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In RGST? Get a Comic Now.

26 Nov

Proof that Comics Have a Place at the RGST Table

Saturday morning’s AAR session on comic books, “Heroes, or superheros?,” was a spirited example of the vibrant dimensions of the study of religion in popular culture in religious studies today. In a room filled with both men and women, I heard four fascinating papers that used “religious transcendence” to bridge the gap between “comic books and comedic performances.” In conjunction with the Religion and Science Fiction group’s session on “Seen and Unseen,” however, the true merits of comic books emerged.

In the earlier panel, the overlap between film studies became a moment to reflect on the generous body of theoretical literature that exists for religious studies scholars to drawn upon to analyze visual material. Christine Atchinson’s paper was somewhat over-laden with theory, but it impressed upon me the truly interdisciplinary qualities of popular culture research. We are not an interpretive island but rather one archipelago of a vast continent of materials. The regionalism (or specialization) inherent in a topic as broad as popular culture fosters a vibrant pluralism. We can be syncretic in the best possible ways. Or, more meta-theoretically, pastiche is impressive when we’re all bricoleurs.

Then Brenda Beck gave a fascinating presentation on her work adapting an Indian folk epic into an animated TV series. I was way out of my area, but this didn’t stop me from seeing the merits of her work. Visual presentation of folk material allowed her to highlight and embed the animation with scholarly interpretations. Class was a big issue in her folktales, and she was able to help the artists emphasize this element. It’s an important lesson. When we translate items visually we must choose what to encode. All of those choices made interpretation matter. If you have a sensitive and careful analyst, then those choices can really inform your audience about issues they might have overlooked. Perhaps we should, hint hint, make more effort finding objects and ideas that deserve visual translation. I’ve long thought that I wanted to make YouTube shorts on religious topics. Getting students to make short Vines is another option. You don’t need your object to be long—just long enough to say one thing in an interesting way.

Finally, A. David Lewis’ paper (read by Isaac Weiner because Lewis’ had travel problems) was a provocative analysis of Islamic heroism as the solution to the denigrated Western superhero comic model. Lewis’ complex analysis merits its own post, and I think I may have agreed on Twitter to do that for him, but I took away a key meta-point. Provocative arguments are worth making. They help us rise to the challenges of using theory effectively. They focus our use of sources. They compel response. And they make excellent conference papers. A. David Lewis has created a Storify for many of these items. It’s well worth your time.

The value of provocation continued in the Science Fiction panel’s outstanding papers on comics.  The first, by Southern Methodist University’s Christopher Dowdy, used Captain America, both in print and film, to explain the many ways in which Captain America’s body became a place of inscription for racial and religious elements. The way Captain America (in a subversive retelling of Captain America’s origins as a eugenic collaboration between American and Germany) rejects and embraces bodies suggests the character can be located at the center of discussions of scarred black bodies. This is a messianic suggestion and Dowdy played freely with liberationist theological implications. His slides are online for you to get some sense of the material he highlighted. The final comic oriented paper in the session was Peter Herman’s “Rotting Corpses in Pulp Horror,” a Buddhist reading of the Walking Dead and its implication for the way one deals with decaying bodies in the world post zombie apocalypse. As I did for all the papers I heard, I tweeted extensively throughout.  Rather than risk mangling these authors’ arguments, you might look at the notes I took and contact them directly for the real deal. (Storify forthcoming to compile the comic tweets.)

So what else must be said to convince you (or your skeptical colleagues) that comics and graphic novel analysis has a true purpose and place in religious studies? We’re not only influencing the creation of animated items (Beck); we’re not simply skillful readers of race and embodiment (Dowdy); we’re not just using comics to demonstrate the power of classic Buddhist texts and their philosophical theses (Herman); we’re all of these things because every moment we spend with these items is a step closer to understanding how, why, and in what ways religion is drawn into, developed inside, and lived through popular materials. This is not mere finger pointing. We’re not simply saying “there it is.” We’re capable of saying what it means that religion is there. Often times that meaning is not only useful for our understanding of racism or a religious tradition, but the very construction of religion itself.

So if you haven’t picked up a comic lately, head down to the local comic book store and ask them for a recommendation. You won’t regret it.

