- Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix’s ranking on the Oldometer: 5/10
- Gary Oldman character quality: Sirius Black is troubled, interesting, solid. Also has great hair.
- Does Gary die in this one? Yep.
I didn’t read the Harry Potter books when I was a kid. I recognize that this is weird for a millennial, but I was highly resistant to major trends because I was far too cool for that crap and I would either join the party very late (my first Britney Spears album, Baby One More Time, was purchased at the local used bookstore) or not at all. I’m not sure how Lord of the Rings figured into all of that, but we’ll just make a special exception for that one; I was a homeschooler, after all, and dressing up as a hobbit was practically a requirement for my breed. Okay, I never dressed up as a hobbit, but I did start a website with my friend called “The Hobbit Hovel” using Homestead.com (anyone remember them?) wherein you could choose your own Shire-related adventure. I lost interest in this project quickly, which is too bad, because I’m not unconvinced that it could have really taken off. I mean, come on, that classic Enya midi music that played on the homepage and caused the site to move at a snail’s pace? I could be sitting on millions right now. Anyway….
Because of its immense popularity, I can only assume that many religious families rejected the Potter stories due to the fact that they were everywhere and the marketing was a little dark. Of course, parents forget how common stories with “magic” in them are, and how intense and truly frightening 95% of children’s books and movies tend to be. On the other hand, I did know some girls who decided to transform their closets into places of pagan worship complete with incense, pentagrams, and So You Wanna Be A Teen Witch (actual book), so maybe generally cautious parents wanted to delay their kids’ religious experimentation as long as possible. I really can’t pass judgment on those kinds of choices. My parents never came down with a hard case of anti-Harry, but then, I never showed too much interest in reading about The Boy Who Lived. Had I, I’m not sure if my parents would have been psyched, but I doubt that they would have gone out of their way to prevent it, so I don’t know if it matters.
I think now that I would have enjoyed the books at that time, but I also know myself, and it would have driven me crazy to have to wait for the release of book after book until the series came to an end. I’m an instant gratification girl, and also someone who likes to know which library her next book is coming from (I don’t go poking around library shelves–I’m the person who puts things on hold via the internet catalog and then strolls in to pick them up). All this to say, I observed Harry Potter culture from a distance until about two years ago when I finally picked up Sorcerer’s Stone on audiobook for an easy listen.
Creeping into an international craze a decade late is a weird experience, most of the world seems far ahead of whatever ideas you formulate about the material. However, you’re also gifted a different perspective compared to those who have come before you. Sometimes you’re granted full-blown wonder, and at other times the opposite is true. One may feel instantly critical of, in this case, a popular franchise’s failings while long-time fans turn a blind eye to any flaws that their favorite book series could possibly have, especially the flaws that lie in treasured protagonists.
I touched on all of this as I blazed through the next few Potter installments while working kitchen shifts at night in a nursing home facility, and thoroughly enjoyed myself, despite my perceived “burden” of trying to process Rowling’s creation as only a mature newcomer must. It was fun to experience a series of stories that most people around me already knew quite well, and every time I finished an individual Potter book I would watch the corresponding movie to see how the adaptations fared. Truth be told, I probably picked up the books in the first place because I wanted to watch The Prisoner of Azkaban and see what Gary was up to, but one does not simply fling oneself into the third episode of a series.
Harry Potter and the Order of The Phoenix is probably my least favorite of JK Rowling’s seven installments. Heck, I’ve read that JK herself thinks it turned out overly long and problematic. I understand what she was going for; Harry’s point of view broadens as we get insight into the political machine of the wizarding world, which, with its manipulation and fear-mongering, isn’t that different from our own. Voldemort, the evil, noseless villain, takes a route similar to the popular concept of Satan: his goal is to grow in power while the rest of humanity/wizardry denies his existence. He’s successful at this to a point, but of course Harry and The Gang know it’s all a web of lies, and that in the shadows lurks a real threat. A threat without the ability to fully flare its nostrils, but still.
Order of the Phoenix is not a great or memorable movie, to my mind. By this time, the filmmaking quality of the Harry Potter films had vastly improved from its Sorcerer’s Stone days, but I don’t find this installment particularly distinctive or exciting, it’s more filler than anything else. What we DO get from Phoenix, though, is some character development for our hero, by way of a secondary hero death: enter and exit Gary Oldman as the indomitable spirit Sirius Black.
Sirius is introduced to us in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, and he’s one of Rowling’s more interesting guys, made all the more endearing by the warm yet jaded performance of our Mr. Oldman as a vaguely unstable and disillusioned wizard. I’ve read that initially the casting of Oldman incensed many Potterheads, which of course I don’t understand because Gary Oldman is one of the best things to happen to this series (and movies in general, but let’s keep this relevant). As Sirius, Oldman brings gravity and pathos to a guy who has Seen Things. He gets to perform a good deal of snarling, emoting, and revelatory explanations in part 3, but here in part 5, he mainly puts on a pretty sweet suit and then promptly… dies. At the hand of his bonkers cousin Bellatrix, to add insult to injury.
