September 01, 2005

Yet another "Harry Potter" exegesis

Defiance of authority, especially parental authority, coupled with the desire to be perceived smarter or better than one's elders (and peers), is a deeply ingrained theme in Y/A genre fiction, despite the fact that it is mostly nonsense. While I enjoyed Ender's Game, for example, the premise is absurd. For all their "fast twitch" skills, even the smartest pubescent boys make great cannon fodder and lousy strategists.

This was illustrated in a documentary I saw a while back about a real Air Force "Top Gun" school. One of the students was a brash twenty-something who obviously saw himself in the Tom Cruise role; another was a veteran B-1 bomber pilot, married with kids. Flying a B-1 is approximate to flying a 767, except the cargo is a bit different. But the "old guy" cleaned the young guy's clock in every single category. In the real world, age and experience make all the difference in the world.

I don't see this type of "Wise child" narrative as corrosive to the public order. I don't see it as especially conducive to good fiction either. You can thank it for all those Home Alone movies.

But I believe there another, darker reason for the popularity of Harry Potter. Rowling created a perfect storm of fiction's most tried and true genre plot devices, including the Wise child narrative (above), the Orphan (poor little rich boy) narrative, the Superhero narrative, and the Sports hero narrative. But the one that forms the structural foundation of Harry Potter's world, the engine driving the whole enterprise, is the Revenge fantasy.

The Revenge fantasy is an artistic tightrope, easily (and often) crass, exploitive and sexlessly pornographic (Death Wish). But at times ironic (Dirty Harry), poignant (My Bodyguard) and even profound (Unforgiven) in its sentiments. The Revenge fantasy is at the heart of most action flicks (Lethal Weapon), with the tipping point usually coming when a parent, child, or friend is kidnapped, assaulted, brutally murdered (Mad Max).

However, the Achilles heel of the Revenge fantasy is exactly the manner in which it must move the audience to condone, sympathize, and root for the "justice" the protagonist eventually meets out (extra-legal or not). Consider Mel Gibson's crucifixion scene in Lethal Weapon, in which he is spread eagle on a rack while being tortured by some thug. The brutality of this scene set us up for the next where he breaks the thug's neck.

We all know the bad guy had it coming. Except that wallowing in all this evil deadens the audience as well. This becomes apparent in the inevitable sequels. How to provoke the protagonist (and the audience) even further? The simplest way is by making his opponents even more depraved, the hero becomes more saintly in comparison, and his action justifiable. In Die Hard, a handful of civilians are murdered; in Die Hard II, hundreds are slaughtered. It gets numbing.

One way to mitigate this is to make sure that nothing really changes so that you can simply play the same emotional refrain over and over. Rowling has done both.

In Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns, Eastwood's "man with no name" wanders from town to town. In this case, the Superhero narrative is meshed with the Revenge fantasy, as it is not enough to root out evil and bring it to justice--that would turn it into a police procedural--we must first be motivated to wish for what may be called the "payback" moment that comes at the climax, with one man taking on legions (Mel Gibson made a movie called just that).

Another good example is Shintaro Katsu's long-running samurai series, Zatoichi. Zatoichi is an itinerant gambler and masseuse, who also happens to be (natch) the world's best swordsman. In his bumbling, Columbo-esque manner, he wanders into town, stumbles onto some great injustice which he feels driven to right, leading up to a great cathartic sword fight in the last ten minutes of the film, during which he dispatches every bad guy in town.

At that point, were he to hang up his sword and settle down, that would be that. Were he were to come up with a more subtle way of righting wrongs, that would be that. But there's always another town where the politicians are exploiting the peasants and the yakuza are exploiting the politicians and somebody needs to clean house.

Still, once you've seen two or three Zatoichi films, you've pretty much seen all two-dozen plus. Again, the problem is that you've got to keep adding more sex, more violence, more outrages, more fights, more plot twists and turns to keep the story wheels turning. When Takeshi Kitano stepped into the role in 2003, he threw in a song and dance routine at the end. No kidding, a samurai movie with a chorus line.

Well, that indeed was different. Rowling's creative stroke in this regard is how she uses Quidditch to keep the fires stoked in between bad guy confrontations. This utterly illogical game exists to let Harry Potter be the star player, the quarterback on offense all the time, without the bother of him actually having to work and play well with others. Or even practice. Of his talent at the game, Rowling writes, "He realized he'd found something he could do without being taught."

Lucky him. But that's every kid's fantasy, isn't it? Hitting the long ball that wins the game, every game. And without all those workouts.

The Sports hero narrative is often a form of the Revenge fantasy, with athletic victory serving as a less-lethal kind of comeuppance. The sports arena allows the protagonist to beat his opponent physically and psychologically without invoking the morally troubling question of vigilantism. As in Rocky III, the hero is first humiliated by his opponent (the cartoonish Mr. T), and then, as the result of much righteous effort, pays his opponent back in the climax, literally eye for swollen eye and tooth for chipped tooth.

Harry Potter has all of the above working for him. He's an orphan, a sports jock, a superhero, and born to greatness. And rich. Not only are bad guys bumping off parents, friends, and then coming after him both as a child and a teenager, they don't even play fair! And that's just not cricket. Feel the outrage. Embrace the dark side of your human nature. Get them back for me. Go ahead, lop off somebody's head with your light saber (oh, sorry, wrong Revenge fantasy).

This, then, is why every new book is advertised as "darker" than the last, with some unexpected new violence or victim. It's also why nobody changes. Harry Potter doesn't mature, and neither does Malfoy, or the Dursleys, or Voldemort. They can't change objectives, change strategies, learn from past misadventures, reevaluate their places in the world, else risk Harry's revenge pilot light going out. They are locked into the caste system of the Revenge fantasy, doomed to relive the same parts over and over into eternity.

Or at least until the series ends.

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# posted by Blogger flipsimulation
1/18/2009 11:40 PM   
I agree with everything except your last bit. I think you're completely wrong (sorry, I just like to be completely honest. then I would have to say, I'm not actually "sorry") about Harry and Malfoy never changing. I could get into this huge, analytic HP discussion here, but to keep things short and sweet, the characters DO develop over 7 books. Except Voldemort. I agree with you on that.
# posted by Blogger Th.
3/12/2009 2:01 PM   

I would be curious how true you feel this take still holds now that it's all over.
# posted by Blogger Jettboy
12/10/2009 8:44 PM   
"They can't change objectives, change strategies, learn from past misadventures, reevaluate their places in the world, else risk Harry's revenge pilot light going out. They are locked into the caste system of the Revenge fantasy, doomed to relive the same parts over and over into eternity."

This reminds me of how I read "Hamlet" and his character. He is part of a traditional revenge tragedy only to change when his own life is put at risk. He comes home deciding to not be part of the revenge, but it is too late. He can't change the direction he set and ends up forced to join the final tragic end.