Slate asked two editors who have neither read a page of J.K. Rowling's books nor watched a minute of the film adaptations to attend a screening of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2. Their assignment: Describe the experience of watching the final installment with no background in the Potter mythology. Before they saw the film, they made some predictions about what they thought Harry Potter was about, based on the dribs and drabs they'd heard around the watercooler. Then, after the movie, they tried to sort out exactly what they'd seen.
First, the pre-movie exchange:
John Swansburg: So, Jess, you and I would seem to be the last two Harry Potter virgins on Planet Earth. Have you ever read a page of one of the books?
Jess Grose: Not even!
JS: Have you seen a snippet of any of the movies?
JG: I am allergic to both the fantasy genre and the over-hyped so I deliberately avoided all things Potter.
JS: I share your allergy, and no amount of Zyrtec has had any effect on me.
JS: So neither of us has read a word or seen a minute of a Harry Potter movie.
JS: We're about to head out for a screening of the new movie, but before we leave the office, let's talk a bit about what we know about Harry Potter.
I mean, we're culturally literate people. We know some things.
JG: The main characters are this kid, Potter, with the glasses, and he has two buddies, the ginger and Hermione.
JS: And they all go to prep school at Hotchkiss.
Or perhaps it's Hogwarts?
JG: I think it's Hotchkiss.
JS: And Hotchkiss is a school for kids who are gifted at magic?
JG: I reckon it is.
And they face down evil at some point?
With the magic?
JS: I believe they face down evil.
There is a character named Dumbledore!
JG: Dumbledore is gay!
JS: I think Dumbledore is gay.
JG: I'm glad we both remembered that factoid
surely pivotal to the plot
of this 8th and final movie.
JS: Yes, I think this is the movie in which Dumbledore comes out and the Hotchkiss faculty is scandalized.
JG: Maybe he has an illicit romance with that dude with no face
who is in all the ads.
JS: Right, there is a faceless dude.
Is that THE bad guy?
That sounds evil.
JS: Is Harry Potter an orphan?
Feels like he is.
Did Voldemort kill his parents?
JG: Maybe? Maybe they just wanted to run off to Tahiti.
JG: And they made up this whole magic thing
to make him feel better about banishing him to that ferkakte school
JS: Your theory sounds equally plausible.
JG: Also quiddich [sic].
At some point they play quiddich [sic].
JS: Quiddich [sic] is a game played with brooms I think.
JG: Which is worse than hacky sack
but maybe better than ultimate Frisbee.
JS: I confess a certain affection for hacky sack for my own days at a New England prep school, but point taken.
I think certain colleges now play quidditch intermurally.
JG: I think I read several blog posts about that.
JS: A testament to the reach of this franchise that did not reach us.
What kind of magic are we talking about? Do these kids cast spells?
JG: They fly sometimes!
JG: Not sure if that involves spells.
JS: Let's assume Mr. Faceless is Voldemort. He seems to still be around. What have these kids been doing for all these movies?
Have they vanquished lesser villains?
JG: I think if they had not done any vanquishing the franchise would have stalled out long ago.
I remember some blond punk from previous trailers.
JS: Ooh! I don't recall that punk.
JG: He seemed like bad news.
JS: Presumably he hath been vanquished.
JG: Yes! Are there mystical beasts?
JS: Great question.
JG: I would like some mystical beasts.
JS: Me too.
JG: What kind!
JS: Like that guy from the Neverending Story.
That they ride.
Falkor, I believe was his name.
I would love a Falkor-esque beast.
I just Googled that while you were typing.
JG: I would also want some sand worms
a la Beetlejuice.
JS: Rodents of unusual size.
JS: We're dating ourselves, I think.
JG: Here's an assertion.
Fantasy of the 80s was better because we had to use our imaginations
unlike these whippersnappers today
with their fancy 3D
JG: and their CGI.
If only they were still scared by dinky sand worms!
JS: Though kids today did have to read all those long books.
JS: Does Harry Potter have a happy ending, do you think?
JG: I think we would have heard about it if it didn't.
JS: Good point. I vaguely recall some talk of an important character dying in a late installment.
JG: I hope it's that ginger.
He seems OK.
JS: I kind of want it to be the ginger too.
