeaks, although he never came out. Harry’s mentor, Dumbledore, did but only through Rowling, who revealed he was gay in 2007, and irritated John Cloud in Time magazine. “Why couldn’t he tell us himself?” he asked, even as he stroked the brand (Time is owned by Time Warner, children). “We can only conclude that Dumbledore saw his homosexuality as shameful.”
And mandrakes. What about the mandrakes? They have feelings, and were used as weapons at the final battle of Hogwarts, and got spattered. (Genocide? Ethnic cleansing? Mandrocide?) Fairies are asked to act as Christmas tree decorations. Leprechauns are cheerleaders in the Quidditch world cup, but maybe that is voluntary, because leprechauns are notorious sluts. Where does all the meat at Hogwarts come from? Is it industrial farming? It cannot be so!
Religion obviously took the Potter bait. Fundamentalist ministers have burned Potter books, although, in the words of Viz, today they could have simply downloaded and deleted them. “Without question, I believe the Harry Potter series is a creation of hell,” writes Joseph Chambers of Paw Creek Ministries, “helping the younger generation to welcome the Biblical prophecies of demons and devils led by Lucifer himself.” Other Christians cite Harry’s pleasing similarity to Christ – he was willing to die to save humanity, and he was never out of King’s Cross – and think he is OK, despite the baby pagans. The chief prosecutor of Iran is obviously against. He has criticised Barbie, Batman, Israel and Spider-Man, so he was never going to love Harry Potter and his “destructive and cultural consequences”.
I enjoyed the books, but I never found them offensive or important. I went to the Accio! (wizard for “Come!”) conference in 2005 for this newspaper and watched Pottermania in closeup. I met a woman who was traumatised enough by the treatment of house elves to write an academic paper about it. I also met the writers of Harry Potter porn, who like to imagine the characters in different sexual couplings: Harry and Dumbledore; Dumbledore and Hagrid; Hagrid and Dobby. (To understand how disturbing this is, you have to understand that Hagrid is a half-giant and Dobby is an elf who acts like a drinking alcoholic.) The Elf defender would have loved Critical Perspectives on Harry Potter (Part 2), because it notes that the last sentence of the last book includes the phrase, “Thinking now only of the four-poster bed lying waiting for him in Gryffindor tower, and wondering whether Kreacher would bring him a sandwich there [Harry buggered off].”
This is the Marxist interpretation of Harry Potter. Harry is an oppressor who has simply “internalised the treatment of Kreacher as a menial servant”. I shouldn’t go on but I love this stuff. I love watching adults excuse themselves for wanting to be children, as if it were bad. Not that you could say that at Accio! It was full of strange sad women in black, who sat in the front row of the lectures, their ankles spilling over their shoes, longing for details of a world not their own and men dressed as wizards, sweating and arguing about goblins. It was depressing. I never asked the questions that they did. I never looked to Harry Potter for succour or enlightenment. The only unanswered question I have ever had was: why doesn’t Voldemort have a nose? I will be at the midnight screening on Thursday, because it is now a ritual with my friend Sophie, but I will watch it mindlessly and chomp it in like popcorn.
As there has been no Accio! since 2008, I go on a Harry Potter film location walk through London. It’s a posh London Walk, so no one is in a pointy hat. There are 70 glossy Americans and Canadians, and Richard Walker the guide, who begins by announcing that he drinks the blood of unicorns to stay young. I seriously doubt this. He is wearing a sand-coloured suit and has written a short book called Who Cares? Why War, Poverty, Environmental Destruction and Debt Remain So Popular. As he leads us through the City, which is even more glassy and preening when it is Sunday-empty, I speak to the punters. TJ Romano, 17, is from Pennsylvania. “She [Rowling] makes it feel very real,” he says, “because it is like real places. It is easy to relate to.” This is a world so like our own it is easily slipped into. “I have read them all twice,” says his mother. “I like the underdog becoming somebody. It is good versus evil and good prevails.” This is a world that redeems.
Richard shows us the entrance to Diagon Alley in Leadenhall market. He shows us Tower bridge, where the Order of Phoenix flew. He shows us the shop at Borough market that stood in for the Leaky Cauldron, rattling next to the railway line. It is above the Posh Banger Boys. Potter is sitting on a sausage. Don’t tell the authors of Critical Perspectives on Harry Potter (Part 2). Harry’s window, Richard says, “is the top window nearest to the railway line. It’s very odd, because the Leaky Cauldron is in Charing Cross. But they are wizards. They can do what they want.” Yes, they can.
We disperse, and I go to the entrance to platform 9¾ at King’s Cross, where Harry walked through the wall and caught the train to Hogwarts. So many fans turned up and posed for photographs here, they have moved the sign outside the station, under a low, foul awning by a newspaper kiosk. The entrance platform 9¾ is a photograph of some bricks, and a sign with the “4” half-eaten away. It is foetid and peeling; nothing magical here. A bit of a trolley sticks out of the wall. But still the tourists come and pose – body to the wall, face turned backwards, smiling.