Monday, July 16, 2007

'Potter V'-- The Trouble with Harry

Oh for the good old days of riding one's broom and playing quidditch. Harry has moved on from those mostly care-free days and now is presented to us as a troubled youth. The trouble with Harry is that he is not only haunted by his past, his loss of his parents and various other troubling events, he's being hunted, mentally at least by Lord Voldemort (a newer version of Dr. Death or Darth Vader). There is some connection between Harry and the dark lord, and its driving him bonkers as evil creeps into his mind. Add to this the conflicting feelings of puberty and you have one nicely mucked up Harry who has become short-tempered, and even stand offish with his dearest friends. His saving grace is his relationship with Sirius Black, some sort of relative, but even that goes for naught before this movie is done.

Like the last movie, J.K. Rowling in 'The Order of the Phoenix' is once more diving into the deep end of the pool of evil, though for some reason this movie seemed less heavy and foreboding than the last one-- perhaps because no children are destroyed in this one. The movie is a well paced one, clocking in at 2 hours and 14 or so minutes, and their really is no filler. It is full of CG magic (I especially like the animated tea plates on the wall with kitties mewing and moving around), and pleasant set pieces (including flying over London on brooms), but the story line percolates along rather well without interruption.

Unfortunately Hogwart's has been taken over by the Ministry of Magic (headed by Fudge-- ably played by Edward Hardy of 'All Creatures Great and Small Fame') and a headmistress in pink one Ms. Umbridge (as in 'I take umbridge at that'), who clearly was trained in the No Fun League begins to squeeze all the possible joy she can out of school and put all the deadly rules in she can. One begins to wonder if she is actually in league with the dark lord herself. Headmaster Dumbledore continues to be his affable and pleasant self, and Severus Snape is his usual melancholy self, but most of the other instructors we are by now used to at Hogwarts make no more than cameo appearances. The story focuses on the psychological struggles and drama going on in the life and mind of young master Potter. Left behind is the rivalry with other students (e.g. the aptly named Malfoi-- which means 'bad faith' hardly appears) in order for the larger struggle with evil to take center stage. Not left behind, but not as central as before, is Harry's relationship with Ron and Hermione, his two best chums. In fact, at one juncture Harry has his first kiss, and its with a girl we have not previously met before this movie.

One of the things about Rowling's novels as they have developed over time is that they have certainly become longer and more complex, and the story telling has become more adult. One wonders what small and mid-sized children are doing at movies like this, and what they make of it. Clearly much of what is going on and the nuances of the psychological drama will be well over their heads, and the dark images frankly too dark for most children.

The phoenix of course was the bird which rose from the ashes, apparently from the dead, and it not surprisingly became one symbol in early Christianity for the resurrection. It is no accident that this episode is named 'the Order of the Phoenix'. This refers to a group of good magicians who have banded together to rise up and fight the evil, and Harry, in his own fashion starts a student chapter of the order at Horgwarts, complete with training sessions in spell casting or zapping of bad things with a wand.

There is a juncture in the movie where there is a very crucial and serious discussion between Sirius Black and Harry. Sirius reminds Harry that the world is not composed of those who are all good, on the one hand, and those who are nothing but evil on the other. "Most people are a mixture of good and bad" Harry is reminded. This presumably is meant to help Harry not be so hard on himself when he has dark thoughts, but Sirius also stresses that Harry is a good person with some flaws, and he should not doubt his goodness, nor blame himself for all that has gone wrong. The message, if there is one, is that ordinary persons with some goodness in them, can strive to be their best selves, and overcome their temptations to give way to darkness.

Various of the reviewers of this movie have commented on the fact that it seems like an interim report, before we get to the real epic struggle between good and evil. This is a helpful observation, and it is in this movie that we hear the prophecy that either Voldemort or Harry must be done away with before the resolution of the drama. That is barely on the horizon here. The good news for now is that Harry is able to fight off the mental invasion of darkness into his fertile and sensitive mind.

So we must bide our time until the penultimate installment of these films comes out-- 'the Half-Blood Prince' in a year or so. In the meantime, start working on your wand waggling-- evil is coming to town and will not be messing around.


Brian Park said...

A minor factual correction, Dr. Witherington: The girl Harry shared his first kiss with was in the last movie. Otherwise, your review is pretty much spot on. And Potter fans anxiously await to see how the plot's remaining loose ends will be tied up when the final book of the series is released this weekend.

yuckabuck said...

I saw Order of the Phoenix tonight with my family, and I was somewhat disappointed. Like the previous movie, it seemed too episodic. The various scenes are loosely tied together but not completely integrated into a seamless whole. Some have blamed this on the filmakers trying to please fans of the book, and therefore trying to cram as many favorite scenes into the movie as possible. As a big fan of the books (especially Phoenix), I would have rather seen a tighter story with better use of the wonderful characters. Indeed, characters are the strength of the book, because the Phoenix novel is not very tight as far as plot goes. That's why most people either love or hate book 5. But a movie requires more focus and economy of story-telling, without losing the essentials.

