Great Britain and the Children of Azkaban

In the midst of JK Rowling’s general fawning over the far-right “Gender Critical” movement, the appearance of the entire Harry Potter film series on UK Netflix was just one further annoyance in a widespread attempt to ignore the fact she still exists.

That being said, I’m nothing if not prone to the occasional hate-watch of pop-cultural phenomena, and so, over the course of a few hungover days, I decided to rewatch them all in quick succession.

A lot has been said already about how dire the films can be, even if in subtle, dog-whistling ways — such as the antisemitic caricatures that are the goblin bankers and the lazy racial tokenism that appears throughout the series more generally — but it was an interesting exercise to rewatch these films regardless — which I either haven’t seen since they first came out or have watched inattentively during the occasional Christmas food coma — with la vie en rose of childhood nostalgia firmly in the bin.

It was Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets that shocked me the most, not least for how unimaginative so many of the film’s plot details actually are.

As with the rest of the series, the film’s central antagonist remains Lord Voldemort, but what is so morbidly fascinating about the second installment in the franchise is just how much this frightful obsession with “He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named” jars with the general complacency that exists in the wizarding world as a whole.

Lord Voldemort is held up as this fearsome but nebulous — at this point, quite literally immaterial and phantom — adversary who is nonetheless the focus of a great deal of attention. (As a young Tom Riddle boasts towards the end of the film, Hogwarts is almost destroyed by the mere memory of him.) Meanwhile, we’re introduced to the wizarding world’s unquestioning acceptance of the enslavement of house elves and also a sort of (white supremacy-coded) hostility towards so-called “Muggle-borns”, occasionally referred to through use of the wizarding slur “mudbloods”.

Both are frowned upon but neither are really addressed in any meaningful way. Harry doesn’t understand the etiquette of house elves as servants simply through a lack of familiarity, for example — and even he is prone to acts of cruelty towards Dobby the house elf, who is framed as an annoyance it is hard to sympathise with — whereas even use of a term like “mudbloods” is seen as a shocking but ultimately impolite utterance. (“You don’t hear that sort of thing in civilised company”, Hermione says at one point in perfectly British euphemism.) The latter is particularly jarring when much of the film’s overarching plot is centred on Voldemort’s genocidal desire to rid the wizarding world of the presence of Muggle-borns altogether. Something abjectly horrible is only recognised as such when the onus is on Voldemort’s return; the rest of the time, it is an off-colour form of impropriety.

What is key here, perhaps, is the disparity between this great good-versus-evil battle between a young Potter and a spectral Voldemort, whilst the biggest factor in Voldemort’s imminent return seems to be a general structure of complacency and fear amongst the magical population.

On a few occasions, Voldemort’s fixation on Harry Potter is given an ironically accurate motor: “He believes you’re the only thing that stands in his way”, as Arthur Weasley says to Harry at the start of the third film. It is a sentiment that feels so painfully and literally true as to be laughable. There is so much else that makes the return of this evil figure seem likely, and it is generally to do with this structural inequality and prejudice towards others — something which, again, is never actually addressed beyond accusations of impoliteness. As such, Voldemort is pinpointed as this great evil, whilst the wizarding world itself is conspicuously stricken by what Hannah Arendt famously called “the banality of evil”. Normal wizards live in fear of the boogieman, whilst sleepwalking into fascism of a less spectacular order.

It is a sentiment that obviously echoes Rowling’s more recent comportment in public life, as just another so-called “liberal” who doesn’t realise how far to the right they truly are. She insists on a general acceptance of opposing views, even when those views advocate for the destruction of an Other, in much the same way that Slytherin House at Hogwarts is passively tolerated by everyone, despite the open acknowledgement that their founder is a quasi-deified figure for those who support the great evil that Harry Potter’s entire existence is dedicated to eradicating. (If I was really concerned about the perpetual threat of some fascistic cult always vying for world domination, I’d probably start by abolishing the school house that churns out, educates and instils solidarity in its members — but that’s just me.)

What’s interesting about this, beyond the illogic of these generally cherished fantasy films, is how it seems to reflect Britain’s general trajectory and political consciousness at that time (and arguably still to this day). Consider, for example, the fact that the book Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets was released in 1998 — one year after the election of Tony Blair — whilst the film was released in 2002 — one year before the invasion of Iraq. Without forming any tendentious equivalences between political figures and historical moments, there is at the very least a clear structure of feeling captured in these cultural artefacts, which do well — especially when seen today, with the benefit of twenty-years’ hindsight — at highlighting the utter lack of imagination on display in the UK at that time. And this is particularly striking in a film that depicts a fantastical other world behind the mundane reality of Muggle Britain.

To put a finer point on things: for works of fiction such as these, the task of which is to literally imagine another fantastical world beyond the reaches of this one, it is utterly incredible to be presented with a world that has even less of a political imagination than the real-world Britain of the era it was written in. And that’s saying something.

But perhaps even more interesting than the banal evil of Chamber of Secrets is the abject misery of The Prisoner of Azkaban. That film was released in 2004, directed by Alfonso Cuarón, and has been hailed by many as the best film in the franchise. It is certainly dripping with a much darker and moody atmosphere than the two previous outings, and it was so successful that it set the tone for the rest of the series.