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The Boy from Hell — From the Archive

30 Oct

[I wrote this post in 2010, but when I moved my blog to a new host, it didn’t get reposted. It seems a natural extension of yesterday’s post on the Witch Doctor comic series. -DWM.]

I get to watch all kinds of interesting things on Netflix: Watch Instantly, but right now I’m intrigued by “Hellboy: Animated: Sword of Storms” and “Hellboy: Animated: Blood & Iron.” These 2007 animated kids features add to the already impressive collection of Hellboy materials, which to date include two feature length films (2004 & 2008), a series of comics, trade paperbacks, novels, video games, and even a D&D style RPG. The success of the franchise is a not surprising in light of the success of many comics when brought to the big screen. Hellboy joins adaptations of Superman, Batman, Spiderman, Iron Man, the Punisher, the Fantastic Four, and X-Men, and that doesn’t even get into 300, Sin City, Watchmen, or Wanted.

I could go on, but the point I want to make about Hellboy puts it in a different category from most of these other flicks. While I could say that hardly any other series is really concerned with a group of monsters that fight the “supernatural and the occult,” this does sometime seem to be the m.o. of the superpower hero genre. Sure, heroes like Spiderman or Wolverine fight bad-guys with superpowers all the time, but these series often fail to provide a mythology to support their world that relies upon religious manifestations and suppositions.

Thus, it is the combination or grouping of the supernatural (which could be take to mean the powers comic book heroes are often blessed with) and the occult together that makes Hellboy different. Instead we see a world that is more like Indiana Jones than Spider man, more like Tomb Raider than Superman, more like Ghostbusters than X-Men. That is, one of the central components of the Hellboy franchise is its reliance on seeing our world as populated with monsters not of science fiction, but of religion. Demons populate this world, not byproducts of nuclear accidents or cosmic radiation.

In a given comparison you might find some weaknesses to this distinction, but I’m willing to wager that Hellboy (and Constantine based on the Hellblazer comic books) are one of the few features to deal so explicitly with the occult. The occult is not easy to pin down for in its most general sense it means “knowledge of the hidden.” This may mean things beyond our ability to quantify or measure, or it may mean secret knowledge. In this sense we are confronted with a confusing jumble of terms that sometimes includes not only esoteric and arcane but gnostic.

Many conservative Christians encourage general readers to avoid making refined distinctions among such words, choosing instead a path that renders all such things dangerous and forbidden. This is easily seen in many of the criticisms of Harry Potter, where no distinctions are made between real uses of “magic” as a form of religious practice and the magical world seen thanks to special effects studios. I don’t mean to pass judgment on whether or not magic exists. Magic itself is a slippery term that could just as easily refer to turning water into wine as love potions. It’s a dangerous road to walk down as a scholar.

I would more readily accept Christian suspicions and denigrations about Constantine or Hellboy than Harry Potter; I know many children who wish that we lived in Harry Potter’s world and that an acceptance letter to Hogwarts will whisk them away from our muggle world, but I don’t know many children who accept that world as the same world we live in. They can distinguish between the human appearance of its characters and their supernatural abilities. In Hellboy humans are simply human, which means that everything else, those “things that bump in the night and which bump back,” could very well be possible.

When superheroes populate Metropolitan or Gotham City, we know these are just copies of our world whose shadows are populated with impossible things. Hellboy operates using such shadows, but the basis of its approach is not scientific but religious possibilities. If the Bible is followed literally, then we must conclude that angels and demons both exist. Hellboy seems to accept that proposition and then take it several steps further down the road. Along the way the demons become humanized–speaking our language and taking human form–as well as capable of ethical decisions. This is a natural anthropomorphic step, and I see it as similar to making animals talk. It lessens the gap between fantasy and reality.

Bridging that gap, however, is never the primary task of these items. Hellboy’s mythology works without ever filling in all the pieces. This is the source of the difference between Hellboy and superheroes–the origin story is crucial to superheroes, who cannot exist in a world that is presented as ours without explanation, while the origin story seems secondary to Hellboy, who would exist anyhow but might be trapped on the other side. I don’t mean to imply that Hellboy is somehow more believable than any other product of the SF/F genre, but I do mean to suggest that it is lent extraordinary credibility by preying on a vague and generalized understanding of the “occult” and supernatural. We give such things credence in our daily lives, as least many of us do.