JS: Something about his face.
JG: Begs to be smited.
JS: Maybe if I had seven books of investment in the kid I'd feel differently.
JG: So what else do we expect from this movie?
JS: Let's each offer a one-sentence synopsis of what we think will happen tonight!
JG: Harry Potter gets laid.
Sorry too blue.
Harry Potter vanquishes Voldemort, then does it with Hermione.
Slightly less blue!
JS: Mourning the passing of Ginger, Harry vows to use his cloak of invisibility to finally smite the evil Voldemort, who killed Harry's parents with CGI effects in the third installment, and enlists the help of Hermione, who brings to the table a killer flight spell and together they vanquish the faceless lord of evil before full pubescence sets in.
JG: That is a really long sentence.
And pubescence has already set in ... didn't you read about Equus?
JS: I think I did see some stubble on an EW cover, now that you mention it, so your sex plot makes more sense.
Let's go see the show!
The conversation resumes after Swansburg and Grose have seen Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2. NOTE: THIS PART OF THE ARTICLE CONTAINS MAJOR SPOILERS. DON'T READ IT IF YOU DON'T WHAT TO FIND OUT WHAT MAYBE HAPPENS.
JG: John, we braved the distinctly unmagical 1 train, which transported us to Potterworld.
What did you make of our journey?
JS: Well, before we start in earnest, can I just say that your diadem looks very nice with your outfit today?
JG: I was so sad to forget my magical tiara, but thank you for the compliment.
JS: Wait, isn't a diadem a magical tiara?
JG: Fuck if I know!
Which brings me to a big question—how much of this movie do you think you understood? 30 percent? 40?
JS: I would say I understood less than half of the film we watched last night.
I have many questions.
Like, what is a horcrux?
JG: Unclear to me. I did figure out that we're both muggles, though, so that was comforting. I was also wondering what is wand law.
Do you have to go to an accredited institution of higher learning to read wand law?
JS: I don't think you need a degree, per se, but you do need to pass the wand bar.
In most states, at least.
JG: Not Alabama.
Let's tackle a very big question.
Did Harry die?
JG: My take is no. He had a near death experience that killed the Voldemort homunculus inside him, but the rest of him survived.
JS: I'm persuaded by that.
JS: Do you think he needed to be *willing* to die in order to defeat Voldemort? Was that part of the magic?
JG: Yes, that was my sense. He had to be like the Notorious B.I.G. to defeat the real evil.
JS: Ready to Die, as it were.
Besides Harry's potential death, what else surprised you about this movie?
(The parts you could understand, of course.)
JS: Wait, one more big mystery!
Snape. Is he Harry's dad? Or did he just really like Harry's mom's dissertation on sorcerous stonemasonry?
JG: I think the latter, though I think his interest in her precious stones was more than purely scholarly. My sense from that really long flashback scene was that he always held a candle for Lily Potter, but he respected that she had chosen another.
JS: That's convincing. Making a cuckold of Pops Potter would be hard to explain to the youngins.
OK, here are some things that surprised me!
Dumbledore has a brother, and he's played by Rick Rubin.
JS: Harry and Hermione—not a couple!
JG: Yes I was surprised by Hermione's romance with the ginger Weasley as well. Also surprising: how many gingers there were in this movie! Another question: are they all related to Ron?
That was confusing.
JS: Ron did seem especially bummed that a fellow red-head had fallen in one of those big battles.
Another surprise: Harry did not seem to be enrolled in Hogwarts in this movie. Had he matriculated elsewhere? Been kicked out for dropping 'shrooms from the Forbidden Forest?
JG: Unclear! I was also weirded out by how well the rest of the bunch took the mass deaths of their classmates.
I saw maybe one girl besides Ron shed a tear
it was a massive so what.
JS: Great point.
Although tears seem pretty precious in this universe (cf. Snape's tears) so maybe you don't shed them lightly?
JG: Excellent thesis.
JS: Especially if you don't have a flask handy.
Jess, would you say you enjoyed this movie?
JG: I'm giving it a considerable handicap, because a) I don't like fantasy movies as a genre and b) we didn't have a lot of essential backstory by design. But with that handicap in place I would say yes, I did like the movie.
