J.K. Rowling is a master-storyteller, and director David Yates has done the best job to-date bringing one of Rowling’s books to the movie screen in “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.” My love for the fictional works and worlds of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis is strong. While I still enjoy the greater philosophical and theological depth of Middle Earth and Narnia compared to Hogwarts and Rowling’s English wizarding world, there can be little doubt (having read the first six HP books and now about one-third of the final book) Rowling can weave a compelling tale full of complexity, depth, surprises, and wonderful characters. Having seen the fifth Harry Potter movie twice now, I offer the following as compelling themes I see reflected in both the story and the theatrical film.

Family Ties: I love the theme of family ties in HP5, not only reflected in the Weasley family, their dinner table rituals and their care for each other, but also by the adoptive love of Sirius for Harry and the Order of the Phoenix itself. Counter to the Slytherin and Voldemort (dark wizard) crusade for maintaining a “pure blood” wizarding community (reminiscent of Adolf Hitler and Nazi eugenics) Harry is adopted by both the Weasley family and Sirius Black irrespective of their lack of genetic or blood ties. This is an exceptionally strong theme.

Evanna Lynch as Luna LovegoodNeed for support and connection, to avoid isolation: One of my favorite characters in the theatrical version of HP5 is Luna Lovegood, played by Evanna Lynch. Luna’s strongest lines in the film are when she and Harry find themselves together in the Forbidden Forest, admiring and feeding the thestrals. Luna observes, quite astutely, that the desire of the dark lord is to make Harry feel isolated and alone. When we perceive ourselves to be alone and without outside moral support, we are most susceptible to fall alone– to give in to temptation, to fall victim to depression, to turn our thoughts inward and further lose our human connections to others who can help lift us up. I really like the way the movie scriptwriters and Yates drew out this theme from the book into the movie.

Choices define us: The scene at the end of the movie, following Dumbledore’s face-to-face fight with Voldemort, strongly depicts the theme of our choices defining us more than our genetics, our histories, or even our past choices. Harry is on the ground, struggling to win a fight over his mind with the dark lord, when Dumbledore shares this encouragement in Harry’s ear. There are many strong themes in the HP series, but this is definitely one of my personal favorites. I believe the idea and reality of destiny is a divine mystery, but amidst our partial perceptions and understandings of pre-destination / fate our choices have prime importance. Keeping this discussion non-theological, I’ll note that each day we have multiple opportunities to choose: To choose well or choose poorly. We can choose to act ethically, or we can choose to act in ways that are contrary to our perception of a moral code. (I’m not a relativist, Kant was one philosopher who believed in an objective, discoverable moral code which exists independent of individual experiences and perceptions. Of course Jesus Christ and many other leaders also made this claim.) Harry struggles with this throughout book five and the movie, fighting to not be overcome by the contagious anger he feels through his invisible connection to Voldemort. In the final climatic scene, Voldemort’s encouragement to Harry to kill Bellatrix Lestrange (who had just killed Sirius and previously brutally murdered both of Neville’s parents) is reminiscent of Emperor Palpatine’s failed attempts to get Luke to “give in to the dark side” and kill his father at the end of “Return of the Jedi.” Like Luke, Harry withstands the temptation put before him and chooses the light instead of the darkness. I love the fact that Rowling made this theme of “our choices define us” such a strong part of the Harry Potter story series, and I’m glad it is strongly conveyed by the theatrical version of book five.

We all have good and bad within us: Contrary to the views of some romantic thinkers like Rousseau, Sirius Black (somewhere near the middle of the movie) shares some priceless wisdom with Harry that “there are no pure death eaters or good wizards, but we all have light and dark inside us.” (This is not an exact quotation, it is my best effort at a paraphrase from memory.) I agree with this on both a philosophical and theological level. As I alluded in the paragraph on “choices define us,” no one is exempt from temptation. Whether motivated by pride, a desire for power, envy, a lust for money, or other reasons, each of us face moral and ethical choices each day. This scene with Sirius and Harry in Number Twelve, Grimmauld Place is a superb one, which will be ideal to use (once the movie is released in DVD form) to discuss these issues of human nature and moral choice with others.

