Alan Rickman did something J.K. Rowling could never do: He got me to like Severus Snape. In the fandom, this was always controversial.
I spent a lot of time in the Harry Potter fandom LiveJournal community as a lonely middle-schooler, and at the time I loved nothing more than to spend my days doing amateur literary analysis on a book series about wizards. That first rush of initial castings was yet another chance for us to stretch our fledgling analytical muscles, and to write essay-length posts on What This Might Mean for the Movies.
In the fandom, every single casting announcement was a signal flare for drama. Rickman was no exception. When he was announced as Severus Snape, Harry Potter’s Defense Against the Dark Arts professor and sometime nemesis, the general consensus was that Tim Roth — rumored to have been in consideration — was the better choice.
The Potters, after all, were supposed to have died ten years earlier in their early 30s, and Snape was supposed to have been their contemporary. Rickman was in his 50s when cast. On LiveJournal, people wondered if he’d be in heavy makeup to age him down, or what, because it seemed obvious to us that this was going to ruin the internal logic of the series.
I was 11. Harry Potter fandom was the single largest fandom on LiveJournal at the time. We had a somewhat-deserved reputation for being incredibly dramatic. Our Rickman-related speculation devolved into a series of sub arguments. Nerdy Anglophiles already found Rickman pretty sexy — was that going to be a problem for the new influx of movie-only fans, who might find him sympathetic instead of loathable? If the young Daniel Radcliffe wouldn’t wear green contacts, would the significance of Snape noting he has his mother’s eyes be lost on the audience?
Despite all of us liking Rickman on the whole, we all searched for ways to prove that somehow he was the wrong Snape. Snape, to those of us in the fandom, was the one great piece of proof that these books weren’t silly. Even if — in part because — the character was detestable, Snape was the sole bit of the books that best demonstrated J.K. Rowling’s literary skill. It was important to us that the movies got this right, and we were all so afraid they weren’t going to.
We were so wrong. Of course we were. Alan Rickman was a perfect Snape, mostly because he started to do what the books wouldn’t get to until much later.
The Snape I was reading in the books was little more than a sad, horrible little man who mourned his wasted life by bullying children. He was the man that went out of the way to punish Harry for simply existing, a man who took one look at a sobbing Hermione Granger, her two front teeth magically enlarged, and said, “I see no difference.”
The Snape I saw onscreen was sort of — maybe too — … cool, I thought as an 11-year-old.
But it wasn’t that he was cool — the word my child’s brain was searching for was complicated. We now know what Rowling was gearing up for, the complicated character she was intending to create from the start. It’s not a very original series of tropes — tortured by his lost love, Snape overcomes his sourness to Do the Right Thing — but it’s certainly more interesting than a 30-year-old man who loves to insult children.
It’s a kind of magic, acting, and Rickman was particularly skilled at taking bit parts and finding an emotional core that made these characters seem full of hidden depths, real and difficult memories, a gravity that might have been otherwise lacking. When Alan Rickman started playing Snape, we had all just finished reading The Goblet of Fire and the fandom was just starting to understand that these books were not just a fun romp about wizard children. Rickman, even in those abominable first two movies, found that future darkness, that future complication, before any of the rest of us.
That performance, which anticipated better than any other the darkening universe we were watching Rowling create in the books, ceased arguments about Rickman. He was beloved by nearly the entire fandom, and his fans were particularly devoted and passionate. The only complaint you can have about Rickman was that he might be too charming as Snape, as evidenced by the group of women who claimed to be married to him on an astral plane. Rickman was deeply charismatic. But I think it was the way his intelligent and nuanced performance acknowledged the quality of the source material that placed him so near the heart of a much-maligned fandom.
Snape isn’t even my favorite Rickman role. I tend to prefer my Rickman either sillier (Alexander Dane in Galaxy Quest) or darker (Antoine Richis in Perfume: Story of a Murderer). But there’s something incredible about Rickman’s Snape that I keep coming back to, something made even better thanks to my intimate and consuming fandom of the books. So many of my favorite parts of the books were cut from the movies, many of them dealing with Snape’s backstory. But as a fan, I never felt as if those parts were missing when I saw Rickman onscreen.
I always wondered what other people thought, people who didn’t read the books, when they watched these movies. But when Rickman as Snape screamed at Harry for trespassing into his worst memory, the exact moment when he would lose Lily Evans forever, I knew they saw what I saw. There are many wonderful British actors in the Harry Potter movies, but Rickman was always the core of that cast, grounding those sometimes-shaky adaptations for a wider audience. In many ways, without Rickman, these movies would have been worthless.
There was no other actor who could have made me like Snape. Try as she might, J.K. Rowling alone didn’t truly convince me that he was anything more than a mean, bitter old man. Even when, in the books, Snape was nothing more than cruel, Rickman found his sensitivity.
Last year I deleted all my old LiveJournals. I don’t need a community of screaming fans to tell me how to like things anymore, to help me find what is interesting about characters like Snape. Rickman showed me that I could do it myself — with the help of a talented artist. His immense talent, his subtlety, and his charm revealed more to me than any LJ post could have. When I reread the books, it’s Rickman’s voice I hear in my head. Yes, after all this time. Always.