Jessica Campbell provides a deconstructionist reading of her least favorite entry in the Harry Potter series. Now all we want to do is listen to “Save Ginny Weasley” by Harry and the Potters. Wizard rock on, kids.
Full disclosure: this was always my least favorite of the Harry Potter books. It was saved from being my least favorite of the movies because the movie version of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is so dreadful. So while the things I said about the series in general in my review of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone still stand, I approached this re-watch more skeptically.
Verdict: I said in my review of the first movie that it was more satisfying to watch today because of ten intervening years’ worth of later books, movies, and developments in the lives of both the characters and their audiences. I found this far less true of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. The things I didn’t like about it then, I don’t like about it now. The bloom is off the rose as far as magical doohickeys are concerned. Flying cars, Cornish pixies, Quidditch matches…if anything, such things are rather boring in comparison to the serious challenges we know are coming in later installments. While this might have been true of the first movie, it wasn’t, simply because there is a certain enjoyment to watching Harry’s astonishment in the face of a magical world he is seeing for the first time. I also remember thinking ten years ago – as I still think now – that they lay it on WAY too thick at the end. The student body spends what feels like hours applauding and cheering for Hagrid upon his return from Azkaban. Headmaster Professor Dumbledore announces “All exams have been canceled” and everyone cheers in unison. I mean, hell, if someone told me I didn’t have to take my exams, I’d be pretty stoked too, but the sweeping shots of cheering students and the soaring of the music really aren’t necessary.
Thus my quibbles. Now, a quick summary, in case anyone’s a little rusty on the plot. This year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, menacing messages written in blood start to turn up around the school, saying things like “The Chamber of Secrets has been opened. Enemies of the Heir, beware.” Soon, several students are mysteriously turned to stone. As the ever-trustworthy Professor McGonagall explains, Hogwarts’s four founders (Gryffindor, Ravenclaw, Hufflepuff, and Slytherin) worked well together until Slytherin demanded that the school admit only students from families consisting entirely of wizards – Purebloods, in other words, in contrast to students from families with a mixture of wizards and Muggles. The name for a person in the latter category is “Mudblood” – a derogatory term in the same vein as “nigger.” The other three founders refused, and Slytherin left in protest. But before he did, he supposedly made a secret chamber in the castle and sealed it so that only his one true heir would be able to open it. Fifty years before the present day, the chamber had briefly been opened, releasing some kind of monster that petrified several students and ultimately killed another. Then, as now, those in charge of Hogwarts considered closing the school rather than leaving students in danger.
Meanwhile, Harry starts hearing voices, and he discovers he can talk to snakes, which means that he has the rare gift of being a Parselmouth. He starts to worry when he hears that evil Lord Voldemort had been a Parselmouth, too – and he worries even more when suggestions emerge that Harry could be the Heir of Slytherin. Harry and his trusty friends Ron and Hermione go through various adventures; highlights of #2 include fame-seeking Gilderoy Lockhart (Kenneth Branagh), Polyjuice Potion, and Moaning Myrtle, the ghost who haunts the girls’ bathroom. But things get real when Harry finds a mysterious blank book, opens it, and discovers that when he writes in it, it writes back. The book turns out to have been a diary owned by one Tom Marvolo Riddle, who had been at Hogwarts (you guessed it) fifty years ago. Harry writes a question about the Chamber of Secrets, and Tom obligingly takes him back in time to events surrounding the earlier opening of the chamber. Tom himself had implicated Hagrid (now Hogwarts gamekeeper but then a student) after having all but begged Dumbledore not to close the school. In the present day, Ginny Weasley is reported missing. Harry manages to get to the Chamber of Secrets and finds her lying there, with none other than Tom Riddle nearby. Tom gloats that he is sucking the life out of Ginny and will soon be finished. In a dramatic moment that looks pretty good onscreen, Tom uses his wand to write the words “Tom Marvolo Riddle” in the air and then unscramble them to reveal “I Am Lord Voldemort.” In the ensuing showdown among Harry, Tom/Voldemort, and the monster, who turns out to be a basilisk (also known as scary-ass giant snake whose looks literally kill), Harry emerges triumphant with the assistance of Dumbledore’s pet phoenix and the clever insight that stabbing the diary will injure Tom. Lo and behold, it does (Picture of Dorian Gray, anyone?), Ginny is restored to life, and petrified students are un-petrified with the help of eminently capable nurse-witch Madame Pomfrey.
