Skip to main content

Compassion and goodness in 'Harry Potter & the Half-Blood Prince'

I must say, I found Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince to be one of the best (if not the best) of the HP films so far—and lots of folks have written far better reviews and ruminations about the film and its themes than I could (I particularly appreciated Persiflage’s reflections). As for me, I loved how the film flowed, always moving (both cinematically and plot wise) but also allowing us to rest in the story and characters—even during the parts that significantly propelled us forward. It was akin to something like a wide and long river, gentle and deep in its progress towards its end, yet also powerful and somewhat fearsome in its current and undertows. And I loved the way the stories of the characters intertwined, particularly Draco Malfroy’s and Harry Potter’s. But one aspect of the film moved me most: the power of compassion.

It’s throughout the film: Dumbldore’s care and empathy for Harry as he undertakes dangerous and hard tasks. Harry’s sympathy for Hermione’s pain in watching Ron with another girl. Luna’s care for Harry after Malfoy’s beating on the train. Ginny taking Harry by the hand into the Room of Requirement (and her embrace of him after the tragedy at the end of the film). Dumbledore’s words and sacrifice for Malfoy. Even the audience is invited towards compassion as we catch glimpses of Malfoy’s inner torment (especially his moment in the bathroom before Harry confronts him). (I think an opportunity missed by the filmmakers was near the beginning of the film, when Malfoy’s mother seeks out Snape; in the book, Snape is clearly moved with compassion for her as she begs his help in protecting Malfoy but that isn’t as clear in the film.)

But I found one act of compassion—a seemingly minor one as far as the film goes—particularly moving: when Harry reaches out to steady Professor Slughorn’s trembling hand as he drops that pivotal memory about Tom Riddle into a glass vial. I don’t remember if that moment occurred in the book or not, but I found it very affecting. Harry didn’t need to do that. Slughorn is, on the surface, a weak, pompous and selfish man. Harry had every reason to stand by judgmentally until Slughorn was finished and triumphantly snatch the vial from his hand—but he didn’t. Instead he reaches out and gently steadies the man’s hand.

Maybe this moment is so moving to me because I found myself identifying a little too uncomfortably close with Slughorn; there’s just a little too much about him that rings true in my own experience. I, too, have made choices out of fear and vanity. I, too, have wished to rewrite my memories in such a way as to cast myself in a better light. Yet, Harry shows him compassion—perhaps something he was compelled towards because he had faced his own bad choices and the evil he was capable of in his own actions during his confrontation and fight with Malfoy.

But perhaps that is what those kinds of moments in our own life should do for us. When we fail miserably, when we face the truth that we’ve failed or hurt another, one of our choices is to do as Slughorn and pretend or ignore that it ever happened. Or, like Harry, we can (as Mark Scandrette puts it in Soul Graffiti) “rethink our thinking,” allow our actions to be examined in the light and essentially repent. And if we do that, we will find a deepening well of compassion in us for others who have failed as well. We are compelled, like Harry, to reach out and gently steady the trembling hand of another.

All of this plays into the series’ theme of the power of goodness overcoming evil. I like Persiflage’s observation about this:
There is something comforting about goodness. The reason we love Dumbledore is because he is good. The reason the Weasley family, and most of the Hogwarts professors, are characters that you care so much about is because they are good. Again, there is something comforting about goodness - it feels safe, like home, like sitting next to crackling fire during a storm, like sharing a drink with close & trusted friends - it's a shelter. And being good doesn’t mean that you are inherently good in your nature - no, it means that you actively choose what is good (and this is also evident in the Harry Potter series).
There is great power in that kind of sheltering goodness, and it is an echo of an even greater truth. Not only do we have the ability to choose to do good—we were, after all, created in the image of Love itself—but we also the ability to become (as Dallas Willard puts it) of the kind of people who consistently choose goodness. But this takes more than willpower; it takes a relationship with Love itself.

In some ways, Harry’s relationship with and trust in Dumbledore echoes the power of a relationship with the Father. Persiflage and others point out that trust in Dumbledore is a key theme in this film and the series—and that trust begets transformation towards sacrifice and goodness in some key characters, Harry included. But whereas Dumbledore—as good as he is—is flawed and makes mistakes, the Father is the beginning and end of Perfect Goodness and Love. When we trust that he is who says and can do what he says, we discover a life-breathing and transforming Spirit inside of us. And as we learn to live out of that Spirit and in trust and under the love of the Father, we cease to simply make good choices but begin to become the kind of people who consistently exhibit love, joy, peace, kindness, compassion for others—to be the kind of people who are a sheltering goodness.

And, like the HP universe, this doesn’t happen in a vacuum in our world either. We were made to experience, learn and share this with each other. It takes a convergence of kinship and relationships with others in relationship with the Father who help us make the right choices—who encourage, lovingly (if firmly) confront, forgive, and reach out to steady trembling hands.

This film was a delightful surprise, a good entry into the HP cannon. It wasn’t as good as the book—how could it be? And it had its flaws (I agree with the critics who find the ending a bit too anticlimactic). But this film captured some moments that enhanced J.K. Rowling’s already deeply rich story—and it brought God-talk into these open spaces.

(Image: Warner Bros)