Throughout the series Harry keeps thinking of Snape as a villain partly because Snape holds a grudge against Harry because his father picked on him as a kid. Snape repeatedly gets onto Harry because he is acting just like his father which Harry feels pride at. However in the flashback scenes in the book Harry's father and friends are shown pretty much mercilessly picking on Snape for no real reason in much the same way that Draco Malfoy later picks on Harry. Is there ever any other flashbacks or mentions of Harry's father when he was a student that doesn't show him as anything but a mischievous bully?
The ONLY two redeeming things stated about James before his last year was that
He always hated the Dark Arts. Everything else - 100% - confirmed that he was just as much a conceited bully as Malfoy.
And Snape was just this little oddball who was up to his eyes in the Dark Arts, and James — whatever else he may have appeared to you, Harry — always hated the Dark Arts.'
He was a loyal friend. After all, he learned how to become Animagus to help Lupin.
Yes, James was a piece of work.
'I would, I just don't want you chucked back in Azkaban!' said Harry.
There was a pause in which Sirius looked out of the fire at Harry, a crease between his sunken eyes.
'You're less like your father than I thought,' he said finally, a definite coolness in his voice. 'The risk would've been what made it fun for James.'
In other words, James would have done something for enjoyment, and not care if his best friend was sent to Azkaban!
'Me too,' said James. He put his hand in his pocket and took out a struggling Golden Snitch.
'Where'd you get that?'
'Nicked it,' said James casually.
Stealing school property, too. Nice.
Your question is actually explored in the books, where Harry - after seeing Snape's memories - struggles with the idea.
Harry tried to make a case for Snape having deserved what he had suffered at James's hands: but hadn't Lily asked, 'What's he done to you?' And hadn't James replied, 'It's more the fact that he exists, if you know what I mean.' Hadn't James started it all simply because Sirius had said he was bored?
Harry remembered Lupin saying back in Grimmauld Place that Dumbledore had made him prefect in the hope that he would be able to exercise some control over James and Sirius . . . but in the Pensieve, he had sat there and let it all happen . . .
Harry kept reminding himself that Lily had intervened; his mother had been decent. Yet, the memory of the look on her face as she had shouted at James disturbed him quite as much as anything else; she had clearly loathed James, and Harry simply could not understand how they could have ended up married. Once or twice he even wondered whether James had forced her into it . . .
Harry tried to question Sirius about it in OoP. Basically, both Lupin AND Sirius confirm the pattern, though they see it as a more harmless youthful horsing around (especially Sirius, who was himself the same, and didn't have Harry's experience of what it's like to BE bullied).
According to them, James only became less of a bully when he changed in his senior year - either due to maturing, or beneficial influence of his feelings for Lily, or responsibilities of Head Boy office.
When he had finished, neither Sirius nor Lupin spoke for a moment. Then Lupin said quietly, 'I wouldn't like you to judge your father on what you saw there, Harry. He was only fifteen — '
'I'm fifteen' said Harry heatedly.
'Look, Harry' said Sirius placatingly, 'James and Snape hated each other from the moment they set eyes on each other, it was just one of those things, you can understand that, can't you? I think James was everything Snape wanted to be — he was popular, he was good at Quidditch — good at pretty much everything. And Snape was just this little oddball who was up to his eyes in the Dark Arts, and James — whatever else he may have appeared to you, Harry — always hated the Dark Arts.'
'Yeah,' said Harry, 'but he just attacked Snape for no good reason, just because — well, just because you said you were bored,' he finished, with a slightly apologetic note in his voice.
'I'm not proud of it,' said Sirius quickly.
Lupin looked sideways at Sirius, then said, 'Look, Harry, what you've got to understand is that your father and Sirius were the best in the school at whatever they did — everyone thought they were the height of cool — if they sometimes got a bit carried away — '
'If we were sometimes arrogant little berks, you mean,' said Sirius.
'He kept messing up his hair,' said Harry in a pained voice.
Sirius and Lupin laughed.
'I'd forgotten he used to do that,' said Sirius affectionately.
'Was he playing with the Snitch?' said Lupin eagerly.
'Yeah,' said Harry, watching uncomprehendingly as Sirius and Lupin beamed reminiscently. 'Well . . . I thought he was a bit of an idiot.'
'Of course he was a bit of an idiot!' said Sirius bracingly, 'we were all idiots! Well — not Moony so much,' he said fairly, looking at Lupin.
But Lupin shook his head. 'Did I ever tell you to lay off Snape?' he said. 'Did I ever have the guts to tell you I thought you were out of order?'
'Yeah, well,' said Sirius, 'you made us feel ashamed of ourselves sometimes . . . that was something . ..'
'She started going out with him in seventh year,' said Lupin.
'Once James had deflated his head a bit,' said Sirius.
'And stopped hexing people just for the fun of it,' said Lupin.
