Fun fact: I really like Harry Potter. Less fun fact: This post is really long. Also a fact: this post is more about Rowling’s work than it is about David Yates’s film.
This is going to be another post like my Sauron one, where I use some of my previous writing on a work of literature (in this case, the entire Harry Potter series), and use it to discuss an aspect of a a film (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2).
Ok, so before I dive into some critical junk, let me just say that I am not actually so naive as to expect film adaptations of novels to faithfully reproduce every detail of their source material. I don’t have a vendetta against David Yates & Co. either. But I do have a problem with film adaptation that make make unnecessary changes to their that indicate a gross misunderstanding of the source material (especially when they do so without significantly improving the film in any clear way).
With that in mind allow me make the following declaration: turning Voldemort into villain confetti at the end of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 was a big turd of a mistake. Yes. A big turd. Why? Well, because it totally goes against Rowling’s conception of evil. Over the course of her 7 Harry Potter books, Rowling gradually demystifies evil and reduces the Great and Terrible Dark Lord Voldemort to the man Tom Riddle (mortal, killable, and eventually, dead).
In what follows, I discuss evil in the Harry Potter novels to make a case against Yates’s decision to have Voldemort’s death scene end with him disintegrating and floating away in tiny pieces.
I know I am certainly not the first Harry Potter fan to take issue with the Voldy confetti
yes I will keep calling it that. There may even be better arguments against it. This is mine. This post focuses on why Voldemort’s death scene in Yates’s film is at odds with his source material’s understanding and presentation of evil.
Watch Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2
Voldemort and Augustinian Evil
By and Large, Rowling’s conception of evil in Harry Potter is Augustinian (rather than Boethian or Manichaen, which I am not going to get into here). However, as I’m pretty sure an explanation of Augustinian evil is not what you are looking for when you visit a film blog, I am going to try to keep this part of the post pretty short.
According to an Augustinian view of evil, evil is “essentially parasitical on goodness,” and “Goodness is primary and independent, whereas evil is secondary and dependent on goodness” (Davison). That is, evil has no existence in and of itself; instead, all evil is corrupted good. Augustine claims that according to his understanding of Christianity, “Evil cannot exists itself,” for “it has no substance” of its own and that “the world and humanity is good, and the evil that exists is a corruption of what is good” (Augustine, Duriez).
So, under an Augustinian understanding of evil (which is pretty present in Tolkien’s works too btw), nothing that is evil is evil originally or was not created that way. Rather, all that is evil was once good and, had it not been corrupted by something (be it some person, a thought, a desire, a lack of guidance, etc.), it may have never been evil at all. (Book fans, consider the existence of all those similarities between Harry and young Tom Riddle even though one grows up to be a terrible evil and one doesn’t.) Furthermore, the Augustinian understanding of evil declares that even the most terribly evils retain some shred of their original good, for, where there is no good, “no vestige of reality remains” (Augustine). Because Rowling ascribes to such a vision of evil, she is able (at the moment of his death) to reduce the evil Lord Voldemort to the largely ordinary wizard and unexceptional man that Tom Riddle originally was.
Even though the overarching structure of the Harry Potter novels may obscure the fact at times, evil in the Wizarding World is not wholly separate from good. The lines between good and evil are not always clear in Rowling’s work (even within the same character). Additionally, because Rowling employs a predominantly Augustinian understanding of evil, for characters in Harry Potter to resist evil effectively, they would do well to remember that evil, which has no substance of its own, is not entirely independent of good; put another way, since evil is good that has been corrupted, all those who place themselves on the side of good must remember that it might not take as much as they might think to render them evil.
Voldemort and Evil According to Harry Potter (the short version)
Voldemort is the ultimate embodiment of evil in the Harry Potter novels. As such, he is extremely important to the novels (meaning that Yates and those making the film really would have done well to kill him properly).
