Since 1997, J.K. Rowling’s seven Harry Potter novels and Warner Brothers’ eight film adaptations have gradually grown into a multi-billion-dollar industry. At the same time, they’ve developed from a kids’ series about an eager boy wizard into a dark all-ages fantasy packed with angst, misery, and death. Rowling wrapped the series in 2007, but it’s taken Hollywood four years to catch up and bring the film series to a close with the recently released Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows: Part 2. With the books and movie adaptations finally at an end, it seemed like an appropriate time to look back on the mountain of prose and celluloid Rowling and her many collaborators hath wrought, and survey the best, worst, and most memorable parts of the whole magical shebang. (Warning: Spoilers, naturally.)
10 GREAT, AND 10 NOT-SO-GREAT, THINGS ABOUT HARRY POTTER
Quidditch in the Harry Potter books: a weird game, but a lighthearted diversion, a colorfully strange use of magic, and absolutely the sort of thing young wizards might obsess over. Quidditch in the Harry Potter movies: a goofy-looking strain on the limits of digital effects, and a sudden grinding halt to any sense of forward momentum. There’s a reason the later movies increasingly minimize or ditch the Quidditch segments: They look goofy, they eat up time, and they’re never relevant.
Wizard-on-wizard combat in the films
Half-assed plot points in the movies
A movie adaptation practically never includes as much detail as the book that spawned it, and there’s nothing wrong with that—except when the movie makes efforts to cram the details in, but leaves out the connective tissue that makes them make sense. For instance, the film version of Half-Blood Prince is just as obsessed as the book with the identity of the titular mystery prince, but when Snape announces that he’s the prince, he doesn’t actually bother with the just one more sentence that would have explained what the title means. Why does Prisoner Of Azkaban take the time to have Harry slowly read off the names of the creators of the Marauder’s Map, but leave their identities a mystery, even though Harry is connected to all four and even speaks to one of them about the map? And in fact, bringing that point up would explain why he thinks the stag Patronus he sees in the forest is his father, which makes no sense otherwise. Why preserve Kreature’s hatred of everyone who enters the Black house, but not touch on who he is and why he has to serve them? Why animate the cat Patronus protecting the bench from the Dementors in Dolores Umbridge’s court, but not explain the setup, even when it becomes crucial to the action sequence that follows? Fans will get all these things but find their vagueness annoying, whereas casual watchers are just likely to be confused.
Hogwarts Castle is as important a character to the Potterverse as any of the wizards who inhabit it: It’s full of secrets, personality, and, well, magic. But unlike many aspects of the film series, which had some early growing pains, the Hogwarts sets were pretty much perfect from the outset. Over the course of a decade of working on the Potter films, production designer Stuart Craig oversaw the construction of thousands of sets, a good number of which were the sprawling corridors, grand halls, and creepy dungeons of Hogwarts, all rendered in a vaguely Gothic style that evokes glittering fantasy and grubby realism alike. Though its bridges, passageways, and forests were spread out over various unconnected sets, the Hogwarts of the films feels like an actual magical castle some lucky location scout stumbled across, a place fans could actually visit and explore. And in a way, they soon can: The film sets will be reconstructed as part of a permanent Potter exhibit at Leavesden Film Studios in Hertfordshire, England.
“Dumbledore is gay”
The revelation that Hogwarts’ headmaster is gay would have been absolutely fine, even intriguing, had it been implied anywhere in the text of the books. But it wasn’t. (Dumbledore’s proclivity for “flamboyant” clothing doesn’t really count, right?) Rather, J.K. Rowling dumped that little tidbit on the world at a Deathly Hallows reading after the final book was released, citing no evidence other than it’s what she “always thought,” and pointing to Dumbledore’s close friendship with notorious Dark Wizard Gellert Grindelwald as a potential romance. Rowling is well within her rights as an author to imagine extended backstory for her characters, but casually dropping a major, potentially controversial detail about one of the series’ most beloved characters at the exact moment Potter mania was at its zenith smacks of opportunistic revisionism.
There are few aspects of the Harry Potter movies that aren’t directly stipulated by the books, but one of the purely movie-centric bits of the Potterverse has become an unforgettable piece of the franchise. The “Hedwig’s Theme” leitmotif, composed by John Williams for the first movie, has permeated every film installment in different arrangements, becoming as integral a part of the series as Hedwig herself. The theme’s twinkling melody has served as a familiar opening salvo in the trailers and films alike, invoking a Pavlovian response from super-fans dying to see what those unmistakable notes portend.
