The Mysterious Politics of Harry Potter: Dominic Hilton reviews Harry Potter and The Order of the Phoenix

Sorry, film fans. Contrary to what you may have heard, Harry Potter does not get naked in The Order of the Phoenix. Nor do any of his mates, like Hermione or Hagrid.

 

If you are desperate to see Harry Potter with his kit off, check out Peter Schaffer’s play about a moonstruck teen who blinds horses with hoof picks, which is running at the Gielgud. In Equus, Harry Potter (who, I’m told, also goes by the pseudonym Daniel Radcliffe) is only too glad to strip for middle-class theatregoers. The best The Order of the Phoenix can offer is a 30-second face-suck, Dementor-style, between Harry and his new girlfriend, Cho. Harry’s best pals, Ron and Hermione, quiz him in a post-snog fireside debrief: “What’s it like?” “Wet,” says Harry.

 

This kiss and tell, upon which most of the movie’s pre-publicity has focused, is meant to signify just how much Harry and his post-pubescent pals have grown up (this is now their fifth year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft). Sadly, it doesn’t really wash. A first kiss at 17 might have been plausible in, say, 1952. But this is 2007. If Hogwarts were in any way reflective of modern British society, the teenage girls would all be expecting their third or fourth sprogs. The school is in Scotland, after all.

 

Ah, but the Harry Potter story is just fantasy, you say. It has nothing to do with real life. Well, just hold your blind horses a mo. Are we certain all this sorcery is just make-believe? The Order of the Phoenix opens with a posse of chavs, led by Harry’s porcine cousin, torturing Harry on the playground swings. The social realism is laid on so thick Ken Loach could’ve directed it.

 

‘Orwellian’ is surely the most worn-out chestnut in the business, so I’ll resist it just this once. But as you watch Harry subjected to a good dose of doublethink in a kangaroo court in the Ministry of Magic/Department of Mysteries with its labyrinthine black-tiled passages and robotic bureaucrats keeping order as they rewrite history… let’s just say your chestnuts are well and truly roasted. There’s also some tremendously familiar stuff about government interference into (private) schools, and Hogwarts endures an inspection worthy of the real world QAA and Ofsted. Uniform educational decrees are hung up around the dining hall. Teachers are assessed, graded and given the boot. Even Alan Rickman’s terrific Professor Snape is subjected to a humiliating box-ticking evaluation.

 

But the other, er, Orwell-like thing is the general reaction to the franchise as a whole. Just as Orwell has long been embraced by both left and right as one of their own, politically the Harry Potter series has been criticised from all sides for being both too liberal and too conservative.

 

Lefties bleat that the Potter Empire is built on the old school tie and encourages kids to romanticise the elite public school education of well-to-do upper middle-class white English kids, boarding in dorms and supping in the Great Hall at Christ Church. For egalitarians, Harry Potter is Tom Brown with a wand. Quidditch is the Eton Wall Game in the sky. The bacon and egg Hogwarts tie is alarmingly similar to the MCC choker. Etcetera, etcetera.

 

The Right retort that while all the main characters are indeed white middle-class goody-goodies, in an embarrassingly in-your-face nod to guilt-ridden political correctness, the extraneous characters are an unlikely assortment of ethnically diverse tokens, whose acting skills clearly count for nothing in the casting process. It does indeed seem as if no shot of the Hogwarts schoolkids is permissible without every race and nationality on the planet being equally represented, which in most people’s experience is not an exact representation of your typical British public school – discounting the Bahraini princes, of course.

 

Others are suspicious of the anti-bourgeois, anti-burbs message that resonates in Rowling’s story. Harry’s uncle and aunt are the ultimate obese new town cul-de-sacites, keeping Harry prisoner in their identikit house, narrow-minded in their attitude to witches, goblins, magic spells and poor, lonely orphans.

 

Then there are all those Ned Flanders evangelical Americans who burn Rowling’s books for encouraging witchcraft in their children. But they’re just potty.

 

On the whole, this political analysis is stuff and nonsense. Those of us who enjoy the Potter franchise see well-crafted doorstop books that get children reading and great silver screen entertainment that frankly doesn’t need to mean anything. What, pray, are the political implications of kids flying their brooms up the Thames past the Palace of Westminster? Excepting the dangerous security breach, of course.

 

However, just for fun, let’s weigh the two political sides of The Order of the Phoenix and try and settle this once and for all.