Voldemort’s presence motivates the entire series. There are no novels and there is no orphaned Harry raised by Muggles (and therefore willing to defy Voldemort even at the age of 11 by saying his name) without Voldy. Rowling’s readers need never wonder who the primary villain in HP is. Moreover, Rowling gives more information on Voldemort’s past and his personality than she does with nearly all of her other characters. By the end of the series, readers may not know everything about Voldemort, but they know a great deal. By the end of the series, readers have all the information they need to interpret evil in the Wizarding World. That is, if they have paid attention to Lord Voldemort.
Additionally, it follows from Augustinian’s view of evil that evil is self-destructive. And so, Voldemort himself turns Harry into the source of his ultimate downfall. In HBP, Dumbledore makes it quite clear that Harry is the right man to kill Voldemort largely because of choices Voldemort himself made. If Voldemort had not murdered Harry’s parents, then Harry’s relationship to Voldemort would be no different than that of scores of other wizards who all live in near-constant fear of Voldemort and have no real connection to him. Evil goes against original creation, and so it tends to bring about its own ends. As evil grows in power, it also approaches unreality, destruction, and death.
It is also worth noting that, as terribly evil as he is, Voldemort is actually the single character who most strongly informs the moral compass of the HP series.
In HP, no good character is as consistently good as Voldemort is evil (the good characters have flaws, but Voldy never does anything laudable). Rowling herself has even said that in HP, there is no “single wholly good or wholly bad person with the exception of Voldemort.” Since none of Rowling’s good characters are without their bad qualities, it is actually Voldemort who most consistently informs the system of good and evil in HP; he is the most reliable standard with which one can measure the evil of all of Rowling’s characters. Everything that Voldemort is, does, and believes in HP is part of his evil. So, any character who thinks or acts as Voldy would is not making a morally commendable decision. I know this may seem obvious, but it’s not totally, and it’s important to understanding evil in HP as well as the grand importance of Voldemort (and his death) to the series. Voldemort is “wholly bad,” but as the only character in HP who is good or evil with total consistency, he is Rowling’s most important gauge of both qualities. As such, to misunderstand Voldemort is to misunderstand the heart of the series.
Voldemort is born a mortal and (as far as the Wizarding World is concerned) a rather ordinary boy. Even though he lives in an orphanage, he is not abused there and there is little in Rowling to suggest that anyone present in Voldemort’s life “turns” him evil. Instead, he is corrupted to evil by an absence (which is fitting since absolute evil according to Augustine is nothing). As Rowling herself says,” I realize that it’s kind of a litany of bad fathers. That’s where evil seems to flourish [in HP], in places where people didn’t get good fathering.” A lack of a proper father may contribute to Voldemort’s villainy. Certainly a lack of loving parents does. Voldy’s mum Merope uses a love potion to seduce Tom Riddle senior. Voldemort’s father never actually has genuine love for his mother, and this absence seems to be what first sets him on his path to evil. This is not to say that his particular parentage is totally responsible for turning the young boy Tom Riddle (jr.) into the Dark Lord Voldemort, but it is a factor all the same.
Once young Tom Riddle starts down the path of evil, he never really looks back. He could have (see page 276 of the American edition of HBP), but he doesn’t. Through Voldemort’s turn to evil and, in particular, his incessant endeavors to increase his evil (by going against nature and by denying his origins as a halfblood non-villain and trying to make himself into an immortal tyrant), Rowling makes it quite clear that evil in HP arises through the corruption of that which was once good.
The child Tom Riddle was originally good; he did not have to become evil. “Evil as presented in the Harry Potter books . . . is not innate in the universe, [but] comes about only through the corruption of good,” and its “ambition is to destroy the good for the sake of its own hegemony” (Duriez). No one in the Wizarding World is born evil. Voldemort’s back story (primarily in HBP) makes is quite clear that Voldemort grows increasingly evil with time. Once he begins down the path of evil, his own desires for power and his inability to understand love keep him on it, and he goes further down it than any in the history of the Wizarding World.