Sirius frowned at Harry, who was still looking unconvinced.
'Look,' he said, 'your father was the best friend I ever had and he was a good person. A lot of people are idiots at the age of fifteen.
He grew out of it.'
Your question is: Is there ever any other flashbacks or mentions of Harry's father when he was a student that doesn't show him as anything but a mischievous bully?
Yes, there are.
In Deathly Hallows, while looking through Sirius's bedroom, Harry finds a photograph of the Marauders as Hogwarts students stuck to the wall, with Peter, James, Sirius, and Remus smiling and just looking happy and friendly.
In Order of the Phoenix, in the chapter Snape's Worst Memory -- which contains the bullying scenes -- we first encounter James taking his Defense Against the Dark Arts O.W.L. and he turns around in his seat and gives Sirius a smile and a thumbs-up. James is shown tracing Lily's initials on his parchment; James later asks Lily to go out with him, so we know he likes Lily as he's writing her initials. Then James messes around and plays with a Snitch in a show-off way, which, while perhaps off-putting, is not mean, cruel, or bullying.
Most importantly, as a student, James saves Snape's life when Sirius lures Snape down into the tunnel leading from the Whomping Willow to the Shrieking Shack, where Remus is in full werewolf form. Snape likely would have been killed if James had not have intervened, as much as James hated Snape and Snape hated James.
Furthermore, J.K. Rowling has said that James felt somewhat threatened by Lily's friendship with Snape, and that this influenced his bullying behavior toward Snape:
Jaclyn: Did Lily ever have feelings back for Snape?
J.K. Rowling: Yes. She might even have grown to love him romantically -- she certainly loved him as a friend -- if he had not loved Dark Magic so much, and been drawn to such loathesome people and acts. Potterforums.com
There are several examples of James having an inherently good character post-Hogwarts, as well.
In Philosopher's Stone, Hagrid recounts James and Lily Potter with full affection:
‘Now, yer mum an’ dad were as good a witch an’ wizard as I ever knew. Head Boy an’ Girl at Hogwarts in their day! Suppose the myst’ry is why You-Know-Who never tried to get ’em on his side before ... probably knew they were too close ter Dumbledore ter want anythin’ ter do with the Dark Side.
‘Sorry,’ he said. ‘But it’s that sad – knew yer mum an’ dad, an’ nicer people yeh couldn’t find – anyway –
Philosopher's Stone - page 45 - British hardcover
In Philosopher's Stone, Hagrid gives Harry a photograph album full of pictures of James and Lily, and in each photograph James and Lily are smiling and happy:
It seemed to be a handsome, leather-covered book. Harry opened it curiously. It was full of wizard photographs. Smiling and waving at him from every page were his mother and father.
‘Sent owls off ter all yer parents’ old school friends, askin’ fer photos ... Knew yeh didn’ have any ... D’yeh like it?’
Harry couldn’t speak, but Hagrid understood.
Philosopher's Stone - page 220 - British hardcover
In Goblet of Fire, Voldemort recounts James Potter:
"Very good," said Voldemort softly, and as he raised his wand the pressure bearing down upon Harry lifted too. "And now you face me, like a man . . . straight-backed and proud, the way your father died. . . .
Goblet of Fire - page 660 - US Hardcover
In Goblet of Fire, the echo-like, shadowy figures of James and Lily Potter emerge from Voldemort's wand during Priori Incantatem and, combined with the figures of Cedric Diggory, Frank Bryce, and Bertha Jorkins, James included, rush at Voldemort, obscuring his vision so Harry can get back to the Triwizard Cup/Portkey.
In Deathly Hallows, Harry finds a picture of himself as a baby (the picture is in Sirius's bedroom, torn in half by Snape, the latter who kept the portion showing Lily and discarded the half with James and Harry), flying around on a toy broomstick, around James' legs, and James is playfully trying to catch Harry.
J.K. Rowling makes some generalized comments on James, which demonstrate he had, overall, good character:
Information on the original Order members was also revealed during tonight's event [J.K. Rowling at Carnegie Hall 10.20.07]. Jo related the fact that Remus Lupin, prior to the third book, was unemployable because he was a werewolf and upon his graduation from Hogwarts along with James and Lily, was supported by James using their own money. In addition to this she shed more light on the early days of the Order, saying James, Sirius, Remus and Lily were full time Order members. "Full Time Fighters," as Jo put it.
I agree with the poster who acknowledges that both Snape and James were bullies, but I don't think they were "equals".
Keep in mind that James was a bully who had everything handed to him -- wealth, family love, good looks, skill at sports, and later on a heroic reputation (which may have been overinflated as it seems he engaged in many heroics to seek thrills. Even saving Snape from Lupin seems tainted by the fact that he indirectly helped create the very circumstances -- forming the Marauders, allowing Sirius to see it was "okay" to give Snape a hard time -- that led to Snape being almost killed in the first place. Had James saved Snape from a random accident -- like near drowning -- I would have seen him in a more heroic light, but as it is I can't help but feel that James' act was motivated at worst by a fear of having his own culpability in the act exposed and at best by a sense of guilt that his friends had nearly killed Snape).
