As storytellers, we tend to tell different stories from those perceived by others, even for the same event. We pick and choose facts. We have a specific perspective, and maybe even an agenda. As we tell our stories and frame them in our own ways, we become unreliable narrators. This is the theme of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, a film about the tales told through shifting perspectives and imperfect narrators. It is about the lies and mistruths, manipulations and identity shifts that connect the opening of the Chamber of Secrets in the past and its return in the present.
The core narrative follows Harry’s attempts to uncover the 50-year old story behind the Chamber’s last opening, before it is reopened. Words written in blood on the wall give the first indication of the Chamber’s existence. Soon after the words are found, when Professor McGonagall tells her version of the Chamber’s story, it is a telling rife with the mythological references to a beast and mentions of the founding of Hogwarts that give it just the right flavor to feel straight out of legend. There are few specifics in this telling, and its mythical style implies that the Chamber was never opened, though this is later shown not to be so. After attacks indicating the existence of the Chamber, Dobby the house-elf mentions history repeating itself and Professor Dumbledore, in the same scene, says that the Chamber of Secrets has been reopened, broadening the information that Harry has.
At this point in the film, Harry is threading together these narratives, trying to get the full picture of what happened, hoping to find and apprehend the one endangering his school. When asking Draco Malfoy about the Chamber, Harry is barely informed further about the Chamber’s previous opening, learning only that the perpetrator was expelled and that a muggle-born was killed. Harry unknowingly discovers the diary of the evil Lord Voldemort, the name on the cover indicating that the diary belongs to Tom Riddle, Voldemort’s birth name. Riddle’s diary supplies information, which leads Harry from the gamekeeper, Hagrid to a trail of spiders, to the acromantula, Aragog, and to the Chamber of Secrets, where the truth of the Chamber’s various stories is revealed and the beast attacking students is found.
The scene in which Harry studies the diary of Tom Riddle is a treasure trove of framing and deceptive storytelling. Riddle follows the rule of “Show, don’t tell,” literally pulling Harry into the Hogwarts of the past by showing him a memory. Dutch angles, in which the camera is tilted, and monochromatic visuals create a past which is slightly off, where Harry is in full color, invading the story without being noticed. It is here that Riddle tells a story with no direct lies. Yes, a girl died, and Riddle did in fact accuse Hagrid of her death. He speaks to Hagrid in a language which implies that they both know that Hagrid was the one to let loose Slytherin’s beast upon the castle. And yet, Riddle presents no direct evidence. Only the seeming appearance of guilt, along with a set of accusations.
Harry experiences a similar blame throughout the film, as he is constantly found in the wrong place at the wrong time. Standing by a message of blood on the walls, kneeling by the petrified Justin Finch-Fletchley, and watching Fawkes burst into flames, Harry struggles, trying to tell the horrified onlookers that they do not know the whole story.
Riddle avoids sharing the whole story with Harry and, offscreen, with Ginny Weasley, who found the diary as well. They are both seduced by him in a way, believing the charming and handsome young prefect, writing to him in a diary, symbolic of emotional venting and honesty. Like in a toxic relationship, Ginny gives her whole self over to Riddle, while Harry begins to see one of his closest friends, Hagrid, as a threat because of Riddle’s words. It is only in the destruction of the diary that Harry finds peace, although Ginny never quite gets her chance at catharsis in this movie.
As Riddle tries to shift the narrative, so too do others. Dobby asks Harry why he would want to go back to school with friends who don’t write him letters, having intercepted the missives to create a story of uncaring friends, trying to convince Harry not to go back to school. Draco Malfoy puts on a show for Harry and his friends, but with his father, he vulnerably follows orders. Mr. Borgin of Borgin and Burkes puts on a show of devotion to Lucius Malfoy in the Chamber of Secrets extended cut. Vernon Dursley claims that Harry was graciously accepted into his home, falsifying a narrative of kindness that deserves Harry’s gratitude.
Significantly, the Defense Against the Dark Arts professor of this film is Gilderoy Lockhart, a fabricator of impeccable talent. The man is a charming charlatan, whose only legitimate award is most likely that awarded by “Witch Weekly,” for Most Charming Smile. His only skills are those which relate to pretending that he is somebody else. He can erase memories and tell a compelling story, but the golden-haired, lilac-loving egotist can do little else. Even his advice towards dealing with fame is full of trite truisms, where the man produces little new himself. Aside from skill, he is chiefly distinguished from Voldemort by pursuing fame and fortune, as opposed to murder and mayhem.
Almost as if Riddle said at some point “We’re not so different, you and I,” Harry struggles with his identity, fearing that he may be the same as Voldemort, possibly being the Heir of Slytherin. He wonders whether he was meant to be in Slytherin, asking the Sorting Hat, yet rejecting its answer as wrong. Harry experiences mirror moments to those of Riddle’s, being asked by Dumbledore if there is anything Harry has not told him and even copying a spell the teenage wizard used in a memory. At one point, he is so lost in these thoughts that he sits dramatically on a mountain and asks his owl, “Who am I, Hedwig? What am I?”
Harry’s ability to speak to snakes, presented in Sorcerer’s Stone as a part of his wizard abilities, is now framed as something distinctly evil. The audience hears Harry speaking in Parseltongue, getting the perspective of those watching Harry from without, though when he hears the same language coming from the walls, it is presented as English. The point of view is shifted, presenting viewers with a specific telling of the story, allowing for the possibility that Harry is hearing voices, or preventing them from making the connection to snakes. In separate scenes, the same language is spoken, yet it is heard differently by the viewers, in order to create this effect.
This shift in language, combined with other such changes, add up to make the viewer reconsider the narrative of Sorcerer’s Stone. The previous film’s Diagon Alley is shown in a funhouse mirror through the guise of Knockturn Alley. Harry does not arrive at Hogwarts by train, as the barrier is closed, and he must take a car instead. The lovable Hagrid is presented as a possible murderer and the (at that point unknown) cruel wizard, Voldemort, is made charming. The assumptions brought along to this sequel must be reconsidered, as Chamber of Secrets shows the dangerous power of storytelling.
Though Harry slays a Basilisk, his real battle is with a memory. Tom Riddle is a story trying to become reality, attempting to suck the life out of Ginny to come into the world. The final revelation that points to his fictional existence is in the anagram shuffled to spell out “I am Lord Voldemort” from the name, Tom Marvolo Riddle. When Harry accuses Riddle of framing Hagrid, he is unaware of the true ramifications of those words.
Tom Riddle framed Hagrid within his perspective, presenting himself as an upstanding prefect, protecting his home. He creates an unbalance in the world, taking away the assumptions that come from the previous film. This is the movie in which Ron’s wand is broken, Hermione’s legitimacy is questioned, and Harry’s personal legend is reinterpreted as the origin of a dark wizard.
Perspective and framing are important tools in writing a narrative. Things fall apart when they are used to tell an inaccurate story. As Lockhart, the grand storyteller learns, it is a dangerous thing to have one’s own story backfire at them. Dumbledore tells Harry that his choice is what mattered regarding the Sorting Hat. It is our choice that matters most as well, when deciding on the story we believe, finding the truth within its particular framing.
Featured Image: Warner Bros. Pictures