As the reviews started to appear after J.K. Rowling's publication of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix on June 21, 2003, they all commented on the same thing: Harry Potter is getting darker.
We found these reviews a little surprising before we read the book: after all, Book 4, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, is pretty dark, what with Voldemort's murder of Cedric Diggory at the end. How much darker could Book 5 really be? But Order of the Phoenix is a whole new level of grim: Harry is angry for pretty much the whole book, which is both (a) understandable, given what's happened to him over the past four years, and (b) kind of hard to read.
The whole idea behind the Harry Potter series is that the novels are aging along with the characters. And of course, the whole world knows that the teenage years can get pretty angsty, somewhat self-involved, and difficult to be around. In Book 5, Harry Potter has all of those traits: he spends a lot of time hurting his closest friends, flaring up at imagined insults, and generally being brooding and emo. When asked about her inspiration for making Harry so very grouchy in Book 5, Rowling replied:
Well, I taught teenagers for a while. They were my favourite age group to teach in fact. So I think I drew a bit on that, and I drew on memories of how grumpy we all were when we were teenagers. [...] My sister's here to watch this and she was very grumpy so I drew a lot on her. (source)
So Harry is angry because J.K. Rowling has known a lot of teenagers (and has been one herself) and she knows that teens can get that way. It's a tough time, filled with hormones and confusion and changes – enough to make anyone grouchy.
But of course, Harry's anger isn't just aimless brooding. He's got a lot on his plate: much of the plot of Book 5 focuses on an evil government bureaucracy targeting Harry with a coordinated smear campaign that destroys his credibility within wizarding society. You know how it's easy to feel isolated and lonely in high school? Well, add to that the Ministry of Magic forces that are actively trying to separate Harry from his friends and supporters and you'll get a sense of how conflicted and miserable he must feel. What's more, Harry has witnessed the death of a schoolmate and the rise of Voldemort – enough to stress anyone out. Harry's rage is understandable, which is what makes us stick by him even when he's at his most stubborn and difficult. Rowling comments:
He's a lot, lot, lot angrier in this book. He really is quite angry a lot of the time and I think justifiably so, look at what he has gone through. It is about time he started feeling a little bit miffed at the hand life has dealt him. (source)
Harry's prolonged emotional breakdown in Book 5 is a necessary part of his character development: since he's been systematically targeted by a deranged murderer his whole life, we think we can give Harry a pass for one book full of conflicting emotions. Still, note that we say his breakdown is "prolonged": that's the other thing that nearly every reviewer mentions about Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. It's dark. And it's long. The Scholastic edition of the novel is nearly nine hundred pages – pretty intense for a young adult novel!
Rowling has expressed some regret for letting Book 5 become such a massive tome: "I think Phoenix could have been shorter. I knew that, and I ran out of time and energy toward the end" (source). But even if this is the longest entry in the Harry Potter series, we think every page is worth it: not only does Book 5 bring back Voldemort and all of his worst Death Eaters, but it also introduces one of the vilest villains of the series, Professor Dolores Umbridge. It gives us Harry's first (somewhat disappointing) kiss, delightfully batty Luna Lovegood, and more back-story for Neville Longbottom, Sirius Black, and Professor Snape. We found ourselves reading Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix in one (extremely long) sitting, because it gives us just as intriguing a plot as any of the previous entries, but with even more insights into the characters we have come to love.
Harry Potter is a wonder: he's a wizard, he's rich, and he has loyal friends. At age fifteen he's faced down the most evil wizard in the world no fewer than four times. And despite his awful early childhood, he still seems to have basic faith in right and wrong: very impressive.
Yet, even Harry Potter – famous, beloved Harry Potter – spends much of Book 5 getting trashed by his peers. Now, of course, Harry's life is part of a massive struggle between good and evil. It makes sense that the bullying he suffers is on a giant scale, with his new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, the Daily Prophet newspaper, and the Ministry of Magic all piling on him at the same time. But while Harry's experience of bullying may be more extreme than many of ours, we still totally recognize (and sympathize) with his bitterness and resentment at being laughed at by his classmates.
A lot of Harry's bad feeling during Book 5 – his sense that he's being singled out, picked on, and persecuted – we have experienced in some form or another throughout high school. Even for a famous boy wizard, it seems to be an unavoidable part of the high school experience that someone will laugh at you or try to make you feel ridiculous.
Book 5 can be harder to get through than the earlier Harry Potter novels because Harry's feelings are so raw and openly miserable. But they are also all the more relatable because they are so messy. Part of the experience of being a teenager is feeling lonely, left out, and even bullied. And if Harry Potter can get through his year of adolescent angst, so can we all.