Justice Begins in the Negative

My initial thoughts towards the Occupy Wall Street movement were like lots of people: “Okay, I see that you’re mad about something, but do you have anything constructive to say?” It seemed as though they were against the rubbish financial system, but what else?

We always want critique to be constructive rather than filled with inarticulate rage. And yet, maybe it’s too much to expect that immediately. Kester Brewin helped me see the problem with this:

[I]t is part of the corruption of power to insist that any protest or critique against the dominant system comes fully formed. When you’re being beaten down, it is entirely valid to simply scream in frustration, without any idea what changes need to be made. – Don’t Blame Bankers | What Alternatives Are ‘Occupy’ Proposing?

Spot on.

Harry Potter and the Botched Adaptation

The excellent Harry Potter series saw its final movie adaptation this past summmer in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows II. On its own merits, it was a fine movie, if not an altogether satisfying finale for the characters we’ve come to know and love for the past 10 years. But, as an adaptation, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows II was wretched.

I was so upset after watching the movie that I started writing this review directly afterwards. I then needed to reread the book in order to corroborate many of the details I wanted to discuss, not to mention washing the bad taste of the movie out of my mouth.1 The reread was so satisfying that the review was forgotten until now.

I fully understand that books and movies are different media with different storytelling strengths and weaknesses. Movies’ time constraints require often painful edits and changes to the source material. I think that in this case, however, the adaptation could have been considerably more faithful to the source material and have produced an even better movie. (What follows is of course heavily laden with spoilers.)

1. Harry Spills the Beans

One of the most emotional sequences in the book is Harry coming to grips with the fact that he is a Horcrux and must let Voldemort kill him in order to defeat Voldemort. It’s one of Rowling’s finer pieces of writing as we accompany Harry on his journey of self-sacrifice for his friends.

Part of this lyrical passage is Harry’s decision to use his invisibility cloak to prevent his friends from dissuading him from giving himself up. That would just make it harder for him. But in the movie, Harry does tell them, robbing this sequence of so much potency.

To be fair, filming Harry’s interior journey would be hard. Maybe it could be done, maybe not. This is the scene I have the most grace for in terms of film adaptation. Still, it galled me to see one of my favourite passages fall so flat on screen.

2. Snape’s Patchy Story

The redemption of Severus Snape is another high point of this novel. His tragic story of love for Lily Potter, inadvertent betrayal of her, and subsequent anguished dedication to protecting her son and aiding Dumbledore is one of many moments in the novel that had me tearing up.

The movie, however, only might have provoked tears of anger at the short shrift they gave to Snape’s story. My wife, who has not read the books but has watched every movie to date, did not even understand from this sequnce that Snape had been in love with Lily Potter. To not make clear the central fact of Snape’s entire story is to treat his character with contempt. Pathetic.

3. Boss Fight Porn

The book’s final showdown between Harry and Voldemort is amazing, not least because Harry defeats Voldemort without firing a shot after a great expository taunt. The only real action in this finalé is amoungst the secondary characters2, as Harry’s death cast a protective spell similar to that which his mother had laid upon him when she died for him, leaving all at Hogwarts likewise protected from Voldemort.

But this would have robbed the filmmakers of a Big Boss Fight™, and we, uh, need one of those. So we get a ridiculous battle that looks cool but is ultimately a big waste of time that could have been better spent on all the deficiencies I’m outlining. This was the final movie guys, it’s not like you need to stoke the series’ engine any more. Couldn’t you have eased up on the cliché?

4. Why’s Harry Alive?

Like Snape’s love for Lily, the reason Harry is still alive after being hit with Voldemort’s killing curse is not made clear in the movie. For what might be the most important plot point in the whole damn series, this sure gets short shrift in the movie. The relevant passage from the Harry’s conversation with Dumbledore in the book:

“I let him kill me,” said Harry. “Didn’t I?”

“You did,” said Dumbledore nodding. “Go on!”

