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Reload the Canons!

This series of articles is an attempt to play through The Canon of videogames: your Metroids, your Marios, your Zeldas, your Pokemons, that kind of thing.

Except I'm not playing the original games. Instead, I'm playing only remakes, remixes, and weird fan projects. This is the canon of games as seen through the eyes of fans, and I'm going to treat fan games as what they are: legitimate works of art in their own right that deserve our analysis and respect.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

The Dark Lord Potter--Using Critical Analysis As A Creator

I've rattled on a few times before about what interpretation of a work is, and why it's a useful tool for an audience. But what I want to play around with today is the idea that interpretation can be useful to creators of art as well.

To show how this works, I'm going to take a look at some of the things going on in Harry Potter VII: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Part 2 (Dobby's Revenge)). Oh, and I'll be taking a brief look at Watchmen, both the film and the comic. I've tried to write this so that ANYONE can make sense of my argument, not just people intimitely familiar with both works. So, don't stay away if you haven't seen either movie. But be forwarned--there will be many spoilers here. I'll be revealing some major events. If I wanted to black out the spoilers in this column, the whole site would quickly turn into a Sisters of Mercy concert.

We'll save the goth invasion for when my sister does a guest post.

HPVII-2 does a few interesting thing with the characters. In particular, it plays up the ambiguity of action and motivation, to the point where it's hard to tell sometimes if there are any completely good characters or, to a lesser extent, if there are any completely evil ones.

Besides, of course, Voldemort, who is still an evil sod.

Take, for example, the infiltration of the wizarding bank Gringotts, where Harry uses an Unforgivable Curse--specifically, a mind control curse--on an innocent goblin. Yes, our beemish, noble hero used one of the four curses that the books refer to not as "Kinda Bad", not "Rather Unfortunate, But Alright, Maybe Just This Once" but as "Unforgivable." Hm. This is a bit of a divergence from Harry's earlier habit of shouting disarming charms at every obstacle. What's more, he gets there by bluffing another goblin into trusting him despite him having exactly zero plans for honoring his end of the bargain. Oh, and the goblin that he mind controls? Torched by a dragon. Hm. This is a far cry from Harry's tendency to save absolutely everyone earlier on in the series, and it also shows that his willingness to bend the rules has transformed, under pressure, almost into ruthlessness.

Now, this is something that happened in the books. It wasn't invented whole cloth for this movie. And yet... I can't help but feel, and you may lob that glass at my head if you disagree, but I can't help but feel that this wasn't ever candidly addressed in the book the way it was in the movie. There's something a little sickening about that goblin standing there, dazed, about to meet a grizzly end. It's a moment that can be glossed over much more easily in the text. In the movie, we can't avoid seeing the casualties of this war, and the compromising of Harry's principles.

Rather grim, no?

It is this sort of scene (there are others) that more completely sets up the final confrontation. We see, in the King's Cross scene, what Harry's great enemy Voldemort has become. Just for an instant, just for a few seconds, we see the huddled, gasping wound that is Voldemort's soul. This, and Harry's earlier willingess to use his power in destructive or unethical ways in order to win, sets up their last battle. Consider the visuals as they hurl themselves around the castle, locked in a death grip. In the midst of Voldemort's shadow, the two combatants twist and seem to almost merge together, becoming one writhing, howling being. The visuals are too obvious, and too distinct, to be anything other than deliberate. The creators of this film are telling us something. But what?

Well, in the book it was fairly obvious what Rowling wanted us to take away from the final battle. Harry, by sacrificing himself, had saved all his friends. Here, we are meant to see Harry as a messianic archetype--in other words, as a Jesus figure. But the creators want us to see him as something less pure, less noble.

They want us to see him as the next Dark Lord.

This makes the scene where Harry breaks the staggeringly powerful Elder Wand far more powerful. Here, Harry willingly turns away from power, having seen both his own willingness to use it, and the vision of what power could turn him into. What makes this interesting is that here the scene has far more meaning than it did in the original text. In the original text it was odd that Harry should throw away the Elder Wand, because he had been set up by Rowling as a noble Jesus figure. Why would he give away that power? He's one of the good guys! But in the movie... he isn't. He's not so unambiguously noble there, so the scene sends a more powerful, albeit unstated, message.

The same thing occurs, less successfuly, in Watchmen. In the original comic book, if you aren't familiar with it, New York is destroyed by a giant psychic tentacle monster (affectionately dubbed "The Squidgina" by fans). The thing is, the giant tentacle monster hasn't come from outer space. No, it's been created by a mortal man, as a massive hoax: he plans to stop an almost certain nuclear war between the US and Russia by convincing the world that an alien invasion is imminent.

In the movie, however, he creates a weapon that imitates the power of the godlike character Dr Manhattan... and, again, blows up New York. This change is not arbitrary. It means that humanity bands together against the threat of a functionally deistic power. They band together under the threat of the Wrath of God. It puts an interesting new dimension on the ending that wasn't present in the original, but it builds off of ideas introduced in the original work.