Snape, on the other hand, had absolutely nothing handed to him. He grew up in poverty, had a possibly abusive father, was socially awkward and sickly-looking, and was frequently teased by others (not just James). He was a brilliant, gifted student, but there's no mention that any of his gifts were recognized by either students or teachers when he was a boy (in contrast to James who was idolized for his sports hero status). Frankly, the only ray of light in Snape's life was Lily -- and one can argue that while James didn't exactly steal her away from Snape, he did play a key role in ending their friendship.
Remember, JK Rowling has stated in interviews that much of James' bullying was influenced by the envy he had for Snape and Lily's friendship -- which is why he liked publicly humiliating Snape in front of Lily. And while Snape, in a fit of anger and humiliation, did call Lily a "Mudblood" (an act which he himself deemed unforgivable) does anyone really think he would call his best friend that if James hadn't completely mortified him first in front of the whole school?
This, to me, is why Snape -- although no less a bully than James -- is still a much more sympathetic character than James. Put another way -- Snape had every excuse to become a bully and chose to become one, making him a weak man. But James had every excuse NOT to become a bully, and still chose to become one -- making him a weaker man.
Curiously, upon re-reading the books, I came across a passage where Dumbledore compared James and Snape's rivalry to Draco and Harry's. Initially, most readers probably assumed Snape was like Draco -- but after reading the entire series, it's clear that it was James who had more in common with the pampered, arrogant Draco while Snape was more like Harry (often looked with suspicion for his connection to Slytherin/Voldemort, a frequent underdog, and yet one who wouldn't take abuse lying down).
Moreover, while Snape never completely outgrew his bullying ways, JK did show some clear growth and a surprising amount of decency within his character. Despite the fact that he lost everything that mattered to him and was essentially a shell of a man after Lily's death, he still drew strength from his love for her and endured years of hardship to honor her memory. Being a spy for Dumbledore and having to surround himself with people who would likely kill him if they knew his true allegiance isn't fun at all (can you imagine James allowing himself to be hated in order to take down Voldemort?) but Snape puts himself through this hell for years, realizing (correctly) that he'll be killed before his mission is over. Even at the moment of his death, Snape has every reason to believe that, although Harry will know the truth, Severus Snape will still go down in history as the villain who killed Dumbledore and allied himself with Voldemort. That's a terrible thing to live with -- but Snape willingly allows himself to be despised even to the people he's trying to protect. In a way, Snape probably sees this as a just penance he needs to go through for all of his past sins -- a strange act of contrition perhaps, but an act of contrition regardless.
Now let's look at James. According to the books, James was likely at his worst during his fifth year. Then a couple years pass and just like that he somehow manages to "deflate his head" and become someone Lily wants to date and eventually marry (although he's still hexing and bullying Snape behind her back). While many people feel he just somehow magically "grew up" I don't buy it. People don't just change for no reason -- they need some type of motivation, large or small. The problem is we never see what motivates this change -- all we see is what we assume is a different James Potter at 21 who heroically sacrifices himself for his wife and son (a decent act to be sure, but I actually think Snape, even at that stage of his life, would have gladly sacrificed himself for Lily (if not James and Harry) if he were in the same situation).
At worst, I can only suppose that James, still lusting after Lily, became canny enough to fool her into thinking he had "deflated his head" (while he still hexed Snape and went on joy rides with Sirius behind her back -- basically being the same obnoxious jerk he was at 15, albeit it with more discretion)
At best... it's possible that James changed when he first met Voldemort. Remember, it's mentioned that James survived encounters with Voldemort at least twice before he managed to kill him. Coming face-to-face with such real evil could have shocked James into realizing what unbridled arrogance and unrestrained bullying could do, and forced him to take a hard look at himself. Had Lily been there when this happened (remember she survived early encounters with Voldemort herself) it's possible that this could have been the point where she saw James in a new light.
In other words, if heroes are defined by their villains, it can be argued that James NEEDED Voldemort to become the decent man who would sacrifice himself for his family.
But whether this truly happened or not, we can also say with absolute certainty that SNAPE was changed by his own dealings with Voldemort -- knowing your former master murdered the love of your life can give you a real good reason to turn away from being a Death Eater and try to become a braver -- if not kinder -- man.
(BTW Snape fans should definitely check out the fan fics "Second Start" by 8thweasleykid or "His Greatest Wish" by AndromedaMarine on fanfiction.net. Both stories examine what could have happened if Snape was given the chance to relive his life again -- and show that not only did he not repeat his former mistakes but that he also became a genuinely decent man and healer, showing he did learn and grow from his mistakes. Fan fic I know, but I honestly feel this is how Snape would have ended up if given this opportunity).
