A couple of weeks ago, as we were leaving the church building, our pastor called me over and said, “Don’t you think that Harry Potter is essentially the same as LOTR, Star Wars, and Indiana Jones, just set in a sorcery and wizarding context?” As I stared at him blankly, he said, “Something to think about. Might make a good blog post.”
I was staring at him blankly because his question was the literary/movie equivalent of asking him, “Aren’t all religions essentially the same?” It’s not that the question is difficult, it’s that there are so many things racing through your mind it’s hard to know where to start. And the answer to both questions is, of course, a resounding, “No!” Not just "No!” but … well, you get the idea. Not only isn’t HP “essentially the same” as the rest, the rest aren’t even like each other.
Let’s start with the two movie franchises first, since they’re fundamentally different than the other two.
It’s hard to overestimate “Star Wars” impact on the cultural zeitgeist, but long ago in a galaxy far, far away, it was just a story. But this story had the good fortune to have been formed in one of the great story tellers' minds of this or any other generation. If only he’d stuck to the forming of the story and let others do the telling…
“Star Wars” was a cosmic adventure, set in space but not sci-fi and not really fantasy, either, at least in the way we understood it then. It was born of an amalgamation of memories of a movie aficionado — Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, Kurasawa, and countless others. That long ago and far away galaxy didn’t have a lot of moral complexity (pretty black and white, literally) and it had even less pretension1. Its light speeders were beat up, its robots tended toward the defective, its old heroes were hidden away on a forgotten planet, and its anti-heroes were on-the-run mercenaries who shot first.
Most of all, it was born at just the right time. The tools to put the vision on the screen were just barely there, in most cases because the Lucas willed them to be there, but the “just barely” meant the technology didn’t overwhelm the story, or the characters. There was nothing quite like it, and in a pre-blockbuster world, it defined the term for us. I first heard about it from a radio ad.2 (Think about that for a minute.) I continued to hear that radio ad for weeks. I didn’t see the movie until months after it opened in Dallas, and I still had to buy tickets two hours before show time.
They say that absolute power corrupts absolutely. In movies, absolute success leads to absolutely corrupted sequels. Like The Godfather before it, Star Wars managed an almost perfect first sequel, but then Lucas decided he needed to be more involved, leading to a much weaker conclusion to the trilogy and then the abomination that is The Trilogy That Shall Not Be Watched.
For all that has happened over the ensuing forty years, it all started with a great adventure story.3
Indiana Jones, on the other hand, was just a nod to B-movie serials, directed and produced by some A-level talent. Indiana Jones had no ambition other than to keep us on the edge of our seats for two hours, and it succeeded in spades. There wasn’t a great story behind it like Star Wars, but there were Nazi’s(!) and The Ark of the Covenant and a supposedly mild-mannered professor who didn’t fit the profile for either, and, oh yeah, was played by that guy everybody loved in Star Wars.
Without Star Wars, you wouldn’t remember Indiana Jones any more than you remember the serials that gave it birth. The sequels are irrelevant (remember what absolute success does?), an attempt to recapture lightning in a bottle. The first failed miserably as the director decided he wanted to be seen as more of a grown up and instead showed himself to be a petulant child, the second went back to the biblical theme and succeeded but only as a copy, and who even remembers the third?
The Lord of the Rings, first and foremost, is a meticulously formed myth. Literally. An English professor, having admired Norse mythology for many years, decided it was a shame that England didn’t have any grand myths to speak of and set out to single-handedly create one. The result was, well, mythic.
LOTR can be classified as many things — good vs. evil, the strength of the seemingly insignificant and weak, the power of friendship, etc. — but at its heart it’s a myth, an epic story of how we got to where we are. LOTR isn’t a single story, it’s a story of the recent past tied to other stories in the distant past that still resonate and affect what is going on in the present. It’s a story of good and evil because myth is almost always a reflection of reality, even if it’s a pale reflection, and because Tolkien was a Christian, he had quite the epic true story to serve as inspiration.
Tolkien’s myth turned out to be more than a single lifetime of work. When he died, his foundation stories, the ones referred to constantly in LOTR as if they’re common knowledge, were still unpublished. It took his son to pull together his dad’s notes and finally get The Silmarillion to print, and it was only then that the scope of Tolkien’s myth-making could really be appreciated. Tolkien began at the beginning, with a creation story, and took it through three ages to the Fourth Age of Man, inventing two or three languages along the way.
LOTR is epic in proportion because it was formed to be just that. The films, being films, concentrated on the action and invented some romance to get the ladies to watch, but the story is of a scope that is impossible to film even across three movies.4 Tolkien set out to create a myth, and he succeeded spectacularly.
Harry Potter is, obviously, a coming-of-age story, one especially geared towards how death affects us. The series begins and ends with death, and it is a death that moves Harry, and the series, from being about a boy to being about a man. As with all coming-of-age stories, there are other themes at play: the power and strength of friendship, the value of mentors, how words can wound us (sometimes permanently), and perhaps most significantly, the impact our choices have on ourselves and others.
HP is not great literature, but it is great reading. There is much to learn from it: people are not always what they seem (Snape, Neville), making fun of someone has lasting consequences (James), and, in an echo of 1 Corinthians 13, we can have everything but without love, it is all worse than rubbish and ultimately leads to our destruction (Voldemort).
Of course, Rowling set her coming-of-age story in a universe of wizards and sorcery, and that caused all manner of consternation. I understand why, but I never had a problem with it, as Hogwarts is no more real than Bewitched was in my childhood, and because Rowling’s inventiveness is often laugh out loud funny. I respect those that choose not to partake, but I personally never felt a hint of a problem while reading it.
The movies were hit and miss, and should be viewed at a distance from the books. If you see them immediately after reading the books, you’ll hate them. But from a distance of a year or two, most are actually quite good. (Except the first two; nothing can be done about those.)
The final movie does turn Harry’s final battle with Voldemert into an action sequence instead of a psychological one. Everything in the books was built to serve that one moment, and the choices that Harry and Voldemort make there are key to everything that has gone before. There is a reason why Harry makes the choice he makes, and likewise for his opponent, and the movie loses it all. It is, in my opinion, a fatal mistake. Without the depth behind what happens, the movie cheapens the moment and robs it of its impact. I understand that movies are a very different medium (see LOTR above), but in this case the decision weakened the movie, and, by proxy, all the movies.
So, no, HP is not the same as the others, and the others are not the same as each other. They are all to be treasured, but for different reasons and for different moods. I consider LOTR and HP to be more important than either of the movie franchises, mostly because there’s far more to be learned from the books, and because both the movie franchises have passed their sell-by date.
May the force be with you as you go out to battle He Who Shall Not Be Named. Just don’t forget Sam and whatever you do, don’t eat the dates.
At the beginning. ↩
Think about that for a minute. ↩
Disney liked the story so much they decided to skip coming up with a new one for Force Awakens and just tell the old one again. ↩
But give Jackson credit, he held the source material in the highest regard and gave it films worthy of the name. It’s been lost to time how big a risk New Line took in giving Jackson free rein in filming all three at once before anyone had had a chance to see how the first one fared. Had Fellowship tanked, New Line likely would have gone bankrupt. That the films had such phenomenal success seems obvious now but was anything but a given at the time. ↩