Harry Potter and the Big Zipper

I’m working on a project for some people, a family movie that deals with fantastical goings-on. The producers have politely requested that I create a script that will make for a series of movies as popular as Harry Potter. Problem is, there’s something missing from the source material, some nugget of narrative drive that isn’t allowing the material to cohere in the way we’d like.

In the room, the producer and I struggle to define this missing element. The source material has many fine, delightful moments but lacks a focus, a sturdy structure that would make them fly like eagles instead of puttering around like pigeons. It’s a spine, I offer, the story needs a strong spine to hang its muscles and organs on. But that’s not exactly right. Later on I think it’s more like a clothesline, a strong cord that stretches from beginning to end, and the different set-pieces hang on it like colorful clothes snapping in the breeze. But that’s not quite it either.

Then I hit on the idea of a zipper. There are multiple plot-lines in the source material and we need to see that they’re not random events that somehow add up to a story, but rather they’re the teeth of a zipper and the slider needs to move along, gathering them up and placing them in mesh with each other to form a tightly-knit bond to a water-tight narrative.

If the Harry Potter movies have a problem, it’s that they, too, have many wonderful set-pieces that aren’t necessarily related to the main story (and the books, from what I’m told, dramatically more so). And yet, they are phenomenally popular. So I thought I’d take another look at the Harry Potter movies to see what their zipper is.

Early on in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, it is revealed that Harry Potter is the sole survivor of a child massacre (they don’t call him The Boy Who Lived for nothing). He Who Cannot Be Named was wiping out infant wizards (and their parents) in an attempt to destroy the child who one day will grow up to destroy him (that is, HWCBN). When that little narrative tidbit flew by the first time I thought “yeah, sure, standard-issue hero’s journey stuff, what happens next?”

UPDATE: It seems I am incorrect in the particulars of Harry’s beginnings.  In the movie, it is stated that Voldemort rose up and became evil, and killed anyone who stood in his way, including Harry’s parents.  No one, we are told, survived this assault, except Harry.  I put two and two together and mistakenly believed that they had shown Voldemort slaying an innocent child, when what the movie shows, apparently, is Voldemort leveling his wand at the young Harry’s forehead.  I thought they were showing another child’s slaughter instead of Harry’s failed murder.  I maintain that a child would not get the nickname “The Boy Who Lived” if there had not been Boys Who Died, but there is no specific child massacre mentioned in the movie.

This changes, slightly, the viewpoint of the observations below, but I don’t think completely devalues them.  There still exists the threat of child sacrifice by the unnamed (or, in this case, unnamable) evil and the assault on education by the oppressor (which I hope to get to in more detail in upcoming posts).

Now then, I’m reading David Mamet’s recent book on anti-Semitism (spoiler alert: he’s against it) and I come across this observation:

“The memory of absolute wrongs causes absolute trauma in a race, just as in the individual. Incalculably ancient race memory of dinosaurs persists to this day, transformed as an affection for the dragon. Memory of the most traumatic of cultural acts, child sacrifice, can be seen, hidden in plain sight, as ceremonies of transformation, redemption, and, in fact, of jollity. Like the Santa Claus myth, the Akedah, the Crucifixion, are ineradicable race memories of infant sacrifice, and of the deeply buried wish to resume its practice, so racism must be the unresolved race memory of slavery.”

(In a footnote, Mamet explicates on his Santa Claus reference: “The Santa Claus myth is a straightforward account of child sacrifice. It must, however, be read in the mirror. Children can be good or bad. They put their stockings out, and, in the middle of the night, a man comes into their home with a bag. If the child has been bad, the man puts the child in a sack and takes him away. All that is left of him is his stocking, hung on the foot of the bed…It is no great stretch to see, here, the anguish of a family in antiquity, knowing the tribe will choose, at the winter solstice, some child to be sacrificed and to see the parents wish to extend the child’s period of exemption from terror for as long as possible.”)

To the Akedah (that is, the story of Isaac), Santa and the Crucifixion, I will add the Ten Plagues of Egypt, Herod, Noah and King Arthur. JK Rowling has tapped into one of the grandest, most disturbing themes of human history, and that she did so within the context of a “children’s book” about magic and wizardry counts as a stroke of true genius. For, as Mamet notes later in the same book:

“There is an aesthetic quality in fundamentalism, in jingoism, in jihad — a pure joy in the rejection not only of reasoned religion but also, indeed, of science.

