Bright Lights Film Journal

Harry Potter and the Valley of the Mysterious Female

When Harry got laid

Just kidding. Harry is still a virgin. And, no, you can’t see Hermione’s buttcrack when she’s crouching behind the rocks when the hippogriff gets slain.1 Otherwise, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban borders on perfect, if you’re not too fussy.

Still, I dislike intensely the opening shtick, wherein we see poor Harry being ordered about like a servant by his abysmally middle-class relatives.2 Harry’s a gentleman, goddamnit! How dare you profane his fine white hands with menial labor!3

Harry’s so pissed that he actually takes his bag and walks, out into the street. Imagine, a well-born young gentleman like himself, actually carrying something heavy! Fortunately, this humiliation doesn’t last long. A mysterious double-decker arrives, the Knight Bus, a marvelous vehicle for non-Muggles only, thank you very much! At last, someone to tote Harry’s bags! The moral order of the universe is restored!4

In two shakes of a lamb’s tail, Harry is back on the Hogwarts Express, chewing the fat with Hermione and Ron. After a nasty turn with a Dementer, an unpleasant cross between the howling banshees conjured up by Stephen Spielberg at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark and the Eumenides,5 Harry and the gang reach Hogwarts itself, with its shifting staircases6 and usual mare’s nest of potions, curses, transformations, revelations, reversals, and surprises.

The Harry Potter flicks do tend to run long, due to the necessity of cramming in virtually every detail of the books, and after the third go-round the bones of J. K. Rowling’s formula are certainly beginning to show. But with the constant flow of invention on Rowling’s part, and the constant attention to detail on the filmmakers’, only a true malcontent could refuse to be swept away, or at least entertained.7

The Prisoner of Azkaban is getting particular buzz because of the direction of Alfonso Cuar\xF3n, who’s replaced Chris Columbus. There’s no denying that Y Tu Mam\xE1 Tambi\xE9n outhips Jingle All the Way, but the real reason Azkaban shines, in my opinion, is that it puts Hermione (Emma Watson) front and center. Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and Ron (Rupert Grint) are pleasant enough, but Hermione, one must admit, is one classy broad.

There’s one odd bit at the end when Harry discovers Professor R. J. “Wolfman” Lupin (David Thewlis) packing his bags. “No one wants, well, people like me, teaching their children,” he explains. The equating of lycanthropy and homosexuality is pretty direct here and it’s hard to figure out why. Gays are into looking fabulous, after all, not tearing people’s throats out. And the Oscar Wilde contingent at Hogwarts looks to be pretty substantial — that peroxide pair, Malfoy p\xE8re et fils, in particular. Is Cuar\xF3n congratulating himself on his tolerance of werewolves?8 It doesn’t sound like a good idea. And what does that have to do with “tolerating” homosexuals?

Afterwords

The Rowling books rely heavily on the English “public school” novels and stories like Tom Brown’s School Days and Kipling’s Stalky & Co. and the endless serials in Edwardian magazines like Gem and Magnet.9 (“Public schools” in England are the equivalent of private schools in the U.S. Don’t ask why.) Well into the 1960s, virtually anyone who was anyone in England was a “public school man,” despite the fact that only a tiny minority of the population attended them.10

Rowling has tried to squeeze some of the snobbishness (and maleness) out of the public school ethos, but she hasn’t made much progress. The films show a handful of “Empire” students from India, Africa, and the Caribbean, but, to my unwashed ears at least, none at all from either Scotland or (God forbid!) Ireland.11 None of these students play a role in any of the plots. All of the teachers are English and nearly all of them are male, and all of the upper class (sixth form?) students are both. Hermione is the only girl who has a plot function.12

Harry Potter sites on the web are of course legion, and I have no interest in tracking them all down. If you think “stop playing with your magic wand” jokes are funny, you might try Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban in Fifteen Minutes here.

  1. Or does he? You’ll have to see the picture. J.K. Rowling doesn’t write these books for her health. []
  2. The Harry Potter series works on the seemingly universal fantasy of escaping the fat, dreary, graceless parents with whom a malicious fate has linked us, banal individuals who commit the supreme offense of being almost exactly like us. The theme of a boy of gentle birth thrust among commoners was a favorite with Dickens. []
  3. Brits don’t care how poor they are, as long as they have servants. []
  4. The conductor on the Knight Bus, Stan Shunpike, is shrunken, ill-dressed, overly familiar yet obsequious, and unhealthy to boot, his face and neck covered with what I assume to be pimples rather than lesions. Dobby the House-Elf in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets was similarly repulsive. Why must the lower classes be so lower class? []
  5. The Eumenides (literally, “the kindly ones,” to avoid pissing them off), also known as the Furies, were bloodthirsty creatures, more or less female, who pursued murderers. In Aeschylus’s play The Eumenides, Athena convinces them to accept the rule of law. []
  6. The staircases reflect the Imaginary Prisons (Carceri d’Invenzione) of Giovanni Piranesi, previously appearing in The Name of the Rose. []
  7. I particularly liked the Knight Bus, the croaking toad chorus for “Something wicked this way comes,” and the book on monsters, which was itself a little monster. But the divination teacher, a spaced-out California hippie, seemed a bit of a cheap shot at the U.S., rather ungrateful, really, considering all we’ve done for perfidious Albion. []
  8. I say Cuar\xF3n rather than Rowling. There’s at least a hint of subtext in the book, but Cuar\xF3n more than underlines it. Besides, in the book, Lupin tells Harry “I have the feeling we may some day meet again,” so perhaps R.J. will have the chance to redeem himself. []
  9. George Orwell wrote a famous essay, “Boys’ Weeklies,” about the stories in Gem and Magnet. I once came across a collection of them and wanted to buy it, but the book was too racist to touch, much less read. The stories were set in Egypt, and the Egyptians, referred to flatly as “niggers,” were portrayed as hideous, bloodthirsty cannibals held in check (barely!) by the threat of English steel. Bring back the Empire! Yeah! []
  10. Even now, anyone with any money in England sends their kids to “public schools,” to ensure that they have a “public school accent.” []
  11. And as for an “American,” well, you can forget that shit right now. []
  12. Furthermore, the Hogwarts world is laden with bits and tags from the classical learning that was once the substance of public school education. Nearly all of the fabulous creatures are drawn from classical mythology, and nearly all of the incantations are Latin (of a sort). The timeframe of the Hogwarts world seems to shift randomly from about 1850 to 1900. But whatever the specific date, one can guess that it’s frickin’ Britannia that rules the frickin’ waves. []