Memento Harry
Lessons from the final Potter film.


Thomas S. Hibbs

Editor’s Note: This review contains spoilers.

There has never been anything quite like J. K Rowling’s Harry Potter, the hero of a hugely popular series of seven books followed by a successful set of eight movies. The decision to split the last book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, into two films turns out to have been a wise one. While part one, which ended abruptly after covering two-thirds of the material from the book, was somewhat anticlimactic, part two is a lean and dramatically satisfying finale. Director David Yates, who has been at the helm for the last three books in the series, and screenwriter Steve Kloves, who has penned all but one of the film scripts, move effortlessly between the large and the small, between grand battle scenes and moments of intimate, human interaction. The special effects are dazzling and the human drama gripping. The film also strikes a nice balance between the serious and the humorous, between tragedy and comedy.

In an age of increasingly decentralized media, in which sub-cultures of interest in TV shows, films, and music abound, Harry Potter is the common, unifying cultural marker for individuals between the ages of ten and 30, and perhaps well beyond that age. If the fictional characters and story-lines are woven into popular culture, the actors are equally well known, particularly those who play the three main characters: Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe), Hermione Granger (Emma Watson), and Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint). All three give fine performances in the last film, as do Ralph Fiennes as Lord Voldemort, Gary Oldman as Sirius Black, and Matthew Lewis as Neville Longbottom. The battle for, and at, Hogwarts, whose culmination is the ultimate faceoff between Harry and his nemesis, Voldemort, allows for the return of a host of well-known characters, all of whom are aware of what is at stake.

Given the malevolence of Voldemort, the books become darker as the story progresses. Particularly in Deathly Hallows and its immediate predecessor, Half-Blood Prince, deaths of major characters occur. Beyond her creation of memorable characters and plots, Rowling has crafted a mythical universe where remembering and preparing for death are central virtues. She revives the medieval theme of memento mori, the virtuous cultivation of the memory of death, as a counter to modernity’s vacillation between unhealthy obsession with and tragic forgetfulness of death.

This theme is powerfully coupled with repeated illustrations of (a) the unnaturalness of the project of overcoming death and (b) the way the practice of evil, murderous arts destroys the practitioner. In Half-Blood Prince, Dumbledore informs Harry that Voldemort’s pursuit of immortality has “mutilated” his “soul beyond the realm of what we might call usual evil.” 

The contrast between Harry and Voldemort’s approach to death is palpable. The opening of Yates’s Deathly Hallows Part Two finds Harry and Voldemort occupied in two quite different activities. Harry, refusing to use magic, is physically digging the grave of his friend Dobby, the loyal house-elf who gave his life defending Harry. Meanwhile, in an act of desecration of the dead, Voldemort is stealing the Elder Wand from the grave of Albus Dumbledore. At various points in the story, the Elder Wand is cited as one of three components (along with the Cloak of Invisibility and the Resurrection Stone) of the Deathly Hallows, the possession of which is believed to make one a “master of death” — the object of Voldemort’s quest. 

At the center of Voldemort’s search is his performance of the darkest of dark arts: the creation of horcruxes, which preserve splintered pieces of his immortal soul, and which can only be created by committing murder. As Harry and his pals seek to discover and destroy the horcruxes, the only way that Voldemort himself will die, Voldemort pursues invulnerability and permanent rule over the world of wizards. The scenes featuring the destruction of horcruxes are among the most spectacular in the entire series of films, even as they heighten the dramatic tension and the sense of inevitable, final confrontation. 

With threats imminent, there is no longer room for self-pity or teen angst — elements that were tiresomely common in the middle, overly long books in the series. Friendships deepen and in some cases blossom into love; the film contains two brief (and very nicely scripted) moments of passion, one between Ron and Hermione and another between Harry and Ginny. But this film is about what the books and previous films have always been essentially about: the practice of the virtues of friendship, loyalty, courage, and leadership.