Catholic Harry Potter haters made headlines recently when a hacker named “Gabriel” posted purported plot revelations from the completed but unreleased seventh and final book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, along with a note crediting “the great Pope Benedict XVI” with exposing the “Neo Paganism faith” of J. K. Rowling’s cultural juggernaut.
Pope Benedict, of course, had done no such thing, as numerous commentators have pointed out. Meanwhile, Christian resistance to the Harry Potter skeptics has been growing. Nancy Carpentier Brown’s The Mystery of Harry Potter: A Catholic Family Guide is now available from Our Sunday Visitor Press, and Eastern Orthodox writer John Granger continues to spearhead Christian appreciation of Harry Potter, most recently in Unlocking Harry Potter: Five Keys for the Serious Reader (Zossima Press). Other efforts are available from Evangelical writers, e.g., Connie Neal’s What’s a Christian to Do With Harry Potter? (For my own in-depth analysis, see my essay “Harry Potter vs. Gandalf.”)
While excitement over the seventh book reaches a fever pitch, the fifth installment, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, now comes to the screen.
As the film opens, it’s clear the powers of darkness are gathering. It’s hard to remember a time when poor Dudley Dursley, or even supercilious Draco Malfoy, was a major concern in Harry Potter’s world. Even hostile authority figures such as the ominous Professor Snape and the malevolent elder Malfoy, Lucius — lately revealed as a member of the Dark Lord Voldemort’s cult-like following, the Death Eaters — have in the past been more or less presented as abberations in a basically trustworthy society.
True, there were clues that wizard society wasn’t entirely trustworthy, such as the acceptance of house elf enslavement, and the inhuman use of the soul-sucking Dementors at Azkaban prison.
Yet even Voldemort’s triumphant corporeal return at the end of the last installment, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, doesn’t pull the rug out from under Harry as much as the aftermath in chapter five, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. In this installment, Harry discovers that cupidity and corruption can go to the very top, and even Hogwarts itself may not always be a reliable bastion against insidious influences.
This time it isn’t just skeptics like Snape and Malfoy who cast doubt on Harry’s credibility. Pretty much the whole wizarding world, including the Ministry of Magic and its head, Cornelius Fudge (Robert Hardy), thinks Harry is lying about the corporeal return of Voldemort, which Harry alone witnessed at the end of the fourth installment, The Goblet of Fire. Both Harry and Dumbledore, one of Harry’s lone supporters, are smeared in the widely read Daily Prophet (Harry’s reputation as “The Boy Who Lived” is satirized in the headline “The Boy Who Lies,” and a constantly shifting headline puns “Potter” and “Plotter.”)
When Harry defends himself and his cousin Dudley from a surprise attack by Dementors, he is summarily dismissed from Hogwarts for unauthorized use of magic in the presence of a Muggle. At a hearing at the Ministry of Magic, Harry’s explanation for his actions is disbelieved; only the timely intervention of Dumbledore and a single witness clears Harry’s name.
But even Dumbledore — until now a pillar of strength for Harry — seems strangely distant and aloof. Worse, the campaign against Dumbledore himself isn’t confined to smear tactics in the popular press. The Ministry of Magic appoints one of its own, twee, simpering Dolores Umbridge (hilarious Imelda Staunton, Vera Drake), as Hogwarts’ latest Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher — and it soon becomes clear that Umbridge’s appointment is part of a Ministry plot to take over Hogwarts itself.
In excruciatingly dulcet tones, Professor Umbridge explains brightly to her new students that their new Ministry-approved coursework will consist of defensive magical theory, with no practical spell class work. In a hilarious line, she explains, “It is the view of the Ministry that a theoretical course will be sufficient to get you through your examinations — which is, after all, what school is all about.” And since the Ministry denies the return of Voldemort and the Death Eaters, why should the children have to worry about practical defense scenarios?
At the same time, if the powers of darkness are gathering, so are the forces of light. The Order of the Phoenix, originally organized by Dumbledore in opposition to the Death Eaters, has been reassembled in the wake of Voldemort’s return; among them is Harry’s godfather Sirius Black (Gary Oldman). At Hogwarts, in an act of covert resistance, Harry and Hermione organize a secret student society called “Dumbledore’s Army,” with Harry himself doing his best to prepare his fellow students for combat against dark powers.
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is the first Harry Potter movie I came to cold, with no exposure to the book (I read the first three books, but bogged down somewhere in the fourth, and never got to the fifth). I do know that franchise newcomers David Yates, who directed, and Michael Goldenberg, replacing series veteran Steven Kloves as screenwriter, have turned the longest book (nearly 900 pages) into the shortest film (only 138 minutes). Presumably this means deeper cuts than any previous adaptation, even The Prisoner of Azkaban, at that time the shortest film based on the longest book.
Since I found that The Prisoner of Azkaban, though a more watchable film than its predecessors, skimped on too many key plot points, I suspect J. K. Rowling’s legions of fans may find The Order of the Phoenix the least satisfactory film adaptation to date. Among the casualties, presumably, are Harry’s romantic involvement with pretty Cho (Katie Leung); Harry still gets his first kiss under magical mistletoe, but the emotional impact is almost entirely lacking.
There are other reasons, perhaps, for being less than wowed. The level of magical eye candy is noticeably lower than previous installments. Where earlier films featured showstopping scenes involving dragons, hippogriffs, giant serpents and three-headed dogs, the creatures in The Order of the Phoenix — the skeletal pterippi (winged horses) called Thestrals, Hagrid’s giant half-brother Grawp, the redesigned Dementors and centaurs — have less visual and dramatic impact. (To be fair, creatures in previous installments, from Fawkes the phoenix in The Chamber of Secrets to Harry’s Patronus stag in The Prisoner of Azkaban, haven’t always had the impact they should have.)
On the other hand, there are positive developments. Ron and Hermione, though probably short-changed compared to the book, are better used here than in the previous film; Ron is no longer just a whiner, but a loyal friend, and if Hermione is still a bit shrill, at least she’s being helpful.
Best of all is Harry’s leading role in Dumbledore’s Army, marking a major advance in proactive engagement from a protagonist who for too much of the first four chapters has been largely passive. Harry may struggle with anger and doubt, but he’s no longer just The Boy Things Happen To, as I’ve sometimes described him in the past, but The Boy Who Acts. It’s a welcome step forward in a wunderkind boy of destiny on the road to true heroism.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.