De-Theologizing Harry (or, The Death of the Death of Death)

On Thursday night, I had the privilege of seeing the final Harry Potter movie in the city where the books were conceived and written, so I wanted to take this opportunity to reflect on how faithfully this last crucial film reflected the rich theology of J.K. Rowling's creation.  I should mention that I was, until the very last book, something of a Potter skeptic, unconvinced that the books were anything more than a fun and overhyped story.  But in the final chapters of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, I was bowled over by the overt and profound Christological elements, which were so prominent that it seemed impossible that they could be integrated without overwhelming the story and turning it into a sermon.  That they did not do so is a remarkable tribute to Rowling's literary prowess.  Following the logic of The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, the final book revealed that the magical world of wonder that Harry inhabited was not all there was--there was a deeper magic, which overturned all the calculations of the magical world. 

But the question was, could Hollywood grasp this deep magic?  It had failed abysmally in the recent Narnia adaptations, sucking all traces of theology out with startling efficiency.  The less overt theology of Lord of the Rigns had escaped somewhat more intact, though still crucially undermined at points.  Whether intentionally or simply out of blindness, Hollywood shows itself remarkably adept at de-theologizing stories, and converting them, so far as possible, into some kind of feel-good humanism.  I had a suspicion, especially after Deathly Hallows Part One, that this supremely theological tale would be no exception.  Alas, I guessed rightly. (WARNING: Spoilers ahead!)

Now don't get me wrong.  From a strictly cinematic standpoint, and indeed from the standpoint of fidelity to the book, this film was, to my mind, all that could be wished for through its first 100 minutes or so.  Even after that, I think it would be quite a decent film to anyone who hadn't read the book.  But these last 20 minutes, encompassing the part after Harry dies and Rowling cranks up the theology into high gear, subtly but systematically removed four key elements of these final chapters, which I shall call "The Death of Death," "The Life of the Age to Come," "The Atonement," "The Last Judgment."  Note that not everything I sketch here is explicit in the book, and indeed, Rowling seeks to explain each of these phenomena in terms that make sense within the world of the book--this is literature, not a sermon, or even an allegory.  However, I am fairly sure that I am reading each of these out of the book, not into it.

 

The Death of Death

What is it that happens when Harry gives himself up to death, and why is he able to come back from the dead?  Well, in answer to the first question, we could certainly say that the Horcrux that is within Harry is destroyed; Voldemort is rendered vulnerable.  This alone is rich with theological significance.  Harry destroys the power of sin and death by bearing it within himself, and letting it die with him, just as Christ identifies himself with sin and fallenness, bearing it to the cross (does anyone think it's a coincidence that Harry finds himself at "King's Cross" at his death?) where it can be destroyed by dying with him.  But if that were all, there would be no reason why Harry would have to knowingly and willingly give himself up; as long as Voldemort killed Harry in battle, one way or another, the Horcrux destruction would be accomplished.  And yet great stress is laid in the book on the necessity that Harry voluntarily take this death upon himself.  He must give himself up to death.  Nor, if it were merely about destroying the Horcrux, would there be any reason he should come back from the dead, just as, from the standpoint of Christian theology, if redemption was merely the expiation of sin at the cross, it's hard to see what significance the resurrection has.  

To fully grasp what's going on at this point in the book, we have to think of the significance of the Deathly Hallows, which are after all what the book is all about.  The theme of the book is established many chapters earlier, at Godric's Hollow, with the twin New Testament passages, "The last enemy to be destroyed is death" and "Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also."  Harry wants to destroy the power of death, to become the master of death, but the way in which he does so is crucial.  It matters where his treasure is, what it is that he truly values.  If he wants to overcome death for himself, to set himself up as its master, then he will be little better than Voldemort.  This is the symbolism of the choice between Hallows and Horcruxes, which is built up throughout the earlier chapters of the book and comes to a razor-sharp point at Shell Cottage.  Harry recognizes that he must choose between pursuing the Hallows, overcoming the power of death by taking to himself more power than death, or by embracing the route of powerlessness, the long hard path of destroying the Horcruxes, which means eventually giving himself up to death on behalf of others.  (This fascinating dialectic is almost completely left out in the film The Deathly Hallows Part One, and so its resonances are absent at the crucial moment in Part Two, and the extensive conversation on this point between Harry and Dumbledore at King's Cross is omitted.)

