As a high school teacher, Harry Potter has never seemed like much of a fantasy story. Every school has a Ron Weasley. Every school has a Dumbledore. Every school has a Hermione (or three or four). Every school has a Malfoy — and a student body who wonders why he was not expelled years ago. The similarities between Potter and us does not merely extend to individual characters, though, for teachers maintain great hopes for certain students, but cannot reveal all they know. Teachers struggle between themselves for the sympathy of their students. Politics matter. It is unfair to assume that anyone (no matter how close to the top) is getting to do exactly what they want, because, like a family or a church, a web of unspoken promises and discreet obligations binds a school together.
The Deathly Hallows, Part I is no less true to life than any of the other Potter films, though it is my favorite in the series because it zeroes in on an aspect of school which tends to make for dull fiction: dullness itself. About an hour into the film, Ron, Harry, and Hermione become fugitives, having just stolen a Horcrux from the neck of Dolores Umbridge. For the next forty minutes, very little happens. Ron obsessively listens to the news on a staticky radio, and the light crackle of that static sometimes functions as the soundtrack to the film. The trio take turns wearing the Horcrux, a locket, and whoever wears the thing turns pale, sickly, and irritable. As in The Lord of the Rings, the heroes are all focused on a single object which must be destroyed, but unlike Frodo and Sam, Harry has no idea how to destroy the Horcrux. No clear plan is set forth, and so the students remain on the move, kick around ideas, and lay low. They walk through trailer parks, under bridges, wander along desolate cliffs, while Voldemort’s various powers stalk them by foot and in the air.
A chief complaint I have with modern action films and fantasy films is that too little time is given to the characters between scenes to think; older films show characters travelling between one place and the next (think of the still, quiet moments in the Millennium Falcon where sparse, though significant conversation takes place), mulling over possibilities, staring out the window, looking pensive, and so the audience is given a moment to chew on the plot for a bit before new tensions are added. I would wager that all the significant moments in Star Wars could be condensed to about sixty seconds of film, though The Last Jedi would probably require five times that much simply because something is always happening. (Incidentally, this is really all the fault of JJ Abrams; the elimination of negative space in film began when Abrams decided to take the typical action film structure and simply chop off the first twenty minutes, thus beginning his movies at The Point Where It Gets Exciting ®.)
Hallows director David Yates, on the other hand, is willing to devote the third act of his five-act film to just such slow, skygazing contemplation. Ron can’t handle it and abandons Harry and Hermione after the perpetual oscillations between boredom and anxiety become either too much of one or the other — hard to say which. Hermione realizes the sword of Gryffindor might be used to destroy the Horcrux, though no one knows where the sword is. Late of a wintry evening, Nick Cave’s busted hymn “O Children” comes on the radio, and Harry offers his hand to Hermione, who reluctantly accepts. After gently pulling her arms a few times to find a rhythm, Harry twirls Hermione and Hermione forgets herself a moment, smiling, losing herself to the dance.
The moment ends just when it was truly getting started, the music becomes a crackle again, and Hermione walks away despondently. Nonetheless, both the audience and Harry need a reminder, amidst the winter doldrums, that there is something which separates them from the bad guys, and that something is the pure delight of useless good manners and high culture. Goodness is not functional, it is superfluous bounty, overflow. But then they both get back to the hard work of thinking.
Nearly everyone in academia, teachers and students alike, goes through some passage in the year where nothing exciting and nothing pleasant is happening, and school is reduced to some significant, but vexing problem, be it a moral or intellectual dilemma. In the meantime, life carries on unsteadily, and everything precariously hangs upon the mere possibility of an answer ever coming. In the end, a sin is confessed, an epiphany enjoyed, a life lost, a love confessed, a confrontation staged. But in the meantime, just waiting, watching, wondering. There is enough excitement in the Potter series. Yates has half an hour to burn on something slow, something vexing.
In the bleak of the school year, my mind often turns to this middle passage of The Deathly Hallows and I throw my frustrations into it. The school year can’t be all fun, can’t be all thrilling. January is a thing to be endured. After Theophany, everything goes dark until March 25th. February is a communicable disease of a month. But there, in my memory, is the desolate and bare elegance of Harry and Hermione, half-patiently passing the hours in hope of some revelation.
When Harry sees Snape’s Patronus roaming the same woods in which he and Hermione are hiding, he follows and ends up on a frozen lake, looking down through the ice at the sword of Gryffindor. Months of waiting and wondering end when Ron returns, cracks the Horcrux for Harry, and the long winter draws to a close. A very good friend once commented to me, as my first year of teaching at a classical school was winding down, “Something always happens at the end of the school year. Everything comes together. Not on the exact last day of school, but very close. Everything you’ve been trying to say— you finally say it. It happens by accident, usually, but it always happens.” The vexing season always ends, often imperceptibly, and gives way to something new, exhilarating. Just ask Harry.