As any novelist will tell you, fictional characters, once released into the world, take on a life of their own in the minds and hearts of readers. They no longer belong solely to the writer. Once a character transitions from page to screen and becomes embodied by a flesh-and-blood actor, he or she drifts even farther beyond the author’s reach. Star-struck movie fans then impose their own fantasies upon the character/actor, perhaps especially the villain, who often is seen as more compelling – sexier, even – than the protagonist.
J.K. Rowling, for example, wrote recently about the disconcerting number of female fans who nurture an “unhealthy fantasy” about her character Draco Malfoy in the phenomenally bestselling series of Harry Potter books. In Rowling’s underrated, inventive mythology, Malfoy is a young wizard of the house of Slytherin, the son of a Death Eater, and Potter’s dark rival at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
As a villain, Malfoy has “all the dark glamour of the anti-hero,” as Rowling puts it. What concerns her as the author is that “girls are very apt to romanticize such people.” Indeed they are. It is simply an age-old truism about human nature that the Bad Boy’s unpredictable, dangerous charm gives him an edge over the Nice Guy.
In a recent blog post on her pottermore.com website, Rowling calls Malfoy “the archetypal bully,” a “damaged person… prey to the temptations of power and violence.” Like most bullies, he is a coward as well; in one of the movies he even goes down wimpering after a punch to the nose from heroine Hermione.
But his young female fans are inclined to look past that, partly because Malfoy is played onscreen by Tom Felton, who as he ages brings an increasingly good-looking, seductive charisma to the persona (though he was only about 14 in the first Potter film, Felton was in his early 20s for the last three movies in the series of eight). Also, Rowling has given Malfoy a few sympathetic moments, adding to his character’s depth and appeal. It doesn’t hurt that Potter himself, played by Daniel Radcliff, is by contrast a rather nerdy (albeit courageous and more upstanding) leading character.
Rowling recognizes that the Bad Boy allure can be a harmful illusion. Although she says that the actor Felton is “about the nicest person you could meet,” his character Malfoy “remains a person of dubious morality in the seven published books, and I have often had cause to remark on how unnerved I have been by the number of girls who fell for this particular fictional character”:
All this has left me in the unenviable position of pouring cold common sense on ardent readers’ daydreams, as I told them, rather severely, that Draco was not concealing a heart of gold under all that sneering and prejudice and that no, he and Harry were not destined to end up best friends.
Rowling does grudgingly concede that “some unextinguished good” lies at the heart of Malfoy, and she hopes that in later life he will raise his son to be “a much kinder and tolerant Malfoy than he was in his own youth.” She doesn’t sound optimistic.
Malfoy/Felton will always be nothing more than an unattainable fantasy for young fans. But the belief that a Bad Boy can be tamed and reformed by the Right Girlfriend is an all-too-common wishful delusion, and anyone who succumbs to it is likely setting herself up for frustration and heartbreak in the real world. Yes, Bad Boys sometimes grow up and wise up, but the challenge of molding one into a Good Man more suitable for a relationship and perhaps even marriage and fatherhood is a gamble with a low rate of success.
I think it is that harsh life lesson which J.K. Rowling, by trying to warn Draco Malfoy’s naïve, adoring fans, hopes to spare them. Unfortunately, another truism about human nature is that we tend to learn most life lessons the hard way.
(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 1/5/15)