As an example, here are some of the themes that could have been focused on. Rowling's novel is basically a retelling of the Neville Chamberlain years leading up to World War 2. (Dumbledore is Churchill.) I have read politically left people compare Umbridge and the Ministry of Magic to Bush, using fear of terror to gain power and curtail liberties. I have read politically right people compare the Ministry to the Democrats, in denial about the true enemy and shutting out the voices warning us of the danger. Either of these themes (or both) could have been more prominent, or something completely different could have guided the story.

In one week we may find out what themes Rowling had in mind with the whole series. In 2000, Rowling said this:
"Yes, I am [a Christian]," she says. "Which seems to offend the religious right far worse than if I said I thought there was no God. Every time I've been asked if I believe in God, I've said yes, because I do, but no one ever really has gone any more deeply into it than that, and I have to say that does suit me, because if I talk too freely about that I think the intelligent reader, whether 10 or 60, will be able to guess what's coming in the books."

God bless you,

James Pate said...

Interesting political connections. I remember reading some years back a John Birch Society article arguing that Rowling was a socialist. I wonder if that is true. Of course, even a socialist can be a war hawk.

Greg Hazelrig said...

The last book that was written delved even more into the dark side (to take a term from Star Wars). As a matter of fact, it left us hanging with Harry pretty much going over to the dark side of hate and anger and revenge. I certainly hope that in this last installment of the series, Rowling will fix this. Otherwise what started as a harmless story that got a nation of kids reading again will have led many to a place that most parents would not want them going. I hope that as in Lord of the Rings, Star Wars and Wizard of Oz, Harry Potter will end with good defeating evil and the heroes and heroines being better off for making the right choices.

Sandalstraps said...

A greatly enjoyed the movie, but like you have to wonder what small children make of it. When my wife and I saw it (we left our son at home) we heard a small child crying in the theater. I hate to judge the way other people raise their children, and I certainly don't want anyone to judge the rather unorthodox way in which I raise mine, but I had to wonder what in the world that child was doing there in the first place.

Anonymous said...

To be fair, Ms. Rowling has stated, to the best of my knowledge, that she wanted her readers to grow up with Harry. In the first book, Harry is eleven, and in the last book, Harry will be seventeen--so I too have to wonder why six year olds are being allowed into the theaters with their parents when the plot is getting continually darker. I think the way the books have been marketed in the U.S. (e.g. the dumbing down of the first book's title--from "philosopher's stone" to "sorcerer's stone") may have a part to play in this.
Thanks for the review Dr. Witherington.

Kelly Vickers said...

This is the best review I've seen and from someone I trust to boot. Thanks.

Nance said...

Most of the reviews for this one have been, thankfully, very positive; I thought the movie was possibly the best of the bunch. However, as you guys keep pointing out, a lot of viewers are mistaking the target audience. I think that the youngest people that Rowling would want in here are the ones who started watching Potter in theaters with the first film, what, 6 or 7 years ago. They're certainly getting darker, and even the fourth film was sort of a 'ok, draw the line for kids coming now' point, hence the PG-13.

Ken L. Hagler said...

Ben, an ATS/North Carolina kudos for your ongoing work. There are only a few blogs I visit and your's is one of them. I appreciate how you dispel the image of what most people think of when they think of seminary professors.

Keep up the great work.

Ben Witherington said...

Thanks Ken:

Nice to hear from you,


seethroughfaith said...

Thanks xx

seethroughfaith said...

A greatly enjoyed the movie, but like you have to wonder what small children make of it. When my wife and I saw it (we left our son at home) we heard a small child crying in the theater. I hate to judge the way other people raise their children, and I certainly don't want anyone to judge the rather unorthodox way in which I raise mine, but I had to wonder what in the world that child was doing there in the first place.

Yes, and that's why there is a rating. Shame on the cinema for allowing a young child in too!

Greg Johnson said...

Dr. Ben,

I saw the movie today with my family and thought it was the best one yet.

Thanks for your review.


Daniel Davis said...

Good review. Thanks.

My wife and I watched the movie last night. We enjoyed it. It seemed more integrated (though not as much as I would have liked) than the last two films. The reference as an interim report is very helpful.
Regarding the question of child-appropriateness: Rowling, as has been pointed out, wanted children to grow up with the books. This works well with those who started when the first book was initially published. However, will it continue to work that way over the years? Conceivably a young child could read the whole series over the course of one to two years. Perhaps parents should impose a reading schedule? Perhaps this concept is an experiment that will show its efficacy or lack thereof over time.

Regarding possible political connections: IF there is a political connection, the pre-WW2 seems to be the closest match. I do not doubt that the current global political scenario has somehow crept into Rowling's novels. However, I cannot help but wonder if those who make connections with American politics are not making the very American mistake of reading and seeing the whole world through the latest American headline...

Anyway, thanks for the review!