The movie Dursleys
Watching the kids and the series grow up
Dei ex machina
One of the dangers of setting a story in a magical world is that even the most suspect plot contrivances can be explained away by “Magic!” For as much as Rowling talks about how planned-out her tale was, she does exhibit a habit of bending her own rules, introducing oh-so-convenient new spells/devices or altering the abilities of previous ones to fit the situation. Hermione’s Time-Turner, the ever-reappearing Sword Of Gryffindor, Dumbledore’s Deluminator, the various unexplained magical protections Harry has against death: Chalk all these developments up to the fickle, fluctuating, mysterious nature of magic, and don’t try to resolve them with what you already know about the wizarding world. The deus ex machina isn’t an inherently bad device, nor is it productive to question the verisimilitude of fairy tales, but Rowling’s continued reliance on them undermines the otherwise-convincing world she builds throughout the books.
The movies’ casting
Fans protested practically every aspect of the books left out of the movies, but few stood up for the novels’ tone-deaf S.P.E.W. plotline, which seemingly set out to compensate for the series’ most prominent female character, Hermione Granger, being too smart and too often right. To balance out Hermione’s positive elements, Rowling sent her off on a quest no one appreciated: to free house-elves from what she saw as enforced servitude, based on her experience with one badly abused member of their tribe. Forming the organization Society for the Promotion of Elfish Welfare (even the acronym is strained), she heads off on a shrill, ignorant civil-rights campaign that ignores what the actual house-elves want. In the process, she embarrasses her friends and annoys everyone else, particularly her supposed beneficiaries. It’s a comic plotline that isn’t ever funny, and an issue plotline over a non-issue.
The Weasley twins
The heroic themes that include reckoning with doubt
It’s rare to see children’s entertainment without some form of message, even if that message is as broad as “Believe in yourself.” But Rowling’s books go further, with messages familiar to fantasy fans, but still worth repeating. And they’re executed particularly well throughout the series, as she underlines the importance of loyalty, bravery, and especially friendship. Courage under fire and determination even against unbeatable odds come up again and again in her work, often in thrilling and satisfying ways. But the deepest message of the books may be a pointed suggestion that just because society, government, and particularly the media say something doesn’t necessarily mean it’s true. By setting her good-vs.-evil battle in a world where the media and government are largely deluded pawns, and the public sees only what it wants to see, the books urge a healthy skepticism of institutions, and a spirit of inquiry and self-sufficiency rather than obedience and passive acceptance.
Even as the Harry Potter books matured over time, they maintained a fairly black-and-white moral tone: Evil people might masquerade as something kinder (as Defense Against The Dark Arts teachers always seemed to), but with the exception of the tragically complicated Severus Snape, none of them ultimately revealed much complexity. Which is why it’s continually odd that as the protagonists’ situation worsens, they adopt their enemies’ habits without a second thought. When a DADA teacher first introduces them to the Unforgivable Curses, they’re shocked and horrified, but as soon as Harry really gets upset, he’s pulling out the torture curse, and by the end of the books, he’s controlling people’s minds without a qualm. Even the mild-mannered Molly Weasley is striking her enemies dead. And when, in book seven, it becomes clear that dealing openly and fairly with the goblin Griphook might get in the way of Harry’s quest to destroy Voldemort, he doesn’t once consider appealing to Griphook’s better nature, striking a deal with him, or even explaining the problem, he just sets out to cheat him as best he can. It isn’t that the heroes should never stoop to moral compromise, it’s just unsettling that they don’t stop to consider the compromise: The ends clearly justify any means. Incidentally, it’s continually interesting to see how the film versions fudge this dynamic, softening the heroes’ behavior wherever possible.
The death of Cedric Diggory
Harry’s interminable whininess
Yes, his parents are dead and his adoptive parents are terrible. Yes, he had the burden of fighting the most powerful and evil wizard in the world dumped on him in infancy. Yes, he starts the series as a child, so realistically speaking, he has to drag through being a self-important, angsty, angry teenager before he can emerge on the other side as an adult. But does he have to be so tiresome and repetitive about it? No one likes a perfect protagonist, but the books in particular often err on the side of verisimilitude by dragging Harry through seemingly endless bouts of “I’m so alone and my burdens are so heavy,” even as his friends and mentors stand by repeating “We’re here to help, Harry. Hello? Hell-O?” over and over. And while it was deeply touching the first time Harry got an indication of his parents’ undying love and pride in him, both the books and the movies went back to that well over and over and over again, until it felt like the wizarding world was made up entirely of devices to let people hang out with deceased relatives and nag them for just one more tiny bit of validation.
