Harry Potter: A high-school movie at heart
Take your seats, class: We’re starting up week 3 of EW University with a weeklong look at the pop culture influences in the Harry Potter films. Check out our gallery Harry Potter: 10 Teen-Movie Parallels or jump ahead and test your Harry Potter knowledge with our final exam. Stick around all summer long for future EW University courses on Lost, Quentin Tarantino, and more.
Harry Potter: Just another teen movie?
There are so many creatures and supernatural goings-on at Hogwarts that it’s sometimes easy to forget that the place is a high school. And it’s also easy to forget that the Harry Potter films, for all their CGI spectacle, also fall squarely in the tradition of teen/high school movies, appropriating many of the same plot devices and tropes. Sure, the big game involves Quidditch instead of football or basketball, and the school dances aren’t be-all-end-all proms ending up in bacchanalian parties at someone’s house. But there are student cliques (Gryffindor vs. Slytherin), favorite teachers (Hagrid, Dumbledore), and much loathed instructors (Snape, Dolores Umbridge).
It’s fascinating to watch how the various directors of the series – sometimes even more so than J.K. Rowling herself — have played with the conventions of high school movies in adapting the books to the screen. Take the Yule Ball in The Goblet of Fire, for instance. We see our main characters waiting too long to ask their first choices to the dance, or being blind to who their first choice should be. (Oh, Ron Weasley, when will you wake up to your feelings for Hermione?)
We then see our heroes stiffing their dates because they’re really hung up on others. We see Ron, the ultimate geeky sidekick, dressed in ridiculously ruffly formal wear. We see supposedly spontaneous but actually elaborately choreographed dance routines (perhaps by magic?). We see the curious heavy metalish band playing guitar licks from the stage. We even see the creepy teacher/chaperone surreptitiously sipping from a flask in the corner of the hall – though in this case it isn’t booze, but Polyjuice Potion so that wicked Barty Crouch Jr. can pose as teacher Alastor Moody. In each instance, the films include elements of high school movies that we’ve seen dozens of times but which have been reappropriated to the particulars of the Hogwarts universe.
After the jump: Find out what Harry Potter has in common with Pretty in Pink
As the Harry Potter series has progressed, we’ve also seen the high school movie elements deepen beyond mere shout-outs or off-handed references. At first, Hermione seems like the familiar little miss know-it-all (think Reese Witherspoon in Election) and Draco Malfoy merely the rich, blond bully (think James Spader in Pretty in Pink or William Zabka in any number of ‘80s movies). But over time, each has evolved to become a more complex, rounded character than their initial archetypal portrayal might have suggested. (And Emma Watson’s Hermione in the later films is more of a knockout than the still rather mousy Hermione of the books.) Even Ron, while still good for the occasional cheap laugh as the perennial sidekick to our hero, has grown into something deeper than Ferris Bueller‘s Cameron could ever hope to be.
And the filmmakers have gotten savvier about borrowing aspects of the familiar movie genre in ways that are specific to the Potterverse. The Chamber of Secrets kicks off with Harry and Ron “borrowing” an automobile –- and even crashing it into a tree –- but the ride is played less as a mischievous joyride in the high school movie tradition than a necessary way to overcome magical forces trying to keep them from school. (And the car itself is a purely Muggle object that’s rather foreign to the wizarding world.) The Goblet of Fire takes a cue from Porky’s, but cannily switches genders, having the ghostly Moaning Myrtle spy on Harry Potter as he bathes (he uses soap bubbles to cover his, ahem, wand). Much of the plot of The Order of the Phoenix is framed as an elaborate student revolt against a cruel tyrant of a principal. While Imelda Staunton’s Dolores Umbridge recalls both Ed Rooney in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Valerie Drake in The Faculty, director David Yates makes it clear that there’s a lot more at stake in Harry & Co.’s struggle with authority. Throughout the series, though, the high school movie tropes help to lighten the tone for the main narrative thrust: an epic battle between the forces of good and evil.
Extra credit viewing: Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Pretty in Pink, Election
Extra credit reading: Don’t You Forget About Me: Contemporary Writers on the Films of John Hughes (2007), edited by Jaime Clarke
For discussion: Do you think that the coming-through-school drama of the Harry Potter films would work purely on its own terms, without the overlay of fantasy and magic? In what ways do the recognizable high school aspects of the story make the characters seem more relatable despite the fact that they’re witches and wizards? Please discuss in the comments section below.