On November 11th the last of the Harry Potter movies will be released on DVD/Blu-Ray, bringing to an end a wonderful chapter in epic storytelling. For while the telling arguably ended with the release of the seventh and final book Harry Potter & The Deathly Hallows in 2007, I consider the movies to be just as much a part of the ride as the books were.
So much has been written and said about the phenomenon that was Harry Potter since J.K. Rowling introduced us all to him in the summer of 1997 that I won’t even attempt to provide links. Instead, I just want to focus for a little bit on the experiences I personally had with these stories.
Middle Earth, Narnia and Hogwarts
Before Harry Potter came along we had been very blessed over the past 100 years to have some of the greatest storytelling ever presented to us: The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien and The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis. I believe that Rowling’s achievement deserves to be included in this group. As with Middle Earth or Narnia, Rowling was able to create a believable world unto itself complete with characters and histories that wove it all together into the most marvelous tapestry of fiction. Since the advent of Harry Potter there have been a myriad of pretenders published, all hoping to capitalize on the hunger for reading good stories Rowling and her publisher helped to foster. None of them have even come close.
I was pretty oblivious to Harry Potter until the initial movie (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone) was released in 2001. My oldest son was only five at the time and not yet reading much beyond Dr. Seuss or Captain Underpants books from school. I’d heard a little about the books in the infant blogosphere and already opinions were splitting between them being good books for children or works that promoted witchcraft and the occult. About the time of the second movie’s (Chamber of Secrets) release in 2002 it was becoming obvious that this was a major phenomenon that deserved a closer look.
I had grown up completely oblivious to The Lord of the Rings and Narnia. Somehow I’d missed reading either series while growing up or attending college. When the first LOTR movie was released in 2001 I was not too interested as I knew next to nothing about it. It wasn’t until I got together with some buddies from college and listened to them talking knowledgeably about an entire world and its characters that I had never heard of that I realized I’d missed the boat. Before the release of The Two Towers in 2002 I decided I had to rent The Fellowship of the Ring. I did, was absolutely blown away, and have never looked back. I even dragged my then-pregnant wife along to see The Two Towers in the theater with friends when it was released. Being very pregnant and tired she slept through half of it; I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen. And when my assistant pastor called me on opening night to ask if I wanted to see The Return of the King with him in late 2003 I leapt at the chance. My almost 8 year old son was really upset that I wasn’t taking him as by then he was hooked on the movies, too. “I can’t take you tonight,” I explained to his hurt expression. “But I promise we’ll go together soon.” It was a promise I kept, and one that carried over to the Harry Potter films as well. Our little Golden Age of movie-going was about to take off.
Reading the Books
Meanwhile, Nolan began to read the Harry Potter books. My wife and I had heard the arguments that these books were really getting kids to read and how can anything be bad that gets kids to read, right? I finally began to do some research to see what other parents and child experts were saying, especially amongst Catholics. I read the arguments on both sides, but ultimately it was my own priest who convinced me they were ok. Fr. B had been reading them due to the furor surrounding them and told me that he found them tremendously enjoyable. That was good enough for me, though a friend of mine who is a committed Evangelical Christian could not believe that I was opening the door to the occult so easily to my son. Harry was sure creating a lot of strong feelings in people.
And so Nolan began to devour the soft-cover books, telling us he “had a lot of catching up to do.” By then the first four were already in soft-cover and with money tight at the time we wanted to avoid the expense of hard cover editions. I don’t think we’d anticipated how quickly he’d read them. On a weekly basis for a month he would finish a book and stack it on my dresser telling me “Dad, you’ve got to read this one! It’s an incredible story!” For months he’d repeat this to me every few days, and there they’d remain: on my dresser collecting dust. The truth was I was avoiding them off for fear of becoming hooked on Harry. Didn’t my son know I didn’t have time for that stuff? I was too busy. Sure I was.
Book five, The Order of the Phoenix, was the final book we were able to purchase in soft-cover. It was huge, over 800 pages if I recall, and I thought it would finally slow Nolan down. I was wrong. He read it in 2-3 days and once again set it on the tall stack and begged me to read about Harry. We had by then seen the first two movies on DVD and I really did like Harry and the rest of the gang at Hogwarts. I finally relented and read the first book.
This Muggle’s Addiction
I was right of course. My worst fears were realized and I got hooked! I tore through the first five books much to the delight of my son for we now had common ground to discuss. And in 2004 Nolan and I began a movie-going journey together when I took him to see Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban in 2004. With Rowling’s narrative so thoroughly ingrained I knew I wasn’t going to wait for the soft-cover edition of her next books, of which we learned there would be two more. So much for saving money.
