ESSAY: A Fine Kettle of Red Herrings
Diana DeRiggs, MaceVindaloo

For those of you who have not yet read Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, there are SPOILERS for that book in this essay.


It's over ... we have to get back to our normal Muggle lives, only we will never quite be Muggles again, for we know how the Harry Potter books end. It's the end of the series, and I had poo-poo'd and pshaw'd at people who kept hoping against hope that J.K. Rowling would write more Harry Potter books. For one, the major villains and many heros, and the one true anti-hero are dead. For another, it's Rowling's world and she can refuse to write it. I do admire her integrity to hold fast and stop, rather than to spin out a fantastically successful franchise.

Many I've spoken to have expressed disappointment, but it wasn't really obvious whether the disappointment was due to the prosaic quality of the book (one guy referred to it as "the big wrap-up"), or the depression that sets in when you realize that's it ... well, it's done, and no more guessing and theorizing (the equivalent of talking around the pumpkin juice cooler). No more anticipation and midnight book parties.

You know the ending. There goes your innocence. You'll never get it back ... the writers of the Old Testament did get one thing right: Once you eat of the tree of knowledge, you can't go back to innocence.

Not that we didn't want to. We craved it, didn't we? We scrounged for scraps of knowledge, played along with Rowling's website games, got sorted into Houses. Some of us even made costumes and showed up in public as Hermione or Harry or Ron. Some of us even compared our significant others to Fleur or Viktor or Cedric or Cho ... we were filled with longing to live in the wizarding world.

And when Rowling served up platter after platter of red herrings, we ate them up and begged for more! For they were the possible clues to what happens to Harry and Voldemort in the end. And the prophecy stated that one cannot survive while the other lives, meaning the whole of Harry's life represented a sort of unstable cosmic schism. Two things existed together where only one could do so. So who would survive? Who would live?

The red herrings were numerous and the movies helped build on them. I, for one, thought the movies contained interesting clues, too. Making movies is more expensive in terms of time and money, so the temptation to show everything as written and described in the books would not be so strong. And assuming that Rowling was given the right to veto the scripting efforts, she could force things to be put back in which were left out, if they were important.

Other things would prove to simply be red herrings, or even more simply, stuff that made the wizard world richer. These things would help us to understand Harry's entry and learning into the world. It's a little bit like when Blackthorne found himself being forced to learn Japanese in Shogun. The subtitled translations came only gradually, and we got to understand what the Japanese captors were saying only as Blackthorne was learning to understand them. Magic because more accepted by Harry as the books went on, as he wore his nature more naturally.

And there were "sort of" red herrings, like SPEW. A lot was made of Hermione's efforts to get the wizarding world to not abuse house elves so badly. They had proven to have loyalty and special magic of their own. Dumbledore had likewise sent Hagrid and Olympe Maxime to talk to giants to try to get them to join the wizards, or at least prevent them from joining the Death Eaters. The idea of reviled or ignored creatures turning the tide is an old theme, most famously used in the modern world by George Lucas when he had Ewoks as the keys to destroying Palpatine. Yet in the movies, SPEW or Winky were never mentioned. The only house elves we see are Dobby and Kreacher, but that's quite enough to get the "flavor" of their importance. In fact, Kreacher was not written into the script for Order of the Phoenix, but Rowling demanded he be put in, as he'd turn out to be important indeed, in an exposition sort of way.

The movies do change in style, and I thought it was wise of Warner Bros to decide to go with new directors as the characters and the stories matured. Chris Columbus's efforts were excellent to introduce us to the wizarding world and to follow the 11-12 year old Harry as he discovered the benefits and the detriments of being Harry Potter in this brave new world.

Alonzo Cuaron's efforts were a big departure, but it was well-timed: actor Richard Harris had died and a new Dumbledore was cast. Coincidentally, Harry and his friends were scheduled to start taking more responsibility for the world they lived in, and Cuaron's direction was stellar. It paved the way for future directors and helped prepare the audience for the horrors to start in the next movie, Goblet of Fire.

The films often ruined an image in our heads. For instance, wasn't Viktor Krumm more gangly? Wasn't Fleur more beautiful? Wasn't Arthur Weasley taller and thinner? Wasn't Luna grubbier? The fact that they didn't match the image in our heads meant that those physical attributes were actually not important in the story-telling. Unlike Ron's jealousy or Harry's scar, they were dressing and gilding, a way to enrich the world without affecting it.

But what of Harry's eyes? They were supposed to be bright green, like his mother's. The young Daniel Radcliffe apparently could not tolerate the green contact lenses, so they left his eyes as blue in the movies. Were Lily Evans's eyes green in the movie? Or did they deliberately keep her misty looking to avoid that question? And the other characters did not mention the color of Lily's or Harry's eyes. Instead, they simply said, "You have your mother's eyes." And that was the only important bit, not the color of his eyes. The greenness was a red herring, in its way.

Another big issue — the Dursleys ... what was all that about Petunia? An outtake from the movies shows Petunia suffering more from Hogwart's attempts to contact Harry. And the books made it clear that Petunia was a normal child, and not a "mudblood" like her sister, Lily. But what was she trying to tell Harry? The books described her as on the verge of telling Harry something, then giving up. And why redeem Dudley, only to have him never come back into Harry's life? The Dursleys suffered terribly in order to show the Cinderella aspects of Harry's life and times. Now that we know more, it seems grossly unfair that they be depicted so vilely, and then ... nothing.

On the other hand, all the hints about Snape were there, all the duality and obsessive behaviors he displayed not only toward Harry, but to everyone including Dumbledore. He was a man used by both sides, yet he was loyal only to his love for Lily Evans — and like it or not, that love was pure and ever-lasting. For those who cannot accept it, perhaps they are too young to understand that good and evil are not always different things — just like Obi-wan said, in another, but very parallel, universe. Perhaps those critics have not lived enough to accept that a book cannot be judged by its cover, nor, perhaps had they been loved nor have they lost. And by the way, that kid Mark Evans (who showed up now and again as a classmate of Harry's) turns out to have nothing to do with Lily or Harry.

From religion's point of view, the whole story was boycotted and reviled by people for being about witchcraft and demon/devil worship. And yet, the end of the series was quite a blatant Christ tale, even more so than The Chronicles of Narnia. That's one heck of a red herring; for all of you fools who thought it was an anti-Christian tale, don't you feel silly now?

In the end, Rowling kept us guessing and the films added fuel to our musings. Many people were upset that the book was not depicted exactly as the movies are, but that would be silly. They are different media and why bother with both if one would suffice? No, they complemented one another and their overlaps and such did burn the fires hotter!


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