Moral duty: The issue of moral duty is an extremely important one to discuss and a critical understanding to cultivate as a human being. Although this dynamic is not focused on as often in the movie as in the book, the relationship between Dolores Umbridge and Harry highlights this concept well. Umbridge personifies much of what can go wrong when an unloving, power-hungry and cruel person holds a position of authority in a formal educational setting. She tortures Harry by punishing him with the “writing of lines” carved into the back of his hand, literally cutting into his skin and causing his “lines” to be written in his own blood. (Harry writes, “I must not tell lies.”)

Traditional educational settings, and more generally formal organizational settings, can be highly authoritarian and coercive. Independent thinking which is contrary to “policy” is usually not welcomed in these contexts. Human beings have moral obligations to ideals higher than their “boss” or the organization which they may serve, however. As an example, members of the U.S. military take a pledge to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States.” This pledge is not to serve only the President, not to blindly follow orders irrespective of their validity– but to ultimately serve in a way that supports the Constitution. The instances when a person chooses NOT to follow the direct order of a superior are rare in the military as well as other organizations– Making that decision is generally a career-ender for most people. There IS a line where an order can be judged “illegal,” however– both for a military member or a person in a different organization. The case of William Calley and the massacre at My Lai during the Vietnam War (in 1968) is one case in point. The Nuremberg Trials following World War II are another example, as are the more recent cases of torture and prisoner abuse by U.S. soldiers at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

I share this additional background to highlight the importance and continuing relevance of discussions about moral duty in 2007. In “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix,” Dolores Umbridge clearly oversteps the bounds of permissible school discipline in her harsh (and literally torturous) punishment of Harry for speaking up in class and insisting Cedric Diggory was killed by Lord Voldemort. Hermione and Ron were RIGHT to encourage Harry to report this abuse of power to Dumbledore, but unfortunately he was unwilling to do so. I think this episode in the movie will provide an excellent case study to use with others in discussing moral duty, the legal limits of authority, and other related issues.

Absolute power corrupts absolutely: Dolores Umbridge takes on a role at Hogwarts which includes essentially unlimited power. Only at the end of the film do the rebellious centaurs serve as the instruments of justice in checking Umbridge’s use of authority. Examples of Umbridge’s abuse of powers are numerous in the movie, and include her illegal use of Veritaserum on students during interrogations, her launch of an inquisitorial brigade composed of Hogwarts students and staff, her struggle to control almost all aspects of student behavior through an endless list of rules, etc. Umbridge reflects many of the characteristics displayed by the worst leaders, and in doing so provides multiple opportunities for object lessons on leadership.

Coke is the real thingStudents in schools need to learn “real things”: The scene depicting the first day of class fifth year students had with Dolores Umbridge is classic in depicting the mistaken way some people approach education and “School” more generally. Like Umbridge, some people would prefer to have students gain a theoretical appreciation of ideas or skills, rather than practicing the skills themselves. This reminds me of Alan Kay’s comments in June 2007 at EduComm, in relation to playing “real guitar” or “air guitar.” Students in our schools need to develop and practice REAL skills, not just fake ones or “school skills” that are not relevant outside the hallowed walls of academe. Similar to the slogan for Coca-Cola, students in our schools deserve “the real thing.” In the movie, students had to take matters into their own hands to learn “defense against the dark arts,” and asked Harry to serve as their instructor and mentor. In our schools, we cannot relegate responsibility of acquiring relevant 21st century skills to the discretionary time students have before and after the hours of formal schooling.

Challenge of controlling your mind: Another theme I’ll reflect on from the movie regards “occulemency” (not sure if I’m spelling that right) and Harry’s struggle to control his mind against the invasion of Lord Voldemort. It is very difficult to control your mind in the real world– Have you sat and listened to a continuous 45 minute lecture lately, or even a 20 minute sermon, and focused on how often your mind tries to wander off into other ideas? It’s often hard to focus for an extended period of time! Yet this extremely difficult task is often what we ask students in our schools (particularly at secondary and college levels) to do regularly, day after day. Focusing on a task or set of ideas is a skill which can be practiced, but is likely never completely “mastered.” I’ve written about this previously under the blog category “digital discipline.” I think this was a strong theme in the movie as well as the book, and would provide a fruitful context for additional discussions, research, and projects which relate to these issues.