JS: I enjoyed it as well, more than I thought I would.
JG: There were parts at the beginning that drew me in—an early scene where Potter, Hermione, Ron and an evil troll break into a magical bank—that was visually arresting (crazy subterranean roller coaster!) and exciting even though I didn't have a damn clue what was going on.
JS: Right, the adventures were fun even when I didn't comprehend the horcrux of the matter.
JS: I actually didn't like that roller coaster though.
Felt too much to me like an advertisement for a roller coaster that is surely already under construction in Orlando.
But how about that dragon! Falcor-esque!
JG: That dragon did inspire childlike glee. But that whole interlude raised another question: Why is everyone in this movie a hoarder?
There were two scenes where Harry had to go find a talisman that would help him defeat Voldemort
and they were just lodged in rooms full of rickrack.
It was like J.K. Rowling wrote all those books with elaborate plots and by the last one, just gave up.
We'll shove this tiara in a room with a buncha old chairs.
JS: Ha! Very true. I loved that the all-important diadem was hidden in ... the school storage closet.
Voldemort will never dare to look for it there! It's so *dusty*!
JS: I also thought there were a lot of great performances. I loved Alan Rickman.
And HBC as Belletrist. Or perhaps more likely, Bellatrix.
JG: HBC is the HBIC. Also delightful: Maggie Smith, as she is in everything.
I did have a few quibbles though.
Maybe this plays better in the books, but I gotta say—wand warfare seems really lame to me.
Compared with, say, lightsaber duels.
JG: Firmly agree.
JS: Sorry, you can have the scariest faceless-face, but when you pull out a little stick and point it at me, I'm laughing, not trembling.
JG: Can we talk about Voldemort for a second?
JS: Let us.
JG: As villains go, I thought he was top notch. Genuinely scary and menacing—though I confess I did not entirely understand his motivations for wanting to annihilate the population of Hogwarts/Harry in particular.
JS: I felt the same way.
I liked how moody he was, and vulnerable.
I also liked that he chose the boathouse as the place to rub out Snape. Very prep school.
JG: How did Hogwarts compare to your prep school experience? I wonder how the gruel is.
JS: I thought it was a very accurate rendering.
Good student-to-faculty ratio.
JS: I hope they have the endowment to make the repairs that will be necessary after that Last Battle though. Tuition might have to go up.
Which brings us to the very end of the movie.
What did you make of that flash forward coda?
JG: I did not enjoy it! Except as fodder for mocking. We go forward 19 years and see Harry (the makeup artists did a crap job of making him look middle-aged) with a dowdy wife, as well as the married Hermione and Ron, all at the Kings Cross train station preparing their kids to go off to Hogwarts.
After the triumphant ending—in which Harry decides that absolute power corrupts absolutely and tosses the wand in a chasm—seeing our trio as boring mums and dads was a let down.
Also: Hogwarts was a death trap!
Why are they so excited to send their kids to potential doom!
JS: Completely agree. Also, if evil has been vanquished, why do you have to go to wizard school? Is magic an end in itself? You go there to improve your walking-through-walls skills so you can always fall back on a career in the circus?
JS: And yeah, Harry's gf did not age well. So frumpy. Dude who saved the world could pull a better chick, IMHO. Though maybe she's great—this installment gave her almost no lines to work with, and just one stolen kiss.
JG: Their chemistry was so weak that I wondered if she had some sort of force field around her that prevented sexual tension.
JS: A chastity diadem, yes.
JG: Before we go off to brush up on our wand law
I have one last question for you.
JS: Fire away.
But please pose it in Latin.
JG: Did watching the final chapter in the cinematic series inspire you to watch the earlier movies or read any of J.K. Rowling's books?
JS: I don't think so. I feel like I cheated the system: I saved myself countless hours of reading/viewing time, and still managed to have about as much fun at the movie last night as the row of kids in Hogwarts regimental ties across the aisle from us.
JG: I felt the same way. I'm glad I can now follow the cultural conversation around Harry Potter, rather than just tuning it out, but this one movie didn't make me want to gulp butterbeer and join a quiddich [sic] team.
JS: Totally. Jess, it was great fun muggling my through this magical world with you!
JG: I would take a trip on the Hogwarts Express with you anytime.