Harry Potter And The Meditation On Aging

This past Friday I saw the final Harry Potter movie.  As a general rule, I don’t go to movies on opening weekend, especially summer movies.  Ever since I saw Mr. Holland’s Opus in a packed theater and suffered a bout of claustrophobia, I’ve tried to avoid movie crowds.  Generally I accomplish that by not going to the movies.  The last few movies that I have seen in the theater are Cave of Forgotten Dreams and the last three Harry Potter movies.  That’s it.  Otherwise, I watch movies at home.  I cannot imagine there is any other movie I will ever want to see in the movie theater again.  Too expensive, too loud, and it’s just not as much fun as it used to be.

There were two types of exceptions that I made to my “no opening weekend rule” however, the three Lord of the Rings movies and the eight Harry Potter movies.  I really wanted to see those movies, and I wanted to see them as soon as I could (I even went to a midnight showing or two.)  I read Lord of the Rings a year or two before the movies came out, and I went from refusing to see the movie (“They’ll ruin it!”), to seeing the trailer and wanting to watch, to loving the movies more than the books (sorry, but it’s true, and the absence of Tom Bombadil makes them all the better.  Please direct all hate mail to Solitary Muser c/o Antarctica.)

Unlike Lord of the Rings, the Harry Potter movies are uneven and none are as good as the books on which they are based.  Two of them (Sorcerer’s/Philosopher’s Stone and Chamber of Secrets) don’t stand up to repeat viewing, and I couldn’t stomach Half-Blood Prince the first time around.  On the other hand Prisoner of Azkaban and the two Deathly Hallows movies, particularly the second one, were very enjoyable and moving.

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From Goblet of Fire on, whenever the newest book in the series was published, I would reread the entire series.  What struck me at around Book 5 is how the tone of both book and writing matured as the characters did.  Read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s (Philosopher’s) Stone again.  It is very light even a little twee.  J.K. Rowling’s targeted audience was about the same age as Harry in the book (11).  She did not talk down to her audience exactly, but the first few books are more child-centered than what would come.  Rowling may be the first children’s literature author who did not target a specific age group, but rather a specific generation, and her style matured with her initial audience.

In contrast to the lightness of the first two books, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is dark, brooding, and harrowing.  Harry Potter is treated as an adult even if he is only 17.  The writing is not light and breezy.  Harry, now fully integrated into the wizard world, does not have a sense of wonder anymore.  There are no clever inventions like a Pensieve or Quidditch.  Rather, Rowling introduces her audience to the Deathly Hallows, three objects which, according to legend, were created by Death itself.  Moreover, Harry has to come to understand an important truth about his hero and mentor Dumbledore, a bitter truth that we eventually all learn about our heroes, they are dreadfully, shatteringly, and completely human.

A good children’s book is like a perfectly shaped jewel.  Like the finest adult novels, it can be a microcosm of the world, the means of conveying complex moral struggles in a way that enlightens.  In some ways, it is even harder to do that in a children’s book because the complexities have to be made simple for not fully developed minds (no child cannot truly understand War and Peace or Don Quixote.  Most adults cannot either.)  Perhaps the master, at least in children’s fantasy, is Ursula K. Le Guin, whose Earthsea series is remarkably complex–morally, politically, ethically, and emotionally.  Rowling has not reached Le Guin’s level (few have), but her elegance and humor, as well as the books’ increasing darkness, set the Harry Potter novels apart.

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I was not exactly late to the Harry Potter phenomenon, but I did not come in at the beginning either.  By the time I realized those books existed, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban had either just come out or was about to.  I deliberately stayed away from the books, not for any anti-Potter reasons, but because I heard there would be seven books in all, and I wanted to read the complete series rather than wait one book at a time.  In retrospect, I am glad I did not wait.  Each time a new book was released it was an absolute thrill to wake up, find a package on my doorstep, and read it non-stop until the end.  I am also glad I read the books when I did because I could see each movie in the theater without spoiling the books (and better understood the movies.)  As much as I dislike movie theaters, there was something magical about seeing even the more banal of those episodes on the big screen.

Around the time that I read the Harry Potter books, there was a hue and cry from some of the more ridiculous elements out there who, needing a platform to get into the media limelight, declared that the books were Satanic.  (The Onion, in one of its finest moments, perfectly parodied this phenomenon to the extent that life imitated art in a scary yet hilarious way.)  This is what first cracked my resolve against reading an incomplete the Harry Potter series.

The main reason I eventually read Harry Potter is because I was friendly with a graduate student at my university, and I would watch her two sons from time to time.  There were times this became extremely difficult (this student’s family was falling apart, and the emotional toll for all involved was massive), but the two boys were very sweet.  The Harry Potter books were an escape for the younger of the two, and one night he asked me read to him from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.  I got through about two or three chapters, and I was hooked.  This boy’s mother lent me the book and the next one, and I finished them both by the next day.  I bought my own copies and also The Prisoner of Azkaban.  Ironically, this was the at the same time I was reading The Lord of the Rings (for a class), and once I started reading the Harry Potter books, I had some trouble switching back to Tolkien.  It was somehow less fun.