In finding links for many of the words and characters I’ve mentioned in this post, I have again been amazed by the breadth as well as currency of Wikipedia. It struck me the other day that in many cases, when teachers assign research projects, they are essentially asking students to rewrite (hopefully in their own words) an article that can now be found in WikiPedia. That sort of task seems to implicitly communicate low expectations of student performance (to put it tactfully,) and stated more bluntly, to constitute a profound waste of time for both the student and the teacher. Why should we ask students to write their own versions of encyclopedia articles? If we want them to work on a report with an encyclopedic focus, why not have students actually contribute to and author content on WikiPedia itself? If your response includes the thought, “my students don’t have enough expertise to make viable contributions to a project like Wikipedia,” consider the breadth of WikiPedia. The goal of the project is to provide universal access to the sum of human knowledge. Your students DO have expertise about many topics, and it is likely they each could contribute something, somewhere, in WikiPedia.

Rather than give students in your classroom assignments this school year which remain at the knowledge and comprehension level of Bloom’s taxonomy, my challenge to you would be inviting students to explore more complex, engaging and challenging questions which will require foundational knowledge at the lower levels of Blooms but also require deeper levels of analysis and thought.

My final reflection on this latest Harry Potter movie takes the form of a question, “Where is the Internet and ‘citizen journalism’ in the world of Hogwarts?” All the students continue to write with quills and use textbooks, no one is using a laptop. (In fact, computers do not seem to even exist in Rowling’s fictional world.) There is essentially only one source of news in the Wizarding World of Rowling, “The Daily Prophet.” With all the spells and powers available to Wizards, with all the creativity which goes into the devices they have invented, you’d think someone would have concocted at least an alternative communications modality for the Wizarding world to compete with The Daily Prophet.

Why did Rowling choose to make her Wizarding world have only one media voice? I would guess the reason was it was a simpler world to depict and therefore understand. How many people today fully appreciate and understand the implications of our 10,000+ channel universe? I certainly don’t think I do. It is much easier to contemplate a world with only three major television networks, or a Wizarding world with only one media source: A newspaper. Thinking about such a world (or writing about one) may be easier to do, and more nostalgically compelling for audiences more familiar with a world where media sources are sharply limited, but that version of reality is a TRUE FICTION today.

Here are some questions for your students to tackle relating to the Harry Potter world: Why do television and the Internet not exist in the Wizarding world of Rowling? How would the dynamics within the Wizarding World have been different if everyone had been empowered to be a citizen journalist, outside the control and authority of the “Ministry of Magic?” Those questions certainly doesn’t have clear-cut answers, but I’m sure your students could come up with a lot of good possibilities and ideas!

Many, many thanks to Rowling and everyone involved in the latest “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” movie! The film was a great ride, and certainly provides a wealth of food for thought as well as subsequent conversations! :-)

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  • http://www.mrfowler.wordpress.com Mitch Fowler

    Great ideas and insight! I also wrote a post on my blog about the parallels of HP5 and our education system. I really liked what you said about thinking for yourself. I just returned from seeing the movie the second time (this time in IMAX 3D) and I forgot how much I disliked Umbridge’s teaching style. My favorite part of the movie in terms of education had to be the Dumbledore’s Army scenes. These scenes really showed the power of passion based learning. Once again, great ideas and I love the podcasts!

  • http://www.wesfryer.com Wesley Fryer

    Thanks for the feedback Mitch! I’d love to see the movie in 3D at the IMAX…. “passion based learning” really is the best kind, isn’t it?!

  • http://www.stager.org/blog Gary Stager

    On a related subject (Harry Potter is admittedly too high-brow for me) http://www.stager.org/blog/2007/07/i-found-community-at-simpsons-movie.html makes the 2.0 case for The Simpsons movie.

  • Melissa Garner

    Your point of “We all have good and bad within us” is brought home even more clearly in _Deathly Hallows_. No, I’m NOT going to spoil it for anyone, but I read what you had to say and thought of book 7, not book 5 (tho it’s there as it is in all the books).

    I would love to use these themes you’ve identified for us (thanks and good job!) as writing assignments for students. They’re themes that run throughout literature and could be identified from other writers if the student’s aren’t “up” on HP.

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