Archive for July 21st, 2011

July 21, 2011

Harry Potter and the burnt banker

I watched the final Harry Potter film on Friday. The 3-D didn’t exactly help my viewing experience, but I enjoyed it (read: cried all through the second half). A few days later I’m not particularly impressed with what I remember of it, barring a couple of scenes.


Yet there were a couple of things that managed to annoy me even while I was watching and turning into an emotional wreck.


I’ve written before on this blog about my problem with Rowling’s house elves, and my current grudge is in part a rehashing of that argument. From the first book we’re aware that the wizarding world isn’t a particularly egalitarian one, with many pureblood wizards looking down upon those who have muggle parentage. We’re also frequently reminded that there are other sentient magical creatures in this world, and that they receive even worse treatment at the hands of wizards. The centaurs are angry; the house elves are terrified to be anything other than docile servants; the goblins are suspicious because the wizards have historically given them plenty of reason to be. The giants are an extreme case – while in most instances of prejudice in the books it is the racist, pro-Voldemort faction who are the worst offenders, years of wizard hostility have meant that the giants are willing to side with the Death Eaters against the larger wizarding community.


This inequality is something we’re reminded of frequently in the books.  So you have scenes like the one in the fifth book with the fountain in the Ministry of Magic (I’ve quoted that passage in the post I linked to, so I’m not going to do it again here). It’s clear in Order of the Phoenix and the earliest scenes of Deathly Hallows that in the face of danger a number of groups within the magical community will find themselves being victimised. And (understandably) the books generally depict this as a bad thing. Yet while this is something that is brought up in all of the books, plotwise the larger Good vs Evil theme usually takes precedence over reminding us that the Good side isn’t actually that good.


So what happens with the goblins in Deathly Hallows (the book)? Harry enlists the help of Griphook the goblin in breaking into a vault in Gringotts bank. Griphook agrees to work with Harry because he considers him an unusual wizard (since Harry has taken the trouble to dig a grave for and mourn the death of a house elf). The price of Griphook’s help is the sword of Gryffindor, which by Goblin law belongs to the goblins, not Hogwarts. Harry agrees to this exchange despite believing he needs the sword to succeed in his quest;  he lies by omission, justifying this to himself by claiming that he’ll hand the sword over after Voldemort is dead.


This is all morally dubious, but it’s interestingly so. We’ve been told that the goblins don’t trust wizards. Here we have a wizard being thoroughly untrustworthy in his treatment of a goblin – but Harry does need the sword, and the death of Voldemort will presumably be a good thing for both communities. (There’s also the little matter of the text proving that wizarding laws of inheritance trump goblin ones – the sword will magically appear when Neville needs it – but that’s another issue).


In the movie, the racial tension between wizards and goblins is not explored, and nor are the reasons for it. Understandable, if annoying – the wizard-other creatures plotline has been left out of the movies in the main. What we do see in the movie is this – Harry scams the goblin into helping him and then gloats about it to Bill (I don’t remember him being this smug about it in the book, but it’s been a couple of years since I last read it). But Griphook gets the sword, cackles evilly about never having said he’d help them get out of Gringotts (which may happen in the book, but is balanced out somewhat by the commentary on Wizard-Goblin relations and Harry’s own culpability) , and abandons our heroes.


Meanwhile, there is another goblin present, and under an imperius (mind-controlling) curse. [Minor digression: I find it interesting that by this point in the series all of the main characters have become really skilled at imperius charms - they've been used mostly against Bad People and for survival reasons, but they're also among a set of curses considered "Unforgiveable".] Now that Griphook is gone, this goblin (smiling and waving mindlessly at them) is their way out. Just as Ron(?) has pointed this out, a dragon breathes fire at the goblin, killing him. Beat. “That’s inconvenient”.*


So what all this explanatory rambling comes down to is this – the Harry Potter series  frequently attempts (though often failing spectacularly) to discuss things like prejudice and power relations. The movies based on it have chosen not to focus on that aspect of things. But to deliberately play the death of a goblin for laughs, in the context of the books? Horribly, horribly off.
The other thing that annoyed me was the moment when Professor McGonagall (otherwise brilliant as ever) suggested that Filch lock all the Slytherin students in the dungeon. But I cannot blame the director for this – despite the lip service paid to not judging people by house (or type or category or race or) Rowling still feels the need to point out in the book that no Slytherins are involved in the resurrected Dumbledore’s Army.
Slytherin students are seen running around in some of the battle scenes, though. Perhaps Argus Filch had been reading the books or talking to the Sorting Hat.


For a nonrambly, affectionate HP critique this week you cannot do better than Sady Doyle’s piece of alt-history reviewing/reportage here.


*Possibly not an exact quote – it has been a few days, but I’m reasonably sure this is what was said.