i was 15 or so when the children’s book Harry Potter And The Philosopher’s Stone (retitled “Sorcerer’s Stone” in the US) was released. I’m not sure I heard more than a mention of the title before the film adaptation was released in 2001, and I must confess, I had little to no interest in either reading a kid’s book about pre-teen wizards or seeing it play out in movie form. In 2002, I finally saw the film on VHS and had to confess: it was really quite good. Ever a lover of books, I was very much inclined to take to reading the Harry Potter stories but discovered that halfway into Philosopher’s Stone that—although obviously well crafted and very charming —for once the literary form of a movie that I had loved, failed to interest me. I went on loving each subsequent Harry Potter film and ignoring the books on which they were based until a couple of months ago when I found that I was very much interested in reading Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows before seeing its film counterpart, but this of course meant making it through the six books that preceeded it.
I had been warned by fans of the series that it does not begin to take on a more complicated “adult” tone until around book four. Nevertheless, I found myself much more resigned to enjoy the first three books for what they were this time around, and what they were was a good time. At number four, Harry Potter And The Goblet Of Fire, each book goes from averaging about three or four hundred pages to about seven or eight hundred, and thus their film adaptations—rigidly condensed to an approximate two-hour time frame—begin to make considerable departures from the text. Like many hardcore fans of the series, I would still argue that each Harry Potter movie is about as faithfully adapted as it can be, and each movie in and of itself is fantastic. Even so, I was discovering what stands true for nearly every great book-to-film circumstance: the novel was even better.
In the end I read all 7 Harry Potter books in about four weeks. I suppose I should be thankful I’m only now becoming a fan of the novels as reading them back-to-back this way was a very cohesive way to take in the overall mythos of the Harry Potter canon. Several aspects of the book series came as a surprise to me:
Christian Allegory: Long before cracking a single Harry Potter cover I assumed that the outrage from conservative Christian groups and condemnation from the Pope over their alleged “endorsement of witchcraft” to be nothing short of absurd. I think it’s safe to say Harry’s biggest detractors never actually read his books, and if they did it’s even harder to imagine how a story featuring trolls, banker goblins and spells that make one vomit slugs as a genuine attempt to lure children into Wicca. At any rate, I was not at all surprised to confirm unequivocally that any such suspicions were misplaced and ridiculous, but I was surprised at the amount of Biblical allegory woven into the series, especially its finale. Albus Dumbledore fits into a roll not extremely different from Aslan in The Chronicles Of Narnia; A supreme moral figure trusted by the whole of the wizarding world as faithful, loving and just. He is kind, humble, self-effacing and simultaneously an intense authority figure; he is known as the only person ever to be feared by Lord Voldemort. Dumbledore is adamant in encouraging Harry to accept that the greatest and most powerful magic of all is sacrificial love, something he calls “ancient magic” just as it is referenced in Narnia. In the end it is this very self-sacrificial magic that destroys evil. Of course, Dumbledore is not, literally, God. Nor is he intended to be a perfect construct or “alternate version” of Jesus in the way that Aslan is. Dumbledore is flawed and admits to making huge mistakes. J.K. Rowling later revealed that Dumbledore had been gay and had had a tragic, disastrous relationship with another wizard in his youth (something that isn’t apparent in the books.)
In Deathly Hallows, Harry and Hermione discover the grave of Dumbledore’s sister and the inscription that he, Dumbledore, chose to fix on her tombstone: “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” from Matthew 6:21. Similarly, the grave of Harry’s parents boasts another biblical quote: “And the last enemy that shall be defeated is death” from 1 Corinthians 15:26. At the conclusion of the series Harry becomes master of death by way of a trinity of magical objects and finally understands the nature of life after death. Harry offers himself up as a sacrifice in order to defeat Voldemort, allowing himself to be hit with Voldemort’s “killing curse” without defending himself. Harry wakens in a heaven-like state he calls “King’s Cross” and has a conversation with Dumbledore about the nature of love’s dominion over death. Harry then returns from death to vanquish evil and save mankind. It’s not even subtle.
Author J.K. Rowling has been somewhat ambivalent on the nature of her own personal relationship with Jesus, identifying herself as a Christian who constantly struggles with the idea of it. But she makes no bones about the intended Christian parallels in Harry Potter. Of the bible verses included in Deathly Hallows Rowling says: “I think those two particular quotations he finds on the tombstones at Godric’s Hollow, they sum up — they almost epitomize the whole series.” Likewise, she confesses the overall Christian themes were, to her, easily recognized, saying “To me [the Christian parallels have] always been obvious. But I never wanted to talk too openly about it because I thought it might show people who just wanted the story where we were going.” When asked for her take on the ironic backlash from Christian groups Rowling says something most Christians, sadly, can completely identify with: “I go to church myself. I don’t take any responsibility for the lunatic fringes of my own religion.”
Tone of certain characters: It was exceedingly easy to use almost all of the Harry Potter film’s cast as mental images when going through the books. Some characters I discovered, for better or worse, are portrayed quite differently in the novels than by their celluloid doppelgangers. In the case of Albus Dumbledore for example, I found myself at times picturing the late Richard Harris (who played Dumbledore in films 1 and 2), at times picturing Michael Gambon (who took over the role for the remainder of the series) and still at other times picturing a Dumbledore born of my own imagination accompanying the text. Gambon’s portrayal of Dumbledore is a bit more cryptic and short-fused than the Albus detailed in the novels. In the film Harry Potter And The Goblet Of Fire for example, Dumbledore pins Harry against a wall and screams at him when Harry’s name is mysteriously entered into the Tri-Wizard Tournament while in the novel, Dumbledore is calm, composed and immediately trusting of Harry’s innocence.
On the other hand, Severus Snape, not unlike Draco Malfoy, comes off a shade darker in the novels than in the films. Snape is almost completely unlikable and unsympathetic until the whole of his backstory is revealed. He and Harry share a hatred for one another perhaps rivaled only by the animosity between Harry and Voldemort. Actor Alan Rickman’s portrayal of Snape in each Harry Potter film, in my opinion, leaves much more room to suspect that deep down he’s not all that bad.
With part one of the film adaptation of Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows hitting theaters this November, I’m not at all sorry that I spent July trucking through thousands of pages of Harry’s story. I wasn’t prepared to enjoy it when I was fifteen, but as a 27-year-old I found that when I had completed the series as a whole, it wasn’t far off from Narnia, one of my favorites, and also a collection of children’s books about magic, love, life and death. I suppose, as Dumbledore told Snape: “You see what you expect to see.”