Decent Films Mail > Mailbag #4

Re: Harry Potter

I assume that you will (eventually) be addressing this issue in your reviews of the final Harry Potter films, forthcoming, but I was wondering about your initial response to J.K. Rowling’s recent publicity stunt (my take) in declaring Albus Dumbledore homosexual.

Ironically, in my opinion, this fits with the way that Michael Gambon has portrayed the character on-screen, since the departure of the more grave, less agitated Richard Harris. But it has further eroded my respect for the series and its creator, already undermined by the aimless storytelling of the final few volumes, especially the seventh book (Harry Potter and the Stupid Ending, as it’s known in my house).

Apart from the additional moral confusion this revelation lends to the themes and tone of the saga (e.g., is an “unforgivable curse” forgivable, or not? Is J.K. Rowling unknowingly dabbling in Just War Theory?), it strikes me as yet another unnecessary (though admittedly undeveloped, even unutilized) plot device. Like the pseudonym of the six book’s titular “Half Blood Prince,” which added nothing to the story arc, except dozens of pages of vacuous explication, this headline strikes me as a mere indulgence on the part of the author, except that this time, the effect is more than mere meandering verbosity. Instead, the effect is a sort of purposeful iconoclasm, at least for so many innocent, wide-eyed children at whom the series was initially, ostensibly aimed.

Like the dark secrets of Dumbledore’s past revealed in the pages of The Deathly Hallows, it changes nothing, but it changes everything. And to what end? So that Rowling can grab a few more headlines or sell another few thousand copies of her books to a different demographic? It smacks of the same tone of story for contracts’, movie rights’, and royalties’ sake — rather than for story’s sake — that I read in Harry’s final few years at (and away from) Hogwarts. Rowling began by telling an interesting tale, but finished, unfortunately, by exploiting an industry. It’s another reason why these books will never stand, in my opinion, in the same company as Tolkien’s or Lewis’s great fantasy works.

My take converges with yours, I think. Rowling’s comment strikes me as the kind of pointless, unintentionally revealing gas one hears from George Lucas on Star Wars, who certainly fits your description of having begun “by telling an interesting tale, but finished, unfortunately, by exploiting an industry.” (Not having myself gotten past the fourth HP book, I can’t judge how well or poorly Rowling finishes her tale.)

In some ways Rowling and Lucas even started out essentially telling the same story, a mythic Hero’s Journey with an orphan foundling with unknown origins and powers destined to defeat an evil dark lord, etc. In the end, the extra-canonical “outing” of Dumbledore, along with the canonical revelations about Dumbledore’s past — like the similarly iconoclastic erosion of Yoda’s authority and power in the Star Wars prequels — may suggest that there is ultimately no place in postmodern fairy tales for archetypal Wise Old Men.

As with many of Lucas’s pronouncements, I don’t think Rowling’s comment necessarily has much critical relevance to one’s take on the stories themselves. I do think that both suggest that the stories are more haphazard and less carefully thought out than their more ardent admirers believe.

For what it’s worth, Christian fans of Harry Potter have pointed out — and gay critics have complained — that Dumbledore apparently had a single, disastrous relationship and has been “single” ever since. That doesn’t make him a poster boy for Courage, but it doesn’t make him a poster boy for gay pride, either. On the other hand, I find unconvincing the attempts of some Christian fans to minimize Rowling’s revelation to a mere incident of same-sex attraction in Dumbledore’s past, and to blur the distinction between the actual experience of same-sex attraction, which is disordered but not itself a moral issue, and the creative choice to make (or consider) a character in a story “gay,” which is.

I don’t think Rowling’s extra-canonical pronouncements necessarily have much significance for the issues around children reading the book, although if children hear about the reports parents need to be prepared to discuss them. I do think they reinforce my comparative lack of enthusiasm for the series, which I may wind up never finishing.

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