“So the part of his soul that was in me … has it gone?”

“Oh yes! said Dumbledore. “Yes, he destroyed it. Your soul is whole, and completely your own, Harry.”

“But if Voldemort used the killing curse,” Harry started again, “and nobody died for me this time — how can I be alive?”

“I think you know,” said Dumbledore. “Think back. Remember what he did, in his ignorance, in his greed and his cruelty.”

“He took my blood.” said Harry.

“Precisely!” said Dumbledore. “He took your blood and rebuilt his living body with it! Your blood in his veins, Harry, Lily’s protection inside both of you! He tethered you to life while he lives!”

…”He took your blood believing it would strengthen him. He took into his body a tiny part of the enchantment your mother laid upon you when she died for you. His body keeps her sacrifice alive, and while that enchantment survives, so do you and so does Voldemort’s last hope for himself.”

…”Without meaning to, as you now know, Lord Voldemort doubled the bond between you when he returned to a human form. A part of his soul was still attached to yours, and, thinking to strengthen himself, he took a part of your mother’s sacrifice into himself. If he could only have understood the precise and terrible power of that sacrifice, he would not, perhaps, have dared to touch your blood…. But then, if he had been able to understand, he could not be Lord Voldemort, and might never have murdered at all.”

This scene is probably the major denouement for the book, and Rowling handles it well. The book’s themes of the power of love and the foolishness of evil come together brilliantly. As with Gollum in the Lord of the Rings, evil undoes itself and love wins because evil cannot, in the end, understand love in the slightest.

But the movie treats this crucial scene with frustrating flippancy, not even mentioning Lily’s protective charm nor Voldemort’s hubris. Without those, I don’t even remember what hackneyed explanation they attempted to give for Harry’s survival, but I know that the group I saw the movie with–none of whom had read the books–were very confused as we left the theatre, leading me into a rant about all the critical stuff the movie missed, later leading me to (eventually) write this critique.

No adaptation can perfectly mimic its source material. I get that, and mention that my first gripe is just a gripe. But the others I mention are infuriating. If the movie had ditched the unnecessary final fight scene and had instead focused more on Snape’s story and the deep significance of how Harry survived, the movie could have been more than a blockbuster. It could have been a great story.

  1. Yes, that is a fantastically mixed metaphor. Thanks for noticing. 
  2. Molly Weasley’s “Get away from my daughter, you bitch!” to Bellatrix Lestrange thankfully made the movie cut. 

An Apocalyptic Fucking Bridge

Various permutations of the word “fuck”—clusterfuck, fucktarded, unfuckingbelievable, ad infinitum—are completely insufficient to describe the apoplexy that overtook me when I first saw Let’s Build a Fucking Bridge.

Because the biggest threat to the church is waiting in your fucking car for too long.

Edit: Thom Turner writes the kind of stuff I would have if I’d been able to manage more than cussing over at Everyday Liturgy.

The Crushing Calling

“I’ve discovered my calling” is one of those Christian phrases that is simultaneously indispensable and nauseating. Discovering one’s calling in the journey of faith is a truly difficult task, fraught with doubt, anxiety and the ever-present possibility of self-deception. But it is made doubly difficult due to the influence of our culture’s pervasive individualism and the slogans of pop psychology.

I’ll come right out and say it: discovering my calling is generally reduced to some vague notion of self-fulfillment and well-being. This is more easily seen in the process of how we come to decide what is not our calling, namely those things that make us feel unhappy, unwanted, unfulfilled and possibly even marked with garden-variety suffering.

How on earth (or, more appropriately, in hell) has a religion that follows a tortured and executed savior come to so thoroughly identify following said savior with such a trite therapeuticism? We blather on about “the abundant life” promised to disciples of Jesus, but gloss over the whole “the world will hate you like it hates me” thing that Christ made pretty clear to those who would follow him (c.f. John 15:18-21).