 

First, the suspiciously socialist list:

 

  • The revolutionary Order of the Phoenix meets in an Islington townhouse (from wherein so many real world subversive plots are hatched).
  • These freedom fighters have dirty longhair and wear fingerless gloves while they sit around discussing how to overthrow the old order.
  • Professor Dolores Umbridge, Hogwarts’ nasty new ‘ministry-approved’ Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher, scathingly derides “progress for the sake of progress” and would never get a teaching post at Summerhill.
  • When not indulging in sinister corporal punishment, Umbridge subjects the students to old-fashioned learning by rote, and takes no account of the little darlings’ feelings.
  • A crusty old man with a long white beard and a funny hat describes these as “medieval methods”.
  • Evil old Umbridge, we discover, is the Hyacinth Bucket of the wizard world and decorates her impeccably pristine office with pink wallpaper and hideous cat plates.
  • ‘Illicit behaviour’, such as tonsil tennis, is clamped down upon by out-of-touch social conservatives.
  • “Naughty children are to be punished,” says Umbridge, not given prizes.
  • Harry says he “feels sorry” for the Dark and conkless Lord Voldemort, because Voldy doesn’t dig the power of free-loving all your brothers and sisters.
  • The barefoot characters who are “a bit different” are bullied by the Aryan fascists and always sympathetically portrayed by the author, director and composer.
  • Hagrid’s kindly giant looks like Gordon Brown (J.K. Rowling is an on-the-record fan of the new PM).
  • All the parents of the good kids are hippies and wear hemp.
  • All the parents of the bad kids are well tailored and some even wear pinstripes.

And now the convincingly conservative list:

  • Angry as he is these days, the onscreen Harry Potter has yet to indulge in any bestial mutilation – though the way this franchise is going, we shouldn’t count our chickens quite yet. (Actually, this entry could also be in the other list.)
  • Harry’s hairstyle has taken a similar path to Prince Harry’s – from cute bowl cut to a choppier and hipper do.
  • In fact, take out the magic and Potter’s career arc is surprisingly similar to Prince Harry’s. Especially if the latter ever goes to Iraq to fight the evil forces.
  • The characters all wish each other a “Merry Christmas” not “Happy holidays”.
  • Hagrid’s giant looks just like Gordon Brown.
  • At one point, I forget why, a massive ‘W’ appears in the sky.
  • “If we’re going to be attacked, it won’t be risk-free,” Harry says, thus ridiculing the ostriches with their heads buried in the sand about the threat we… sorry, they face, and simultaneously taking a swipe at the whole Health and Safety industry.
  • Hermione wonders aloud if theory alone can protect us… sorry, them, and goes on to advocate some big time anti-terror training.
  • Defying the totalitarian authorities, Harry forms a survivalist club where individuals learn how to defend themselves and attack the enemy by saying phrases that sound like Latin homework.

Make of this what you will. Aside from the political analogies, The Order of the Phoenix is the Empire Strikes Back of the Harry Potter series. Pottergeeks will love it, and probably say it’s the best of the bunch, because it’s certainly the darkest yet. Also, it doesn’t stand alone as a film and is essentially for fans only. Other Star Wars similarities include:

 

  • Harry worries he is becoming bad, à la Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader
  • The wizards have started using weapons very like lightsabers
  • Each film is getting increasingly large and unlikely in scope. In the first movie, the world of wizardry was small and humble. This time the world of wizardry resembled Wall Street at rush hour.

But the big story is Harry’s tough, macho rage, which is extremely encouraging, even if it’s only supposed to be adolescent griping. Faced with evildoers who slaughter innocents, Harry refuses to stand for it. He is everything we might be. As I sat watching Harry’s neck veins bulge in a cinema a few yards up the road from the scene of another terrorist car bomb, I found myself wondering: where’s the Potter-like rage in the real world?

 

Interestingly, the Harry Potter films are increasingly ungirly, however much girls love them. Discounting the lack of sex, there’s a lot of testosterone being flung around the screen, as if Bruce Willis was an orphaned bookworm who wore specs. This is all good.

 

And the best is saved for last. Not to overdo all this political stuff, of course, but Harry concludes with a line that should elicit cheers in cinemas throughout the Western World. Walking tall in the grounds of his institution of learning, he looks around at his freedom-loving pals and says:

“We’ve got something worth fighting for.”

Well, quite.

 

Posted in login to post comments

Submitted by dominichilton on Mon, 2007-07-09 05:40.

Pewsbreegetit (not verified) | Sat, 2007-07-07 00:25

excellent!

