Editor’s Note: This is the fourth in a series, Significant Films of the 2000s, of articles about the cultural significance of films that were released between 2000 and 2009. Also check out Popsickle’s list of the twenty greatest films of the 2000s.
The Harry Potter series follows the story of one young boy who was orphaned at a young age by what he is told was a car accident. He lives with his Aunt, Uncle, and cousin Dudley, though he is relegated to live in the cupboard so that Dudley can have the second bedroom he so desperately needs to store his large collection of toys. This pretty well gives you an idea of what Harry’s place in the family is. The real story begins, however, when Harry gets a mysterious letter from Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. This launches the story of his life into a fantasy adventure of epic proportions.
For every person who feels slighted by the people around him—like he got the short end of the stick—this story makes vindication seem possible. For Harry stuck in a boring, claustrophobic existence where even school seems like an escape, his acceptance letter to Hogwarts seems too good to be true. While at every turn his family tells him that he is ordinary and destined for mediocrity, in his new reality, he ventures into a world where he was a celebrity since birth. He discovers that he is really quite special and that his life has incredible purpose. This theme of the story really captures its audience, because every human heart longs for this kind of purpose.
The center of the films’ themes is friendship—especially the core group of Harry, Hermione, and Ron. The friendship of these three has its ups and downs, but never does any one character give up hope in their companions. They show great loyalty and courage even in difficult times.
Power, or more specifically the lust for power, is another major element in the films. It is implied through the life of the villain that the desire for power can easily become an all-consuming and soul-destroying quest. The characters on the side of good are ever vigilant to guard themselves from this kind of attitude even though it makes many advances on their spirits. One of the ways this plot point is explored is through the subject of death. The villain assumes that immortality is the greatest form of power while Harry and his friends risk losing their mortal lives on multiple occasions for each other and for the good of the world at large.
Given the success of the books before the production of the films, it is not surprising that the production is everything that you would expect from blockbusters financed by a major studio. The films quite live up to the fantastic realm described in the novels, from the magical elements to the grandiose settings—especially Hogwarts. The casting is also faithful to the characters created by the author. The central trio of friends has real chemistry, and there are standout performances by Alan Rickman as Professor Snape, constant foil to the heroes, and Helena Bonham Carter as both crazy and evil Bellatrix LeStrange.
Within the next year, two movies will be released that conclude the wildly popular series. The six movies that have been released so far comprise the highest grossing film franchise of all time. As many popular brands are wont to do, Harry Potter has stirred up its share of controversy. Most of this comes from conservative Christian groups opposed to the movies’ positive portrayal of “good” witchcraft. Witchcraft is compared to the sin of rebellion in 1 Samuel 15:23. I will not dispute the view that witchcraft is sin; in fact, I am probably more on the fundamentalist side of that argument than most. However, I would encourage anyone who refuses to read the books or see the movies based on that one fact to reconsider. If the policy is to watch zero movies that contain sin or even sometimes portray sin positively, that would probably discount even It’s a Wonderful Life. Anyone remember how George’s uncontrolled, unrighteous anger toward Zuzu’s teacher is played for humor? But the point of the movie is not that we should imitate that one character quality. Sometimes it is good to evaluate movies based on what overall message they put forth as well as content. As for the content itself, there are definitely pure fantasy elements to the type of witchcraft portrayed. For example, the ability to perform magic is something characters are born into, and in order to do it properly, they must obtain a wand made of unicorn tail or phoenix feather, something you might be hard pressed to find here in the real world.
While primarily marketed to the younger demographic, I wouldn’t discount them as kids’ movies, based solely on peril and violence. One other troubling recurrence that is up for discussion is the blatant disregard for any kind of caution or adherence to rules shown by the major characters. Our heroes constantly make their way into harrowing situations that they tend to escape by a hair. This serves the fictional suspense well but is not an attitude that translates well into non-fiction for those of us who value life and limb.
It is easy to see how so many have been captivated by the rich story of Harry Potter. The series contains the basic ingredients for a classic. Only time will tell how it endures for future generations, but it certainly continues to impact the current culture in multiple facets.