The final movie in the Harry Potter series this month broke national and international box office records and stormed to the top spot of conversation around watercoolers, at backyard cookouts and in online social networks.
A recurring theme was how “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part II” marked a transitional moment in the lives of many young adults — similar to, but even more poignant than, the one felt by an earlier generation with “Star Wars” — who have spent the last dozen years immersed in the fantasy world captured by British first-time author J.K. Rowling in her seven novels, which Hollywood turned into eight blockbuster films. Overwhelming anecdotal evidence suggests that Harry Potter is also due credit for creating a generation of teens and young adults who enjoy reading.
Is it a good or bad thing that a generation has cut its teeth, along with Harry and his friends, in residence at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry?
Much of the criticism of the series in some Catholic circles seems to have subsided, though the occasional dissenter still warns that it leads children to view the occult or witchcraft favorably. Among the most stalwart is Canadian artist Michael D. O’Brien, who this month called lead character Harry Potter a metaphor for the Antichrist and said the tale co-opts Christian elements to create a universe of “moral relativism saturated in the symbology of evil and various manifestations of the occult.”
But most other Catholic critics are more generous in their praise.
Steven D. Greydanus of decentfilms.com said the final film “rouses itself toward something approaching greatness” and gives it a B+ on his artistic and morality rating scale.
The movie reviewer at the U.S. bishops’ conference, John Mulderig, saw in the tale a story of self-sacrifice straight out of the Christian narrative. “Many of symbols deployed and themes highlighted,” he wrote, “echo Scripture and comport with Judeo-Christian beliefs. [The evil Lord] Voldemort, for instance, is constantly accompanied by his pet snake Nagini, a slithering embodiment of wickedness. Similarly, Voldemort’s ambition to obtain immortality though illegitimate means parallels the serpent-inspired temptation to which Adam and Eve gave way. And here, as in salvation history, a path to redemption is opened by self-surrendering love.”
The Vatican’s newspaper carried two positive reviews by Italian cultural critics. The first, Antonio Carriero, wrote: “It is Harry, with his inseparable friends, who demonstrates that it is possible to vanquish evil and establish peace. Power, success and an easy life do not bring the truest and deepest joys. For that we need friendship, self-giving, sacrifice and attachment to a truth that is not formed in man’s image.”
The second reviewer, Gaetano Vallini, said: “As for the content, evil is never presented as fascinating or attractive in the saga, but the values of friendship and of sacrifice are highlighted. In a unique and long story of formation, through painful passages of dealing with death and loss, the hero and his companions mature from the lightheartedness of infancy to the complex reality of adulthood.”
Of course, reality is not about wands and magic, as any child can tell you, but in large ways and small, it is about resisting evil, doing good, and laying down one’s life for others. If fiction can sometimes be more true than fact, we hope that the deeper lessons of this creative juggernaut will bear fruit in the lives of a generation it has helped to shape.