[DO NOT read this post if you have not read the Harry Potter books. It is full of spoilers. If you have not read the Potter books or not read them all, may I suggest my article in this Sunday’s DNA.]
I open at the close. This “I” of course here refers to purse-strings. Not that it has not opened before. The Potter movie franchise has netted 6 billion profits in its decade long run and 20 billion in related merchandize, making it by far the most profitable series of movies ever. And with Deathly Hallows Part 2 pulling down the curtains, one need not be skilled in Divination to know that this one will net enough Galleons to fill many a Gringotts. As a movie it is strictly workmanlike, moving from one incident to another with little in way of exposition. Like the others in the series, it snips off many of the most critical parts of the Potter saga, and thus should only be seen by the converted, that is those who can fill in the gaps with their knowledge. At one point of time, the franchise used to pretend it was for those who had not read the books, now it has ceased pretending. Which at least is honest.
Does the final installment have any surprises, anything special going for it? The special effects. Definitely brilliant. Anything else? Gratuitous glimpses of Hermoine Granger’s Sorcerer’s stones. Some good acting from the ever-dependable Alan Rickman and especially Daniel Radcliffe. That’s it? I am sorry to say yes. Hagrid’s heroism at the Battle of Hogwarts is criminally cut out, Fred Weasley’s death is given one-tenth of a second, and perhaps most irritatingly of all, Lord Voldemort and Belatrix Lestrange are made into cartoonish stereotypes of the “Nannie Nannie Boo Boo I am better than you” type as they shout NYEEEAAHHH!! from time to time.
But of course Harry Potter is not about the movies at all, it is about the books. Indeed it is one of the greatest publishing successes of modern times and deservedly so for Rowling is a master at her craft, creating mood, suspense, environments and memorable characters like very few can. Having said that, Deathly Hallows is a novel I have always had mixed feelings about. Sure it is a good book, perhaps even a great book, but somehow I feel it dropped the ball at a very crucial place.
Let me first say what “Deathly Hallows” , the book, did exceptionally well. Two things really.
Dumbledore and Snape.
Throughout the series, Dumbledore always reminded me of Gandalf. Too much of him actually. They look almost the same (same white beard, same flowing gown), radiate the same kind of understated power and when they open their mouths, they speak gently and carefully choose every word.
Its in Deathly Hallows though that one gets to see how different these two giant wizards from two different worlds are.
J K Rowling ,during the course of an event at Carnegie Hall, let slip that she had always portrayed Dumbledore as gay. Now for obvious reasons, since Harry Potter is after all a mainstream young adult’s book, she could never explicitly show Dumbledore’s sexuality. But she does throw in a lot of hints—-about Dumbledore’s intense friendship with Gridenwald, the friendship that turned into enmity after the mysterious death of Dumbledore’s sister and Dumbledore’s reluctance to engage in battle with Grindenwald. Says something, doesn’t it? Ever since he sidesteps the question of Harry as to what he sees in the mirror of Erised, I have always perceived an air of epic sadness about Dumbledore and while much of it might be regret at the death of his sister, there is something else which Rowling never says aloud but leaves the reader to fill in, should he want.
What makes Dumbledore so fascinating though is not the gay love story that is never told but his manipulation of people. In his early days, Dumbledore believed in totalitarian rule of wizards over Muggles, in the interests of the “greater good”. Only later in life, after his mysterious falling out with Grindenwald, did his political opinion change. But he never lost the arrogant belief that he, and only he, was wise enough to know what this “greater good” was. People like Potter and Snape became pawns, pawns to whom he would reveal only that much as was needed in order to get them to act as he wanted them to, in essence depriving them of choices they could make if they were given all the information. Dumbledore, behind the mask of geniality, is somewhat inhuman and cold, not being averse to using people in order to attain his higher ideals, a fact pointed out by his estranged brother Aberforth. No where is Dumbledore’s hard- hearted edge brought out better than in in the conversation with Snape Harry retrieves from the pensieve. In it when Dumbledore informs Snape that Potter has been protected for so many years just to be used as a suicide weapon against Voldemort, Snape, otherwise always very respectful in front of Dumbledore, cannot help but exclaim in shock, “Now you tell me you have been raising him like a pig for slaughter”. In a way Dumbledore himself was very aware of this dark control-freak side of him, which is why he refused the Ministry of Magic three times. Yet he could never truly change.