This is the place where happy hunters will tell me that I’m being gloomy. Pardon me while I go don some sackcloth and bathe in ashes. I’d like to make it quite clear that shifting the major discernment factor for calling from happiness to misery would be simply to repeat the same mistake we’re currently making in a different direction. I’m not interested in resurrecting self-flagellation or “this world’s not my home”-style escapism either.

No, when we’re discerning our calling, we walk by faith. This means that we don’t have obvious answers or easy measuring sticks. Or, in short, it’s really, really hard, filled with moments of clarity, stretches of discouragement, and occasional snatches of wonder. It’s subject to the full range of what it means to be a human being created in the image of God. God help us to not reduce calling to the myth of unfailing fulfillment.

Holding Out Hope for Cynicism

I have occasionally been accused of being cynical, mostly by a bunch of jerks. I will readily confess that I have a tendency towards seeing what’s wrong instead of what’s right, and that the words coming out of my mouth are often called “pessimistic,” “negative,” and “gloomy”—especially by empty-headed optimists.

I recognize that cynicism (or its less resigned cousin negativity) is not a commendable way to approach the world, nor to endear yourself to people. Dale Carnegie would not hold me up as a role model.

But I do want to put in a good word for cynicism. I might even have the audacity to say that cynicism is nearly the same thing as hope. To (ab)use a tired metaphor, I’ll say that they’re two sides of the same coin.

Engraved on this metaphorical coin is the phrase “things are not the way that they should be.” This knowledge may spring from a reasoned critique or from that locus of intuition colloquially known as “the gut.” Usually it’s a mysterious combination of both. Those who are cynical and those who are hopeful recognize this wrong-ness-in-the-world.

Cynicism and hope therefore must be apocalyptic: they believe that there must be something great (and likely terrible) must happen to usher this world into the one it should be. I know that many are mentally begging to tell me the difference between cynicism and hope at this point, but I’m going to delay. Cynics don’t often get to stand up for themselves.

Now, as I was saying before I so rudely interrupted myself, cynicism and hope are apocalyptic, dreaming of a world laid on very different foundations than our own. This is why, for instance, it will be quickly shown that the “hope” peddled by Barack Obama is nothing of the sort. Obama’s “hope” is a drearily reformist affair, not daring to ask, for instance, if it might be better for the world if the USA did not exist. Real hope is always far too radical to run for office.

But I wasn’t speaking of hope as much as what hope and cynicism have in common: being deeply troubled by the world as we find it. In this sense, cynicism has much to recommend it over apathy, which couldn’t be troubled to be troubled by much of anything.

Now at last we can speak of that small difference between cynicism and hope: whether or not we believe that the world will actually change into what it should be. And even this important difference might not be as large as it appears on first glance, since we can look at cynics are frustrated hopers. Cynics therefore provide better material to work with than those flimsy apathetic people who don’t care enough to develop frustration—except perhaps in the people futilely trying to convince them to care.

If I’m right about this analysis, the presence of cynics should itself give us reason to hope. It’s heartening to know that there are many people out there who don’t take the way things are as a given. It’s encouraging to know that there are people who aren’t interested in bowing and scraping at the altars of the Powers That Be. It’s enough to make this cynic smile.

Well, almost.

Atheism for Lent

I never cease to be amazed at people’s inventiveness with what to “give up” for Lent. Merold Westphal, distinguished professor of philosophy at Fordham University, advocates trying (rather than giving up) something a little more unusual for Lent: atheism.

Before you run for the tar and feathers, what Westphal is really getting at is that the critiques against religion levelled by the “masters of suspicion” (the would be Freud, Marx and Nietzsche) are often right on the money. And instead of fighting against these atheists, we believers should use the occasion of their critique to turn from our idolatries (they are many!) to God in repentance and contrition.

The “hermeneutics of suspicion” used by these three thinkers will be making up one of the chapters in my thesis, and Westphal’s article here is a great summary of this theme. Go on and read Atheism for Lent at The Other Journal (and look around a bit while you’re there.)