Harry Potter: A high-school movie at heart

6a00d8341bf6c153ef011570b81c38970c-pi[1] Take your seats, class: We're starting up week 3 of EW University with a weeklong look at the pop culture influences in the Harry Potter films. Check out our gallery Harry Potter: 10 Teen-Movie Parallels or jump ahead and test your Harry Potter knowledge with our final exam. Stick around all summer long for future EW University courses on Lost, Quentin Tarantino, and more.

Harry Potter: Just another teen movie?
There are so many creatures and supernatural goings-on at Hogwarts that it’s sometimes easy to forget that the place is a high school. And it’s also easy to forget that the Harry Potter films, for all their CGI spectacle, also fall squarely in the tradition of teen/high school movies, appropriating many of the same plot devices and tropes. Sure, the big game involves Quidditch instead of football or basketball, and the school dances aren’t be-all-end-all proms ending up in bacchanalian parties at someone’s house. But there are student cliques (Gryffindor vs. Slytherin), favorite teachers (Hagrid, Dumbledore), and much loathed instructors (Snape, Dolores Umbridge).

It’s fascinating to watch how the various directors of the series – sometimes even more so than J.K. Rowling herself — have played with the conventions of high school movies in adapting the books to the screen. Take the Yule Ball in The Goblet of Fire, for instance. We see our main characters waiting too long to ask their first choices to the dance, or being blind to who their first choice should be. (Oh, Ron Weasley, when will you wake up to your feelings for Hermione?) Harry-Potter-Yule-ball_l We then see our heroes stiffing their dates because they’re really hung up on others. We see Ron, the ultimate geeky sidekick, dressed in ridiculously ruffly formal wear. We see supposedly spontaneous but actually elaborately choreographed dance routines (perhaps by magic?). We see the curious heavy metalish band playing guitar licks from the stage. We even see the creepy teacher/chaperone surreptitiously sipping from a flask in the corner of the hall – though in this case it isn't booze, but Polyjuice Potion so that wicked Barty Crouch Jr. can pose as teacher Alastor Moody. In each instance, the films include elements of high school movies that we’ve seen dozens of times but which have been reappropriated to the particulars of the Hogwarts universe.

After the jump: Find out what Harry Potter has in common with Pretty in Pink

As the Harry Potter series has progressed, we've also seen the high school movie elements deepen beyond mere shout-outs or off-handed references. At first, Hermione seems like the familiar little miss know-it-all (think Reese Witherspoon in Election) and Draco Malfoy merely the rich, blond bully (think James Spader in Pretty in Pink or William Zabka in any number of ‘80s movies). But over time, each has evolved to become a more complex, rounded character than their initial archetypal portrayal might have suggested. (And Emma Watson's Hermione in the later films is more of a knockout than the still rather mousy Hermione of the books.) Even Ron, while still good for the occasional cheap laugh as the perennial sidekick to our hero, has grown into something deeper than Ferris Bueller's Cameron could ever hope to be.

And the filmmakers have gotten savvier about borrowing aspects of the familiar movie genre in ways that are specific to the Potterverse. The Chamber of Secrets kicks off with Harry and Ron “borrowing” an automobile –- and even crashing it into a tree –- but the ride is played less as a mischievous joyride in the high school movie tradition than a necessary way to overcome magical forces trying to keep them from school. (And the car itself is a purely Muggle object that's rather foreign to the wizarding world.) The Goblet of Fire takes a cue from Porky’s, but cannily switches genders, having the ghostly Moaning Myrtle spy on Harry Potter as he bathes (he uses soap bubbles to cover his, ahem, wand). Much of the plot of The Order of the Phoenix is framed as an elaborate student revolt against a cruel tyrant of a principal. While Imelda Staunton’s Dolores Umbridge recalls both Ed Rooney in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Valerie Drake in The Faculty, director David Yates makes it clear that there's a lot more at stake in Harry & Co.'s struggle with authority. Throughout the series, though, the high school movie tropes help to lighten the tone for the main narrative thrust: an epic battle between the forces of good and evil.

