Assess the values portrayed in the film ‘Harry Potter & The Prisoner Of Azkaban’
Harry Potter. A simple name worth billions of pounds in books sales, movie franchises, merchandising spin offs, and so on. You cannot fail to be astounded at the success of what is in effect a simple idea: a story following a young boy as he discovers he is a wizard (‘and a bloomin’ good one at that!’) and his journey into the magical world hidden behind secret spells and enchantments that keep the ordinary world in blissful ignorance.
Such a simple story has created quite a complex dilema for Christian parents: what values do the Harry Potter books and films portray to their young readers? It is this issue that the following essay, submitted as part of my youth and children’s ministry degree, seeks to engage with.
When released in June 2004, Harry Potter & The Prisoner Of Azkaban took a staggering £23m in box office revenue for the first weekend alone. It then went on to remain in the list of top 20 films for a further 12 weeks, earning a further £23m1.
Classified as a PG film and built on the foundation of the equally successful books by JK Rowling, the film will be watched by literally millions of children and young people. Therefore, with such vast numbers of young people watching the film, this essay seeks to understand what values the film portrays and assess them against values held by scripture. We understand values to mean principles or qualities that are desirable and worth emulating, and it is assumed that the reader has seen the film in question.
Values portrayed in the film
Any biblical assessment of Harry Potter will encounter the topic of the occult, for it is undoubtedly a key factor of the Harry Potter world and source of much controversy.
Yet, in The Prisoner Of Azkaban, is witchcraft actually presented as a value; that is, something to be upheld and replicated in our lives? Or it is merely a fictional platform on which the Harry Potter fantasy world is set? This is an important distinction given the view of witchcraft that scripture gives us 2 and the weight of criticism levied against the film as part of the whole Harry Potter series. This third film, unlike the first two, has ‘blurred the boundary between fictional and real magic’ 3; drawing upon occult practices that are more ‘mainstream’ – astrology, tasseomancy and other such forms of divination. Similarly, the boundary between an actual value and a sheer fantasy is equally blurred.
If we are clear that JK Rowling has created a super-reality (that is, a reality based on this world but extended into the realm of fantasy), witchcraft is not presented so much as a value but is instead taken for granted as a construct of the super-real world the characters occupy in JK Rowling’s creation. As Francis Bridger helpfully points out, the magic in Harry Potter ‘is simply there… it remains a literary device to thrill the reader, and to allow the author to create an alternative world unbound by the laws of physics.’ 4
This contention that the occult is not a value of this third film (using our definition) negates the topic for discussion in this essay. However, this does not undermine the importance this matter has in the wider assessment of the Harry Potter books, nor the need for wisdom and discernment when approaching the Harry Potter books as Christian parents and youth workers.
A loving family
Each film begins with a scene that gives us a glimpse into the oppressive home life that Harry is subjected to while away from Hogwarts and this third film is no exception. This backdrop of Harry’s life with the Dursley’s is set in contrast to the invitation by Sirius for Harry to live with him 5, an invitation that Harry relishes and replays over in his mind 6. Clearly, the chance to live in a loving environment with Sirius is placed over and above the existence Harry is forced to endure at the Dursley’s.
This value is entirely in line with biblical principles of family structures and purposes. God set families in place before the fall 7 and establishes them as the primary social structure 8. In the case of Harry Potter, however, the emphasis is not on complete family units but the provision for orphans. God, the ‘Father of orphans’ 9, makes clear that the family home is the outworking of this provision 10. On the other hand, God defines respect and honour from children to their parents (and guardians) above the parents responsibility to love their children 11. This is clearly different to the value held by the film.
For Harry, grasping an understanding of his parents is part of forming his identity as a teenager growing into a young adult. With every snippet of information he gleans about his family, another piece of his identity jigsaw is slotted into place. At the very end of the film Sirius remarks that ‘the ones that love us never really leave us, and [we] can always find them in [our hearts]’ 12, indicating that the heartfelt memories of loved ones are fundamental parts of our very person. This is indicative of society’s feeling of lack of identity and inability to achieve self definition.
Though our identity is indeed shaped by our ancestry and heritage, our identity is fundamentally linked to God our creator. We are formed in his image 13 and are ultimately defined by his purposes for us 14.
Working through pain and grief
The closing words of Sirius mentioned above are frustratingly airy and have no grounding in any truth whatsoever. However, they do conclude the film’s engagement with the issue of working through pain and grief. This very real aspect of life is played out in the struggle between Harry and the Dementors of Azkaban. The Dementors feed on our worst experiences and Harry is especially susceptible because of ‘true horrors in [his] past’ 15. To combat the Dementors, Harry must use a charm that creates a shield using his best feelings and happiest memories. Therefore, we are shown that our worst experiences – grief, anguish, psychological and emotional traumas – are overcome by our happy experiences such as joy, elation and feelings of love.
The subject of death and grief is rarely broached let alone tackled openly in today’s culture. JK Rowling’s efforts in The Prisoner Of Azkaban are good in part but fundamentally flawed by sin. Identifying that loss and grief should not be avoided is valid biblically 16 but scripture asserts that we are not able to fully cope in our own strength and that true relief is obtained through him 17. Furthermore, fully appreciating the realities of death and subsequent judgement 18 will drastically alter our perception of this life and the values we ourselves hold.