Whatever you think about the films themselves, it was a very bold move to put Cuarón in the director’s chair, and it makes the third installment a much more interesting affair than its predecessors. As Daniel Radcliffe reflected last year:

Now, by the standards of modern cinema, that decision [to hire Cuarón] just looks very smart and good. At the time, I think we can forget how absolutely left-field that choice seemed, as [he was] the guy who’d just done Y Tu Mamá También. But again, it’s one of the decisions that our producer David Heyman made that really shaped the next few years of the series and allowed us to go to a darker place.

It is interesting to hear the film framed in this way, because much of the darkness was already there. Chamber of Secrets is, as its depressing plot aptly demonstrates, arguably much darker — politically speaking, at least — than its sequel. The only real difference is in the presentation, such that Cuarón colour-grades the film in muted tones and makes it rain all the time.

This is not to diminish the stylistic finesse Cuarón brought to the franchise, of course — it really is the most visually interesting film in the series and does mark a major shift in tone — but there is an overarching point here about the series as a whole that I think is more important to address: perhaps it is particularly notable that it took a Mexican filmmaker to uncover the miserable and dreary complacency of a very British franchise, which his predecessor Chris Columbus had otherwise completely glossed over.

Something was clearly already in the air for Cuarón at that time. In an interview with Vulture, he describes how he himself was in a kind of sunken place. Y tu mamá también was a complex film about the future and who it belongs to, but as he tells the story of its initial release, it seems the film was overshadowed by the world it was released into in the early 2000s. Touring the film on the festival circuit, Cuarón has often recalled how he was stranded at the Toronto Film Festival on September 11th 2001. That event changed everything for him.

This makes the place of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban all the more interesting in Cuarón’s filmography. He has often described the film as a proper coming-of-age story. Harry Potter is thirteen years old, and so he begins to mature and see the darkness of this world for what it is — that is the reason Cuarón himself has given, at least, for the darker tone adopted. But Y tu mamá también was a coming-of-age film as well. It is a film about regime change, about Mexico’s future as a nation, about its coming-of-age in a new world and the reshaping of political relationships, all of which is ultimately background to the ménage à trois at its centre, where we meet two teenage boys who become embroiled in a very sexy road trip with an older woman. (No spoilers for how that ends…)

But this may also just be Cuarón being hospitable to interviewers and showbiz journalists, such that he is approaching interviews as expected when the subject at hand is effectively a children’s film about a wizard. It would be far more interesting to hear him speak to its proximity to the film that came next for him, 2006’s Children of Men — something which, to my knowledge, he has never explicitly done.

In the same interview with Vulture, he describes how P.D. James’ novel Children of Men first came across his desk in 2001, whilst he was promoting Y tu mamá también:

At that time, I was not interested in a science-fiction thing about upper classes in a fascist country. Then, it was 9/11. That is the change. Then I went with [co-writer] Tim Sexton to London that winter. Tim read the book. I told him, “You tell me if there’s anything relevant that we can use.” He read it, and there was one or two things that he said. We wrote the draft. [Universal] didn’t want to green-light it. This is when Harry Potter came through.

Little more is said about the relationship between Harry Potter and Children of Men, but it hardly seems like a leap to suggest the two films — or perhaps their production processes — were a great influence on one another. Asked whether he was effectively working on both projects at the same time, Cuarón responds:

All the time. Even more. I was in London full-time. Going through, you know, not the prettiest side of London. Harry Potter is the time that gave me more space for research. Because once you get into the Harry Potter world, it’s very intellectually intensive the first few months that you have to put everything together. Then, after that is a long time that is just like clockwork machinery. You go to work certain hours. It gave me time. I was just researching like crazy. Reading like crazy. Talking to people. Just looking around. Taking pictures. Just observing, you know? Reading a lot and trying to process. What is great about reading is, you read something that’s really what you find relevant, then it relates to something else that then is relevant. It kind of starts to be like a tapestry of information, and everything was around one centerpiece, that was this Children of Men.

The connection is, again, hardly explicit, but we can no doubt see how Harry Potter itself factors into this informational tapestry. Here is a series that, as the second installment makes abundantly clear, is imaginative without imagination. It is British culture in a nutshell. Gilles Deleuze once famously suggested — and I’m paraphrasing here — that Britain did not need surrealism, as our culture is surreal enough. (Deleuze had Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland in mind here.) We are so seemingly adept at traversing our own nonsense that a surrealist manifesto would contribute little to our fantastical thinking. But there is nonetheless something to be said for how reluctantly we interrogate our political nonsense. Perhaps an absurdist manifesto is something we have desperately needed after all, if only to highlight the many blind spots we undoubtedly have left.

Cuarón’s Children of Men has since become a key reference in this regard. Readers of this blog will not need reminding of its central place in the opening pages of Mark Fisher’s Capitalism Realism — arguably one such manifesto (or political near-pamphlet at least) that interrogates the unimagination of British society in the late 2000s. But there are more examples for us to choose from. Indeed, one could argue that Children of Men is even a little on-the-nose. If we want a far more penetrating lesson in how a lack of political imagination prevails in this country, a critical rewatch of the Harry Potter franchise — and a further interrogation of its persistent presence in our popular culture overall — might just reveal how much more unpacking of our own complacency is so desperately necessary.

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