Thursday, July 12, 2007

High Inquisitor Umbridge: The Cloying Sweetness of Evil

Warning:This is a post that discusses the new Harry Potter movie. If you have read the book, then the post will not spoil the movie. But it might if you haven't.

I saw Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix last night. I did not go to the 12:01 AM showing on Tuesday night-Wednesday morning because I just hate to pay 10 bucks for a movie that I will fall asleep at.
These days I can sleep through the most exciting movies if I am tired enough and if they are late enough.

So Bruce and I went to a reasonably (for us) timed showing at 6:30 PM. That way, I met him near Sandia, we ate and drove to the theater together, and still arrived home by about 10 PM when all was said and done.

The movie was exciting, and I enjoyed it, although I stand by my prejudice that almost no movie can do justice to the written work. Of course, if I were the queen of movie adaptations, there were things that I would have included or made clearer, but IMHO Roger Ebert's review was really off the mark this time. My guess is that he has not read the book and has some clear misunderstandings about the Harry Potter world.

As when I read the book, I was fascinated anew by the character of Dolores Umbridge (played skillfully by Imelda Stauton). J.K. Rowling is very good at introducing us to types of people that are almost archetypes. Dolores Umbridge, the Hogwarts' High Inquisitor, is such a character. As the story opens, she is placed at Hogwarts School for Wizardry and Magic by Cornelius Fudge, the Minister of Magic, in order to reform (Hermione uses the words "interfere with") the curriculum at the school. As the story unfolds, she finds so much to reform that she succeeds in becoming High Inquisitor, with the power to fire staff and torture students, and finally, temporarily, headmistress.

In her role as an agent for the Ministry of Magic's desire to suppress the reality of approaching evil in the form of the return of the dark wizard, Voldemort, Umbridge manages to disrupt the curriculum that would teach students to defend themselves against the "Dark Arts." It is only through the subterfuge of the students themselves that real lessons in fighting the approaching evil threatened by Voldemort go on.

But the evil represented by Dolores Umbridge is not the dark and powerful evil of Voldemort. It is not bold and immediately frightening. In fact, it is not even immediately apparent. No. The evil that Umbridge represents is that of a mid-level bureaucrat who in her self-righteousness, makes small, incremental choices to do unrighteous acts. Early in the movie, she justifies torturing Harry by saying sweetly, "You know that you really do deserve to be punished," thereby placing responsibility for her evil act on the victim of it. Later, she will justify her attempt to use the illegal and horrible cruciatus curse, by saying that the extraordinary circumstances she is in require it (the ends justify the means), and that she is doing it because she is loyal to the ministry of magic (a deflection of responsibility), and that the powers that be need never know (anything is legal as long as you don't get caught).

Dolores Umbridge's character serves also as a contrast to the developing strength of Harry Potter's character. By his 5th year at Hogwarts, Harry is deep in the existential angst of adolescence. And because he is a deeply moral person, he struggles with his connection with the evil Voldemort, and he worries that he might be evil himself through that connection. As he wrestles with this possibilty, he is counseled by his godfather, Sirius Black, and later by Dumbledore, that this is the lot of all of us, that we all have the inclination toward good and the inclination toward evil within us, and that is our choices that ultimately determine our destiny.

But what differentiates Harry's character from that of Dolores Umbridge is that he knows that he has within him the possibility to do evil and that he must make choices and take responsibility for them. Dolores Umbridge, on the other hand sees herself as the epitome of sweetness and light. She is sure of her own righteousness, and therefore puts the responsibility for her evil acts on others. This "cloying sweetness" is made plain by her dress and her manner and the way she drinks her tea--with 3 heaping teaspoons full of sugar. Her character is a demonstration of the difference between "goodness" and "niceness." We tend to equate the two but they aren't necessarily the same.

At the end of the movie, Harry has the opportunity to inflict the forbidden cruciatus curse on a witch who has just murdered his godfather. And he is tempted to use it by Voldemort. But in the end he chooses not to do so. And in making the choice, he takes responsibility for what he does, which the opposite of what Umbridge does when the opportunity presented itself to her.

I believe that it is this quality of the mythic hero's journey that makes the story of Harry Potter so compelling to so many of us. We can look at the world situation around us and see all of the elements of the story in our reality. We, too, know that there is evil approaching. And we have some leaders who would like to deny that. And we, too, are reluctant to use that label--evil--because we know that we have the same capacity within ourselves.

It's all there. But what really got my attention was how well Rowling understands that most of us confuse "nice" with "good." And so the overdone "sweetness" of Dolores Umbridge is funny and scary at the same time. It is so unexpected. But it shouldn't be.

And then there is our expectation that a "good" woman should be "nice"...but that's a different blog entry.


Frankie said...

Bravo, "nicely" written. lol

We saw the movie last night as well and loved it.

It's been several years since I read the book and I remembered why I quit reading the series: Because of Sirius. Sigh. I need to continue reading before the next movie is out.

Anyway, I love that you discussed the nice versus good aspect. I have found that SO true in every day life. Several years ago on Oprah, she herself said that she'd rather be known as good than nice. As would I.

Thomas and I fell in love with those kitten plates. We all three enjoyed the movie much and thought it was much better than the reviews we'd been reading.

Camp Counselor said...

Must.Get.Babysitter. (Don't worry, I have one. Are you kidding? I don't think my boss will give me a pass to go see it during my reserve duty time so I had to think of something else.)

I also have a gift tag/bookmark from Target sitting prominently beneath my calendar on a key hook waiting to be used on July 21st. It's been sitting there for five months, since my birthday (smart husband!) Maybe we'll do both on the 21st.

ChristineMM said...

Great job on the analysis of the movie.

I need to re-read the book as I read it when it first came out and now I can't make a comparison of the movie and the book.

I really enjoyed reading your discussion of good vs. evil.

I really wish that some who dismiss HP due to "magic content" would not do so as there are so many good "talking points" in it.