Humanism and Post-structuralism in Harry Potter

The Harry Potter series makes perfect sense to translate from novel to film.  They storylines follow archetypes that are simultaneously familiar and fresh.  JK Rowling, whether intentionally or not, had her characters literally grow up with my generation.  Essentially, the plotline follows Harry Potter and his close friends as they grow from children into young adults.  The first two books, “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” and “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets,” were written for a young audience.  The central characters were never over the age of twelve and the majority of their issues were shown as daily or mundane school problems.  Being late to class.  Having to deal with difficult homework for the first time.  Three-headed dogs guarding a secret door.  Though in both of these novels Harry Potter confronts the ultimate form of evil, Voldemort, the books remained lighthearted and easily-accessible.  For this reason, the first two books were easily brought to the big screen by Chris Columbus with a lighthearted and family-oriented atmosphere.  Columbus gives the audience a humanistic story: binary dichotomies between good and evil.  However, with “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,” we see a new Harry Potter.  This is a slightly more angst-ridden teenage Harry Potter.  The themes become darker and more complex: betrayal, revenge, confronting fear, and a loss of innocence.  To bring this film to the big screen, a new director was brought in to adapt the novel to film, yet provide a darker and more mature mood.  Alfonso Cuaron created a provocative film that met mixed reviews.  Here, we can see that he used visual imagery to break down the barrier between “muggle” audience and the “wizards” on screen. 

            JK Rowling’s “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” was released in 1999.  The story focuses on thirteen year old Harry as he returns for a third year to the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.  Only this year, things are starting to change.  There is an escaped “madmen” from the Wizarding prison Azkaban, a deranged killer named Sirius Black.  Ghostly “Dementors” are guarding the school grounds, protecting the students from this dangerous fiend.  Not surprisingly, there is another new Defense Against the Dark Arts Teacher in Professor Lupin, a kind fater figure to Harry with a dark secret of his own.  As the novel progresses we learn that Sirius Black is actually Harry’s godfather and he is blamed responsible for his parents’ death.  Lupin teaches Harry how to avoid the Dementors, as they prey on his troubled background.  The Dementors force Harry to mentally relive the most terrible parts of his past, the death of his parents. Here, we see Harry confront entirely new aspects to his newfound wizarding world.  While he’s lived knowing that Voldemort is the epitome of evil, Harry has not seen such complex gray issues before.  The wizarding world, like our own, is not a black and white or good and evil one.  The reader learns that Professor Lupin is a werewolf and loses his job because of this.  Even in a world like Harry Potters, there is discrimination and prejudice.  Additionally, we see that Sirius Black was actually not guilty of murder and was wrongly sentenced to years in prison.  Though Voldemort’s shadow is consistently looming over the characters, Harry is learning that “good” and “bad” are not as simple as he once believed. 

            Symbolism is present throughout “The Prisoner of Azkaban,” especially the ominous and reoccurring theme of eminent death.  Harry sees the Grim, a huge wolf-like dog that, when observed, predicts an untimely death.  Harry’s class begins Divination, in which his professor also predicts Harry’s soon and unfortunate death.  Additionally, Hagrid’s precious Hippgriff slashes Draco Malfo and is sentenced to death by order of the Wizarding Government.  The constant presence of the Dementors gives students chills and are a reminder of fatality, decay, and fear.  Sirius Black apparently slashes the “Fat Lady” portrait and terrifies many of the students while they sleep.  The Dementor’s especially strong power over Harry has him constantly reminded and reliving his past; he hears his mother scream her final words before being murdered.  All of these elements, and the reoccurring theme of death, needed to be reproduced in order for a film to be considered a “faithful” adaptation.  Additionally, one of the aspects that has been consistent throughout the Harry Potter series is a focus on the everyday and routine aspects of these characters lives.  Rowling will often give descriptions of what the character are eating in the great hall, or will ground the characters with scenes that do not necessarily contribute to the plot, but provide a view into the norms in Hogwarts.  The conversations in class, the anxious feelings before quidditch games, the characters are wizards but their emotions are human.  This is another essential aspect of the story that is needed to successfully adapt the novel to film. 