Legend has it that J.K. Rowling wrote the epilogue to Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows long before the rest of the book, and its tacked-on quality, extremely at odds with the 750 pages that precede it, seems to back up that claim. It isn’t just that the seven-page “Nineteen Years Later” reads like fan-fiction, pairing off characters and listing the names of their various offspring; it reads like bad fan-fiction, stilted and vague, obligatorily hitting all the fan-service marks—Professor Longbottom, the Sorting Hat, the oh-so-unfortunately named Albus Severus Potter—without offering anything remotely as satisfying as the epic, emotional previous chapter. The bright side is, since it adds nothing to the reading experience, fans can safely stop re-reading before reaching it.
The world of Potter
Many criticisms can be leveled at J.K. Rowling’s work in the Harry Potter books, from the workmanlike prose to the sometimes-derivative plotting, but let it never be said that she didn’t create a broad, compelling, inviting world for fans to revisit and explore book by book. Rowling piles on enough details to literally fill a theme park, everything from imagined vocabulary, geography, and history to food, currency, and fashion. The pages and pages’ worth of minutiae offer obsessive fans plenty of fodder to memorize and add to various Wikis, but more importantly, it contributes to a ranging, colorful, and yes, believable magical world that’s a large part of the series’ appeal—and why it can sustain movies, merchandise, museum exhibits, theme parks, day camps, and whatever other outlets Rowling can come up with to satiate Potter fans’ desire to return to her magical world.
MOST MEMORABLE SCENES (BOOKS)
Hogwarts’ last stand
Harry’s Sorting and first Hogwarts feast
Harry’s first night at Hogwarts is a major info-dump, both for him and for readers. So many pieces of the Potter puzzle make their first appearance during the beginning-of-year feast: The four houses and their associated ideals and ghosts, Professors McGonagall and Snape, Harry’s burning scar, and of course Albus Dumbledore, at this point still a loveable eccentric charming students with his welcoming speech of “a few words”: “Nitwit! Blubber! Oddment! Tweak!” It seems positively quaint in hindsight, knowing that six years later, that same enchanted ceiling will be looking down upon a bloody wizard battle. But it’s also a reminder of how much the books—and their protagonist—have grown while still remaining true to their original spirit.
The Yule Ball
MOST MEMORABLE SCENES (MOVIES)
Harry Vs. Lucius Malfoy
Practically the whole Harry Potter series is about Harry facing deadly dangers and impossible odds, but the moment where he defies a much older and more powerful wizard at the end of film two, Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets, is a turning point. He doesn’t blunder his way through the situation, he goes in with a clever plan, and he faces it armored in self-righteousness, with none of the visible fear or desperation that marked his previous face-offs. On top of that, this is a battle he could easily avoid, but consciously chooses to pursue anyway. So even though it’s a confrontation at least partially on behalf of Dobby the house-elf, the squeaky-voiced, annoying Jar-Jar Binks of the movie series, it’s still a thrill to see tiny little Harry coldly, calmly point out Lucius’ evildoing, then immediately punish it by engineering Dobby’s release from Lucius, then immediately reap the benefits, as Lucius attempts to strike him dead and Dobby reveals a confident, capable new side of his personality.
Dumbledore Vs. Voldemort
After two successive Defense Against The Dark Arts teachers with nothing much to offer, Remus Lupin is a breath of fresh air: He knows what he’s doing as a spellcaster, he genuinely cares about his students, and he makes a lively game out of standing up to an authentically scary hazard. After teaching his students about boggarts—monsters who take the form of whatever the wizard they’re facing fears most—he teaches them how to defend themselves with a wave of the wand, a shouted “Riddikulus!” and a mental image of their fears made, well, ridiculous. In the movie version of Prisoner Of Azkaban, director Alfonso Cuarón gives this scene a lively, funny snap, setting it to John Williams’ chopped-up take on Benny Goodman’s “Sing, Sing, Sing” (which Lupin plays on a Victrola, further revealing himself as the Hogwarts teacher with the best sense of humor and style), and using it to bring up playful images of Alan Rickman in fussy grandma drag and a spider on roller skates. (The giant clown-in-the-box? That’s just creepy.) Best of all, it’s something incredibly rare in the film versions: A sense of a normal day-in-the-life at Hogwarts, where the kids are actually learning something, and people besides the three protagonists get a shot at proving themselves. Then Harry Potter just has to step up and ruin everything by being Harry Potter, and the scene goes from hilarity to drama in one well-directed heartbeat.