Over the years, I have often wondered what happened to those two children.  I wonder though if they still like Harry Potter or if they grew out of it.

Personally, I am glad that I read the Harry Potter books as an adult; as a result I will never grow out of them.  Perhaps not coincidentally most of my favorite children’s books I discovered either as a small child or as an adult.

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My grandfather and I had a disagreement in the early 2000’s about the lasting legacy of Harry Potter.  He thought it was a flash in the pan that would eventually burn out, and I thought it would be enduring.  Time will tell which one of us is right, but I suspect it is me.  Harry Potter is not a series of books, movies, and a theme park tie in.  It is a worldwide, unifying, cultural phenomenon.  It is quite possible to imagine that right now in every country in the world, in every language (including some dead languages), there is some child reading a Harry Potter book.  In terms of popular culture, only a few musicians have had this kind of worldwide appeal: the Beatles of course, and Michael Jackson in the early 80’s.  Beyond that I am hard pressed to think of another.  It is more common for movies to have that appeal, but most movies do not stand the test of time.  In literature this kind of popularity is practically unheard of.  Perhaps only Lord of the Rings.

My grandfather had no sense of magic.  Not so much the spells and hexes cast by the wizards in the Harry Potter books, but rather a general sense of wonder and whimsy.  It’s this magic that allows a sports fan to recognize and appreciate the truly amazing feats of a supremely gifted athlete.  It’s the same magic that performers like Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, or Karen Carpenter cast through the power of their voice.  The real magic of the Harry Potter franchise is not the money it has made, but Rowling’s ability to hypnotize her readers with a unique retelling of an age-old tale.

My grandfather, the son of Russian-Jewish immigrants, grew up during the Great Depression.  He graduated high school, but not college.  He was drafted into the army but because of injury he was honorably discharged without ever seeing combat.  He married my grandmother, started a business, and raised a family.  He liked golf, cards, and the Philadelphia Phillies whom he followed for about seventy largely unsuccessful years.

My grandfather did not understand the Harry Potter phenomenon, because he saw it through the pragmatic lens which he viewed life.  Children like it, children are flighty, children move on.  What he did not understand is that Harry Potter tapped into a deep cultural yearning that went far beyond children.  In Britain, where the series was first published, each book has two covers: one for children and for adults (so they could read it in public without embarrassment.)  Harry Potter is not the media creation that my grandfather saw.  Rather the media attention is recognition of a genuine phenomenon.  Yes, there are those who hate Harry Potter or look down on the books (most famously the boorish scholar and self-proclaimed cultural critic Harold Bloom), there are more complex storytellers, and there are better writers.  What separates Rowling and Harry Potter, and what Rowling’s true gift is, is balance.  The books are just original enough, just well-written enough, just funny enough, just intelligent enough, just accessible enough, just emotional enough, just lovable enough to make them beloved by the largest audience possible.  Had Rowling gone too much in any one of those directions, she could have wrecked the balance, and the series would not have the same appeal.  That is why Harry Potter is a singular phenomenon that has yet to be replicated.

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As for the movie itself, it was wonderful, probably the best of the series.  Harry has become an adult in every way but actual age.  The movie makes for a more stimulating experience than the book.  Some of the moments that Rowling glosses over (Harry’s final confrontation with Voldemort for example) are fleshed out in an exciting, special-effects laden way.  Other moments that were integral to the book (Harry’s discovery of Dumbledore’s failings) have been pushed to the side or eliminated entirely.  The movie is Harry’s story and only his.

This movie is the best of the series because it has successfully married faithfulness to the text with faithfulness to the tone.  Most of the movies are faithful to the former but not the latter.  Perhaps a fear of crazed Potter fans prevented directors from imposing their own vision.  The sole prior exception was Alfonso Cuarón’s Prisoner of Azkaban, a wonderful movie more faithful to tone than text, but also the lowest grossing of all the films.

At the end of this movie, I felt a sorrow that went beyond story.  Although I read the books as an adult, I too grew up with Harry.  Even after I read the final book, the melancholy of finishing was not as pronounced because there were still movies to be made.  I suppose there is Pottermore, but it is not the same.  The final movie is a reminder that I too have aged.

Harry Potter is not Peter Pan.  He grew up, and I did too.

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2 responses to “Harry Potter And The Meditation On Aging

  1. When Harry Potter gets a 20-year anniversary re-release, I hope the studios will leave it as is and not digitally edit stupid cyber sidekicks into it. (*cough* Star Wars)

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