When the first of the HARRY POTTER books came out, I was already well into adulthood. I don't even remember hearing about their popularity until THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN came out, and when GOBLET OF FIRE came to the bookshelves the first film, directed by Chris Columbus, was well into production and I remember a level of anticipation on par with THE PHANTOM MENACE, especially from my good friend Megan Murray, who was a gigantic fan. She'd read the books along with her daughter and became instantly hooked. She couldn't get into LORD OF THE RINGS, but POTTER? A kid trying to grow up the best way he can in an increasingly hostile and cold world? People could relate to that, especially after 9/11. I remember that horrible day well, but I can't imagine what a kid, 10 years old as the Towers fell, would have thought. It must have seemed like something out of a movie. That Christmas, HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER'S STONE came out a mere two months afterward, going head to head with FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING that year. It seemed fantasy - real fantasy - had come to theaters after a really long drought, and as a movie geek I couldn't have been happier.
I read the books myself, to see what the fuss was about, and I got instantly hooked as well. I started reading a little before the first film came out, and when I finished GOBLET OF FIRE, I remember comparing it to THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK in terms of its story and sweeping emotion. Once that first film came out, I was well on my way to being a Potterphile, and although I didn't attend the midnight openings when the books went on sale until DEATHLY HALLOWS, I felt hooked in a way that I hadn't felt since I was a child, reading THE LORD OF THE RINGS for the first time. Too many cynics out there don't realize - or refuse to realize - that J.K. Rowling is actually a damn good writer, and you could see her get better as the books progressed.
But what makes these books and films resonate as well as they do? I don't think it's that difficult - the entire series is about growing up, and just because it takes place in a world of dragons, magic, and broomsticks doesn't make it any less relevant to kids - who aren't really kids anymore. Sure, some of the books relied a little too much on the Scooby Doo reveal, but she got it right where it mattered - in the books' portrayal of childhood, the wonder and amazement of those years before adolescence, then the awkward and strange years of being a teenager, through all the tragedies and triumphs, all the way to adulthood. Very, very few authors have been able to write about those years as successfully as Rowling did, and to that core audience. Her books said to them, yes, things will get bad. There will be moments beyond bearing. But you have your friends, and those relationships and bonds will see you through rough times. And once you pass through them, those times will be all the sweeter.
These films were in real danger of not being nearly as good as they were. In fact, if J. K. Rowling hadn't taken such control over her story early on, we might have gotten something fairly awful. The first two films are a little long and have a lot of material to get through, but once we became immersed in the world, Alfonso Cuaron made PRISONER OF AZKABAN and the films found their voice apart from the books, and became quite wonderful. Columbus had the most difficult job in making the world, and it has paid off for the series as Cuaron, Mike Newell, and David Yates have benefited from his casting and his vision. Plus we can't forget Steve Kloves' contribution - his scripts truly brought the characters alive.
Of course, Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint *are* Harry, Hermione, and Ron - and they always will be. But what's astounding isn't only that these kids turned out as great in the films as they did, but that practically all the child casting turned out wonderfully. Tom Felton as Draco Malfoy - he's terrific in the part. So's Matthew Lewis as Neville Longbottom, and although I've felt that his story got shorted in the films, he's played the part well, and I can't wait to see it pay off for him in the final film. Plus we got actors like Devon Murray, Katie Leung, Alfie Enoch, James and Oliver Phelps - and all are wonderful in their roles. And then there are the adults - Richard Harris was wonderful as Albus Dumbledore, and if Michael Gambon suffered a little at first in taking over the role after his death, Gambon found his own way into the character and made it his own just as much as Harris did. Maggie Smith as Professor McGonagall is great as well, and all the British, Irish, and Scottish actors that have passed through the POTTER films through the years are well known and excellent in their roles. The only two missing, really, are Ian Holm and Ian McKellen, and we all know what they did. Finally, there is Alan Rickman as Severus Snape, the most complicated and tragic character of the series. I can't wait to see that story conclude in the film, and Rickman will probably bring the house down.
If a child was 10 years old when that first book came out that child is well into their twenties at this point and these films and books have just as much weight to that adult as the STAR WARS original trilogy does for my generation. In fact, these kids have it better - while we suffered the Prequels, there isn't a single "bad" POTTER film in the lot. Sure, the first two are a little ponderous, but they're nowhere near as bad as the Prequels turned out to be, and once the film series found its voice in PRISONER OF AZKABAN, there was no looking back. These films are genuine classics, a great fantasy series that will be shared for generations to come.
So now we come to it, the final film, released this Friday. I'm seeing it tomorrow, and I expect, just on the buzz I've been hearing, that I'm going to love it. Rowling certainly stuck the landing with the book, so I expect that David Yates will do the same with this one. It was good that Warners split the last film into two parts - Rowling covered a lot of ground in that last book and for those payoffs that have been building up for 10+ years to have any real effect, well, you don't want to rush them. As for myself, it will be fairly inpossible for me to judge the film separate from the books and the experiences I've had with them, and I imagine that will even be more so for those people who grew up with these films and books. For them, it really will be the passing of an age. I remember going to the midnight release party of DEATHLY HALLOWS at the bookstore, and I was surprised by the people there, all ages, from really young children, high school kids, all the way to a woman who I remember the teller asking her if she was buying the book for her grandchild and hearing her scoff and tell her, "No, this one's mine." Will we see anything like HARRY POTTER touch so many people again? Of course we will, but it may take some time, and it may not hit every generation the way HARRY POTTER has. I'm sure at my screening there will be cheers, and tears, and applause, and I wouldn't want it any other way.
Some things are beyond criticism, I think. I have issues with the films, but almost all of them are about how they failed to get this thing or that from the books into the film, and I'm sure DEATHLY HALLOWS PART 2 will be the same. But the audience experience with them will, I hope, be on par with those great experiences I had with EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, or RETURN OF THE KING, and that makes this journey well worth taking. Cynics may scoff all they like, but they will be the ones in the darkness and cold, while I'll be in the theater, with the warmth of the love of the fans, and a story well told, and a hero we all can believe in. Long live Harry Potter. All is well.