Perhaps the most important evidence in Rowling that evil is corrupted good is the way Voldemort’s physical appearance changes over time. By the time Voldemort finally appears before Harry in the flesh in Rowling’s fourth novel, he looks nothing like the boy Dumbledore once invited to Hogwarts. Voldemort is beautiful for a time, but he is eventually transformed (read: degenerates) into a thing whose very appearance evokes evil (if this makes you think of Gollum, it should).
After graduating from Hogwarts, Voldemort is free to experiment with Dark Magic as he likes, so that by the time he is around thirty, his appearance has changed drastically (see page 441 of the American HBP). Even before he is known far and wide for his villainy, Voldemort’s monstrous appearance betrays his inner evil. The older he gets, the more alarming and monstrous his appearance becomes. After his ‘rebirth’ (of sorts) in GoF, Voldy (who was once a rather attractive young man) looks pretty inhuman and terrifying for the rest of the series (it’s no coincidence that GoF is the first HP film with a PG-13 rating). In part, Voldemort’s appearance is a warning, a testament to evil’s capacity to turn even a handsome “star pupil” at Hogwarts into an unrecognizable abomination (Duriez). Voldemort offers readers a “frightening face of human evil,” and “his individual choices are a startling example of the way [people can damage themselves] by elevating [their darker desires] at the expense of all other things”(Garrett). By writing the damage done to Voldemort’s soul (remember his horcruxes) all over his face and body, Rowling emphasizes that, according to her Augustinian view, evil is not original to creation; rather, it is creation perverted, corrupted, destroyed. According to Rowling’s novels, when good allows itself to be influenced by evil, destruction occurs, and the results are often too frightening to be ignored.
More on Voldy’s Evil Ways
Another thing to note is that, in light of how little regard Voldemort has for his followers as well as the way he imposes his desires upon others, it can easily be said that he desires to be regarded as nothing less than a god.
In fact, Voldemort’s intense desire to be perceived as all-powerful fuels his obsession with killing Harry (see the cemetery scene in GoF). Throughout HP, what Voldemort often seems to want more than anything is to reestablish the Wizarding World’s belief that he is invincible. (This is particularly clear when Voldemort arrives at Hogwarts with Harry’s “body” and says, “It is over! Set him down, Hagrid, at my feet where he belongs . . . Harry Potter is dead! Do you understand now, deluded ones? He was nothing . . .“). Voldemort’s intense preoccupation with killing Harry is never just about getting revenge for the humiliation and loss of a body he suffers after failing to kill Harry as an infant. Rather, Voldemort devotes himself to killing Harry, because he is an unwanted reminder to the entire Wizarding World that, try as he may to appear as one, Voldemort is not a “supernatural force of evil.”
As one author writes: “Voldemort certainly wants people to regard him as an elemental force of evil. He claims he is no longer human, and he no longer appears to be human, but his fears and ambitions seem to be very human indeed. . . What sets him apart is that [he] has warped his soul to the extent that, using his personal great power, he chooses to perform horrible acts. This does not make him a cosmic force of evil, however much he might aspire to be . . .” (Garett). See that big quote? Read it again. See the bolded part? Soak that in too. One of the main message’s that Voldemort’s death in Rowling is designed to convey is that, no matter how much he acted like he was a god, Voldemort was very much a mortal man, and that that which set him apart was also that which caused him to degenerate and brought him to his death.
