So a little while back I was going on about Neville Longbottom, expounding on his virtues and heroics. And something sort of sinister cropped up in the process—I learned that a healthy slice of fandom harbors disdain or outright vitriol toward Ronald Weasley.
And… I really don’t understand that. Not in the slightest. But I do have a theory about why the waters might be growing even more unfriendly toward the less flashy member of the Potter trinity.
Trios are a powerful thing. Though most of fiction finds itself constantly obsessed with dependable duos, trios are actually a better model for fighting evil and team dynamics. Three legs offer stability. It’s possible to break ties. Perspectives have a better opportunity for variation. And so Harry is graced with two incredible friends who will help him fend off Voldemort on his journey.
Harry is our avatar, and as such, it’s hard not to relate to him. Hermione has won the world over by virtue of her brain, and because of this, she garners most of the applause. And I agree, it’s exciting to have a female character portrayed as the logical, pragmatic one in the group—it rarely occurs that way in fiction, a place where women are told constantly that they are the emotional, irrational participants. But to suggest that her strengths negate Harry’s—and Ron’s—is a grave mistake.
A trio is a balancing act, and these three are an excellent illustration of how that works. Hermione has the knowledge, the skills, but she’s not the most personable human being in the world. It’s not as though Harry and Ron were the only kids at Hogwarts to be less than impressed with her people skills either; up until their friendship begins at the mercy of a troll in the girl’s loo, Hermione has no friends at school whatsoever. She’s a difficult kid to pal around with. On Harry’s tip of the triangle, we see what both Hermione and Ron lack—inherent leadership skills and charisma. People like Harry a lot. He’s sensitive to the treatment and care given to others, especially as he gets older. He has an easy time heading up large groups. He excels at drawing people to him and gaining their trust; the most unpopular spate Harry ever endures is during his insistence at Voldemort’s return after the Tri-Wizard Championship, and that is primarily due to fear-mongering and politics.
So what about Ron? He actually tends to a very clear gap in the ranks—providing a sense of family unity and street smarts. While Ron himself may often feel crushed by the burden of familial expectations, he extends the closeness of the Weasley clan to his friends both figuratively and literally. Harry and Hermione do both eventually become members of his family through marriage, but more importantly, Ron always treats them as blood. It’s there in every holiday Harry spends with the Weasley family, with that first sweater Harry receives on Christmas, and the unconditional love Harry and Hermione are both offered only because Ron’s family know how much these children mean to their son. I mean, he steals the family hover-car with the help of the twins because he’s worried that Harry is being held hostage by his abusive relatives. That knight parallel from their mega chess battle is looking more and more apt.
In addition, because Ron is only one out of the trio who grew up in the wizarding world, he has an immediate frame of reference and level of comfort that they both lack. Even Hermione’s book smarts cannot make up for Ron’s practical know-how, a kind of intelligence that often gets no credit at all. More to the point: you cannot be a whiz at chess and be an idiot.
Because Ron has fewer expectations placed on him, he often feels the weight of people’s indifference toward his accomplishments. Which is perhaps another way of saying, yeah, on occasion, Ron gets incredibly jealous. Jealously is often marked as one of the most undesirable traits in a human being, but it’s entirely common to us as a species. So we should probably ask another question—is Ron’s jealousy understandable? He is the youngest out of six brothers, each accomplished and unique in their own right, and he feels a need to live up to their examples. Then he ends up picking one best friend who’s famous and congenial, and another who is a near-genius at excelling in every way that he has been taught to value.
And don’t give me that bunk about “if Ron had studied harder in school, maybe he wouldn’t have so much to complain about.” Not everyone is a superstar student, even if they are academically inclined. (Which Ron is clearly not for the most part.) This is counting out the fact that Ron’s family is living at a near-poverty level, as far as we’re led to believe. Ron Weasley is accustomed to having very little, and his inferiority complex is only heightened by the constant battering he takes from kids like Draco Malfoy, who need to prove their superiority by tearing him down for his class bracket. These are the most common insults levied at Ron; he’s dumb, untalented, and poor. Funny how often those items are paired together by bullies. The idea that’s it’s impossible to relate, or even wrong to sympathize with any jealousy that might spring from that treatment is plain unrealistic. In fact, it is more likely that we rail against Ron’s bouts of less-than-stunning behavior because we’ve all been standing right where he is and done something we regretted.
No, Ron! fans cry. I demand that you make up for my personal failings!
(Or am I the only one who frequently shouts at fictional characters?)
But there’s perhaps something more subtle at work here as well. Where films are more recent in public memory, they can sometimes overwrite their fictional underpinnings. Is it possible that much of this Ron-hate is coming from people who are confusing canon-Ron with Ron-on-film?
Let’s start that examination with a little set-up. When Steve Kloves (who wrote the majority of the Potter screenplays) met J.K. Rowling for the first time, he told her straight up that Hermione was his favorite character. Rowling admitted to being relieved, and who could blame her? It was more likely for Hermione to end up disrespected on screen—she wouldn’t be the first female hero to get butchered in the reels.