I actually wound up buying two hard cover copies of that sixth book. On the day of its release on a 105 degree day in July 2005 some friends of mine and I helped move a family of five across town to their new home. I knew that Tom and Lynn’s oldest daughter Jessica was a junior high-aged Harry fanatic, often reading the books in a single sitting before re-reading them several more times. With each truck of boxes and furniture we moved, I’d pause to talk about Harry with Jessie. I learned she was upset because they were not going to be able to purchase The Half-Blood Prince that day for her to read due to the busyness of the move, a story corroborated by her parents later. When we finally finished the last load of boxes Tom told me they were going out to a family dinner to celebrate the move. Knowing they would be gone (and having Lynn confirm that they would not be stopping at Barnes & Noble to buy Jessie the book) I got an idea: since I would be going to B&N to get a copy for Nolan I decided to get two. I left the book with an anonymous note in the front door of their new home. I learned later that Jessie shrieked when she found the book and that it took them a few days to figure out who’d left it for her, but that she enjoyed her first night in the new house, reading late into the night. Jessie graduated from high school last May and is now a freshman in college. When I saw her this fall at home high school football games we’d catch up and still occasionally talk about Harry.
And so the cycle continued. I bought a copy of the final book The Deathly Hallows in 2007 the day of its release. Nolan read it first, and I read it soon after. I think I’ve read it four times. When Warner Brothers announced that the final book would be split into two movies I was happy, because not only did I take it to mean they were going to work hard to get most of the story into the film, but it meant I was going to get to go to the movies two more times with my oldest child who by now was a freshman in high school. Our little tradition got an extension.
I think the luckiest generation of Harry fans were the ones that literally “grew up” with Harry, Ron and Hermoine as the books were written and released on an almost yearly basis. As the characters grew from age 11 to 18, the themes became more mature and at times more dark. If Nolan were to begin reading the books now at the age of eight I would be more wary of him reading all the way through in a few months.
Are the movies flawed? I suppose for hard-core enthusiasts they are, but I find that most book adaptations lose a lot when transferred to film. The creators of the Narnia films have absolutely wrecked the original Lewis books as far as I’m concerned, especially after a somewhat promising start with the first one in 2005 (my original review is here), though my family and I still go to them because compared to what else is available they are gold. Peter Jackson did a very good job in recreating Middle Earth and pretty much set the gold standard amongst these three franchises. But Harry sure came close. Very close.
I’ve purposely avoided writing about my favorite characters or scenes or lines. I don’t know that I could as there is such a vast richness to choose from and I’m assuming that my readers have a familiarity with the story. When we first meet Harry living under the stairs at the Dursley’s I’m reminded of Cosette from Les Miserables (judging from an article I just found I’m not the only one to make this comparison). And then Hagrid pays him a visit to celebrate his 11th birthday and the rest is history.
Stories and Symbols
I love a good story. I crave it. When I find one I latch on to it. As a Catholic I’m prone to enjoying symbolism and these books are rife with symbolism. Rowling did not invent the story telling template. She pumped it full of air and took it on one hell of a ride that I’ve enjoyed taking with my son, my other children, my friend Jessie, and others. I’m grateful to her for that. Was it great literature? Probably not. But it was epic storytelling.
I had a friend once who is herself a brilliant writer and huge fan of the series. We used to talk about Harry all the time, and one of the last things she ever wrote to me was, unbeknownst to her, one of my favorite passages from near the end of The Deathly Hallows. It seems a fitting ending to this farewell to my journey with Harry and the child-like wonder he invoked. Thank you Harry.
“And he set off. The dementors’ chill did not overcome him; he passed through it with is companions, and they acted like Patronuses to him, and together they marched through the old trees that grew closely together, their branches tangled, their roots gnarled and twisted underfoot. Harry clutched the Cloak tightly around him in the darkness, traveling deeper and deeper into the forest, with no idea exactly where Voldemort was, but sure that he would find him. Beside him, making scarcely a sound, walked James, Sirius, Lupin, and Lily, and their presence was his courage, and the reason he was able to keep putting one foot in front of the other.”
Addendum: The first of two Peter Jackson-directed films from Tolkien’s book The Hobbit is due to be released in December 2012. Perhaps it’s time I took a cinematic journey that didn’t involve a Pixar film with my younger son…