What is surprising to me is how unremarkable the presentation of the occult is in Hellboy. It just rolls naturally along without ever really considering its own existence or origins. Constantine wrestles endlessly with the conflict between “his” Catholicism and ours. His demons are torn quite literally from the Scripture, and his methods are drawn from religious folklore. That Hellboy works with unidentifiable sources and with relative immunity from the condescension given to such shows as The Dresden Files or Charmed, suggests that it has successfully populated a niche between those works and mainstream comic fantasies. That niche seems generated not only by renewed New Age visibility of channeling and other such phenomenon, but also by the vivid imaginations of fantasy authors looking to classical myths and religious templates. In the end I think it’s all enjoyable entertainment, but I can understand the dis-ease that many folks have with such flights of fancy. My only problem is that from start to finish Hellboy steals plays from their playbook–and I hate throwing babies out with my bathwater.

 

Mystical Pregnancies

15 Oct

Io9 strikes again with Katharine Trendacosta’s list of “The Most Ridiculous Mystical Pregnancies in Fiction.” It’s a solid compilation that ranges from Twilight to Xena: Warrior Princess and Star Trek: The Next Generation. At the end of the post, Trendacosta directs readers to Anita Sarkeesian’s take on Tropes Vs. Women.  It’s definitely worth 7 minutes of your time:

As Sarkeesian explains, pregnancy in speculative fiction is commonly a vehicle for reducing women from vibrant characters to incubators. Moreover, pregnancy is frequently made into a traumatic, monstrous experience. Just remember Bella’s pregnancy in Breaking Dawn, which featured the fetal vampire’s attempt to kill her human mother. Critics emerged en masse to complain not just about the representation of the female body during pregnancy, but also its deceitful portrait of the emotional lives of mothers. (See Think Progress, Adios Barbie, or Io9).

As I develop a course on the supernatural to add to my teaching portfolio, I’m on the lookout for thematic content that highlights a broad range of religious issues. Mystical pregnancies is excellent in this respect.

    1. There are  so many clear examples of mystical pregnancies in film that every student is likely to be familiar with at least one or two fictional examples. The abundance of examples also means that every student could research their own example. This fosters a climate of comparison that will help focus attention on the common dimensions of the trope.
    2. It focuses on issues of gender in a different way than horror’s more general application of the trope of the virgin. This is a chance to explore motherhood as a juxtaposition to sexual purity.
    3. This opens avenues to discuss Mariology–the prototypical mystical birth that I would expect all my students to become experts on.  What does it mean to be both immaculate and the mother of God? What do women think about Mary as a religious ideal? How do they reconcile Mary’s life with their own experiences with motherhood?
    4. Supernatural fiction is a vehicle for the discussion of reproductive and sexual rights. All too often demonic possession is an opportunity to highlight the boundaries of sexual norms. The Exorcist, for instance, sexualizes a young possessed girl through her intense, vulgar language. When monstrous pregnancies introduce demonic fetuses, is this a punishment for sexual acts? A test of faith or obedience? Under what circumstances does pregnancy become evil? How are infants imagined as violations of nature? (As when Bella’s child grows at an accelerated rate.) [Depending on time, this may also be a time to introduce the history of the culture wars that is the broader historical context for so many of these fictional works.]
    5. Supernatural fiction often demonstrates basic biological and human imperatives through inversion. Why is The Omen so shocking? It tells the story of parents who ultimately conclude they must sacrifice their demonic offspring. It’s a perverse adaptation of the story of Abraham and Isaac–only in this case Abraham tries to go through with the sacrifice and is narrowly stopped by the police. What are we to make of the triumph of evil here? Is obedience to the law a sufficient replacement for obedience to God? What are the limits of our parental instincts? Is infanticide ever natural?
    6. Finally, it discretely thematizes the vast supernatural canon. We can effectively group content with pregnancies or pseudo-pregnancies without worrying about the many other issues they raise. This frees me to deal effectively with movies that run a broad supernatural gauntlet (like The Omen or Rosemary’s Baby). I can easily find another movie to deal with prophecy, the anti-Christ, demonic possession, etc.