But this resulted in an undercutting of Ron’s entire character from the first movie. Don’t believe it? When the trio go after the Philosopher’s Stone, they face a series of tests that demand each of their skills in turn. Time likely demanded that this sequence be cut down, and so Hermione’s test—solving Professor Snape’s potion riddle—was removed entirely. To make up for this, she gets them out of the Devil’s Snare, Professor Sprout’s deadly plant. Hermione shouts to Harry and Ron to relax so the foliage will release them—but Ron continues to panic and moan (in campiest fashion possible because he’s played by a child actor and these things are always requested of them), requiring Hermione to blast the thing with a sunlight spell.
In the book, Hermione is the one who panics. She remembers what her lessons taught her—that the Devil’s Snare will recoil at fire—but balks at their lack of matches while they are being strangled to death. Ron immediately shrieks to the rescue YOU ARE A WITCH YOU HAVE A WAND YOU KNOW SPELLS WHAT ARE MATCHES.
It’s a simple change, but it makes such a marked difference in how both characters come off to an audience. Rather than a near-infant, incapable of following the clearest directions, Ron is the even-keeled nitty-gritty one. He’s a tactician, the one who will find the simplest answer to a problem provided that the situation is dire enough to ensure his clear head. Ron is good under pressure and brave to boot. He’s also hilarious.
It is easy to write this off as an actor problem; Emma Watson matured and improved much faster than her costars in terms of talent—and Steve Kloves liked her portrayal so much that he started giving her many of Ron’s important lines. During The Prisoner of Azkaban, Sirius Black is trying to get to Peter Pettigrew (currently disguised as Scabbers the Rat), but Ron and Hermione are convinced he’s after Harry. In the book, Ron stares up defiantly from his mangled, broken leg and tells Sirius Black that if he wants Harry, he’ll have to get through his friends first.
And in the film, it’s Hermione who boldly steps in the line of fire while Ron sobs in pain and babbles incoherently.
These rewrites not only depict Ron as an idiot coward—they also make him an outright jerk. When Professor Snape snaps at Hermione yet again for being an insufferable know-it-all, movie-Ron gives her a look and drawls, “He’s right, you know.” Wait, what?! Harry, why are you friends with this prick? Well, maybe because the Ron Weasley that J.K. Rowling put on paper was in that exact same situation, and immediately leapt to Hermione’s defense when she was being abused by a teacher—“You asked us a question and she knows the answer! Why ask if you don’t want to be told?”
All the points to Gryffindor! (Actually, he got detention.)
Chemistry also made this a tough one for screenwriting; Daniel Radcliffe clearly had the greatest rapport with Watson, enough that it might have been a shock to those who never read the books that Hermione ended up in love with Ron. (The romantic dance to Nick Cave in Part 2 of The Deathly Hallows? The hell?) For that matter, every time Harry is feeling alone or confused, he goes to Hermione. He has all his major heart-to-hearts with Hermione. He is consoled by Hermione.
Does anyone remember how that actually worked in the books? In case you don’t, Harry usually spent the majority of his off-hours with Ron. Not because he didn’t love Hermione a whole lot, but because downtime in the library was kinda boring to him. (Getting tipsy on butterbeer while playing strip poker in the Gryffindor common room is way more fun. Er, I mean…) That and the oh-so minor detail that Ron is his best friend. Because Ron Weasley is a staid, funny, loving, incredibly bright guy. Sure, he made some dating mistakes—don’t we all at that age?—and sometimes let his internal self-deprecation get the better of him to wince-worthy ends. But that doesn’t devalue all he has to offer his dearest friends. That doesn’t remove the desperate need for a family that he invited them to become a part of, or the countless times he stood at their defense, or the supremely undervalued type of intelligence he unknowingly provided to them. It doesn’t change the fact that Ron Weasley, who felt third-best or worse throughout their entire childhood, always had their backs when Harry and Hermione needed him most.
Characters don’t have to be perfect to be good—in either a well-written sense, or a personally likable one. And it is precisely Ron Weasley’s imperfections that make him tangible and so easy to love.
“Easy to love” are Rowling’s words concerning Ron, by the way. Not mine.
Check back on Tor.com on Thursday, March 6th, when Emmet Asher-Perrin begins a reread of the Harry Potter series. Until then, you may enjoy other ruminations she has made about the wizarding world:
Harry and company need Neville in the exact way that James and Lily and the Order of the Phoenix needed Peter Pettigrew. The difference is that Neville is more than up to the task. It’s a lesson in self-worth under stronger personalities that most human beings could do with at some point or another. Because society at large insists that the only people of value are leaders and their closest confederates, people like Neville are dismissed at first blush much in the same manner that he is dismissed by his classmates in his first years at Hogwarts.
Cedric Diggory was the Hogwarts Champion and he was pure Hufflepuff, through and through. Just, honest, hardworking and fair. Helpful, capable, and a fierce friend, just as Dumbledore said. It’s not as flashy as Gryffindor swagger, but it’s infinitely more admirable.
When Harry Potter was eleven, so was I.