I’ve always had trouble articulating why the second book of the series was my least favorite. Perhaps it’s because the stakes aren’t fully established until nearly the end; it’s on page 314 out of 341 pages, to be exact, that Tom Riddle reveals himself to be part of Lord Voldemort. Or perhaps the other books just had more parts that I liked. But it doesn’t really matter; I only mention this to lay groundwork for what happened later. I re-read all of the Harry Potter books in preparation for the release of the final movie in the summer of 2011. This was after I became a fairy-tale scholar. When I reread Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets with a pencil, I found that I had more to underline and comment in this book than in any of the others until Books 6 and 7.
Why? Perhaps because while this story is quite straightforward on the surface, it taps into Big Damn Issues. Issues that have a lot to do with the mythology developed later in the series, and have a lot to do with our non-magic, non-fiction world as well. It’s about race, obviously, and the concomitant issues of segregation, access, finger-pointing witch-hunts (well, non-witch-hunts, in this case), and debates about modifying existing social structures.
More broadly, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets is about defining the same and the other – about the fear that the other will invade the self. Snobby all-wizard families like the Malfoys fear the invasion of Muggles via Mudbloods; just about everyone at Hogwarts fears the (further) invasion of the basilisk. But the scarier invader is Voldemort himself. He invades Ginny Weasley through the diary. It struck me this time that in his iteration as Tom Riddle, Voldemort is very much like a vampire. He’s a relic of the past (“a memory, preserved in a diary”), and he leeches the life out of Ginny. She looks extremely pale lying in the chamber during the film’s climax. Voldemort is killed by a taste of his own vampiric medicine: using one of the basilisk’s fangs, Harry pierces the diary like a stake to the heart, causing blood to spurt as the specter of Riddle vanishes.
But Harry’s deepest fear is that Voldemort has invaded him – or, more precisely, that that which Voldemort is, lurks in Harry as well. This story highlights the affinities between Harry and Voldemort. In the diary flashback, the conversation between Dumbledore and Tom directly echoes substantial chunks of an earlier conversation between Dumbledore and Harry. The flashback also makes clear that Tom, like Harry, has no welcoming home to go to outside of Hogwarts. The movie doesn’t do anything visually to enhance the doubling effect, which is too bad. Not that I’m advocating for Black Swan as the new normal in filmmaking (my blood pressure couldn’t handle it, for one thing), but still.
In conjunction with the discovery that Voldemort and Harry are among the few Parselmouths, the familiar elements of this flashback worry Harry deeply. He had been reminded earlier in the movie that the Sorting Hat originally saw him as a likely candidate for Slytherin House (which produced Voldemort and other morally suspect wizards). Even after the flashy climax in the Chamber of Secrets, Harry’s uncertainty lingers. In a debriefing conversation with Dumbledore, Harry expresses his concerns about the similarities between him and Voldemort, confessing that the Sorting Hat ultimately placed him in Gryffindor House only because he asked it to. But Dumbledore is delighted at this: “Exactly!” he says. “It is not our abilities that show what we truly are. It is our choices.” Sure, Harry has things in him that correspond to things in Voldemort. First of all, that is precisely because, as the prophecy in #5 will tell us, Voldemort “marks [Harry] as his equal,” designating him same by infusing some of himself into Harry (as we later learn, in order to make him a Horcrux). But Harry can choose to hold out as other than Voldemort in spite of what’s inside him. Not entirely, of course; his entire adolescence is devoted to the struggle against Voldemort, and he suffers a great deal from the telepathic connection between them. Still, his “choices,” as Dumbledore says, of love, friendship, and loyalty enable him both here and at the end of the series to defeat his adversarial double. Above all, this conversation at the end of the movie establishes its significance in the series as a whole.