Feel free to suggest more issues that you would raise! I’m also on the lookout for excellent secondary sources if you know of any! (I have this fascinating thesis by Natasha Lopusina with its many excellent sources. Thank goodness for the digital age!)

Why Hellboy (2004)?

23 Aug

I’ve been writing quite a bit about religion and film this summer, but I think it is time for a practical post. As folks begin teaching their fall courses with media items, the inevitable challenge is turning the viewing experience into a powerful learning moment. What are the tools necessary for that when we’re dealing with media?

We’d all like to assume that students are gifted consumers capable of dissecting and deconstructing critical scenes we examine with them. This is a dangerous assumption because it too easily lulls everyone into avoiding the detail-oriented work of scene analysis. It can be a slog to go through the many elements of a scene. Lighting, camera perspectives, color palette, dialogue, and a half-dozen other cinematic items are all fair game.

Cover by Mignola

Cover by Mignola (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For a basic walkthrough, you might look at the e-how wiki, which is surprisingly helpful as a starting point. Before you begin, there are a few pedagogical concerns.

  1. Where does this film fit into your course’s learning goals?
  2. Where does this scene fit into your lesson’s learning goals?
  3. How experienced are your students with scene analysis?

Early in the term you may spend an entire class discussing a single scene point by point. Later on, however, you could have small-groups each searching the scene for a different element. If the learning goal is learning scene analysis, then it may be helpful to pick a scene entirely removed from the course material. Careful scene selection will not only speed up discussion of key themes, but it will also give unprepared students a chance to participate. (I know from experience that this can be a real problem in courses when media items are required viewing outside of class.)

I’m outlining a religion and film course on the Supernatural, and I’m looking for ways to use the opening scene of Guillermo del Toro’s Hellboy (2004). I’m pretty sure that I wouldn’t show the whole film to a class. I worry that there’s too much action and too little explanation of the supernatural elements of the plot to foster significant discussion. This is a common problem in supernatural action films (even in the cinema classic Raiders of the Lost Ark). By treating the opening sequence as an opportunity to lay significant themes on the table, we can see that Hellboy still has a lot to offer.

Des Vermis Mysteriis

  • Terminology Explosion
    • One of the most significant issues when dealing with the supernatural is the abundance of terms that have competing, overlapping, and contradictory definitions. Des Vermis Mysteriis is a fictional grimorie or spellbook. Invented by Robert Bloch and popularized by H.P. Lovecraft, Des Vermis Mysteriis contains spells that summon horrific, ancient gods from other dimensions. This text, and others like it such as the Necronomicon, are fictional devices designed to give authority to esoteric or occult beliefs.
    • Discuss with students the gradations and differences among occult, esoteric, supernatural, paranormal, and arcane. Brainstorm phenomena and then attempt to categorize and place these items taxonomically. Are ghosts both supernatural and paranormal? Was the ritual that summoned Hellboy paranormal? Occult? Esoteric? Arcane? All of the above?
    • To what are these terms contrasted? What are their antonyms? What does this say about the way we construct natural or human? Why are we debating about these definitions? What about perception, experience, and the consequence of belief?
    • Additional reading:
      • Paul Stoller, “Rationality” in Mark C. Taylor, ed., Critical Terms for Religious Studies (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 239-255.
Hellboy (2004)

Hellboy (2004)