Simon Denis (not verified) | Mon, 2007-07-09 09:53

It is fairly clear that Rowling is left wing - chum of Gordon Brown and all that. Also, your own points favouring a lefty view of Harry Potter are more numerous and more solid than anything you can say to suggest it belongs to the right. Hogwarts is after all a state school, responsible to a minister. It's intake is comprehensive - see "Hufflepuff". The books' attitude to anything which smacks of "elitism" is spiteful and venomous. The worst sin is "racism" of course, closely followed by snobbery. Conservatism is grudgingly tolerated, but characters who exhibit it even in tolerant, consensual form - who are wealthy, say, or who gladly rejoice in the luxuries of life - are usually guilty of cowardice. Ravenclaw house - note the animal and its feature - omen of wickedness with sharp talens - is elitist on academically selective grounds, but it is dangerously close to Slitherin, the snob racist house. Comprehensive Hufflepuff, meanwhile is close to noble Gryffindor. It is all too obvious. The drumbeat of propaganda is ever present in all the books, but it is loudest in the latest. For this reason, the characters are thin; for this reason the overall impression left by the stories is one of sour-face self-righteousness.

Paul H. (not verified) | Sat, 2007-07-14 23:20

I agree with Simon Denis: it reminded me (if memory serves) that some snide mention was made in one of the books of The Daily Mail. Not The Sun, not The Mirror; no, The Mail --- the mouthpiece of respectable bourgeois conservatism and a favourite Aunt Sally of lefties everywhere.

...Mind you, I also remember her shooting down some of the dafter attempts to portray her as a hero of the Left (I recall her ridiculing one story going around that the flat she lived in whilst writing her first book had no heat at all). And no doubt there are ideologues aplenty out there who would wish to credit the Welfare State with the author's success, but the notion that she'd never have written the books were it not for the glorious benefits system is laughable.

Ian S. (not verified) | Sun, 2007-07-22 00:10

Left/right analyses tend to break down in such genres as fantasy, because the narrative structures often align in ways radically different from those of the authorial subtexts. Film director John Carpenter once floated the distinction of "left-wing" v "right-wing" horror, in terms of an easily identifiable Other: are the villains Us (at least to the naked eye, or do they hatch from Us, as it were), or are they obviously and from the start Different? Looked at in this way, say, "Invasion Of The Body Snatchers" is one of the classics of "left-wing" horror, even though its original '50s version at least was a paranoid anti-Commie parable - the pod-people are Other underneath, but to all superficial intents and purposes they're the same as you or I. Carpenter himself has almost always worked the "left-wing" path in his films ("Halloween" being the most conspicuous departure, such as it is), whilst being in the flesh a card-carrying Republican.

But apply even this compass to the Potterverse, and the needle goes haywire. The baddies are Other, but then so are the goodies. Each side looks as much like us, and like each other, as the other. You can argue that it's perfect contemporary small-l liberal propaganda in the degree to which it encourages us to embrace diversity (I can feel the local government funding flowing towards me even as I type the words), or equally that it's reactionary-ostriching in the fervour with which it creates an alternative world to avoid addressing any of the real Ishoos of this one. (Even the vocabulary and taxonomy are from a past age - not just the dog-Latin of the spells, but the whole vocabulary of personal and place names is that silly-bouncy-jangly phonetic world of bourgeois story series from at least half a century ago. The anachronism is preposterous, as Billy Bunter's dusky nabob classmate would have put it.)

Maybe that's one explanation for its success: it's the perfect end-of-history mythos.

Anonymous (not verified) | Tue, 2009-01-13 08:04

Hi,

I also remember that scene where she was shooting down some of the dafter attempts to portray her as a hero of the Left I recall her ridiculing one story going around that the flat she lived in whilst writing her first book had no heat at all.
I invite all of you to visit us and date online.
Regards,
Ginger

Adult Dating

Ginger (not verified) | Tue, 2009-01-13 08:05

Hi,

I also remember that scene where she was shooting down some of the dafter attempts to portray her as a hero of the Left I recall her ridiculing one story going around that the flat she lived in whilst writing her first book had no heat at all.

Regards,
Ginger

Adult Dating

Mailer (not verified) | Fri, 2009-01-16 11:41

Not that I'm doubting the veracity of what you wrote, but after taking a look at the construction images of Citi Field on MLB.com's web site, both Construction 1 and Construction 2 phase photos don't even have the ground prepared for the laying of grass / sod. Where exactly did he take batting practice from? How did they set up the pitching? Obviously he didn't need a perfect field to perform batting practice, but after taking a look at those photos, I just wonder how much credence can be given to what kind of hitting took place. Thanks.