A note on actors. The child actors aren’t great in this installment. They over-enunciate and over-express. Since they’re not quite as little and cute as they were in the first movie, they can’t get away with quite as much. Fortunately, the adult cast is wonderful as usual. Kenneth Branagh takes time out from his usual Shakespearean hijinks to have a ball, obviously, playing egomaniacal celebrity and Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher Gilderoy Lockhart. Branagh’s Lockhart is delightfully tone-deaf to his own absurdity but is convincingly menacing when Harry and Ron threaten to expose his fraudulence toward the end. Watching Branagh face off in a duel with Alan Rickman as Professor Snape is great fun. We don’t get to see much of Rickman’s measured surliness in this movie, but it lurks appropriately in the background. Maggie Smith as Professor McGonagall and Julie Walters as Mrs. Weasley, similarly, play small roles in this installment but lend their always-reassuring presence. Also, RIP Richard Harris; this is the final movie in which he played Professor Dumbledore before he died of Hodgkin’s disease in October 2002. See my review of the first movie for a mini-elegy.
Also unique to the first two movies was the direction of Chris Columbus. These two are clearly separate from those that follow; the visual tone is lighter, the students actually wear wizards’ robes most of the time, and the score is dominated by John Williams’s well-known Harry Potter theme. This simpler style fits with the younger age of the kids; I do find, though, that the later, darker films hold up better against the test of time.
Ten years ago, I went to see this movie with my mother, who had not read any of the books. I remember her commenting that while she enjoyed it, the suspension of disbelief required was a little more than she could muster. If you aren’t a Harry Potter fan, this movie probably won’t make you one. But if you are, the usual pleasures are there to be had.
Dobby the house-elf drives me @#&^ing nuts. He did then and he does now. Seriously, I’m not usually a violent person, but I want to strangle him whenever he comes on screen. (Unfortunately, the very fact that I’ve always proclaimed my dislike of him caused me to feel extremely guilty when he died a hero’s death in #7. I sobbed like a baby. I still kinda want to strangle him watching this movie, though.)
The flying car is still pretty cool. Children escaping from unjust adult tyranny: always satisfying.
This is the first time we see the Burrow, Ron’s family’s house. The ideal family life, precisely what Harry doesn’t have, wants, and gets when he marries Ginny in the end.
It’s 12 minutes in and I want to reread and rewatch all 7 RIGHT NOW.
Your hair was so long then, Emma Watson. Keep the pixie cut, girl – trust me, it’s having just the effect you want it to.
Okay, now I’m bored with the flying car. (At this point, Harry’s almost falling out of it. Of course, he doesn’t, quite.)
Ron to Harry when Hogwarts comes into view: “Welcome home.” This is important.
Ah yes, researching Polyjuice Potion in the library. I love how often they seek and find SUPER IMPORTANT information in musty old books. I’m enjoying that about Buffy the Vampire Slayer these days, and it’s here, too. I guess that makes Hermione something of a Giles, but that’s neither here nor there. (Though if someone wants to make a mash-up, I will watch it.)
Bludger attacking Harry during a Quidditch match: pretty good suspense.
Enter the Phoenix. Harry ends up being phoenix-like himself in #7.
When the kids take the Polyjuice Potion, they have one hour before they change back into themselves. Very fairytale-esque.
Here’s Hagrid’s giant spider, Aragog. I can’t help comparing him to Shelob, the giant spider in The Lord of the Rings. Shelob is scarier, though the sheer volume of spiders here is pretty freaking creepy. And it’s seriously disturbing when one gets into the car with Harry and Ron. Nice how the car with a mind of its own comes to save them, though, and interesting that a man-made – even Muggle-made – thing gets them out of the forest and away from the spiders.
The door to the Chamber of Secrets looks good – sort of a wheel of snakes. The chamber itself looks appropriately dank and shadowy. The Phoenix arrives in a nice shot of bright red against dark grey. The snake CGI doesn’t look dated to me. Nice job, visual effects people who are far too numerous to name!
Huh. I’ve been reading the Game of Thrones series lately, and it occurs to me that, at least so far, that series has no central hero. Whereas this series is all about Harry Potter being the hero. It’s obviously crucial that he has friends and helpers (if for no other reason than that they motivate him), but it always comes down to Harry. At the end of Chamber of Secrets, Lucius Malfoy says sarcastically, “Let us hope that Mr. Potter will always be around to save the day.” Harry responds, “Don’t worry. I will be.” See you in the Shrieking Shack.