  • Hellboy is chocked full of interesting items for discussion. A scene analysis could go on a long while, so I recommend reserving quite a bit of time for this.
    • Go through the Shots on your own ahead of time. What is shown in each successive moment in this scene? 1) Quotation of Der Vermis Mysteriis; 2) Voice-over while flying through storm clouds to zoom on island; 3) American soldiers getting onto island; 3) “Are you a Catholic? Yes. Among other things.” at foot of Crucifix; 4) Nazis here for the sheep?; 5) “I grant you immortality”; 6)”What I do here tonight can never be undone.” 7) What’s on the other side of the portal? 8) Americans blow things up; 9) The discovery of Hellboy. How do we know when one scene ends and the next begins? Are there clues for continuity?
    • At 13 minutes or so, I’d be the first to admit this is really several consecutive scenes. There’s a consistency, however, to these pre-credit moments. The color palette–cold blues and muted greens–lies in definite contrast to the post-credit colors. The preferred camera shot for major characters is fairly close-up, giving a persistent sense of intimacy for spoken dialogue. Material religion is rampant with crucifixes, rosaries, hellish bas-relief, sacred tomes, and so on. If you want a full list to work through, I recommend this one.
    • Rather than spend significant time plotting the shots, I’d prepare a detailed list ahead of time. I’d stop after each one to allow students to write down their thoughts. Use the list of scene elements to begin picking apart the scenes. Which characters are being developed? What plot is being advanced? How is the mise-en-scene setting the tone and mood for the action? What is the audience expected to know by the end of this sequence? The key question is always two-fold: what do we know and how do we know it.

There are plenty of reasons I think Hellboy works as a starting point for this kind of analysis. It’s long enough to be substantive but short enough to be shown in class. It mixes conventional religious ideas and objects with unconventional fantastical items (rosaries and steampunk gauntlets that open portals to other works). It blends real esoteric religious knowledge (ley lines) with fictional concepts (Des Vermis Mysterii). It acknowledges history (there was Nazi interest in the occult) but mythologizes that history (it was working but the Americans stopped them)!

Above all, this is a strong cinematic opening. It requires no pre-knowledge or preparation. Most of the audience wouldn’t know the first thing about the Cthulhu mythos. Nor would they have read Mike Mignola‘s excellent comic series (upon which the film was based). While they may have heard of Nazi occultism, Rasputin, the paranormal, demons, ley lines, and hell, each of these concepts is framed internally to the sequences here. Part of getting comfortable talking about the supernatural is finding where the seams of knowledge are most frayed.

Look here in the future for more items as I continue to sketch the components of this course. I expect that Constantine (2005), Cabin in the Woods (2012), Drag Me to Hell (2009), and The Exorcist (1973) are all excellent candidates for inclusion. I’ll eventually turn to the softer side of things, too. That may be the moment to include Ghost (1990) or Spirited Away (2001). If you’ve got suggestions, I’m all ears.

The Windup Girl: Science Fiction Moves West of the West

18 Feb
Cover of

The Windup Girl

In a trend that has been evident for some time, science fiction has crossed the Pacific and landed in Asia. What was once the hard-boiled technolust heaped on Los Angeles has become a fanciful orientalism featuring Shanghai, Singapore, Hong Kong, Tokyo, and Bangkok. This trend has not escaped scholars of religion such as Rudy Busto, who argued this point at recent American Academy of Religion sessions on religion and science fiction. He’s not alone, nor is the point losing any salience when we consider the 2009 the book that took the science fiction world by storm, winning both the Hugo and Nebula awards: Paolo Bacigalupi‘s The Windup Girl.

In the future Bacigalupi narrates, calories have become currency because modified foodstocks have ravaged crops and bio-terrorism has led to the evolution of post-humans. That’s the short version, at least. The longer version is that we are privy to the desperation and duplicity of those in the future who fight for and against corporate empires that rule the planet. We are made to root for agents of the evil empires because they are working within the system for a better future, and we are led to distrust or even dislike the popular heroes that rally the people. Up is down and left is right–or at least that’s the way things can feel early on in the story. Science is the double-edged sword that stands behind our ruin and lies before our salvation. If I may say so, it’s a satisfying literary roller coaster, and I haven’t even gotten halfway through the text yet to feel the full thrill of the loops and barrel rolls.

But I share The Windup Girl with you today not because it pushes the West across the dateline to Asia, but rather because the work invests–and invests heavily–in religion. We’re not even a few sentences onto page two before we get a taste of the way religion will be infused into the whole work:

The fruit’s long hairs tickle his palm, challenging him to recognize its origin. Another Thai genehacking success, just like the tomatoes and eggplants and chiles that abound in the neighboring stalls. It’s as if the Grahamite Bible’s prophecies are coming to pass. As if Saint Francis himself stirs in his grave, restless, preparing to stride forth onto the land, bearing with him the bounty of history’s lost calories.