Another important aspect of Voldemort’s evil is his name and how he comes by it. As a child and young adult, Voldemort’s name is Tom Riddle, but, by the time Harry is at Hogwarts, there are few in the Wizarding World who remember the fact. In his final years at Hogwarts. Tom Riddle resolves to change his name in an effort to forge an identity that is wholly his own. Ashamed that he is not a pureblood and that his father was not a great wizard, Voldemort, who cannot stand to be associated with anything ordinary or mediocre, attempts to obscure his heritage by changing his name. As a piece of Voldemort’s soul (embodied as Tom Riddle when he was sixteen) says to Harry in CoS, “You think I was going to use my filthy Muggle father’s name forever? . . . I, keep the name of a foul, common Muggle, who abandoned me even before I was born . . . No Harry—I fashioned myself a new name, a name I knew wizards everywhere would one day fear to speak, when I had become the greatest sorcerer in the world!” Thus, Voldemort’s “self-naming” underscores the fact that one of his greatest motivations is a desire to set himself apart from others (i.e. to make himself intensely unlike what Augustine might say he was created to be). Voldemort’s renaming is evidence of his desires not to be connected to anyone and (in evil at least) to surpass everyone. And so, on his path to villainy, Voldemort goes “beyond the realms of what [one] might call ‘usual evil,’” and even brags to Dumbledore that he has “pushed the boundaries of magic, further, perhaps, then they have ever been pushed” (GoF, HBP).
Still, perhaps the most important aspect of Voldemort’s renaming is that the statement “I am Lord Voldemort” is a perfect anagram of Voldemort’s birth name and, in CoS, Rowling makes sure her readers notice the fact. With the rearrangement of “Tom Marvolo Riddle” in CoS, Rowling indicates that there is literally no “Lord Voldemort” without Tom Riddle and that, though obscured, Voldemort’s birth name—and thus, the past it represents—is very much present in title he chooses for himself. Just before revealing to Harry that Tom Riddle and Lord Voldemort are one in the same, Tom Riddle declares, “Voldemort is my past, present, and future.” But if Voldemort is Tom Riddle’s past, then surely Tom Riddle is at least part of Voldemort’s present and future as well. When Tom Riddle decides to recreate himself and to set himself apart from other wizards, the name he chooses is no accident; rather, it provides further evidence for the fact that in HP, evil, is a corruption of that which is was good. Riddle’s choice of the name “Voldemort,” demonstrates that he cannot completely separate himself from his origins, just as Augustinian evil cannot completely sever itself from good.
As the heroes of her story grow older, Rowling’s series grows darker. As Rowling’s series grows darker, she reveals more and more about Voldemort. With each successive volume, Rowling’s portrayal of evil grows more explicit, more detailed, and more complex; nowhere is this more evident than in her treatment of Voldy.
While Voldemort himself does not seem to change much at all during the novels, what readers and Harry know about him most certainly does. An evil tyrant determined to defeat death and subject others to his desires, Voldemort is, by the time Harry first goes to Hogwarts, set in his ways. In spite of this, Rowling refuses to allow readerly conceptions of Voldemort to remain stagnant. Instead, Rowling holds back a good deal of key information concerning Voldemort’s past, his motivations for evil, and what Harry needs to do to defeat him until relatively late in the series.
Rowling reveals the nature of evil in HP gradually, she brings evil into the light and humanizes it gradually, and as she does both, Voldemort’s deaths draws ever closer (this is no coincidence!!!). While there is never any real question as to whether or not Voldemort is evil and must be defeated in order for Harry and the rest of the Wizarding world to live in peace, Rowling’s gradual revelation of his history— as well as the fact that Harry interacts with him directly on several occasions—forces readers and Harry alike to continually revise what they think of Rowling’s Dark Lord. In HP, evil is not something that one can comprehend in an instant. Before regaining his body in GoF, Voldemort exists primarily at HP’s fringes. He is incorporeal, a mere shadow. He is at once everywhere and nowhere, and he is all the more frightening for it. Until they see Voldemort in GoF, Rowling’s young heroes and her readers alike must use a great deal of imagination—and are thus likely “to contemplate the worst”—“when considering the vaguely described but omnipresent evil” haunting the Wizarding World (Birzer). While Voldemort may grow stronger when he gains a body, he also becomes less frightening. After all, in HP, there is no real talk of actively resisting Voldemort and his evil until that evil is rendered material and specific. With each novel, Rowling brings Voldemort further out of background, and into the light, so that, by her final novel, actually killing the Dark Lord becomes is real possibility. Thus, Voldemort’s primary function for Rowling, is not just the embodiment of evil, but also its demystification.
