Friday, July 15, 2011
This weekend, the final Harry Potter movie adaptation “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2” closes the book on a film series in which the three lead actors grew up right before our eyes. Millions of the series’ young readers have done the same thing over the years. In fact, the popularity of J.K. Rowling’s magical novels with young and adult audiences alike is incalculable.
Taking into consideration the substance behind the stories, a University of Kansas English professor has put together her second in-depth book about the Potter literary legacy, entitled “Reading Harry Potter Again: New Critical Essays.”
Associate Professor of English Giselle Liza Anatol edited the book, which views Rowling’s novels in a larger sociocultural context, focusing specifically on such issues as race, gender, religion, morality and class.
“Many people believe that contemporary narratives for children are simply fun and entertaining. They don’t think kids stories can possess any substance,” she says.
“When you take a series like Harry Potter, though, that so, so many children and adults have read — and read over and over and over again — you must consider the immense influence on not just individual readers, but our culture and society as a whole. People are not just absorbing the excitement and magic and adventure, but the social and cultural values that are imbedded within the stories.”
The professor also teaches a children’s literature course that focuses on literary analysis. Students are challenged to think more deeply about the Potter books, allowing them to debate some of the issues that originally made the books somewhat controversial.
Some Christian conservatives banned and even burned Harry Potter books when the series was first released, in objection to its depiction of magic. Because witchcraft and sorcery were woven into the fabric of the story, the novels were portrayed as something that was, Anatol says, “antithetical to ‘true Christian values.’ ”
“Over the years, however, many ministers, rabbis and even religious leaders who once spoke out against the novels have incorporated themes from the series into their sermons, lectures and radio shows,” she says. “Rebecca Stephens and Peggy Lin Duthie both write about shifts in the religious controversy in their chapters in ‘Reading Harry Potter Again.’ ”
Because of the popularity of the books, many students in Anatol’s class are not reading them for the first time. The interaction and class discussion is important because each reader’s experience and perception of the world will affect their own personal interpretation of the books.
“Some things that seem obvious to my students often surprise me and ideas I might take for granted have not been considered by them,” she says.
Anatol collected new critical essays for the book and asked other authors — English professors, philosophy professors and religious scholars — to update their contributions to the first volume.
Michael Johnson, an alum of KU and currently the Associate Professor of American Literature at the University of Maine-Farmington, contributed the new book’s last chapter, which focuses specifically on the film adaptation of the third Potter book, “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.”
The movie is his favorite of the adaptations partially because director Alfonso Cuaron was able to interpret the book rather than simply summarize it. By finding ways to translate Rowling’s literary themes — such as the relativity of time — into visual cues, Cuaron gets the same ideas across in a different medium.
“There's no clock tower in the novel, but the visual image of the clock tower at Hogwarts — which we see and hear throughout the movie — effectively translates into visual terms the novel's interest in time,” Johnson says.
“J. K. Rowling uses time-related words throughout the book (always, still, forever, Sunday, yesterday, etc.), and the film replaces the verbal references to time with visual and aural ones.”
In the new edition, Anatol herself writes about Harry Potter in terms of racial metaphors and diversity. Besides the literal representations of characters of color, a strong anti-racism message permeates the books.
Real-life white supremacists are represented by the wizards who fight for the dominance of magical purebloods, while Harry and his friends believe in equality in the magical world, regardless of bloodline.
According to Anatol, Rowling herself has made the connection between the novels’ villain Lord Voldemort and Adolf Hitler.
The parallels don’t stop with humans, however. Even the books’ non-human magical beings evoke racial groups. “The enslaved house-elves parallel enslaved Africans. The giants, who are grouped in ‘tribes’ and have been ‘dyin’ out fer ages,’ appear to represent First Nations peoples (American Indians, Maori people, indigenous Australians, etc.),” Anatol says.
As Harry’s struggle between accepting his fate and embracing his own free will comes to a close in theaters this weekend, audiences will have to accept that the journey is truly over. But the themes within the books are eternal ones.
Anatol has her own interpretation of Rowling’s message on that subject. First she points to a quote from Rowling, who once stated, “The idea that we could have a child who escapes from the confines of the adult world and goes somewhere where he has power, both literally and metaphorically, really appealed to me.”
“Because she is so focused on giving her young characters and readers a sense of empowerment,” Anatol says, “I believe her ultimate goal is to privilege choice and free will.”