Extra credit viewing: Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Pretty in Pink, Election

Extra credit reading: Don't You Forget About Me: Contemporary Writers on the Films of John Hughes (2007), edited by Jaime Clarke

For discussion: Do you think that the coming-through-school drama of the Harry Potter films would work purely on its own terms, without the overlay of fantasy and magic? In what ways do the recognizable high school aspects of the story make the characters seem more relatable despite the fact that they're witches and wizards? Please discuss in the comments section below.

For more Harry Potter EW U:
Harry Potter: 10 Teen-Movie Parallels
EW's Harry Potter Trivia Challenge (Pt. 1)
EW's Harry Potter Trivia Challenge (Pt. 2)

Comments (11 total) Add your comment
  • Sharon

    How on earth can we discuss Harry Potter as a film series when writing an article like this? While, yes, they have been turned into movies, it is impossible to forget that these were originally books, and that basically every plot point mentioned above comes from the books. Admittedly, there are parallels to be made between Potter and different films. However, it seems ridiculous to discuss Potter plot points as if they were decisions made by the filmmakers.

  • Winona

    First of all, it’s “Umbridge”.
    As for the actual discussion question, well-written characters will hold up and stand the test of time, no matter what time period (true or imaginary) they may be put in. I feel that Rowling, and therefore screenwriter Steve Kloves, has done a great job in creating characters that the reader/viewer CARES about, which is all that matters. Setting is merely an afterthought, in my opinion.

  • Gigi

    I never considered Election a teen movie. It may take place in a high school but it is told from the point of view of an adult teacher.

  • Jen

    I have to agree w/ Sharon. It seems a bit silly to be discussing the choices the “filmmakers” have made when they’re using source material from books and really don’t have any say in the matter.

  • Brooke

    Yeah, but Chris Columbus hinted at the Ron/Hermione romance long before the books did and that’s been played up considerably by the other directors as well. And there are certain things that are kept out of the films that is on the part of the decisions made by the filmmaker/screenwriters….otherwise why not have j.k. rowling write them herself?

  • Jenna Fawn

    Personally, I would love to see The Breakfast Club hogwarts style. Just think about it. Snape as Pricipal. Harry as the Punk, Malfoy as the geek, Ron as the jock, Ginny as the princess, and Hermione as the basket case. I would pay big bucks to see that.

  • T-Rex

    I was just remembering how the books get worse and worse after goblet, when I came to the realization that I am not a Harry Potter fan so much as a Hogwarts fan. The less time spent at Hogwarts in a given book, the less I care for it. Finally, closure!

  • lilahp

    Was expecting much better from EW – more like what Doc Jensen does with “Lost”. How about another shot at it? Can get better analysis than this from a fansite, and EW is considerably more refined than that. Like a high school movie – ho hum! Not so much!

  • Cara

    The books actually made Ron/Hermione clear by book 2, if you paid attention. A lot of the scenes reflected on in this article were directly from the books by J.K. Rowling, so are you suggesting she took her plot intricacies from ’80′s high school movies?? Much as I enjoy the directors (especially Yates), they don’t deserve credit for thinking up these scenes, they are from the books.

  • James

    Obviously there’s going to be some high school stuff. The main characters are teenagers and they are at school.
    But Harry Potter is alot deeper than that.

  • ME

    The Harry Potter story would definitely work on it’s own. The magic is just the icing on the cake. Without it you have a story about a boy who’s journey to discover who he really is and what he’s destined to do. Without the magic Harry would be going to Soccer or basketball practice instead of quidditch; Science class instead of Potions. Snape would still loathe him. Dumbledore would still be headmaster. Hermione would still be the fiesty nerd. Ron would be the class clown. Everything would be same. Just without the magical element that gives it the extra kick. The story would still be just as fascinating and Harry and his friends would still face the same challenges. The characters are more relatable because even though they’re living in this magical world they still deal with the same things we do. Homework, crushes, enemies, War, losing loved ones, bullies, and just having to overcome adversity. It’s all there in the books, the characters just happen to be wizards.

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