“‘Belief’ is such a potent force that it may replace logic: we may burn the heretic books that speak of ‘evolution,’ and we may say the cost is huge: the loss of scientific method, but this is not a loss at all but a gain, the repeal of the taxing concept of cause and effect.”

And I’m going to go ahead and add here that a lot of humanity’s modern anxiety comes from the fact that science, for all its given us, has not satisfied our need for myth, for magic, for surrender to mystery. For tens of thousands of years, the sun came up and went down and waxed and waned and we didn’t know why and there was nothing we could do about it — crops would die, animals would freeze and the big bright circle up in the sky seemed to periodically hate us to death, when the other big circle in the sky wasn’t trying to drown us with swollen tides and the big puffy things in the sky weren’t trying to strike us with bolts of lightning. The mystery of the elements is so deeply ingrained in our ancient psyches that we secretly long to return to the days of paganism and helplessness before Sol Invictus.

Rowling has smushed together magic and science at Hogwarts to come up with something altogether revolutionary. Harry Potter was born to be the savior of his people, the only survivor of a child massacre. He gains knowledge (that is, science) through his education at Hogwarts, but his science is expressed as magic (and, lest we forget, Asimov [or Clarke, see below] once observed that any science, sufficiently developed, is indistinguishable from magic) and through his education he fulfills his destiny. Fundamentalists are always in an uproar against Harry Potter, and now I can finally see why — he needles them from both directions. He’s a wizard, which is heretical, but he’s also a scientist, which is even more heretical. He spends his narrative gathering education about magic, education and magic being two things no fundamentalist can stand. No wonder they want to destroy him.

Placing is protagonist at the center of some of our most powerful anxieties surely counts as a very big zipper indeed and I suggest is a strong reason for Harry Potter’s popularity.

As a postscript, anyone out there know What Voldemort Wants? Aside from power, I mean? What’s his Monday Morning plan? When all the threats against him are destroyed, what is his plan for ruling the wizard world?

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28 Responses to “Harry Potter and the Big Zipper”
  1. oletheros says:

    arthur c clarke is the one who’s usually credited with the quote about advanced technology being indistinguishable from magic.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Uhh… this would be great, except that Harry isn’t the survivor of a child massacre. Voldy was killing all of his enemies, who happened to include Harry’s parents (who died saving him). He was also reacting to a prophecy about one child in particular but I can’t remember a statement that he was indescriminately killing ‘all the children’ (certainly in the books; I don’t know the movies as well, although I’ve seen them). If he was, he wasn’t very good at it – look at all the kids of his age at Hogwarts!


    • Anonymous says:

      Duh! I meant ‘look at all the kids of Harry’s age at Hogwarts’ of course!

    • Todd says:

      He was also reacting to a prophecy about one child in particular

      Of course, that’s what Herod was doing too. In any case, he’s the survivor of a massacre, if not necessarily a specific child-massacre. In the first movie they show Voldemort slaying at least one other child, which is a strong enough image for my uses.

      • Anonymous says:

        ‘Indistinguishable from magic’ is definitely Clarke.

        The more I think about this, the more I don’t think I agree with your analysis. I don’t recall the image of Voldy killing more than one child in the first film (but I’ll take your word for it), but even given that I don’t think the ‘child massacre’ is made that much of. The specific prophecy doesn’t actually get revealed until Book 4, anyway.

        Incidentally, if you want a specifically British example of ‘massacre of the innocents’, there are versions of the King Arthur legend where Arthur orders a slaughter remarkably similar to Herod’s. Arthur wants to kill his bastard son, Mordred (in this version, Mordred’s mother is Arthur’s sister.)

        Also, I’m not sure that _children_ are aware of the folk memory you invoke – and Harry Potter was massively popular with children from the start. I suppose your theory might be a reason why adults have taken it up so much.

        I think it’s something simpler. Right from the start, Harry is told that his mother died to save his life – and that’s something we can all relate to, adults nnd children alike. That anxiety about his parents not being there, that guilt that they died to save him, the natural desire of small children for their parents… there’s a reason the Mirror of Erised is such a feature of the first book (and movie).

