Drab Heroes

February 9th, 2011

Last week my wife and I watched the entire series of Harry Potter movies. I’m not a fan of Harry Potter, but Kathy is, and so I watch video with her. Sometimes she watches my favorites, and sometimes I watch hers. This was my turn.

I had previously watched all the Harry Potter movies, but I hadn’t paid much attention to them, and they came a few years apart, so I never really bothered to put things together. But watching them all in sequence gave me the opportunity to see the entirety of the story (except the end, of course), and I have come to two conclusions:

First, Alan Rickman truly is a great actor. That guy can really swirl a cape!

Second, Harry Potter is a non-hero. He never actually does anything. For the most part, he wanders through the movies, reacting to events around him, but never showing true initiative, never taking events into his own hands. When he’s forced to act, he does so competently, but he does so reluctantly. He never grabs a girl and kisses her. He never launches a new plan. Hermione is a more active person than Harry.

What really frosts me is that Harry never earned his position
he was born to it. He just happens to have inherited these great magical powers. The most important thing about Harry is not his character but his genes. Indeed, Harry seldom seems to face any harsh test of character. He just has to wave his wand and pronounce the spell correctly.

But here’s something truly striking: many of our modern movie heroes are of the same caliber. Take Neo from The Matrix. Neo doesn’t get to be The Chosen One by some great feat of courage or perseverance; no, he was just born to it; he was “The Chosen One”. And Neo, rather like Harry Potter, seems rather bland as a character. He just sorta goes along with things, using his special powers when necessary, but seldom seizing the moment and forcing his impress upon it.

Or how about Luke Skywalker from Star Wars? Same story: a kid who just happens to have been born with the special genes that give him magical powers to save the galaxy. Does he save it by force of character or true heroism? Not really; he just used The Force as he was born to do.

Contrast these non-heroes with Frodo Baggins, a genuine, red-blooded hero. What makes Frodo such a hero is the fact that he’s a completely ordinary person who is thrust into an extraordinary situation and responds with truly extraordinary heroism. The three non-heroes are born-extraordinary people called upon to do extraordinary things — what’s special about that? There is nothing, absolutely nothing, in any of the three non-hero tales like the moment when Frodo stands up and says, “I will take the ring to Mount Doom”. Nor is there anything like the final climb up Mount Doom, when both he and Samwise are at the end of their ropes, crawling up the mountain, somehow dragging themselves upward. Neither Harry nor Neo nor Luke ever face anything that challenging. Or how about the final moment when Frodo, dangling the ring over the fires of Mount Doom, finally succumbs to the Ring’s seduction, turns around, and declares, “The Ring is mine!” Again, neither Harry nor Neo nor Luke are ever faced with such an intense situation.

Now let me add another observation: Harry, Neo, and Luke are all products of the last 40 years — but The Lord of the Rings was written more than 60 years ago. My hunch is that the difference reflects some deep cultural change that took place after the Second World War. I will even hazard a guess as to the nature of that change: people no longer fear that they might lose everything. My parents’ generation endured both the Depression and World War II. Their parents’ generation had endured World War I. My generation — at least, the early part of the Baby Boom — was brought up in fear of nuclear war. In later years, the sense of doom softened, and young people nowadays do not face any such profound threats. Yes, they have plenty of problems to deal with, but annihilation isn’t one of them. When I was in school, we practiced “duck and cover”: hiding underneath our desks in the event of a nuclear attack. And the Cuban Missile Crisis is something you must have lived through in order to appreciate the deep-seated fear that it planted in our hearts. We really came close to nuclear war in October 1961, and everybody — my parents, my teachers, everybody I knew — was scared out of their wits that the end of the world was upon us. Then the Kennedy assassination and the upheavals of the Sixties gave us all a sense that we lived in desperate times.

Much of the fiction of those decades — the Thirties through the Sixties — was about self-sacrifice in the face of overwhelming disaster. Lord of the Rings is very much about World War I — from the sense of profound evil about to engulf the world to Samwise Gamgee as batman to Frodo’s officer. The misery that soldiers in that war endured is reflected in the books. World War II engendered a more optimistic view: danger was still all around us, but we could beat it if we just put our backs into it. Science fiction reflected these attitudes more clearly. The Fifties were the decade of the Monster Movie, in which a horrible rampaging monster wreaks havoc, but the good guys always defeat the creature in the end. In the Sixties, science fiction became more serious. The television series  Outer Limits was impressive for the interesting moral questions it tackled, and even Star Trek, for all its gung-ho atmosphere, often raised serious and troubling questions. Then came 2001, A Space Odyssey, and science fiction got REALLY serious.

But all this heavy stuff lost its appeal in the Seventies. I think it was because the younger generations didn’t have the fear of Armageddon pounded into them. They didn’t believe that they faced instant nuclear annihilation, or the draft, or a foreign invasion. They lived in a much safer world, and their entertainment began to reflect this. That’s when entertainment fiction started to lighten up. Sure, Darth Vader was “gag me with a spoon evil” — but there was also something unthreatening about him. He was a movie villain, nothing more; the kind of villain you throw popcorn at. He didn’t represent anything in the real world. Movies like Star Wars and the Indiana Jones movies were really more like comic books than novels. By the late Eighties, the movies were bringing comic books to the big screen. By the Nineties, almost everything had become comic book: games, movies, and popular fiction. It has stayed that way ever since. That’s why we have such drab heroes these days.