The films were made solely to cater around Harry, and managed to strip women of any development of autonomy throughout
Directors, script writers, and producers who try to tell the story of books through film have the unenviable task of working out what to cut and what to keep. The Harry Potter films got almost all of their choices wrong. The people who paid the price for the poor decisions were the women and girls within the magical universe.
The priority of the films were to make Harry the centre of the action. It would always be tempting for directors to do this and play with all of the possibilities and excitement the magical world offered (although it must be said that every Harry Potter director was a cisgender man), but it came at the expense of giving a wholesome product that contained character development. The characters this harmed the most were the girls and women, who found themselves pigeonholed as either partners, mothers or teachers. Their stories beyond those roles hardly mattered.
The films, as a whole, suffered because the focus on Harry’s active role stripped some of the most important scenes to the story. He was never allowed to be passive. The story couldn’t be revealed to Harry – he had to be the one causing it. It was a masculine lens through which we had to observe the films. We missed out on the superb chapter, The Parting of The Ways, because throughout that scene, Harry would have had to lie in bed and would hardly have said a thing. Mrs Weasley even tried to force him back into the bed at one point and quieten him. It was Fudge, Dumbledore, McGonagall and Snape who led that scene with Harry watching on as the politics unfolded. This was not deemed worthy to be shown on film, despite being pivotal to set up The Order of the Phoenix to explain how the Ministry of Magic turned against Dumbledore and Harry. The films just couldn’t allow Harry to be passive, and because of this, women were only ever allowed to react to Harry. They were allowed no stories of their own.
“The films just couldn’t allow Harry to be passive, and because of this, women were only ever allowed to react to Harry”
It was repeated again in the next scene where Dumbledore’s explanation behind the prophecy was almost entirely cut. It was a ludicrous decision when the whole point of The Order of The Phoenix was about finding out what the prophecy meant for Harry and Voldemort. But again, it seems that having Harry sit and listen wasn’t judged as a valuable scene.
Ginny was the biggest victim of this narrow focus on Harry as an active agent driving the narrative. Ginny was hardly allowed to exist outside of Harry, but at least within the books she was granted some moments of audacity. The films completely stripped that back. There were no bat bogey hexes. Ginny was silenced, forbidden from asserting she wanted to be involved in the war. Ginny’s existence on the film was solely to be something Harry feared losing. Ginny’s role was to serve Harry. She was someone to kiss, and someone for Harry to miss and fear dying. As Ron had pointed out, Harry had already lost his family, and so he needed someone else to fear dying.
Other roles were also stripped back. We saw none of the touching scenes Harry and McGonagall shared within the books. McGonagall was the sole provider of comedic relief in The Order of The Phoenix book and yet in the film, we got none of the sense that she was leading a quiet war against Umbridge. McGonagall objected, yes, but it was Harry who was doing all of the work. We never even got the brilliant scene where McGongall vowed to make Harry an auror, because that would have shown that Harry needed the mentorship and championing of a woman.
Angelina Johnson was one of the only women of colour in the entire franchise. She wasn’t utilised enough in the books, but at least she led the Quidditch team. Within the books, she was constantly let down by Harry’s mediocrity. His temper and lack of focus costing them dear – and, yet, they still won without Harry. It was a small moment that showed how successful Johnson was; she was allowed to thrive without Harry’s presence – unlike every other character. In the films however, her biggest scene was to be asked out by Fred. She existed so a white boy could ask her out and assert his masculinity over his younger brother and Harry who were both stressed that they would never find a date (because they only viewed girls as something they had to compete over to bolster their own social standing).
Hermione too was quieter after the third film, perhaps because Watson had begun to outshine Radcliffe. It wasn’t until the last two films that Hermione really came into her own again. We never got to see the work of SPEW. Hermione’s group was problematic, (it paid no attention to what house elves actually wanted), but it was also one of the first things Hermione did that showed off her independence. She was the leader. She was going against everyone by doing it. However, Hermione was largely reduced to Harry’s cheerleader, and Ron’s girlfriend-in-waiting until her brains were needed again in the last two films. Yet, even then the last two films meddled with her. In the books, there was no dancing scene with Harry. This addition simply framed Hermione as a potential partner for Harry and emphasised her pain at Ron’s abandonment. It focused not on all that she was achieving by trying to win the war, but about her relationship with two boys. Hermione’s significance as a character had nothing to do with whether she loved Ron or could love Harry. She was amazing because of her relentless determination, but the films could only concentrate on that for so long before needing to make it about Harry (and Ron) again.
There were a lot of stereotypes about the women and girls when they were first introduced in the books – the overbearing mother (Mrs Weasley), the strict teacher everyone fears but admires (Professor McGonagall), the bossy know-it-all girl (Hermione) and the weird girl (Luna). These were broken down within the text however, as more nuanced sides were revealed. That’s not to say some didn’t remain problematic (and only white, allo, cisgender, straight able-bodied women were ever given any prominent stories in Harry Potter), but they were given human complexities that subverted the old stereotypes around girls and women. The films however, enforced the simple one dimensional view of girls and women. The only woman it allowed to feature as she was in the books was Bellatrix, and that’s because she was always an active character who drove chaos. Women often go quietly about their business and get shit done in a world that overlooks them. The fact the films didn’t appreciate this shows that they weren’t at all concerned with representing women. They just wanted to use them in relation to Harry.
Harry Potter deserves huge criticism for its whiteness, but because of Hermione and McGonagall its often hailed as feminist. The films though went out of way to undo any progress that might have been contained within the books. The books weren’t particularly radical, but they held nuanced stories of women and the film industry just couldn’t stand that.