Is Harry Potter the Most Useless Protagonist Ever?

July 22, 2011

Every good hero needs a little help from his friends sometimes. But there’s a fine line between “working well with others” and a pitiable amount of co-dependence, and Harry Potter often slides into the latter. He’s clearly meant to be the hero of the series –  his name is in the title of every book, after all – but it increasingly feels like he’s a figurehead, while his friends and allies are doing all the real work.

Note One: This post will have spoilers for Harry Potter & The Deathly Hallows Part Two.
Note Two: I only read the first four books, so my opinions on Deathly Hallows are based solely on the films.

Let’s recap some of the major plot points of the final Potter film:

  • Break into goblin bank. (Hermione leads the way. She probably mixed the polyjuice potion, too.)
  • Drop out of mine car, almost fall to your deaths. (Hermione casts a spell.)
  • Stop touching things in Bellatrix’s vault. (Hermione.)
  • Escape from goblin bank on the back of a dragon. (Hermione)
  • Sneak into Hogwarts (Aberforth Dumbledore shows them the way.)
  • Confront Snape (Professor McGonagall takes over)
  • Find person/ghost who knows where the horcrux is (Luna’s idea)
  • Find Horcrux (We’ll give Harry credit for solving Helena’s riddle.)
  • Find basilisk tooth to destroy horcrux (Ron)
  • Fight off Death Eaters (Hogwarts teachers)
  • Blow up bridge, wipe out army, and escape Indiana-Jones-style (Neville)
  • Get killed (Harry)
  • Come back to life (Dumbledore/Resurrection Stone)
  • Play dead (thanks to Mrs. Malfoy, though I suppose we can give Harry some credit for not letting Draco die)
  • Tell Voldemort to get bent (Neville)
  • Kill Bellatrix (Mrs. Weasley)
  • Kill snake (Ron/Hermione/Neville)

That list probably makes things look worse than they really are. It’s a summary of the movie, which is itself kind of a summary of the book. But it’s hard to escape feeling like Harry is merely along for the ride while other characters actually advance the plot.

Harry’s plan in any situation seems to be show up, avoid dying for as long as possible, let someone (usually Hermione) solve the problem, and then wait for Dumbledore to explain everything afterwards. It’s true that Harry is generally brave, compassionate, and loyal, but between magical gifts (like his invisibility cloak) and very smart friends, his accomplishments are few and often unimpressive.

As Sady Doyle notes in her outstanding retrospective of the Hermione Granger series, Harry gets most of his development handed to him by other characters. He’s the hero because he was in the right place at the right time (admittedly, thats’s an odd description of being in the room while your parents are murdered), and most of his skills and abilities come naturally to him.

Having a heroic destiny isn’t unique to Harry Potter, of course. “The Chosen One” is run-of-the-mill in Fantasy and Sci-Fi, from King Arthur to Luke Skywalker. But even by that standard, Harry Potter is a wishy-washy hero.

Luke Skywalker is one of the whiniest heroes in modern fiction, but there’s still a sense of development across the three films. He relies on Obi-Wan, Yoda, Han, and Leia, but still gets to accomplish some things on his own: Rescuing Han from Jabba was his plan, and he goes one-on-one with Darth Vader a few times. For large portions of the second and third films, Luke’s narrative is entirely separate from that of his allies.

But poor Harry Potter is merely a tourist in his own story, watching everyone else do all the hard work while he takes the credit. The particularly unfortunate thing about the movies is that his accomplices never get enough screen time to glory in their deeds; the films plough through so much raw story and plot that nuances of character and non-expository dialogue often fall to the wayside. The books at least had more of an ensemble feeling, even if there was a clear protagonist; in the films, we’re left with an empty hero propelled by an increasingly meaningless series of plot developments.

One response to Is Harry Potter the Most Useless Protagonist Ever?

  1. I never thought of it that way, well put!