It’s been a hot minute since I’ve done one of these. But considering how the Harry Potter franchise is currently under fire in the eye of the public, I feel as though I should add my piece to the discussion. And now seems to be a good time to shake things up a bit for the Wednsday slot, so why not?
In November of 2018, the second Fantastic Beasts film was released in theaters. It was met with… mediocre responses. In fact, you could easily say the response was ‘quite shitty’, as it would go on to be a financial disaster in the box office. Then recently, with the home release, the discussion began a new, as YouTubers all began to tear Crimes of Grindlewald a new one. Again.
On top of this, the series creator J.K. Rowling has become a complete meme online. Her Twitter, along with the site Pottermore, has become home to many a stupid retcon, pitiful attempts to seem more inclusive than she was, and information that is just straight up weird and gross. Thanks to her, the series reputation is currently in complete shambles.
But that’s not what I’m here to discuss. You’ve heard all of that before. I’m here to look at the works that got us here in the first place. I am here to argue something that you may find a tad upsetting. But I ask you to bear with me. Read my words before you decide to lampoon me in the comments.
The original Harry Potter story wasn’t all that great in the first place.
Now, before you march to my apartment and put a pitchfork in my gut, let me make clear a few things. There are plenty of things in these books that I do think are very good! There are plenty of good and interesting characters, the world is very deep and interesting (though I do wish we hadn’t explored it as deeply as we have now, what with the things mentioned in paragraphs two and three of this essay), and the magic system is very cool! J.K. has a very solid creative voice, capable of crafting incredibly sharp and entertaining dialogue, painting a clear image of the characters and settings, and pacing her story just well enough to create intrigue and to give everything the necessary time to breath. There’s a lot to love in these books!
However, they fail in one major, incredibly important aspect. One that drags down the whole story. An aspect so crucial that it’s almost always the first lesson received in creative writing and storytelling classes.
Harry Potter and the Protagonist with No Agency
Harry Potter as a protagonist is not very good. Even worse, Voldemort as an antagonist is only slightly better, but still poor. Together, the two drag a potentially incredible story into a lackluster one.
How you may ask? One word: goals. Or in this case, the lack thereof.
Ask yourself this: what is Harry Potter’s series-long goal? Is it to rid himself of the Dursleys and lead a happier life? Is it to put his inherent Quidditch skills to the test and become a better player? Or maybe he just wants to bang Ginny Weasley like a wild rabbit?
If you answered any of those, you’d be wrong. Sure, they’ve been short-term goals of Harry throughout the books. But none of them drive his actions as a character over the course of the series. None of them put him in opposition to the series antagonists. He’ll deal with these objectives for a few chapters per book, remember the actual conflict, shrug and say “Well, I am the chosen one after all!” and go save the day.
Voldemort, the series main antagonist, is only slightly better. His goals are simple: take over the world, create an absolutely pure society without Muggles, and rule wizards forever. He was Hitler with magic. But most importantly, the one that drove his actions the most: he wanted revenge on Harry.
The problem is that Voldy’s lust for revenge is the only reason Harry must confront him. Harry never displays any real desire to defeat Voldemort for any reason. Which is especially odd, considering that Voldemort is the source for almost every single problem in Harry’s life! But he never displays any personal desire for revenge!
This could have created an excellent parallel between Voldemort and Harry. Harry, upon Voldemort’s resurrection, is consumed by thoughts of revenge. His parents’ deaths, his abusive time with the Dursleys, and his isolating status as a living legend were all, in every stretch of the imagination, Voldemort’s fault. Thus, Harry desires to face down the Dark Lord and claim his own revenge, just as Voldemort wants revenge on Harry for having defeated him. By doing this, Voldemort becomes Harry’s Shadow. A stark reminder of what he could become.
We could even use Voldemort’s political agenda to add depth to Harry. Throughout the whole series, we see that the Wizarding World is highly corrupt. They are both classist and racist, looking down on Muggles or wizards of Muggle birth. They enslave other races, such as the House Elves or even Dragons, and show them absolutely no kindness or mercy. They are absolutely corrupt, and Voldemort only wants to make them more so. Yet at no point does Harry seem to care.
This could make Harry an incredibly deep and interesting character. He sees how terrible the Wizarding World really is, and he decides to change it for the better. Thus, he becomes a positive reflection of Voldemort, who wishes to make it worse.
The most compelling villains are, in no small way, direct mirrors of the main characters. Not just in personality, but in motivation. If the motivations between the two characters clash with the others, than it makes conflict between them both inevitable and gripping.
For example, let’s look at Frodo and Gollum from Lord of the Rings. Frodo aims to destroy the Ring in order to protect his home, the Shire. Gollum, on the other hand, wants to take the ring for himself, as he’s become obsessed with it. Gollum is Frodo’s Shadow. Should Frodo fall, he would become Gollum.
Another fantastic example is Goku and Freeza from DBZ. Goku wants the Dragon Balls to revive his friends killed in the last arc. He also wants to defeat Freeza in order to better himself as a warrior. Freeza, on the other hand, wants the Dragon Balls in order to become immortal. He feels threatened by Goku, and he fights in order to maintain his status as the universe’s strongest (before retcons changed that and introduced Beerus). The motivations of the two are steeped in similar goals and ideals, but they are complete opposites. Thus, the clash between these two characters is inevitable and incredibly satisfying.
Such parallels don’t exist with Harry and Voldemort. Harry doesn’t have any personal motivations or goals that put him on a crash course with the Dark Lord. The only reason he’s involved in the plot at all is because Voldemort keeps dragging him into it against his will.
Despite everything compelling him to do so, Harry doesn’t seem to bear any grudge against Voldemort. He doesn’t want to change the Wizarding World for the better. He doesn’t want to do anything except get through life. He simply acts because he is the chosen one. Not out of his own desire, not for his own goals. But because the author tells him to.
Harry Potter has no agency in his own story. He gets dragged into every conflict against his will. He is a passive character, one who reacts to the story as it happens to them. Which is fine, yes, but it doesn’t work for main characters. Primary protagonists should have agency in the story. Their goals, and the actions they take to pursue them, is what should drive the plot. If the plot drives them, then they’re nothing more than paper boats floating down the stream. We the audience have no choice but to chase after the boat, watch as it falls into a sewer drain, and likely get murdered by a psychotic alien clown thing.
That clown being J.K. Rowling. But rather than just killing us, she just steals our time and money. Then she needlessly changes the parts of the boat that we actually liked.
Everyone is more than happy to point fingers and make fun of J.K. for the mistakes she’s making in the now. Be it pointless retcons or terrible movies, everything she does is more than open to criticism. But no one seems to have any desire to look back at the works that made her so famous and honestly criticize those.
I get it, don’t misunderstand. These books were part of many people’s childhoods, including my own! It’s hard to be so critical of the things you loved as a child! Why would you want to soil the simple and innocent memories, especially when life is so much harder as an adult?
But I don’t think that’s fair. If you love something, isn’t that all the more reason you should be critical? If people truly care for something, they should be able to both appreciate the good and acknowledge the bad. If you only accept the good and scream “LA LA LA LA I CAN’T HEAR YOU!!” when someone criticizes it, then you aren’t truly loving it.
Just because you love the story doesn’t mean you can’t acknowledge the bad. Harry Potter doesn’t have the necessary depth, on his own or with his villain, to carry the series. And in a series with his name in the fucking title of every book?! That’s kind of a big issue.
But hey! Maybe J.K. can retcon that on her Twitter! Anything is possible!