Nitpicking Movies: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

After the smashing success of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, the franchise needed a strong follow-up. Failure to keep the momentum could have caused the film series to stumble, as happened with Disney’s ill-fated attempt to adapt all seven Chronicles of Narnia. Fortunately, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets did the job well.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets provided a strong second chapter that continued the trend of staying mostly true to the novels that served as source material. It showed that Warner Brothers had struck gold with the casting of Daniel Radcliffe and demonstrated the progressively darker tone that sequels would take.

It also has several things that make me scrunch up my face and go, “Huh?” So, as with its predecessor, I’m going to launch into a series of nitpicks about this film.

Why doesn’t Hermione get in trouble for fixing Harry’s glasses? 

Simple rule of the franchise: Hogwarts students can’t cast magic outside of school without getting into trouble. In the fifth movie, Harry nearly gets expelled for using magic to defend himself against a dementor attack. The Ministry of Magic seems to just know when this stuff happens, like some sort of spell-sense.

So how come Hermione doesn’t get in trouble for using oculus reparo to fix Harry’s glasses before the start of term?

Oculus Reparo
Also, shouldn’t there be a magical equivalent of LASIK that makes glasses pointless?

The movie introduces this headscratcher as an unforced error, since the book had Arthur Weasley fix the glasses. The filmmakers probably wanted a way to signal to newcomers that Hermione is a know-it-all. Or maybe they just didn’t think people like me would nitpick the scene.

Personally, I think Hermione gets unwarranted special treatment throughout the series. I mean, the normally strict Professor McGonagall decides to give her a time machine in the next movie for no apparent reason. As a teacher’s pet, Hermione probably has somebody looking after her in the Ministry of Magic.

Will Harry’s class ever learn how to defend themselves from the dark arts?

Since the last film provided evidence that Voldemort is at least partially alive, you’d think that Dumbledore might take the Defence Against the Dark Arts class more seriously. Instead, he hires the incompetent Gilderoy Lockhart. Despite Lockhart’s reputation, Dumbledore obviously knows the guy sucks at everything. Presumably, he’s out to expose him as a fraud.

That’s all well and good, but sooner or later the kids need to know how to actually defend themselves against the dark arts…especially since a guy known as the Dark Lord is out there. Oh yeah, and there’s a monster loose in Hogwarts that’s pertifying students.

Admittedly, none of the teachers seem to know what the monster is, so maybe Defence Against the Dark Arts wouldn’t help the students in this matter. Then again, maybe the teachers all went to Hogwarts and don’t know how to defend themselves against the dark arts, either.

Professor Lupin
But I’m sure the next guy will be fine.

Why does Lucius Malfoy bring Dobby with him to Hogwarts?

I get the dramatic need to bring closure to Dobby’s story, but it’s kind of weird that of all the times when Lucius could have brought Dobby with him, he only does so at the very end.

Make no mistake – I buy that Lucius would walk around with his slave just so he could show off his status. But he appears several times in the film and never has Dobby with him. Only when it’s time to bring conclusion to the house elf’s story does he reveal that he is Dobby’s master.

I do have to hand it to Lucius – he may be an evil cowardly fascist blowhard, but he does have a good feel for when it’s time to make a dramatic reveal.

Lucius Malfoy
I mean, the only thing missing is him swirling a glass of…oh.

Why did the other Hogwarts founders allow Salazar Slytherin into the school?

To give us some background on the Chamber of Secrets, Professor McGonagall provides a quick history of Hogwarts. Four powerful wizards founded the school. Godric Gryffindor, Helga Hufflepuff, and Rowena Ravenclaw all seemed like nice chaps, but they also threw in with an evil bigot named Salazar Slytherin.

Salazar Slytherin
I just feel like they should have taken the obsession with snake monsters as a bad sign.

