J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books have sold more than 500 million copies and the films have made $7.8 billion at the box office, placing them among the most popular book and film series of all time. This success evolved the ‘Wizarding World’ into a global brand, featuring video games, cosplay events, real-life Quidditch leagues, theme parks, studio tours, and stores of merchandise. In 2001, a first edition of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone sold for a record $471k. While many Potterheads, like the original cast, are now adults themselves, the pop culture craze is like a phoenix, reborn time and again with each new generation. But what made the lasting obsession for this magical tale so one-of-a-kind?
The newest film installment in J.K. Rowling‘s Wizarding World – Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore (David Yates, 2022) – marks over two decades since Chris Columbus‘ 2001 Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone first captured film audiences worldwide. Despite a less ground-breaking box office opening than Hogwarts is used to, Fantastic Beasts is the sixth-highest grossing film of 2022 so far with over $280 million in sales worldwide. With two more Fantastic Beasts installments expected to come, the Wizarding World will not be leaving its pop-culture dominance anytime soon.
Abandoned by Childhood
A constant theme in the Harry Potter series that kept fans swayed by its charm is its exploring of the ‘loss of innocence’. The journey from childhood to adulthood is common in coming-of-age stories, but the decade-long span of Rowling’s books meant young millennials grew up alongside their favorite characters in almost real-time.
Psychologist Eric Erikson developed eight stages of psychosocial development that one moves through from birth to death. Erikson’s fifth stage – identity formation and role fulfillment – represents the adolescent phase of one’s life (ages 12-19), driven by social relationships and the fundamental question of “who am I?” Erikson argued the forming of a positive identity is essential for a young person, and it is shaped by their relationships, beliefs, and experiences.
The Harry Potter series portrays this adolescent phase through the young trio – Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe), Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint), and Hermoine Granger (Emma Watson) – who transition to adulthood. As they wrestle with self-identity and learn the harsh truths of humanity, the story provides children with a blueprint for their own trials of youth, sketched in a magical faraway world where love triumphs over all.
Developmental psychologists have since expanded upon Erikson’s ideas on adolescence, breaking it down into three parts: early, middle and late adolescence. The social environments and expectations between these stages can vary greatly, such as the extent of parental authority, cognitive abilities, and social or sexual relationships. Early, middle, and late adolescence are well explored in Harry Potter as the characters face obstacles within each age group.
The first three tales – The Philosopher’s Stone (Columbus, 2001), The Chamber of Secrets (Columbus, 2002), and The Prisoner of Azkaban (Alfonso Cuarón, 2004) – represent early adolescence (12-14 years) and draw upon the pure innocence of childhood. Young children must deal with parents, bullies, teachers, and the first days of school. Harry is ruled by the authority of his caregivers (the Dursleys), sleeps in a tiny room under the stairs, and is given no personal freedom.
In the opening of The Chamber of Secrets, the Weasleys show up in a flying car to help Harry escape through his bedroom window. Not yet able to confront his cruel uncle and aunt, Harry runs away from home to attend Hogwarts. Brand new to the Wizarding World, the trio is charmed by moving staircases and all-flavored snacks, while Potion’s homework is the worst thing imaginable. Their cognitive abilities and magic are limited and despite being the heroes of the series, they still have a lot to learn.
Columbus’ direction in The Philosopher’s Stone and Chamber of Secrets reinforces this light-hearted feel of with warm color palettes and film scores by John Williams. In these films, even the actors exhibit early adolescence. In an interview with Variety, Columbus said he used so many cuts because the child actors could only stay focused for short periods. “The first couple of weeks, all the kids were so excited to be part of the ‘Harry Potter’ film, they were basically just smiling into the cameras. I couldn’t get them to stop smiling,” he said.
Prisoner of Azkaban marks a shift to darker themes as the trio completes the first adolescent phase. Harry is attacked by dementors – beasts that cause depression in their victims – and suffers the good sucked out of him. Hermione’s identity is threatened when Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton) calls her a mudblood – a bigoted phrase for people with non-magical parents. Of adolescence, Erikson says that “young people can become remarkably clannish, intolerant, and cruel in their exclusion of others who are ‘different’, in skin color or cultural background, and often in entirely petty aspects of dress and gesture…” This can be seen through the bullying Ron receives for wearing second-hand clothes. In Philosopher’s Stone, Draco mocks him with the famous saying – “red hair, and a hand-me-down robe, you must be a Weasley!”