            Literary critics have discussed the importance of Harry Potter in our modern world for it “parallels” many issues that we face today.  Stephen Deets, form Babson College, states that using Harry Potter in a classroom can help students to better grasp many concepts that are vital to our modern world.  Deets states that, “through its seven books, it creates a well-developed parallel world.  Furthermore, the entire plot is driven by ethnic tensions, questions about social responsibility, and fights over political power” (Deets 742).  Specifically with “The Prisoner of Azkaban,” such mature themes and underlying commentary on racism, sexism, and homophobia, the film adaptation would have to honor such mature and relevant issues.  These books have a focus on youth, and by providing allegories to such dense issues as homophobia, have the ability to prompt change early on in young men and women.  The films would reach a larger audience and would need to promote similar ideas.  As Meredith Cherland states, “many teenagers want to know: why is the world the way it is, and why is it so difficult to change?” (Cherland 273).  To address this, Cherland confronts the ideas of Humanism and its relation to the wizard world.

            Cherland describes Humanism as “our common sense… that we now accept as natural and normal” (274).   She also believes that Humanism, through the conception that there is a stable, unified and individual self, is dangerous because it presents “life and the world as simple, as certain, and as structured in inevitable ways.”  (274)  So how exactly does this relate to Harry Potter?  Cherland asserts, relating back to Deets, that humanism “supports the existence of social structures like patriarchy, racism, homophobia, ageism… (these beliefs) are harmful to women and other groups.” (274)  What Cherland hopes books like “Harry Potter” can do is help younger generations engage with “engage with the uncertainty and ambiguity of our times so that they are equipped for living now.”  (274)  Finally, Cherland asserts a similar idea to Deets, in that Harry Potter Novels “present readers with the cultural discourses and story lines of our own times and of times past.” (275)  This interweaving of humanism and poststructuralism are what create the issues found in “The Prisoner of Azkaban.”  But how does Alfonso Cuaron bring these issues into his film adaptation?

Alfonso Cuaron’s “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” was the first Harry Potter film not to be directed by Chris Columbus and was significantly darker both visually and in character development.  In contrast to the clean Columbus versions of Harry Potter, Cuaron gives an artistic and gritty Harry Potter.  Specifically, as Matt Connolly states, Cuaron “maintained a balance between character and milieu through long takes and exploratory tracks—an organic style missing from the character/effects- shot dichotomy prevalent in Columbus’s direction” (Connolly).  Additionally Connolly states that Curaron’s take on Harry Potter was “at once looser and more focused” (Connolly).  This seems to parallel the relationship between Humanism and Poststructuralism that Cherland asserted was fundamental to the Harry Potter world.  Cuaron beautifully captured the struggle between father figure and werewolf in Harry and Professor Lupin.  Though they allowed for “jokes” in the film, we are still presented with a man that is considered by some to be “dangerous” to society.   This may have even been a direct representation of homosexuality.  To some homosexuality is seen as wrong and immoral; there are parents that may be uncomfortable with a teacher that is homosexual.  In reality, this is an outdated and almost silly assumption.  Lupin’s character, though a ‘dangerous’ werewolf, helps Harry immensely in overcoming his fear of the Dementors and acts as a surrogate father.  Just as a werewolf bites others to spread his “disease,” it is similar to some parent’s fear that you can “become” gay though another’s influence.  While the issue is certainly much more complicated than that, the Harry-Lupin relationship sheds light on the modern fact of homophobia, but also critiques its very existence.  Rather than showing his werewolf as a menacing and horrid figure, Cuaron makes his werewolf thin and still very human.  Even with his “disease,” Lupin is human and deserves treatment as such.  Yet, the wizarding community is unable to provide that.

            While Cuaron succeeded in demonstrating the complex Humanism and PostStructuralistic aspects of the novel into his film, he lost some of the charm in Rowling’s writing.  Unfortunately, this is likely the result of cutting the original work down to a more manageable size.  Overall, Cuaron was able to capture the essence and themes of the novel through his adaptation; rather than emphasizing the mundane through dialogue he was able to put much of the magic as secondary to the story. 

Cherland, Meredith. “Harry’s Girls: Harry Potter and the Discourse of Gender.”  Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy. 52:4. 273-282. Dec. 2008-Jan. 2009.  < http://www.jstor.org/stable/40058129>

Connolly, Matt. “The Great and Powerful Wizard.”  Reverse Shot.  Issue 32. <http://www.reverseshot.com/article/harry_potter_and_halfblood_prince&gt;

Deets, Stephen. “Wizarding in the Classroom: Teaching Harry Potter and Politics.” Political Science and Politics.  42:4. 741-744. October 2009. <http://dx.doi.org.proxyum.researchport.umd.edu/10.1017/S104909650999014X >

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