A Criticism of Harry Potter: Stakes in Storytelling
Original Essay on Cafe Avant Garde
Before superhero movies, it were the Harry Potter movies that dominated cinema. It was one of the first instances of intellectual property turning into a multi-million dollar franchise with eight films, between 2001 and 2011, grossing over $7.7 billion worldwide. And this entire film franchise kicked off only four years after the first book was published in 1997, the book series of which, sold more than 100 million copies, standing next to all-time classics such as, Don Quixote, A Tale of Two Cities, The Little Prince, The Hobbit, and Alice in Wonderland. Even five years after what we thought to be the end of Harry Potter, the relevance in pop culture has not stopped. J.K. Rowling, the author of the book series, continues to write short stories and information about the Harry Potter world on her website, Pottermore.com, has written a spinoff book called Fantastic Beasts & Where to Find Them that takes place in 1929, and has co-written a Harry Potter play for London’s Palace Theatre called Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. On top of all of this, Fantastic Beasts is currently being turned into a movie to be released on November 18th, this year. And Cursed Child was released in book format and broke book sales records. Harry Potter, for better or for worse and regardless of quality, has turned into a movie-making factory.
With all of this said, I don’t get it.
Specifically, I don’t get the hype or the outstanding size of its fanbase. I can understand people enjoying it. After all, the books and the movies have generally gotten good reviews from both critics and fans alike. But my inability to comprehend people’s dying love for it specifically comes from what happens in the last book/movie (though different, what I’m about to talk about is general plot points).
There is a slang term called, “nerfing,” meaning “[t]o weaken or make less dangerous,” according to Urban Dictionary. To clarify further, nerfing means to take something very cool and make it harmless or useless. The most prominent example of this are nerf guns. They started out as a simple foam-bulleted shooting game with fake guns that were really cool to play as kids, but turned into a childish game involving more and more harmless weapons such as bow and arrow. Except, nerf guns themselves are still generally “cool.”
In the Harry Potter series, there was a magic spell called THE KILLING CURSE. With six syllables and magic, any wizard or witch could kill anyone the instant they say it. This spell was being hyped up to be the scariest of them all: two words that could show up anywhere on the text, thereby signifying the possibility that somebody on that page could die. In Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, it describes the physical epitome of the curse as “a flash of blinding green light and a rushing sound, as though a vast, invisible something was soaring through the air.” And many characters afterward dies by this spell… or so we thought. In one moment, in the last book, it was finally revealed that “avada kedavra” is not a spell that brutally murders you, but rather an easy, light path to heaven.
Yeah. When Harry gets struck by the spell, he goes to Heaven and he meets Dumbledore, another “dead character.” Also it’s assumed that his dead parents are there too, someone he could only see glimpses of beforehand. It’s also assumed any dead wizard is there too. Oh, also he comes back from Heaven to earth to save the world.
Some of you might not understand my frustration because you might think it’s just a plot hole that can be looked past. But it’s not just a plot hole; it’s a plot hole that opens the biggest problem in the entire series, and sadly ruins it. Harry Potter, though full of seven small stories, is all one story: a story of a special boy going on a journey to take down the bad villain who wants to rule over the earth. But his “specialness” shouldn’t lie in Jesus-like powers, but rather sets of characteristics that make him unique. As soon as he went to heaven and came back, the book series, after all of its build up and character developments, got rid of the one thing that makes any story a legitimate one: stakes.
Stakes is the thing that somehow keeps you at the edge of your seat, even though you know there’s going to be a sequel afterward. It’s the thing that builds tension. It’s the plot aspect that plants the idea of the possibility that the antagonist is not something to be taken lightly and the possibility that the protagonist might lose. It’s why fans went through six books to get to the seventh one because readers need to know whether or not and how Harry overcomes the conflict that’s been alluded to for 3,000 pages, only to reveal it doesn’t exist. 3,000 pages and boom: there is no risk that Harry might actually die. Real stakes have been nerfed.
And this anger didn’t come out of nowhere; I’ve always hated predetermination in stories for singular individuals. Prophecies saying that “Harry Potter will eventually win,” factors, of course, into stakes depleting. “Then how will Harry Potter feel the pressure to single-handedly defeating Voldemort?” you might ask. Frodo felt the pressure to defeat the bad guy because he was the only one able to not run mad with corruption. Luke Skywalker (before the prequels came up with the prophecy) felt the pressure because he was the only active force-user. They didn’t need predetermination guiding their ways.
I get that Rowling was trying to make an allegory between Harry Potter and Jesus. But A) That allegory only fits two contexts: reviving from death and saving the world. And B) allegories only mean anything when the story means anything.
This also doesn’t matter whether or not you believe in the afterlife. In real life, whether or not you believe in Heaven, deaths mean something. There’s a reason mourning and shedding of tears is a thing even for Christians. When a prominent character gets shot in the head in movies, they don’t cut to Heaven. Instead, they cut to either reactions or blood dripping out of the person’s head.
Everything I said might sound technical or personal, and if none of the problems bothered you, I will never, in a million years, tell you that you’re wrong. But what I stated is generally objective. And there is a phenomenon going on that I think we’re easily falling into. Usually when the ending of a story is bad, we say that the entire story was disappointing, despite how good the first or second act was; that’s not the case with Harry Potter, a series that successfully grasped readers and audiences for 6/7th of its entirety. And it’s also not the case for many multi-million dollar franchises such as superhero movies panned by critics, but loved by fans. Maybe you’ll try to argue with my claims by mentioning fictional situations causing fictional decisions made by fictional characters alternatively to what actually happens, but what happened in Harry Potter is not the point. It’s only from a storytelling perspective, that this is puzzling. My issue isn’t with the specific content of the fictional stories, but the nature of the stories being told. What kind of story is being told when there aren’t any stakes? What kind of struggles of characters is the book asking us to sympathize with when those struggles lack tension? These are questions that the series has forced me to genuinely ask. I completely get how people can fall into the “magical greatness” of Harry Potter or the “superhero-y greatness” of Batman v. Superman. But “great” isn’t “good,” and this “greatness” is making us accept the fact that stakes don’t need to exist for it to be “good”. ∎