        And there’s another very simple drive at play – the desire to be important, to be popular. Harry isn’t rich, he’s not from an important wizarding family – but everyone knows who he is, everyone (who isn’t a secret Voldy follower or a hanger on thereof) thinks he’s amazing! And it doesn’t hurt that he’s the wizard equivalent of a jock, either. (Not that we Brits have that term, but you know what I mean.)


        • Todd says:

          Regarding Voldemort’s backstory shenanigans, please see my update (in bold, above), and I thank you for your corrections.

          • Anonymous says:

            I think Harry is ‘The Boy Who Lived’ because he’s the only person who survived a full-on attack by Voldemort (and because ‘person who lived’ just doesn’t have that ring to it….) I couldn’t quote a page reference but I think it’s put pretty much like that in one of the books.


  3. noskilz says:

    Are you familiar with James Burke’s Connections series (the first series particularly)?

    Since Connections 1 deals with how seemingly unrelated developments – created by people coming up with their own inventions for their own reasons – meshed together to create the modern world, it might be useful for this “zipper” notion you’re kicking around.

  4. tamburlaine says:

    Voldemort wants to be immortal. He’s afraid of death. That’s the main idea that runs through the series: fear of death, dying, etc. ~trite~

    Oh, and he also wants to kill muggles and those wizards who have muggle parents, I suppose, but he’s mostly a narcissistic-type sociopath and wants to be the best guy ever, for ever and ever and ever. He never does much to rule the world; he leaves that to his posse.

  5. mr_noy says:

    I’m pretty sure you’re incorrect about Voldermort slaying another child in the first movie but you’ve probably watched it more recently and more analytically than I did. It certainly wouldn’t be out of character for Voldemort.

    In the books Voldemort is essentially a Hitler stand-in. He and his followers believe that they should rule the world on the basis of their might and racial purity. Fittingly, Voldemort is no more an example of racial wizard purity than Hitler was of an Aryan uber mensch.

    As for the Monday morning plan: Voldemort’s dream of world conquest is merely a means to an end. His true goal, from the very first book on, is to gain immortality (which, if you think about it, would require another set of Monday morning plans). I won’t spoil anything but having read the books it’s clear that Rowling’s major theme is death and how we deal with it. Voldemort’s fear of and refusal to accept death is ultimately his downfall. Furthermore, his arrogant belief in his own superiority and his inability to comprehend other people’s capacity to love and to act selflessly time and time again causes his plans to fail. It may be a cold comfort but it’s nice to know that, at least in fiction, evil is often as stupid as it is powerhungry.

    • Todd says:

      in fiction, evil is often as stupid as it is powerhungry.

      Yeah, thank goodness that kind of evil, stupidity and power-lust hasn’t leaked into our real world.

      • mr_noy says:

        I only lament the fact that in real life the stupid and powerful rarely get caught on tape openly admitting their crimes or get themselves blown up in dramatically satisfying ways.

        Instead, they write memoirs and go on the lecture circuit.

      • greyaenigma says:

        My only lament is that while evil is very stupid, it’s also managed to be extremely clever. (That’s not true, I lament a lot of things.)

        I’m often reminded of Yoda’s words when asked if the Dark Side was more powerful: “No… quicker, easier, more seductive.” Which seems pretty apt for any sort of demagoguery. Not to mention that the Palpatine is always telling people to give in to their hate.

        Hate and fear, of course, being Voldemorts stock and trade as well.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Harry Potter and the Big Zipper

    I agree with the other posters – there isn’t a mass child killing. There IS a question of WHICH child is The Chosen One – Harry or Neville, the gawky kid. Neville’s parents are confined to an asylum after being driven mad by one of V’s henchwomen, so he has that pain and loneliness in common with HP.

    Many people have commented that one of the key attractions of the HP series, to kids, is the idea that someday someone fantastic will come to their door and say “You’re not supposed to be here with these people who don’t understand you. You should come with me to a wonderful place of people who WILL love you!”

    And yes, Voldy wants immortality. He also hated his family and was in an orphanage.

    Similar situations for the Lemony Snicket kids, the Lion, Witch & W kids, Oliver Twist, etc etc. And Bambi. (The modern variation of parental death is probably divorce.)

