Our film critic gives his opinion on the controversial series and reviews the latest film, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.
Since the release of the enormously popular first novel in 1997, the Harry Potter series has caused serious debate in many religious circles, primarily because of its basis in a world of "sorcery and witchcraft." Many Christians, including some Latter-Day Saints, worry about exposing children to practices forbidden by sacred texts such as The Holy Bible and The Book of Mormon, and have responded accordingly, in ways ranging from simply boycotting the books and movies to actively protesting against them. Others, including at least one prominent Church leader, see them as excellent morality tales whose magic is fantasy, unrelated to the evils spoken of in the Scriptures.
A Matter of Semantics
The primary argument against Harry Potter appears to stem from numerous scriptural passages, of which I could cite many, but one will suffice: "And it came to pass that there were sorceries, and witchcrafts, and magics, and the power of the evil one was wrought upon all the face of the land" (Mormon 1:19, The Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Jesus Christ). This verse, and others like it, leads many parents and individuals to be understandably wary of fiction that might glamorize "the power of the evil one."
However, such fears are misplaced with regards to Harry Potter. Yes, there are wizards, witches, and magic, but the use of the same words and titles as modern scriptural translations does not imply shared meaning. This is to say that scriptural "sorcerers" were those who literally called upon the power of Satan to perform wicked works. The heroes in J.K. Rowling's fantasy world use fictional magic that has no basis in reality (much like Merlin in The Sword and the Stone and the title character of Mary Poppins) to perform good works. While it is true that the villains of Harry Potter employ "dark magic" to acquire their power-hungry desires, the heroes use the powers of light to combat evil, protect the innocent, and maintain freedom. Similar distinction between good and evil in magical fantasy can be found in The Wizard of Oz, a film I have yet to hear anyone denounce as of the occult.
An Apostle's Appreciation (minor spoilers)
Elder Jeffrey R. Holland referenced the Harry Potter series as a positive morality tale, whose messages have practical value for parents and children. In a 2006 speech at the Fourth Annual Guardian of Light Award Dinner, Elder Holland said:
"You are well aware of the Harry Potter books and movies by J. K. Rowling. One of the reasons the books are so popular, I think, is that they show children victorious in battle against dark forces. They give readers hope that, even in total darkness, there is that spark of light. Despite the powerful evil arrayed against them, they know they can defeat the darkness.
"But fundamental to the message of the Harry Potter books is the idea that children don't - indeed, can't - fight their battles alone. In fact, the one gift that saves Harry over and over again is the love of his mother, who died protecting him from evil. Without any question one of those best "defenses against the dark arts" - to use a phrase from the Harry Potter books - is close family ties. Parental love, family activity, gentle teaching, and respectful conversation - sweet time together - can help keep the generations close and build bonds that will never be broken" ("Let There Be Light," May 2006; you can read the whole discourse here).
Morality Through Fantasy
In addition to an emphasis on the fortifying influence of family, the Harry Potter stories are richly interwoven with morality. The characters, the depth of their relationships, and the consequences of their choices provide an anchor to the fantasy, as well as a backbone of integrity to the spells, creatures, and adventures. The Gospel parallels are many, as when wise headmaster Dumbledore speaks this powerful truth: "Dark and difficult times lie ahead. Soon we must all make the choice between what is right and what is easy."
Later, as a maturing Harry struggles with self-doubt and anger, a mentor tells him: "We've all got both light and dark inside of us. What matters is the part we choose to act on. That's who we really are." Time and again, Harry chooses to act on feelings of empathy and compassion. His friends are fiercely loyal and supportive, and through their struggles they grow to overcome prejudice, standing for the truth even when the masses turn against them. What's more, they are often delivered by their pursuit of education. Truly, the greatest tool at their disposal is often not a magic wand, but a trip to the library.
Movie Review: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
A widely-held opinion is that J.K. Rowling's seven-book series started as particularly clever children's tales and blossomed along the way into full-blown fantasy literature of astonishing depth and poignancy; true modern classics. The films, perhaps to a slightly lesser extent, have followed a similar track. Other than teasing an MTC instructor for "reading something so dorky," my first exposure to the Potter universe came through the first film, released in 2001 when the three leads were only eleven years old. Directed by Chris Columbus (Home Alone), Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone captured an imaginative and unique world, but suffered from a "just-for-kids" tone and a compulsive need to include as much detail from the source novel as possible. I was left curious, but not enchanted. But the films, just like the young actors, improved quickly, and after viewing the third (Alfonso Cuaron's smart, scary, and stunning Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkabahn),I was hooked. Devouring the books, I've since anticipated each new film with relish.
While most film series run out of creative steam by the first sequel, the sixth Harry Potter film (of a planned eight) is in many ways the strongest movie yet. While it may not have the madcap creativity of the third film, the action-emphasis of the fourth, or the terrific pace of the fifth, Half-Blood Prince is rich in character development and skilled at emotionally engaging its audience. Director David Yates is obviously "an actor's director," and he gives his players room to breathe and to explore the nuances of their characters, allowing for greater investment by the viewer. There's not a bad performance in the film, with all the series regulars bringing their "A-game." Alan Rickman, as always, is deliciously venomous as Severus Snape. The three leads continue to show increasing range. Rupert Grint, whom I initially found annoying, has grown into a fine comic actor. Daniel Radcliffe, as Harry Potter, also shows a surprising knack for comedy in a scene involving a good luck potion, and has developed some fine dramatic skills in the past two films. Emma Watson gives her most likable and natural performance yet as Hermoine. And newcomer Jim Broadbent deftly balances comedy with underlying sadness and guilt as potions Professor Slughorn.
Most impressive, however, is Michael Gambon's Dumbledore. Inheriting the role after its originator died two films in; Gambon had big shoes to fill: Richard Harris' kind, grandfatherly portrayal was praised by fans and critics.