But why would Rowling opt to kill off one of her most fascinating good guys? Does it really further the story? Is it to show that things are about to get, ah, serious (more like sans Sirius, amiright)? My guess would be maybe, but more likely Sirius’s death is meant to accomplish one thing: the strengthening of Harry Potter as a real and sympathetic hero.
Around the time I finished reading Phoenix a couple of years ago, I was talking to a friend of mine who had long been a Rowling fan. “I love, LOVE Hermoine,” I told her, “And the Weasley family is great. But Harry…” She nodded vigorously. “No, Harry sucks.” Yes, I thought. Harry actually DOES suck. Hear me out: while Hermoine is an overachieving smartypants who struggles to connect with others and Ron is an insecure ball of young awkwardness, Harry is just Harry. There’s little to say about him that could be considered defining. What does Harry even like? Broom sport. One broom sport is what Harry likes. Other than that and his general bewildering Kevin McCallister level tendency to reject even considering to consult responsible teachers or adults about dangerous situations (should we ask a teacher? Nah, let’s go take out that giant snake that lives under the school and probably die), Harry’s got nothing. NEVILLE LONGBOTTOM has more development than poor Harry does. Think about it, Potter fans: you know it to be true.
You might even say that Harry’s on a par with Bella Swan of Twilight— are they both characters cleansed of defining personalities in order that the reader might project themselves onto the ordinary canvas of the hero? That is an effective way of allowing an audience to live vicariously. However, Harry does carry one thing with him that Bella (to my admittedly limited Twilight knowledge) does not: loss. We care about Mr. Lightning Forehead mostly because Rowling and the very earnest Daniel Radcliffe tell us to, but we also inevitably hope the best for Harry because time and time again the boy is subjected to the loss of those he loves. To top it off, most of the dear ones which Harry must part with are his mentors or would-be guardians (so maybe his rejection of authoritative consultation has some basis, now that I think about it).
Little Harry grows up in the crawlspace of a suburban home, under order of his adopted family who imply that life would be better were he not around. His loving parents were brutally murdered when he was an infant, and later, though Rowling doesn’t dwell on the fact, the little wizard develops a stinging sense of survivor’s guilt once he finds out he only survives because of his mother’s mortal sacrifice. He misses out on any possible affection from his Aunt Petunia because she is frightened by magic, he is subjected to abuse and neglect via his uncle and wretched cousin. In case you missed it, our magically talented hero lives out his early childhood without knowing what it might be like to be loved. Harry Potter is the Orphan with a capital “O.”
Despite, again, Harry having little in the way of defining traits, you can’t help feeling relieved for him when Headmaster Dumbledore takes a personal interest in the kid’s livelihood, and it’s nice when Professor Lupin offers him attention. But when Sirius Black reveals himself to be not only Harry’s godfather but a Good Guy who hopes to look after Harry one day, it’s a giant win for the team (Team Gryffindor, of course). When Sirius is murdered while making an attempt to hold back the darkness that threatens his godson, it’s a huge blow. When I read Phoenix for the first time, I knew, thanks to spoilers, that Sirius was due to meet his untimely end, but I was still devastated for Harry, a feeling that was only magnified in the next story, The Half Blood Prince, when Dumbledore bites the dust.
The birth of sympathy towards someone that you normally would have no strong feelings for (once pain and loss have been revealed) is an interesting emotional phenomenon, and one I believe most of us are capable of experiencing. Obviously, the reason for this is that all of us, at some point or another, have endured loss of some kind. Loss and love are the most universal experiences so far as humanity is concerned, and the two are locked together. At least in a worldly sense, there’s no loss without love, and no love without loss. Is not one of the reasons why we love passionately due to the certainty that eventually what we love will either change or leave us entirely? Childhood fades, friends move away, pets die, lovers die, parents die. To quote from one of my favorite songs, do you realize that everyone you know, someday, will die? And instead of saying all of your goodbyes, let them know you realize that life goes fast, it’s hard to make the good things last. The fact is, we will all know the loss of someone we love, if not through the complications of life then certainly by the hands of death.
These truths are held dear by the human race if our emotions are any indication. Superman, another orphan, literally moves the earth and thus turns back time in order to save that one person who gets him, and we’re glad. Oliver Twist, arguably the most famous orphan of them all, is stripped of all who care for him until at last he finds home with a real family, and we are relieved. When I worked at the nursing home in which I used my kitchen time to consume the Potter stories, I got to know many elderly residents, had the opportunity to glance into the windows of their pasts, and I watched many of them die. Sometimes I held their hands, and I thought about how each of them had held someone else, had watched someone else leave this world with their own eyes just as I was seeing them pass away in front of me. It was a bruising thought, but I was thankful to be allowed to share that with them. The gift of loss is sympathy.
Sirius Black’s life is ended, and we weep for Harry Potter, because every single one of us knows or fears to know what he is feeling. That makes us human, and that makes Harry human, too.