YOU HEAR THAT YATES? IT’S DEMYSTIFICATION!
And so, turning Voldemort into confetti and allowing him to float off into nothing doesn’t make sense.
(Ok, so even though this post is way too long, there is a lot more to evil in HP. However, I am going to
FINALLY return to Voldemort’s death in Yates. Hopefully, for those who have seen Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, some of the reasons I take issue with the way Voldemort disintegrates into weird person dust flakes in the film have started to become clearer.)
The main problem with Voldemort’s film death is that it effectively undoes all of the work Rowling does to demystify evil and to show that Voldemort is, ultimately, an ordinary wizard who just went too far astray.
The climax of the Harry Potter novels is not a flashy spell battle between Harry and Voldemort (it is in Yates), it’s the reduction of Voldemort to a (very solid) corpse. In Rowling, Voldemort’s end is described thus: “. . . Voldemort fell backward, arms splayed, the slit pupils of the scarlet eyes rolling upward. Tom Riddle hit the floor with a mundane finality, his body feeble and shrunken, the white hands empty, the snakelike face vacant and unknowing. Voldemort was dead . . .” To see Voldemort reduced to the corpse of Tom Riddle (“mundane,” common, ordinary) is far more surprising than to see his body dissolve and float away on the wind as it does in Yates’s film.
In many ways, everything about Rowling’s portrayal of Voldemort (and the gradually destruction of the horcruxes, of course) works toward this moment, towards having him die as any man would, towards reducing him to a “feeble,” “shrunken,” and wholly unremarkable thing. Killing Voldemort in this way reminds Rowling’s readers that, at heart, all evil is corrupted good and that, evil is not some separate cosmic force; rather, it’s a quality that can be found in the everyday. Moreover, having Voldemort’s corpse “hit the floor with a mundane finality,” (and stay there) signals his utter defeat far more poignantly than his confetti death in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallow Part 2.
As I mentioned earlier, HP begins with Voldemort as an incorporeal presence in the shadows. Then, over the course of the series, he is brought into the light, as good works to destroy him. All the while, he becomes more a more like a mortal man and less and less a pseudo-supernatural villain. As a corpse on the ground, Voldemort is exposed for what he truly is; and so, he is defeated. But, in Yates’s film, Voldemort’s body disintegrates and floats away before being exposed for the mortal, ordinary, and defeated thing it that is. By having Voldemort turn mysteriously into villain confetti, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 gives Voldemort a spectacular death. Voldemort spent his whole life trying to set himself apart, to make himself extraordinary, and his death in Yates’s makes him more so (which is the exact opposite of what Rowling’s scene does). Moreover, without a body, the Wizarding World in Yates’s film is left in a state just like that after Voldemort failed to kill Harry in TSS. Without a body, why should they believe him dead now, especially given what happened the first time he disappeared?
At the end of Rowling’s novel, Voldemort is a solid and ordinary corpse on display for all to see. At the end of Yate’s film, he is shadow, a mystery, and no less terrifying than on the night he killed the Potters.
I realized I should have included a proper discussion on Horcruxes in this somewhere. I didn’t. I screwed up.
Until Next Time
If you have a question or would like to weigh-in just leave a comment below. Thanks for reading!
Augustine. One Free Choice of the Will.
Birzer, Bradley J. J.R.R. Tolkien’s Sanctifying Myth: Understanding Middle-earth.
Davison, Scott A. “Tolkien and the Nature of Evil.” The Lord of the Rings and Philosophy: One Book to Rule them All.
Duriez, Colin. “Voldemort, Death Eaters, Dementors, and the Dark Arts: A Contemporary Theology of Spiritual Perversion in the Harry Potter Series.” The Lure of the Dark Side
Garrett, Greg. One Fine Potion: The Literary Magic of Harry Potter