Harry is to become the master of death, but master not by setting himself over it but by putting himself under it.  Death exhausts its force by being poured out on him, the one who willingly seeks it for himself to save others.  Love is stronger than death.  "But I should have died--I didn't defend myself!  I meant to let him kill me!" Harry exclaims. "And that," Dumbledore replies, "will, I think, have made all the difference."  This enigmatic comment is left unexplained, but for the reader looking for an explanation within the existing logic of the books, Harry's cheating of death is explained in terms of the power of Harry's blood, itself clearly rich with theological overtones.  The power of love in his mother's sacrifice is in his blood, and although Voldemort took Harry's blood to weaken Harry and strengthen himself, in this blood is the power of life that makes it impossible for Voldemort to finally kill Harry. 

In short, in Harry's death, we witness the death of death in his own death.  Like Christ, "death has no more dominion over him."  What this means is more than just the destruction of another Horcrux; Harry has not just struck one more blow, but in fact the decisive blow.  But to bring this decisive blow to completion, Harry must be resurrected.  Death must be publicly exhibited as overthrown, its powerlessness before the power of love must be displayed and enacted, Harry must tread the powers of evil underfoot, must reverse the sentence of death that Voldemort has enacted on him by returning it upon Voldemort.  And this resurrection must be no mere "rescuscitation," it must be the return to life of someone over whom death no longer has hold (more on this in the next section).

All of this, I think, is clear enough in the book, although generally hinted at rather than openly set forth.

In the film?  Nope.  In the film, the conversation between Dumbledore and Harry is abbreviated so as to omit any sustained reflection on the significance of what has happened, and Harry simply asks, more or less, "So, can I go back?"  To which Dumbledore replies, more or less, "Well, if you want to."  Why should he be able to go back?  On what basis?  Can the story just conveniently break the rules of its own world whenever it wants to?  No, as in Narnia, what we have here is not the normal rules of magic, but a deeper magic at work.  Thus far, the departure in the film is primarily one of omission, not commission, but the ramifications are still significant.  The following features will show, I think, that I am not reading too much into this omission.  

 

The Life of the Age to Come

When Harry comes back to life, it is not merely a reversal, a resuscitation.  He comes back as one who has passed through death and come out on the other side.  Now, clearly Rowling does not make too much of this.  This is a story, not a sermon, and Harry is, for purposes of the story, just a regular old human being, not the God-man.  He will go on to live a normal life, and presumably to grow old and eventually die again.  Nonetheless, the sense that "death has no dominion over him" anymore is conveyed in several ways.  

After he comes back, Voldemort, thinking him dead, triumphs over his body by casting the Cruciatus Curse, which ought to inflict unspeakable pain on any living thing.  However, Harry is impervious, he feels no pain.  Voldemort's magic can no longer affect him.  For this reason, Harry can now face Voldemort without fear.  It is not as if he has now merely nullified Voldemort's advantage and now comes back to fight him on equal terms.  The terms are completely unequal.  Voldemort has no chance, and Harry knows it.  The game is up.  "You must believe that you have magic that I do not, or else a weapon more powerful than mine," says Voldemort.  Harry replies, "I believe both."  Nor does Harry even have to cast a killing curse--Voldemort's simply rebounds upon himself and he is destroyed. In the book, this is explained primarily in terms of the logic of the Elder Wand, and its change of allegiance.  The Elder Wand, the greatest of the Deathly Hallows, represents the power of mastery over death, the power that Harry has refused to try and seize.  And nonetheless, it has been granted him, in a roundabout fashion, ultimately because of Dumbledore's self-sacrificial renunciation of it.  But in any case, the upshot is that Harry now, having given himself up to death, has been vindicated as the true master of death, against whom Voldemort has no power.  

Contrast this to the movie.  Here, there is no hint that we have anything but a rescuscitation, an unexplained but convenient mechanism for Harry to return to fight another day, so that Round Two can commence, and the special effects guys can go crazy for another battle scene.  The battle that commences is not one that, as in the book, is essentially futile from the start (for Voldemort), but one in which Voldemort still seems to have the upper hand.  Harry is running and dodging, the snake is striking at people (instead of being decapitated right at the beginning of the sequence), and nothing really seems to have changed.  Voldemort and Harry grapple together, and when their wands finally do meet, it takes some time before Harry can overpower and thus destroy Voldemort.  Instead, in short, of a narrative in which the decisive victory has already been achieved by the renunciation of force, Harry triumphs, it seems, by superior force in a final closely contested showdown.

It's also worth noting one little sequence in the movie that runs quite counter to the theo-logic I've sketched here. Voldemort comes into the castle courtyard with Harry's body, exulting over his triumph, and Neville steps forward to challenge him.  Neville tells Voldemort that Harry hasn't really died, because he lives in each of them, in their hearts.  He is still with them in spirit, and so it really makes no difference.  They will still fight.  Now, to be sure, in the book, the defenders of the castle are still defiant, but they are utterly downcast.  They may not want to submit, but it is clear that Harry's death does make a difference.  Harry being truly alive and Harry being "alive in their hearts" are not the same thing, just as, contra modern liberal Christianity, Christ being resurrected and him living on in the disciples' hearts are not the same thing.  As Paul says in Corinthians, "And if Christ is not risen, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins! Then also those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men the most pitiable."