The role of religion in the text resembles its presence in Asia today: It is ever-present but not overbearing and it mixes freely among a host of religious traditions with ease. In this respect, Bacigalupi stands beside some of best recent authors who have successfully integrated religion and religious themes into their works. (Ted Chiang‘s short stories come to mind, but I also recommend Neil Gaiman’s American Gods.) What will happen, I wonder, when the story inevitably weaves the religious undertones into the fabric of the plot. Whispers of prophecies on the second page? A vision of Christianity evolved to respond to the calorie wars? Yes and yes, please.

Anyone have any other recent works of fiction that they can recommend to me? I’m always looking for great new writers and novels!

Before the Hallows

19 Nov

In anticipation of a full review of the newly released “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part I,” here’s what I wrote when I first saw “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.” Enjoy.

7.15.09 “Remember Cedric Diggory and Dumbledore’s Mercy”

I just had the pleasure of watching the 6th installment of the Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. In the novel readers can find J. K. Rowling showing new found strength and maturity as a writer. This was evident in the 5th novel, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, but the Half-Blood Prince demonstrates the diligence that Rowling is capable of in writing a suspenseful, yet intimate climax to Harry’s time at Hogwarts. [He leaves the school in the next installments, where the last battle between good and evil in the books is finally resolved.]

At the end of the Half-Blood Prince Dumbledore is killed. This is not a spoiler, for few fans could have managed to avoid this important development. If I say then that while I enjoyed the film adaptation very much I felt that scene where Dumbledore dies was mishandled, then you understand the gravity of my claim.

First, let me say why I enjoyed the film. I understand the challenge of condensing a 650p novel into 153 minutes, so I should start my praise with how well the story arc and its major elements were maintained. In the film we see just enough of Snape’s activities to cast serious doubts on his loyalties, which is the position that must be offered to audiences because it is really Harry’s story. Audiences must see Snape make the unbreakable vow to help Draco Malfoy kill Dumbledore, just as they must see him commit the act himself when Draco cannot. Likewise audiences are shown a great deal of Draco’s struggle with his task. Murder is a difficult thing and Draco cannot bring himself to do it. The writers were wise to reveal the vanishing cabinets early on in the film because it so helpfully cut out much of Harry’s suspicions about what Draco was up to. The audience (presumably) knows what is going on and since it is presented early in the film there is less ado about them in the climatic tower scene where I felt things went wrong. But still more praise before I get to that.

This film, like the Order of the Phoenix, is dark in character, oppressed by the weight of encroaching evil. Unlike the previous film, however, Half-Blood Prince never manages to capture the dangerous appeal of evil. Dolores Umbridge was a truly magnificent character and I must confess a little sadness that Half-Blood Prince did not offer Dumbledore up as enough of a contrast to show the differences between good and evil authorities. Instead, audiences were treated to legitimately humorous flashes of teen romance. The darkness was dispersed not by the power of the light coming from honorable characters but from the humor that life always possesses, even in the darkest moments. I’m sure that teen audiences will be both relieved to see this humor and also pleased by its familiarity. Who cannot remember a first kiss? An infatuation gone too far? The awkwardness of friends coming to terms with their feelings?

That humor and romance was offered in quite admirable performances by the big three, Rupert Grint (Ron), Emma Watson (Hermione), and Daniel Radcliffe (Harry). All are turning out to be most excellent casting choices and fine actors. On acting I must say that the show seem to be stolen not by Jim Broadbent (Prof. Slughorn) or Michael Gambon (Dumbledore), but by Hero Fiennes-Tiffin and Frank Dillane, who played Tom Riddle (aka. Lord Voldemort) at ages 11 and 16 respectively. They presented Riddle as stone-faced, slow to emotion, but ruthlessly calculating and manipulative. The younger Tom is eager for recognition and unaware of the ethics of power, while the elder Tom is hungry to satiate his darker instincts and willing to play any part in order to succeed. They are not the same Voldemort played by Ralph Fiennes in the Goblet of Fire–there is not yet a supreme joy in pain and suffering or a playful maliciousness that lingers with one after the film has ended. Instead we see a cold evil, a evil that lurks below the surface. In this sense the lake of inferi and Dumbledore’s impressive magical flames are an apt suggestion of the relationship between good and evil in the film. This is not, however, what I think Rowling was after when she wrote her tower sequence.

In the film the invisibility cloak is abandoned, which one can understand giving the technical difficulties arranging such a shot would have posed for director David Yates. Instead Harry oversees the conversation between Draco and Dumbledore hidden below their feet. Dumbledore has repeatedly told Harry that Harry’s life is far more valuable than his own–a reflection that readers can appreciate but which is also undermined somewhat when one knows that Dumbledore was going to die from the poisoned ring that mangled his hand. The value of life is repeated enough that I found it astonishing when the writers chose to omit what I took as the most crucial piece of dialogue in the entire volume. Here’s the scene as it is written (just a few lines of it) by Rowling. You can read along on page 592-593:

“I appreciate the difficulty of your position,” said Dumbledore.

“Why else do you think I have not confronted you before now? Because I knew that you would have been murdered if Lord Voldemort realized that I suspected you…. Come over to the right side, Draco… you are not a killer….”

“But I got this far, didn’t I?” [Draco] said slowly. “They thought I’d die in the attempt but I’m here… and you’re in my power… I’m the one with the wand… You’re at my mercy….”

“No, Draco,” said Dumbledore quietly. “It is my mercy, and not yours, that matters now.”

The screenplay of the Half-Blood Prince, in its need to condense a rather lengthy dialogue between Dumbledore and Draco (and the Death Eaters), chose only to have Dumbledore offer his aid and insist that Draco was not a killer. These are both crucial bits of dialogue, but the writers have missed the golden words that Rowling herself penned for this scene. As written Dumbledore’s mercy is the most important thing protecting Draco. Audiences familiar with the books may gloss over this moment given their foreknowledge that not only was Snape bound by the unbreakable vow, but was asked by Dumbledore himself to complete the act. Not if Draco was unable, but when Draco would fail. Dumbledore’s mercy is a wealth-spring of information for readers, for it not only identifies the relationship between Draco and Dumbledore (always one of teacher and pupil and never one of good and evil), but also the relationship between good and evil in the entire series.

Dumbledore’s mercy is to keep Draco from becoming evil. In fact, Dumbledore’s consistent failing in the text is his desire to keep Harry from evil. Over-protection is at the root of the model of good in Rowling’s world, a place where Harry lacks the necessary will to pull of the cruciatus curse and where Hogwarts stands as the idyllic place where evil may be kept at bay. It is Dumbledore’s last merciful act as headmaster of that castle of goodness, where even the latent evils of Slytherin house members is kept in check. In this respect, while I had wished to see the battle in the tower I was happy to let it go in order to preserve Hogwarts as a “safe” place despite the Death Eaters’ successful mission.

Mercy is the means by which Dumbledore preserves goodness. Mercy is shown to be the tool of the powerful, the weapon of the righteous in the face of evil. When Steve Kloves excised this line from the novel in his screenplay he gutted Dumbledore of his most powerful weapon and what may be the most central element in this moral world.

Mercy is a difficult friend and many thinkers have tried to explain how we might try to turn the other cheek. Or, to use Dumbledore’s own words at the end of the Goblet of Fire:

Remember Cedric. Remember, if the time should come when you have to make a choice between what is right and what is easy, remember what happened to a boy who was good, and kind, and brave, because he strayed across the path of Lord Voldemort. Remember Cedric Diggory.

The choice between what is right and what is easy led Dumbledore to die on the tower at the hands of Severus Snape and not Draco Malfoy. Mercy is the harder path, and I can’t help but think that removing it from this scene was not right but easy.

When the final films come out in 2010 and 2011 it will be interesting to see whether mercy, which is so crucial to the final scenes in The Deathly Hallows, will also find itself on the floor of the editing room. When Harry comes to realize that it is necessary to place himself, just as Dumbledore did, at Voldemort’s mercy in order to do what is right, will we remember that mercy has two faces? Will we remember Cedric Diggory? The right path? Dumbledore’s mercy?