What? The point?

Ooooh, yes yes yes. The point. Right.

The point of all this is that both movies gained strength from the fact that the creators critically interpreted the texts that the movies were based on. In the case of HPVII-2, they took the ambiguity of the hero's actions, played the ambiguity up, and ultimately drew a new message out of the text--that it is preferable to give up power than to be consumed by it. In Watchmen, the analysis of Manhattan's godlike power and ambiguous morals was emphasized and turned into a contemplation of how humans behave when a godlike, wrathful being watches over them. Maybe. I could be totally off my rocker, and I have some doubts that Watchmen, in particular, was deliberately framed that way--it is, after all, Zack Snyder we're talking about here.

But even if I'm wrong, and all of this was just chance, I think it shows that this sort of analysis CAN be useful. It can allow us to look at a work that we're creating, and to say, "Now, some of what this character is doing implies x, y, z. What if I play that up? What if I change this scene to better fit in with those ideas? How will the reader interpret this?" And so on. Most writers probably already do that, to some extent, but it's a process that's worth doing a bit more consciously. This sort of thing allows us to bridge the gap between art that is pretty but has no real message, and art that has a message but thwacks us over the head with it. It lets us start to see a middle path, where we can raise interesting questions through subtle cues and themes. And, of course, it allows us to pick them out in other works and learn from them.

So, criticism isn't just for critics. And it's not just for the consumers of art. It's for the producers as well. Because choosing to critically analyze a work lets us create more nuanced and, ultimately, more meaningful stories.


  1. One little mistake you made there Keeper, there are 3 Unforgivable Curses: Avada Kedavra (Instant death), Crucio (Torturing someone horribly) and Imperio (Mind control). Anyway, even if the book does gloss over the mind control thing in a kind of "the end justifies the means"-way (is that a major theme of the books showing up?) Harry later uses Crucio for pretty much no good reason, to punish one of Voldemorts teachers. It doesn't quite set him up as the new Dark Lord, though. Or maybe it does, since he does it rather casually.
    This might be one of the reasons I like the 19 years later part of the story. Everyone's perfectly adjusted and normal. No-one is shell shocked or divorced or anything, which they should have been.

    Anyway, what I think will be interesting is when in 10-20 years people will make (hopefully respectful) reboots of franchises like Harry Potter, just to see a completely different take on that story.


  2. I took them fusing to mean something a little differently: That Harry was being subsumed by Voldemort. Think about it he is literally wraped in Voldemort's shadow fighting to get free, while merging with him. It wasn't about becomeing the dark lord, it was about over coming your past. He spent 7 years running from this guy, living under the shadow of his parents and in this final battle he stands up and declares his life his own. Him using the curses is this as well.

    As for the curses, well this is war. But also it is Harry defying the Wizarding World. They wanted a messiah, he want to be a kid. They need to a hero, he needed to be normal. To me this is him doing what he's done for six years (undermine authority to get the job done), but not just the rules at Hogwarts, but the very rules of Wizard society.

    Also the movie arbitrarily cranks up the body count. With one of Draco's underlings being incinerated in the Room of Requirement for almost no reason. I don't recall what happened in the book with the mind controlled goblin and dragon But I don't think it's mention that he dies so gruesomely. The book glosses over this.

    And that was a long comment.

  3. I like both of those analyses, actually. (Also: whoops @ "four unforgivable curses". Ah well.) Don't know what else to say than that. :P Without knowing what the intention of the filmmakers was, I guess we can't really say for certain, but I feel like it comes off as deliberate rather than arbitrary.

    Well, except the body count, actually, although I feel like that was another conscious decision to give the movie more of a War Is Hell message than was really apparent in the book.

    ...I probably should have added a disclaimer at some point that I wasn't particularly thrilled with the seventh book... >_> I honestly prefer the movies, which is not a common thing for me.

  4. Oh, I just noticed I said I like the 19 years later part. That's completely not true. I very much dislike that part.

  5. I was wondering about that! Yeah, that bit is... weird.

    I like the Very Potter Sequel take on that: "Yes, yes I know! He marries Ginny! They live happily ever after! There is literally no way to move forward from this point!"

    Incidentally, if you haven't seen A Very Potter Musical and A Very Potter Sequel... I recommend it ;)

  6. Honestly, I think the change from Squidgina to Dr. Manhattan in the Watchmen movie was just due to two main reasons:

    1) no time for all the buildup with scientists and designers on a deserted island and stuff, and

    2) blue ball of light expanding and engulfing everything = much much cheaper than complex 3D monster that is dead to begin with anyway.

    Said this, your analysis of HP VII is very interesting. I was struck by the goblin scene as well (that I don't remember in the movie), I found distasteful how it was almost played for laughs. I got the feeling that it wasn't intentional, and actually brought it home as one of those problematic Hollywood moments where it doesn't matter if a being is clearly sentient and self-aware - it's not human, so hey! No big worries if he dies. Which is kinda similar to how some people still thinks of non whites really. So it gave me bad vibes.

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