Now Gandalf may be “Gandalf the Grey”, but he is never this grey. And definitely not gay. Give me Dumbledore over Gandalf anyday. Way more nuanced.
Then of course there is Snape, Harry Potter’s most-loved character, a marvelously etched anti-hero, with by far the greatest emotional depth of anyone else in the series. The dilemma of Snape is fascinating—–Harry Potter, a single entity, captures all that he has ever loved (Lily Potter) and everything he has ever hated (James Potter). On one hand, Snape seeks revenge for James Potter’s bullying and humiliation of him by reflecting the same behavior back at Harry Potter. At the same time, he wishes to atone for his role in Lily’s death, the only person in the world who ever treated him like a human being, by being Harry’s protector. I have always admired the small things about Rowling puts into the Snape character like the fact that he is a skilled Occlumens, an ability that helped him to hide his treachery from Lord Voldemort’s intense mental probing. It is only natural that Snape, reviled and laughed at all all his childhood and without any friends, would be skilled at locking his mind up from the world in contrast to popular and loved Potter, who try as he might, is unable to master this skill.
Many fanboys were cut up at the way Rowling kills Snape, expecting a grand encounter between Snape and Voldemort. But I think Snape’s death, inglorious and silent as it, was perfectly in consonance with his character. Snape is the dark knight, not for him the dazzlingly heroic exit. Leave that for the heroes. All he gets, as the reward for his bravery, is the searing pain of Nagini’s venom locking his body up and a final glance at Lily Potter, as reflected in the eyes of her son. History may remember the heroes but the readers, the readers, will always love Snape.
Which brings me to the biggest weakness of Deathy Hallows.
For much of the series, Lord Voldemort is in the background. When he appears, it is in short unexpected and terrifying flashes—drinking the blood of an unicorn or inside an enchanted book or inside a graveyard. In Deathly Hallows, he gets extended time and after all the brilliant build up, he is a let-down. We were told that Lord Voldemort is a master at manipulating people, which he does by playing on their weaknesses and insecurities. Unfortunately all we see is him doing in Deathly Hallows is cursing this person and then the other, like a spoilt rich kid dealing with indentured slaves, more Azgar Jurrat than the most evil wizard in history. And when he finally dies, it is essentially because of him not properly understanding the theory of wands.
Epic villains ultimately meet their end due to some basic flaw in their character. In Harry Potter, Voldemort’s flaw was that he does not understand the concept of love. But his ultimate downfall does not come from that. It comes primarily because of an intellectual deficiency, almost like Darth Vader coming to fight Luke Skywalker to find that lighsabers need to be charged every week. This is particularly jarring considering how Voldemort is built up as an Einstein among wizards. Another thing I felt that weakened his all-knowing aura was how was not able to feel the fragments of his soul being destroyed (they rectified this somewhat in the movie). It’s not as if Rowling cannot paint evil characters—-Dolores Umbridge, with her Madhuri Dixit-style Hum Aapke Hain Kaun “ahem ahem” and a nasty sadistic streak, is severely disturbing. But Lord Voldemort falls far short of Dolores Umbridge in menace and this, in my opinion, dilutes the essential conflict at the heart of the saga.
Another thing that waters down the final impact of Harry Potter (and a few critics have pointed this out before too) is the rather upbeat, crowd-pleasing ending wherein Harry Potter ends up a suburban dad. I am not saying that Potter should have died in battle (that would have been predictable) but the elemental evil he had touched should have left some effect on him. Like how the burden of being the Ring bearer ultimately leads to Frodo’s demise. Evil is defined by its persistence and in Harry Potter, it is absolutely vanquished (JK Rowling concludes with the fact that the scar on Potter’s forehead has never burned ever) which kind of makes you wonder—was Voldemort really that evil or just a poseur who got a nose job like Koena Mitra?
However disappointing Voldemort may have been in the end and consequently a bit of a let-down Deathy Hallows, there is no denying that it is still a wholly entertaining book. Unlike the film with its name of course. While I remember a tightness in my heart as I turned the last page of Deathy Hallows, all I will recall of the movie will be a tightness in my forehead brought on by the 3D glasses.
And a Voldemort-type face in my mind with the tag “studio executive” on his lapel saying “The saga of Potter will only truly have finished when none here are loyal enough to pay up in his name”.