    – Deas

    • Anonymous says:

      Re: Harry Potter and the Big Zipper

      Not the Lion The Witch and the Wardrobe kids – not in the book, anyway. They were evacuated from London (along with thousands of others) and went to stay with an emotionally distant but kindly uncle (who doesn’t get involved in the adventure but seems to understand it – as he should, having had his own adventures earlier in his life).


      • Anonymous says:

        Re: Harry Potter and the Big Zipper

        Yes, you’re right. What I meant was the situation of being separated from your parents and sent to strange new locations where you have great adventures.

        • Anonymous says:

          Re: Harry Potter and the Big Zipper

          Ah. Right. I wasn’t sure if you were talking just about the recent(ish) film, which I haven’t seen. I thought perhaps they’d made the Professor into more of a malign presence.


  7. greyaenigma says:

    “There is an aesthetic quality in fundamentalism, in jingoism, in jihad — a pure joy in the rejection not only of reasoned religion but also, indeed, of science.

    More importantly, of reason. More broadly, the rejection of any strategy or tactics that can be used to assail your position. Because anyone that disagrees with you is a godles heathen that simply hasn’t seen the light.

    One of the most fascinating conceits I see coming from religious fundamentalists is the assumption that if the unenlightened were merely exposed to their teachings, they too would see the light. Nevermind that in my case I seem to have been forced to read more of the bible in school than they’ve been exposed to in a lifetime of fanatical study.

    I think I may have wandered off topic again.

  8. greyaenigma says:

    And I’m going to go ahead and add here that a lot of humanity’s modern anxiety comes from the fact that science, for all its given us, has not satisfied our need for myth, for magic, for surrender to mystery.

    Incidentally, the Cthulhu mythos, one of the great mythical contributions of the last century, is directly inspired by the rise of science (specifically Einstein and his theories) and the anxiety they cause humanity and one guy in Rhode Island in particular.

  9. Part of the reason, I think, readers were so into Harry Potter (and I’ve only read through Order of the Phoenix, mind you) is that they love uncovering the mystery to Harry Potter and his connection to Voldemort. As you said, he was “The Boy Who Lived,” and that supplied a ton of intrigue. Unfortunately, the more I read, the more I realized how hollow this mystery really was, and that it’s pretty common sense from day one. There’s something that Rowling hung over the tone of the books starting with the Sorcerer’s Stone; it was the intrigue of Harry Potter, how he was famous for living, and he was only a baby, so how could he be so powerful? Everyone in the story looks at Harry with awe, and I think as readers, we get to be in Harry’s shoes for a while and feel what it’s like to be looked up to, or be famous–that’s a powerful thing.

    I lost my train of thought. But I know what question you’re looking for. I’m writing a fantasy novel right now with similar issues and I’ll be interested how you come upon your answer. I do know one thing– it’s all in the connections of the characters and their individual desires, how they come together to make point A go to point B; influence, conflict…

    • Anonymous says:

      The outcome (I don’t mean who wins in the end, which is pretty obvious; I mean all the convolutions and mysteries and motivations that get us there) is somewhat predictable but Rowling does take it through a few more convolutions than you might be giving her credit for. (I say might because I don’t know exactly how much credit you are giving her!)

      But in general, I think you’re on to something – there have been several books and shows that seem to have established a fan following based on the ‘let’s try and work out what’s going on here’ paradigm.

      The first one I noticed doing it was Babylon 5 – the ‘what’s Delenn turning into’ and ‘what are the Vorlonns’ arcs, in particular. Then Buffy, to an extent. And now Lost and Heroes, and to a lesser extent Smallville. (And that’s enough of that – I think my tastes are becoming all too obvious!)


      • dougo says:

        I first noticed that with Twin Peaks. Maybe there was something else before that (Star Trek?) but Twin Peaks fandom-speculation was fueled in large part by the advent of Usenet.

  10. dougo says:

    The nice thing about weblogs is you don’t have to do any fact-checking at al, just wait until your readers post their corrections.

    • Todd says:

      Hey, I never claimed to be the Wall Street Journal.

      • greyaenigma says:

        Holy crap! Murdoch is buying Todd!

        (Interesting factoid [to me] — the spellchecker on my comments told me that “Mordoch” was spelled wrong, but appears to know that “Murdoch” is correct. He even owns the dictionary.)