From what we are told, although Dumbledore says that James was to Snape as Draco is to Harry, James was considerably worse than Draco. On Pottermore Rowling describes James's and Sirius's treatment of Snape as "relentless bullying", whereas Draco's behaviour to Harry is more like persistent needling.
We see that James started picking on Snape without provocation, as soon as he met him, just because he wanted to be in Slytherin, whereas Draco's problem with Harry was that Harry had rejected him (with whatever good reasons). Rowling has said that James's motivation for the bullying was partly sexual jealousy. She compares James with Dudley by giving Dudley a side-kick called Piers (an old form of Peter) who is described as rat-like and who helps him to bully his victims. James saves Snape's life and then goes right back to attacking him without provocation, which suggests either a spectacular lack of finer feelings or that he saved Snape in part because he didn't want to lose his chew toy.
We also see from Filch's records and from comments made by Lily and Remus that James liked to hex random people just because he could, and JKR wrote a little prequel for charity, which showed James and Sirius in the summer between their 6th and 7th years at Hogwarts, already Order members and fighting Death Eaters, but taking time off to bully and jeer at two inoffensive Muggle policemen, just because they can.
James is especially disturbing because he seems to have a great sense of entitlement - he feels he has a right to do what he likes to other people and they aren't allowed even to protest. He attacks Snape out of sexual jealousy and just because "he exists", then punishes him for daring to protest. He then threatens to punish Lily - "Don't make me hex you" - for trying to protect her friend. This is a classic abuser's attitude - I'm going to hurt you but you made me do it. He effectively tries to hold Snape hostage to force Lily to date him against her will, and later he does date her but deceives her and continues to hex Snape behind her back. His behaviour to Lily - threatening her, trying to force her to go out with him regardless of her own wishes, deceiving her - suggests that he might well become an abusive and/or unfaithful husband.
However, we aren't told all that much about him. Many people seem to have liked him, so he probably had virtues which we just haven't been shown.
The idea that Snape disliked Harry because of his resemblance to James is a bit of a red herring, anyway. Dumbledore says so - but JKR makes it clear she means us to understand that Dumbledore is very dishonest, because in Beedle she quotes Dumbledore on the need to treat the truth with caution, in the context of an essay supposedly written by Dumbledore in which he is presenting himself as not being one of the people who believe that the Deathly Hallows are real, written at a time when he had the wand, could lay his hand on the cloak at any time and was hot on the trial of the ring.
Harry is an appallingly bad student in Snape's class - an arrogant, chippy boy who lies, cheats and steals and is careless of other students' safety, and who also feels a bit like the Dark Lord (Snape doesn't know about the Horcrux, but can probably sense it) and is a Parselmouth. That he also looks like the bully who made Snape's life a misery just makes Snape more sensitive to the very real annoyances which Harry presents.
I think James & Snape were two sides of the same coin to be frank: both were bullies. The Princes Tale in DH shows us that Snape picked on Petunia, Lily's friend, Mary McDonald and other muggleborns (aside from Lily).
James bullied Snape and other Slytherins. The difference is that James GREW out of his bullying nature long before he graduated Hogwarts by the sounds of it. Snape transferred his bullying onto innocent children which is in my book unforgivable. James & Snape were 15, so they were equals, whereas Snape bullied those half his age when he's an adult.
Also, regardless of James' reasons for saving Snape, would Snape have done the same thing for James had he been in that position? No I don't think so. Whatever James was at 15, he was an all round decent bloke who died at the age of 21 for his wife and son.
I feel that James was more mischievous than a full on bully. Yes he teased Snape a lot and did publicly humiliate him, but only because he had reasons to. He didn't really like Snape because James was against the Dark Arts-he saw it as something that's not right or moral to him, so he bullied Snape because he was only a mischievous 15 year old kid who couldn't really come up with a smarter, restrained "adult" way to confront him. I suppose that was his way of wanting to bring justice. James did prove that he is a good individual, he did stick by his friends and never spread Lupin's secret. He would be a huge jerk in school, but never to his friends. Also, when Sirius' prank had gone too far, James himself was the one who saved Snape from Lupin. He disliked Snape, but would never think of taking a life. I love the way that J.K. Rowling teaches people not to judge them fully by what they seem; they are either in the gray area or misunderstood. In Malfoy's case, he was not as loyal to his companions as James was. He would push them around to help him carry out his dirty work. He treated his friends Crabbe and Goyle like total idiots. He cared more about power than friendship, while James DID care much more about friendship and his naive view of morality. Malfoy was very cowardly; he had always been one who played a yes boy for the sake of fear and his family name. I feel that if he were in James' place, he would have never stuck by Lupin at all.