The Revisionist History of Severus Snape

Last Thursday is was announced that the actor most affectionately known for playing Severus Snape, Alan Rickman, passed away with cancer.

It’s horrible and sad and I know we all miss a man who has acted in many other movies and who holds a soft spot in the hearts of many of us. I, for one, was in shock when I woke up to the text message carrying the news. Death isn’t often something we think about until it happens, especially to someone we are close to or feel close to.

The reactions to his death not only backed up this thought that Alan Rickman’s work was both amazing and will further live on in the consciousness of those who watched his performances, but it also showed something else: how much people conflate Rickman with Professor Severus Snape. There have been plenty of articles, tweets, and Facebook posts mourning the loss of Rickman, and many of them use pictures of him as Snape; this is understandable as this is arguably his most memorable role, especially in the minds of younger fans. People tend to do this to some extent with all actors—Daniel Radcliffe will always be Harry Potter, Jennifer Lawrence will be conflated with Katniss Everdeen—but this is slightly different because this conflation has also affected the way many people see the character of Severus Snape.

Since the revelation of Snape’s childhood and his relationship with Harry’s mother Lily Evans, sympathy for Snape has grown. Some people have even gone so far to wish that Lily had ended up with Snape instead of James Potter. A part of this definitely has to do with his portrayal by Alan Rickman. Even people (and I count myself among these) who see the problematic characterization of the Potions Master sometimes find it difficult to separate the two; his deadpanned voice, long pauses, and glares make you fall in love with Rickman-as-Snape to the point that you forget just how terrible Severus really is.

Of course, a part of that is the writing of the scripts for the movie; while doing our reread of the Harry Potter books on our podcast, one of the things we’ve noticed is how much more terrible Snape is in the books than in the movies. Snape actively bullies his students, most notably Harry Potter and Neville Longbottom. While his issues with Neville are less defined, we find out in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows just why Snape is so awful to Harry. Snape grew up with Lily Evans and while they were best friends, he nursed a longtime crush on her. However, he began running with people fascinated with the Dark Arts, adopting their beliefs, and their friendship ended with Snape calling Lily what is essentially a racial slur in the Wizarding World. When Lily ended up with James Potter, Snape’s one-time bully and mortal enemy, he couldn’t take it.

And then ten years after the deaths of the Potters, Harry showed up at Hogwarts. You would think that a 31-year-old professor would be able to separate his guilt about his best friend/longtime crush’s death and his disgust of her husband from the small, underfed, 11-year-old boy who walked into his potion’s class that year, but he was unable to. Instead of behaving like a mature adult, he antagonized and bullied Harry openly in front of other students. And he only got worse as the years went on; it is clear that Harry was unable to truly learn Occlumency—a skill Harry needed to learn in order to protect his mind from Voldemort—because Snape was unable to put aside his own emotions.

While Alan Rickman’s portrayal was wonderful and his line delivery is one of my……favorites, it’s important not to forget that Snape was not a “melancholy” or “tragic” character. He was a man who was unable to separate his past from his present, was unable to control his emotions and therefore resulted to bullying a student because of past slights. There is no doubt that he was brave, there aren’t many who could be a double agent under Voldemort’s sharp eyes, but that doesn’t excuse the fact that all that he did was for Lily and not Harry himself. Snape couldn’t bring himself to see the good in Harry, instead preferring to conflate him with his father and his anger that Lily chose James over him. Ultimately, Snape is the “nice guy” who, spoiler alert, isn’t really nice because he feels a possession over a woman who he has no right to feel possession over and therefore unable to get over the loss of control he wanted.

Alan Rickman’s Snape not only softened this version of Snape that we see in the books, but he–somehow–made us love him. Rickman-as-Snape had the best pauses, the perfect amount of sass, and looked damn good in Neville’s grandmother’s outfit. While it was clear he was still problematic, Rickman played him as a fairly sympathetic character from the beginning, though this could have been from the fact that he knew Snape’s backstory before we did. We could see the determination on Rickman’s face when Snape shielded the trio from Lupin-the-werewolf, see the pain on his face as he killed Dumbledore, see how unbothered he was by all of the shenanigans that is Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Severus Snape in the books was much nastier, though we were still able to feel sympathy for him in certain moments, but Rickman played up that sympathy through his performance.

At the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, visitors are laying lilies on Snape’s door as a tribute to Alan Rickman. While this tribute is touching and I think that commemorating Rickman for the amazing job he did with the character is important, it’s difficult for me to separate the ickiness I feel because of the conflation. Snape doesn’t deserve lilies on his doorstep—not with the gross imagery that accompanies it—but Alan Rickman definitely does.

While the discussion about Snape’s character will continue to rage on, the mourning of Alan Rickman will continue and should. This man brought to life an antagonist with a truly interesting story (even if we don’t agree about what that story makes him) and he deserves to be celebrated and mourned.

RIP Alan Rickman.