 

The Atonement

One of the most beautiful parts in the book is the revelation that just as the death of Harry's mother protected him, so Harry's giving himself up to death on behalf of his friends means that they are covered by his death, they are, as it were, atoned for.  The sentence of death was on each of them, unless Harry went to die himself.  He does so, and the power of evil and death no longer has any hold on them either.

"'You won't be killing anyone else tonight,' said Harry as they circled, and stared into each other's eyes, green into red.  'You won't be able to kill any of them, ever again.  Don't you get it?  I was ready to die to stop you hurting these people. --' 

'But you did not!' 

'--I meant to, and that's what did it.  I've done what my mother did.  They're protected from you.  Haven't you noticed how none of the spells you put on them are binding?  You can't torture them.  You can't touch them.'" 

This is one of the most overtly Christian ideas in the book, and is entirely omitted in the movie.  There is no sense that Voldemort no longer has power against Harry's friends.  Quite the contrary--he is still a terrifying force, striking at will, with, it appears, a very real chance of triumphing.  

 

The Last Judgment

Finally, we come to the only change from the book that has been significantly remarked upon, because this one is too obvious to miss.  In the book, Harry faces down Voldemort in the Great Hall, in the presence of all.  Everyone falls silent and stops their fighting and watches the final encounter.  And instead of simply going for each other, Harry and Voldemort have a conversation.  Only at the end, when Harry has laid everything bare, does he engage and destroy Voldemort.  In the movie, the final showdown occurs alone, in a courtyard, with no one watching or listening, and only a minimum of conversation.  

Is there any significance to this?  I think there is.  

For what we have at the end is not so much a battle as a judgment.  As I have said, Harry has for all practical purposes already triumphed.  He has passed through death, he has overpowered death, he is the lord of the Elder Wand.  What remains is simply for him to exhibit this triumph.  All of this, I think, is theologically significant.  At the end of the age, Christ will not simply snap his fingers and wipe out evil, and everyone will live happily ever after.  No, he will be publicly vindicated, as will all his saints.  All evil deeds will be brought to light and laid bare, and the righteous will shine for all to see.  The lies of ages will be unravelled, and the truth will finally be spoken for all to hear.  The spell of deception which the Evil One has laid upon the world will be broken.  The wicked will be given one final chance to repent (or not, depending on your precise theology).  Christ will be publicly proclaimed as the true Lord of Ages, and he will name the Evil One for who he really is.  In short, just judgment will at last be given.  

All of this happens in that final showdown in the book.  It is crucial that Harry be publicly vindicated as the righteous one, the one who gave himself up to save the world, and that Voldemort be named for who he is--Tom Riddle, a coward.  The truth will finally be told about Dumbledore and about Severus Snape--the righteous will be vindicated, and Voldemort's lies about them finally unraveled.  Harry will warn Voldemort of the terrible end that awaits him, and summon him to a last repentance, but in vain.  Voldemort's claims to supremacy will be shown to be empty, and Harry revealed as the true lord of the Elder Wand. 

Although I doubt the filmmakers had any idea what they were doing when they altered this showdown, I think they were instinctively flinching from the intolerably eschatological nature of it all.  For the modern, the battle against evil, insomuch as there is one, is one that we each have to fight within ourselves, is one in which we are each alone and each victory is ours alone.  The idea of a final public confrontation, a judgment in which the nature of evil is laid bare for all to see, is foreign and unacceptable.  Nor can the modern handle the revelation of true lordship.  We saw this in Lord of the Rings and Narnia movies, in the watering down of the idea of kingship.  So it is here.  Harry's supposed to be someone with whom we can all identify, and in the very last scene, he appears just a little too lordly.  Suddenly he is revealed as the guy who holds all the cards, so to speak, who suddenly has access to all kinds of truths that we as readers are still trying to figure out.  No doubt the filmmakers felt that audiences really wouldn't be able to relate to such a transfigured Harry, and so the final confrontation must be no more than a last personal showdown between Harry and his nemesis.

 

As for the other changes, I can only speculate whether the filmmakers were intentionally de-theologizing or whether they really just didn't get it.  Sadly, based upon the way in which reviewers have reacted to the film and endorsed the ending, I'm afraid it's the latter.  Perhaps this is, if anything, more disturbing--to live in a society which is no longer reacting against or fleeing from God, but has just forgotten how to even recognize Him