Tag Archives: Harry Potter

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.



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?