Salazar hated Muggle-born students and wanted Hogwarts to be a place for pureblooded wizards only. When the other wizards called him out on his obvious Nazi-like traits, he left the school. As a parting gift, he left behind a secret magical chamber with a monster inside that could kill all Muggle-born wizards.

So, um…why were the other founders okay with throwing in with this guy in the first place? And why, even after his murderous hissy fit, did they continue to honor him by having a house named after him?

Note that I’m not categorizing that stuff as unrealistic. I live in a country where a sitting senator just asked why the term “white supremacist” is a bad thing, and I work at a university that only recently took the name of a prominent eugenicist off its library.

It makes sense that people would ignore a powerful individual’s bigotry and keep an entire house in his honor even after that house produced Wizard Hitler 2.0. It just feels jarring to have level of real-world ignorance in a setting where the wizard characters frequently promote the idea that they’re more advanced than the Muggles.

Of course, the truth is that the wizarding world is horrifying from an ethical standpoint. The whole magical society seems to emphasize the wonders of magic as though it excuses its citizens for their constant moral lapses, ignorance of technology, and outright racism.

Which brings me to the elephant in the room…

Why does the wizarding world endorse slavery?

We find out in this movie that Dobby the house elf is a slave. You can’t dress it up and say that he’s really just a servant – he’s forced into labor, abused repeatedly, and his masters don’t even let him own property. Moreover, Dobby is but one of many house elves.

Dobby

The wizarding world puts its stamp of approval on slavery. You could say that the Malfoys are particularly cruel masters and that other house elves have it better, but all evidence suggests there are many  terrible wizards out there who have no incentive at all to treat their slaves fairly.

The books delve a bit deeper into the slavery issue when Hermione tries her hand at activism in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. There, she tries to arrange for fair wages and living conditions for house elves, only to find that they have a biological need to serve humans.

So, fantasy rules for a fantasy world, right? If you’ve got a race that enjoys being slaves, what’s wrong with making them serve you? Well, here are my problems with that:

  • Whether wages are bad for house elves or not, the wizarding government does nothing to ensure their basic welfare. We have every reason to believe that many house elves deal with abuse similar to what Dobby faces. Even Sirius Black, an otherwise decent person, treated his house elf terribly.
  • When we see Dobby get his freedom, he’s outright ecstatic. The music swells, he gives a yell of joy, and he visually transforms into a more joyful elf. You could argue that this is due to the Malfoys being so terrible, but the movies never give us a happy house elf slave for comparison.
  • “They’re happier as slaves” is exactly what actual slavers said about African Americans in the 18th and 19th centuries! Even during the abolition movement, some whites worried that freeing the slaves would hurt them because they wouldn’t be able to integrate into normal society.

The wizarding world is the magical equivalent of the US antebellum south. And honestly, this colors most of the rest of the movies (and books) for me. Every time somebody uses the word muggles, I hear it as a slur. These stories are full of wizards who act as though their society is superior, but they lack the basic ethical integrity to admit that slavery is bad.

You could say that it’s just a fantasy story and not something to think too hard about, but I don’t buy that. The Harry Potter stories have an incredible amount of detail in them, and JK Rowling has done everything from creating detailed class rosters for Hogwarts to explaining the history of wizardly plumbing.

Furthermore, the real-world parallels in these stories are very clear. Voldemort is obviously a magical Hitler due to the actual Nazi imagery and rhetoric that his followers use. Similarly, the house elf slavery issue has obvious real-world parallels because the arguments for and against it so directly parallel real world history.

I’m not saying that JK Rowling is a racist or that liking the Harry Potter franchise makes you a bad person. As I said earlier, this is about nitpicks. I like this movie, as I like about 90% of the Harry Potter stories I’ve read or watched. And just as I can enjoy stories about actual slave owners like George Washington, I can still enjoy these books and like the characters.

But the fact remains that, in the 21st century, the wizarding world happily endorses slavery. That’s just one nitpick that will stick in the back of mind throughout the rest of this series.

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