A Narrative Criticism of Harry Potter

Imagine you are nine years old, sitting in a classroom just big enough to fit thirty desks with a small space in the back of the room. An old worn rug is lying on the floor and at approximately one p.m. every day your kind-faced teacher calls everyone to come to the back of the room and sit on the rug for reading time. This is how you are acquainted with Harry Potter, this is how I was acquainted with “the boy who lived.”

It didn’t take long for me to fall in love with the magical world of witchcraft and wizardry nor did it take long for me to become overwhelmingly obsessed with the movies when they were released. Every midnight book release or midnight movie premiere had me firsa-saga-harry-pottert in line amongst countless people of every age waiting with baited breath to see what the magical world would have in store for us that night. I became consumed with the fight between good and evil as Harry, orphaned at the age of one, after his parents were murdered by Lord Voldemort is brought up by his Aunt and Uncle.

I grew up with him and watched him discover the truth about how he got the lightening scar on his forehead and how he is destined to fight the darkest wizard to ever live. The movies brought these fantasy books to life in a way I had always imagined and it represented to children, teenagers and adults alike the important of love, family and friends. It showed the possibility of overcoming the odds despite overwhelming adversity.

Through using narrative criticism it becomes possible to understand why the different aspects of film were used throughout the movies including camera angles, color, lighting and more.  Narrative criticism includes looking beneath the surface, understanding why a film maker leaves certain information in for viewers to see, but omits the rest. It includes the reasoning behind why we get so attached to a character that was created in a woman’s mind in a small cafe in England on the back of a napkin.

Vladimir Propp, a theorist on narrative criticism, suggests that there are several fundamental elements that make a story such as Harry Potter successful. There are several steps a story must take to be engaging and in this series case, there is no exception. Beginning with step one, abstentation as Harry’s parents are killed and he is sent to live with his other relatives. Thus the movie moves to step two where the here is addressed to a command or request in which Harry is requested to attend Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

The film quite literally follows Propp’s steps verbatim and leaves nothing out. It hits every single step to the hero (Harry) leaving home, the hero is tested like when he fights Lord Voldemort in several of the movies. Guidance, Harry receives help from his sidekicks Ron and Hermione in the search for horcruxes which are the things that can defeat Lord Voldemort. This continues all the way down to level thirty-one where the hero is married and/or ascends the throne.

Critically speaking though, Propp’s “31 Functions” aren’t the only things that are dissecting Harry Potter. Looking deeper into the movies it is possible to analyze the techniques used throughout the films. In the first film, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, the viewers are introduced to the boy wizard. They are getting to know Hogwarts and the students who attend there, so the director Chris Columbus uses bright lighting and bright colors. There is a lot of green and even the scenes portraying winter have a bright calming feeling.

As the films continue to get darker, more detailed in the stages that lead to the final epic battle between Harry and Voldemort, the directors make the films darker. By the time the fifth film is released, there is hardly any bright images, the film is dark, to represent the ominous feeling of the “Dark Lord” getting stronger and rising to power. Voldemort is trying to take over the world and get rid of those who don’t have magical powers, and the lighting represents that. Mike Newell, the director of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix used dark studios, rainy and overcast days, anything he could to present the sinister feeling that something bad is about to happen.

By this point, even Harry’s first love interest doesn’t present a bright and cheerful feeling, the scene is filled with sadness and a darkness to it that wasn’t seen in the earlier films. However, the filmmakers give the audience comedic undertones to break up the growing tension, it essentially gives the audience permission to relax, so they can better enjoy the movie.

Our narrative analysis begs the question, how does the director know what information to include and what to omit? It is a great skill, in my opinion, to take a 700 page book and condense it into a two-hour movie, but it is a given that not everything will make it into the movie. How does the director or screen writer decide? They remove things that are obvious. We don’t need to know every time a character uses the bathroom or goes to sleep, it is a given daily routine. Yet we do see Harry sleeping on occasions that are futile to the script such as when he is dreaming of Voldemort. This is essential to the plot and so it is included.

Too often we pick up a book or turn on a movie and don’t take the time to sit back and wonder what went into the work. How much time and effort did it take to create a plot that specifically fit Propp’s 31 function requirement? Narrative criticism can be done at a subconscious level, it just takes a little insight to show how a world phenomenon such as Harry Potter can have so much go in to it. It is the separate parts from the lighting, to the color, to the theme that combines to make a whole. Without any one of those parts the movie would cease to be as amazing as it turned out to be.

This is true for all successful films, there is a formula, just like a math equation. And without the specific pieces the final outcome is not correct and the film is a failure. Harry Potter, after meeting all those requirements turned out to be one of the longest, most exciting phenomena to cross the globe; and for me, it all started in my fourth grade classroom.



  1. I’m amazed, I haave to admit. Rarely do I encounter a blog that’s
    equally eucative and entertaining, and without a doubt, you’ve hit the nail on the head.
    The issue is an issue that not enough folks are speaking intelligently about.
    I’m very happy I found this in my search for something regarrding this.

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