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The Pro-Youth Pages
© 2002, Pro-Youth Pages

What's Wrong with the Harry Potter Movie

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (2001) Starring Daniel Radcliffe and Richard Harris. Written by Steve Kloves. Directed by Chris Columbus.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone proves to be a great example of "children's movies" made by adults who seem to dislike children. It offers great special effects and occasional charm, but no respect for the young people who shell out money to see it.

In early scenes, Harry lives with his adoptive family.* He uses sorcery against his obnoxious brother, throwing the child in a snake cage; but Harry never does anything to harm his even-more-obnoxious parents. He simply accepts their mistreatment. Once again Hollywood tells the audience it is okay to hurt children, but not okay to hurt adults.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone

I won't comment on the popular novel I haven't yet bothered to read. So I'm confining my comments here to the film.

Despite his supernatural powers, Harry Potter proves to be one of Hollywood's most powerless protagonists. Harry accomplishes nothing by hard work or talent. Every victory is handed to him by luck or by the charity of adults.

In the climax, for example, Harry defeats the main villain by using a form of magic he did not know he had, a magic he exercises by accident. This is an ageist cliché: older heroes in movies get to defeat their enemies by outwitting or out-fighting them, but young heroes always sit helplessly and have to be saved by luck. Children who look to fiction to let them enjoy a brief moment of empowerment they can relate to and can live through vicariously ... those children are usually out of luck.

Later, we are told Harry had this extra magic because his "real" parents loved him. His fate, therefore, has been determined by his parents. Message to children: if your parents don't love you, you can never be anything; you'd better kiss up to them and win their love; your fate is in their hands.

At the end, we have a supposedly cheerful scene where Harry's student group wins a coveted prize. They win it by accumulating points the adults hand out at will. It is a popularity contest requiring children to be popular, not with their peers, but with cold-hearted adults. When Harry's group wins, triumphant music wells up and we hear cheering. Harry and his friends beam proudly over their supposed accomplishment while the losers groan and mutter over their supposed failure. The filmmakers suggest the greatest achievement a child can have is to be liked by adults, even hostile adults, or at least be less hated than other children. These adult characters throw points to Harry and his group the way a person might throw scraps of food to a favored dog, and the filmmakers treat this as the highest victory a child can enjoy.

Do children in real life want to be liked by cold teachers who bully them? Well, we all want to be liked. But to make this the big victory of a fantasy hero is degrading, especially when fantasy heroes for children are so rare. Hollywood has not offered children a hero in a major movie since Home Alone. That film, similarly, ended with the young hero subjugating himself to his parents to win their love, apologizing for having not done a better job of kissing up to them. (Both films, incidentally, were directed by Chris Columbus.)

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone is supposed to be a fantasy for children. But children do not fantasize about being dependent on adults. They fantasize about freedom and self-determination, the way we all do. Many in the Hollywood establishment, it seems, have declared only adults may dream.

Children looking for a movie they can enjoy and for a child character they can live through vicariously may have to settle for RoboCop 2 or V.I. Warshawski, films where the children are only supporting characters, but where the children at least get to do something, achieve something with hard work and sharp thinking, and where the children at least show some self-respect. Children insisting on hocus-pocus could still do better with Bless the Child, where the powerful child at least has some dignity. (Too bad all three films were rated "R." That seems to be the MPAA's way of confining young moviegoers to films that insult them.)


Boring Correction of the Decade: In the years since I wrote this analysis, I've received complaints from several Harry Potter fans outraged that I misrepresented Harry Potter's home. I describe him here as living with adoptive parents, but that's not true at all. They're really just parents who adopted him. But they're his aunt and uncle, so that makes it totally different. (Don't ask me how.) Also, the person I wrongly identify as Harry's adoptive brother is really the son of the parents who adopted Harry, so he is not at all Harry's adoptive brother, he's Harry's cousin. I apologize for my vicious smear, and I confess it was deliberate. I was attempting to describe Harry Potter's situation, not his bloodline, so I skipped irrelevant details. Now that I've come clean, Potter-fans can rest easy. And you, the reader of this correction, can feel proud that you've wisely invested the last two minutes learning this valuable truth.
For more examples of this message, see The Hollywood Dream Factory vs. Youth or Things I Hate About "10 Things I Hate About You".

Update 2005:

Finally a film with a child getting to display some heroism has snuck into a PG-13 rating. Elektra is not as respectful toward youth as the films named in the last paragraph above, but it still beats the Harry Potter films. Check out our review if you want some surprises spoiled.

See also: