[15 July 2011]
The Philadelphia Inquirer (MCT)
Friday marks the end of an era. Some, like Warner Bros. executive Dan Fellman, compare its finality to the breakup of the Beatles.
When “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2,” the eighth and presumably final film based on the phenom that has sold 450 million books and close to a billion movie tickets, opens this week in theaters from Lahore to Los Angeles, it will be twilight in the Potterverse.
No more pajama-clad kids lining up at midnight to buy the new “Harry” volume. No more getting out the crimson-and-gold Gryffindor garb for the 12:01 a.m. premiere of the latest “Harry” movie. No more convoys of FedEx trucks delivering the one about Azkaban straight to readers’ doors.
“It’s a little melancholy,” observes Johanna Winant, a doctoral student in literature at the University of Chicago. Winant grew up in Mount Airy, Pa., inhaling the seven books that vividly detail seven years in the life of the orphaned wizard who acquires the skills and courage to avenge his parents’ deaths.
Not only the fans of J.K. Rowling’s hero are experiencing symptoms of withdrawal. For film execs and book publishers, educators and costume merchants, e-tailers and neighborhood booksellers, the pangs are likewise acute.
Nearly as universal as Harry’s appeal is admiration for his cultural impact. “Harry Potter has broken publishing and box-office records, boosted adolescent reading habits, erased the line between young-adult and adult fiction, and had a steroidal impact on the profits of Amazon.com.
“It’s the highest-grossing franchise in the history of the motion-picture industry,” says Fellman, president of theatrical distribution for Warner.
“Usually, the law of diminishing returns applies to movie franchises,” says Paul Dergarabedian, analyst at Hollywood.com, who notes that from the first “Harry” film, in 2001, to the seventh, in 2010, box office has been consistently strong. “No other series has had a trajectory like this.”
The series made millionaires of its young stars. Daniel Radcliffe (Harry Potter), 21, pocketed $20 million for each of the last two “Harry” films, while Emma Watson (Hermione Granger), 21, and Rupert Grint (Ron Weasley), 22, earned $15 million apiece.
“I don’t think it’s possible to overstate the effects of ‘Harry Potter’ on reading and on publishing,” says Diane Roback, children’s book editor at Publishers Weekly. “In terms of number of books sold, anticipation for new volumes in the series, getting children to read, getting adults to read books for children, and creating a cultural phenomenon, it is unmatched.”
“It reminded Hollywood that blockbusters don’t need to be male-oriented action films,” says Jeanine Basinger, chair of film studies at Wesleyan University. “And that a movie could appeal at once to kids, teens on dates, parents, and grandparents. It had a real unifying effect on audiences.”
Don’t discount “the ‘Harry Potter’ factor” for the uptick in young-adult reading between 2002 and 2008, says Sunil Iyengar, a researcher at the National Endowment for the Arts. “I wouldn’t be surprised if the ‘Harry Potter’ books played a role in the resurgence of young-adult reading.”
In other words, not only did “Harry” strike gold, but he also struck a chord felt around the world.
There are other, measurable, “Harry Potter” effects.
The New York Times created a children’s best-seller list because “Harry” titles were crowding the fiction roster.
The Free Library of Philadelphia, which routinely had purchased three or four copies of popular books for circulation, had to buy up to 25 “Harry Potter” books per branch to keep pace with demand. From booksellers to multiplex operators, the “Harry Potter” effect was palpable in the increased interest in other narratives.
“It really triggered the use of our fantasy collection,” says Siobhan Reardon, president of the Free Library.
“It was the gateway book for a lot of young readers. When the new “Harry” wore off, they came in for other books,” says Michael Fox, proprietor of the Joseph Fox bookstore in Philadelphia.
Nearly everyone agrees that Rowling, the welfare mom who wrote the first “Harry Potter” book in an unheated apartment in Edinburgh, Scotland, while caring for her infant daughter, created characters and settings more notable for their emotional than their economic impact.
Harry and his friends Hermione and Ron grew up, it seemed, in real time, mirroring the readers’ and moviegoers’ own developmental stages.
“The early ‘Potter’ books were written at an easier developmental level than the later ones,” says Joel Nichols of the Free Library in Philadelphia. “So readers who are Harry’s age in each given book see reflections of themselves developing friendships, relationships with teachers and parents.”
Says Jesse Dougherty, a onetime English teacher and now head of the upper school at Friends Select, “The school setting is important. It is a universal feeling to wonder about your place in school that (Rowling) captures well.”
“The ‘Harry Potter’ books and movies have an empowerment effect,” says Basinger. “They’re about kids having power and adults being wary. They offer a taste of freedom and an escape from childhood, but they present serious challenges.”
Winant reflects, “For my younger brother’s micro-generation, who were 10 when the first book came out, the cosmology of ‘Harry Potter’ is the most important thing. And that’s because in 2001, our country went to war against a shadowy evil.”
“I wonder if ‘Harry Potter’ would have been quite so important without al-Qaida, which, like Voldemort, smeared itself across the sky in smoke,” says Winant. The first of the movies was released two months after the twin towers fell, and the last comes out two months after Osama bin Laden was slain.
Predictably, not everyone is wild about “Harry.”
“The impact of ‘Harry Potter’ is overrated,” says Lark Hall, an English teacher at Central High School in Philadelphia. “Our kids are still reading ‘Lord of the Rings’ on their own and the old classics such as ‘Beowulf’ that contain supernatural beings and mortal family conflict.”
Still, she concedes, “Promoting reading in any way is our job. And ‘Potter’ on iPad is certainly reading.”
It’s useful to make a distinction between the “Harry” books and the “Harry Potter” “entertainment-industrial complex,” says Robert Thompson, Syracuse University professor of popular culture.
“I am convinced that the Rowling books will join J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis as classics,” he says. Of the “Potter” empire, which includes an Orlando theme-park attraction, Bertie Bott’s puke-flavored candies, and what costume saleswoman Jen Simms calls the “slutty Hermione” minidresses flying off shelves at Masquerade in South Philadelphia, Thompson audibly shrugs.
He does note the near-magical synergy between the “Harry” books and movies, staggered like time-released pleasure givers.
“The ‘Harry Potter’ movies are a perfect storm of great story, great special-effects technology hitting the cultural zeitgeist at a moment when people were looking for something magical,” says Hollywood.com’s Dergarabedian.
While she doesn’t think that the movies are “cinematically groundbreaking,” Basinger says she is impressed with their visual distinction and consistency. “‘Harry Potter’ does not fall off in quality, like ‘Star Wars.’
“I didn’t think the movies would count,” says Julian Bennett Holmes, a music student at Mannes College in Manhattan. “But somehow the movies became an integral part of the experience. The book doesn’t feel complete without the movie.” He has already bought his ticket to the midnight Friday screening of “Deathly Hallows: Part 2.”
Harry Potter is ending, but is it the end of Harry Potter?
“One hears J.K. Rowling is writing a prequel,” says a reliable Hollywood source who does not want to be identified, “with Volume 1 about Harry’s parents, their meeting, and love, and Volume 2 about the birth of Harry and the killing by Voldemort.”
“We know she’s working on a project,” says Warner’s Fellman, “but she hasn’t discussed it with us.”
With a hearty laugh he adds, “We like that rumor.”