Monday, June 13, 2011

Real Live Magic: How We Will Remember Harry Potter

   December 23, 2004 was a big day. Turning eleven was pretty cool, but there was something that came with the big 1 and 1 that I was a little more excited for. As soon as I saw the FedEx man peel out of our neighborhood, I rushed out to the mailbox. It was worth a shot, right? Yeah, definitely. I screeched to a halt in front of the little white tube, and after a quick glance up and down the street, I pulled the door open. Wow, was there a lot of mail. I carefully lifted out the stack and began to rifle through it. Bills, a couple cards, more bills, a few magazines . . . I must have missed it. I went through the stack again. Nothing. Well, maybe one more try. Third time was not the charm.
   I never did get a letter from Hogwarts. I was crushed.
   I will say right now that I am one of the biggest Harry Potter fans to ever dream about receiving that special invitation to the school of Witchcraft and Wizardry. I have read all the books at least three times, I have been Ron Weasley for Halloween, and as a kid I spent a whole afternoon trying to make the household broom get off the ground. Surprisingly, I was not the only child out there undergoing such misadventures. Harry Potter has flourished into one of the most definitive cultural benchmarks of our generation. Coming from an admitted super-fan, one might point out that such claims are driven by more than a little bias. However, regardless of one’s opinion of the books or movies, it simply cannot be denied that Harry Potter has seen an epidemic-like popularity unlike anything else.
   No one reads anymore. No one. Sure, one might crack open a book or boot up a Kindle on occasion, but most of us simply do not have the time to keep up with a good read. Unless that read is Harry Potter. The series has sold over 400 million copies worldwide, and each book from Goblet of Fire to Deathly Hallows has set the record for the fastest-selling story in history. People were going to midnight parties to get a book; a book that they would read, on top of that. What in the world is that all about? Is it not said that 10% of the population reads 90% of the books? Somehow, the story of Harry Potter had gotten us to read again. Beyond that, it had gotten us to enjoy reading too.
   Sure, not everyone is a reader, but even these folk have been drawn into the wizarding world thanks to the movies. Not every book-to-movie adaptation is a success, and they are rarely considered decent standalone movies. I think it is a general consensus that as a whole, the Harry Potter film series consists of solid cinematic experiences, the highlights seeming to be Prisoner of Azkaban and the most recent Deathly Hallows: Part 1.
   Critical acclaim is rare for movies that have been adapted from writing, simply because straying from the source material is so risky. The Potter films have not only succeeded in telling the young wizard’s tale in a satisfying way, but they have done it while making absolute bank. Each movie ranks in the top 30 on the list of the highest-grossing films in history (notably, Sorcerer’s Stone is #8 and Deathly Hallows: Part 1 is #10). That is one film franchise occupying seven of the top thirty spots and two of the top ten spots on that prestigious list. Altogether, the films have grossed nearly 6.4 billion dollars. The next highest-grossing series: James Bond, with only 5 billion to its credit and over three times the movies.
   Harry Potter has undeniably left a big fat stamp on popular culture. For the past 14 years, the world has retreated into a world that I think some of us secretly wished was our own. This world is boring (I mean really, would it have been just too much to give us flying brooms and invisibility cloaks? Just a little spice would be nice), and through J.K. Rowling’s masterpiece we could get a break from the mundane, take up our wands, and join Harry in his fight against Voldemort. It can certainly be argued that other book series have had similar effects, such as Twilight, but what separates Potter from the rest is that the Wizarding World appeals to everyone, and the threat of Voldemort was one that loomed above us normal folk as well as wizards. Instead of honing in on anxious teenage girls, Rowling managed to draw everyday people into her story by generating a conflict that involved each of us. Somehow, we were all drawn inside a world that we should never have believed was real in the first place. Was I the only kid who was secretly expecting a certain letter on his eleventh birthday? Something tells me that I was not.
   On July 15, the final Harry Potter movie will be released. Deathly Hallows: Part 2 has called itself “the motion picture event of a generation” as “the conclusion of the worldwide phenomenon”. Whoa. Sounds pretty cocky of the advertising team, does it not? Sure, but do they have a point? Deathly Hallows: Part 2 marks what is very likely to be the final time the tale of Harry Potter will be told to the public. The theme park in Orlando will still be there, of course, but after the movie leaves theaters, it’s just about over. That is it. No more Harry Potter. All we will have left to do afterward is remember.
   Like many people, I waited in line at midnight to get the last Harry Potter book. Not wanting to wait until the next day to get reading, I told myself that I would read the first chapter only, and then read the book all the way to the end the next day. I sat up in bed, the hour now well past 1:00 am, and flipped open the cover to read the message on the jacket: We now present the seventh and final installment in the epic tale of Harry Potter. This was it. After this, the story was over; it was the end of the road. I stuck to my plan, and when I had finally finished the book the next night, I am not ashamed to say I darned near cried.
   I remembered how just two years earlier I had opened that mailbox and been quietly heartbroken. Somehow, finishing Book 7 was higher than that letterless day on the bummer-list. Maybe it was because the eleven-year-old me knew deep down that it was simply impossible for such a fantastical school such as Hogwarts to exist; that probably eased the blow a little bit. But now, there was nothing but a long life ahead without Harry, Ron, and Hermione. No more midnight release parties, no more getting grounded for being caught at 2:00 am “finishing the chapter” (true story, by the way, I ended up missing out on a Phoenix Suns game my dad had found tickets to. He took a friend instead), and no more quietly sneaking into my sister’s room while she was at swimming to nab the new book and forego “waiting my turn” (also true, maybe I had an obsession, but you can blame it on youth). The run was over.
   The movies have served to rekindle the love affair between myself and the series, but in two short months, even this outlet will be gone. Aside from Orlando, all that will be left of Harry Potter is the countless memories of fans all over the world. Together, we will remember how the story of a young wizard struck the fancy of millions upon millions of people. It got us to read again, for crying out loud.
   In an age where fads come and go faster than most of us can keep up, it is very rare that something holds our attention for more than a few months. But Harry Potter is well into its fourteenth year, and now has seven books, eight movies, and an entire theme park to its credit. In these times especially, it is truly special to see something become so beloved over such a long period of time. With the tale of the Boy Who Lived, we have come across the very thing that has defined our generation. It has been incredible.
   This summer, our journey with Harry ends. We may forget certain details of his adventures, but we will not forget the indelible mark the boy has had on our culture. There has never been, and there likely never will be, anything quite like it. But those seven books will stay on the shelf, and a lot of us will grow up and share Harry Potter’s awe-inspiring tale with our own children. Maybe in that way, we can pass on some of the wonder we had experienced ourselves as we accompanied our hero through his years at Hogwarts. It can be our way to relive the classic adventure.
   Somewhere down the road, I am probably going to get married, settle down somewhere, and have a couple of kids. As any true fan would, I will without fail share Harry Potter with my children. And when they turn eleven, I hope they run out and check the mailbox. When they do, I’ll probably head on out there with them. You know, just in case.

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