The greater good overcoming evil
Harry’s battle with the Dementors occurs because of their search for the fugitive Sirius Black. Following the revelation of Sirius’ innocence 19 Harry, Hermione and Ron desperately seek to restore Sirius’ innocence publicly. At very least, they attempt to grant his freedom temporarily in the hope of one day establishing that innocence once and for all.
It is this moral battle between good and evil fought that is commonly used to defend the Harry Potter books and films and, in part, this is a valid response to claims of the film’s depravity.
Firstly, in their attempts to liberate Sirius and Buckbeak, school rules and laws are broken to set forth the truth and execute justice. In one sense, this is not dissimilar to Jesus’ breaking of Sabbath laws to heal 20. On the other hand, God has set in place rules and governing bodies to exact justice. These authorities must be submitted to 21. In the film, the transgressing of rules, even with wholly good motives, is not addressed or judged as it should be 22.
Secondly, the battle of good versus evil is won by the actions of the participants of that struggle. Therefore, there is a possibility that evil could win. Scripture is clear that the ultimate conquering of evil from created beings is not by the actions of other created beings but through the work of the uncreated, absolutely good God through his begotten Son 23. This victory was not by force, but by sacrifice, and not only was it wholly sufficient, it also did not transgress any of God’s laws.
The Harry Potter books and films continue to be the focus of examination for Christians and non-Christians alike. One can take the general view of Richard Abanes 24 and regard the Harry Potter series as being generally damaging, or one can travel the entire length of the spectrum and join Connie Neal 25 in identifying Gospel parallels within the books and films.
A careful, biblical analysis of the Harry Potter collection will show there are both scripturally asserted and scripturally refuted values being portrayed in each film. The task for Christian parents is to help their children grasp godly and reject ungodly values using the authority of God’s word; ultimately equipping them to make the distinctions themselves as they progress through teenage years into adulthood. In the context of the third Harry Potter film, this process of scriptural evaluation is even more important as it will begin to redress the consequences of the major flaw in the value system that it portrays.
The film attempts to engage with moral agendas in the absence of God. Thus, if moral agendas can be addressed independently from God, then all aspects of existence can exist apart from God. Therefore, we are led further away from our creator God who sustains our very existence and deeper into ignorance.
1 All statistics from UK Film Council, various Box Office Statistics listed under “UK Box Office Statistics Archive”, http://www.ukfilmcouncil.org.uk/statistics/archive/ (15 April 2005).
2 Deuteronomy 18:10-11; Leviticus 19:26,31; Galatians 5:19-21.
3 Crook, Louise, “Harry Potter and the search for identity” 2004, http://www.damaris.org/content/ content.php?type=5&id=390 (27 April 2005)
4 Bridger, Francis, A Charmed Life: The Spirituality Of Potterworld (Darton, Longman and Todd Ltd, 2001), p20-21. The authors own emphasis.
5 Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban DVD 26-1:34:45 (0:25).
6 Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban DVD 30-1:52:45 (0:25).
7 Genesis 2:24.
8 Nehemiah 7:5.
9 Psalm 68:5.
10 Psalm 68:6.
11 Ephesians 6:1-4.
12 Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban DVD 32-1:59:00 (0:20).
13 Genesis 1:27.
14 Ephesians 2:10.
15 Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban DVD 16-0:55:30 (0:10).
16 Ecclesiastes 3:1-8.
17 Matthew 11:28.
18 Hebrews 9:27.
19 Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban DVD 24-1:28:50 (2:40).
20 Matthew 12:9-14.
21 Romans 13:1.
22 Romans 13:2.
23 1 Peter 3:18.
24 Abanes, Richard, Harry Potter And The Bible: The Menace Behind The Magick (Horizon Books, 2001).
25 Neal, Connie, The Gospel According To Harry Potter (Kentucky, Westminster John Knox Press, 2002).
Abanes, Richard, Harry Potter And The Bible: The Menace Behind The Magick (Horizon Books, 2001).
Bridger, Francis, A Charmed Life: The Spirituality Of Potterworld (Darton, Longman and Todd Ltd, 2001).
Crook, Louise, “Harry Potter and the search for identity” 2004. http://www.damaris.org/content/content.php?type=5&id=390 (27 April 2005).
Cauron, Alfonso, Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban (DVD, Warner Bros. Pictures, 2004).
Neal, Connie, The Gospel According To Harry Potter (Kentucky, Westminster John Knox Press, 2002).
Rowling, JK, Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban (London, Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 1997).
UK Film Council, “UK Box Office Statistics Archive”. http://www. ukfilmcouncil.org.uk/statistics/archive/ (15 April 2005).
Wright, Jenn and Ray, Michael, “Harry Potter & The Prizoner Of Azkaban – A Film Review”. http://www.hollywoodjesus.com/harry_potter_prisoner.htm (29 April 2005).
Appendix I: Film Referencing
References to material from a video or DVD in this essay are made using a specific format as follows:
DVD Chapter – Time Code [hh:mm:ss] (Duration [mm:ss])
Hence, the reference 11-1:05:35 (2:50) indicates a portion of the film from chapter 11, at a point 1 hour, 5 minutes and 35 seconds into the film, for a duration of 2 minutes and 50 seconds.