The next three stories exhibit the middle adolescence phase (15 to 16 years). The trio becomes more mature and self-involved but is still driven by emotions and impulsivity. Dealing with tragic events like the deaths of Cedric Diggory (Robert Pattinson) and Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), the once light-hearted characters lose a degree of childish innocence, prone to outbursts and irritability. This mirrors the hormonal changes of many fans typified by this middle phase – the moody teenager. The Goblet of Fire (Mike Newell, 2005) brings in the awkwardness of puberty, sexuality, and relationships – also relatable to every teenager.
As the characters view each other through new eyes, appearances and peer pressure hold more weight. This is seen through events like the Yule Ball (the prom of the Wizarding World) where Harry is more terrified of asking his crush Cho Chang (Katie Leung) to the dance than battling dragons in the Triwizard Tournament. In dance practice before the ball, Mrs. McGonagall (Maggie Smith) punishes Ron for not paying attention by making him be her dance partner. She knows there is no worse thing to an adolescent boy than making him dance with his elderly teacher in front of all his peers, hands placed upon her waist. As they slow dance, Harry whispers to Fred and George Weasley (James and Oliver Phelps), “you’re never going to let him forget this are you?” They reply in unison – “never”.
The Order of the Phoenix (Yates, 2007) deals with a corrupt ministry and defying authority as the trio learns about the larger Wizarding World. Harry is burdened by laws against underage wizardry and ‘educational decrees’ placed in Hogwarts by its new Headmaster, Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton). These stone-age rules, such as “boys and girls are not permitted to be within six inches of each other” and “any student found in possession of sweets from unauthorized suppliers will be expelled”, causes the students to rebel. This mirrors teenagers – still not old enough to legally drive, drink alcohol, or marry, if you will – who now view themselves as adults and are frustrated by their lack of independence.
Erikson argued that in adolescence, “should a young person feel that the environment tries to deprive him too radically of all the forms of expression which permit him to develop and integrate the next step, he may resist with the wild strength encountered in animals…” Indeed, many Harry Potter fans hate the tea-sipping hypocrisy of Umbridge more than Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) himself – she is such a relatable villain.
In The Half-Blood Prince (Yates, 2009), characters are defined by their previous life choices as they seek to overcome their pasts. Harry, now largely rid of his childhood innocence, repeatedly makes brave sacrifices for the greater good. The importance of friendship becomes paramount as the teenagers see the faults in authority figures and instead rely upon one another. Draco and Voldemort show the consequences of when a child is robbed of innocence altogether.
Erikson wrote that if one fails to develop a unique identity in adolescence, they suffer from ‘role confusion’, leading one to feel frustrated and irrational about their sense of self. Draco, forced to appease the expectations of his father, is ordered to kill his headmaster Albus Dumbledore (Michael Gambon). When the moment arrives, he cannot go through with it and Severus Snape (Alan Rickman) casts the killing curse – Avada Kedavra. This marks the first character shift for Draco who, finally defying the wishes of his father, makes the first step away from ‘role confusion’ to form his own identity.
The third stage of late adolescence (17-19 years) is seen through the final Harry Potter tale on film, The Deathly Hallows (Yates, 2010 and Yates, 2011). No longer at Hogwarts, the trio are fully independent young adults. They must think for themselves, plan their futures, take full responsibility for their actions, and view adult figures as their peers. Heaped with further tragedy, their childhood innocence dissolves entirely. Ron experiences the death of his brother and Hermione must alter her parents’ memory to protect them, removing herself from their care. As Harry gains a full understanding of his identity, he is forced to accept his fate – death. To do this, he must also “let go” of his parents’ guidance and for the first time, faces Lord Voldemort alone.
Growing up, in essence, involves a part of yourself dying – the purity of childhood innocence is burnt to ash, bound never to return. When the killing curse strikes Harry, the boy who lived is destroyed. When he then wakes up in limbo, Dumbledore calls him a “brave, brave man”. As the series is reaching its end, the journey to adulthood is complete. Maturity has dawned not only for Harry but the once-young fans who have grown up alongside him.
Fittingly, Harry asks, “Is this all real? Or has this just been happening inside my head?” Dumbledore responds, “Of course, it’s happening inside your head Harry, but why on earth should that mean it is not real?” This speaks to the millions of fans who ventured into the mythical Hogwarts too. After a decade in a superbly magical world, fans grieve the loss of the characters, but more importantly, grieve the part of themselves now lost, too. Dumbledore says, “Do not pity the dead Harry. Pity the living…” After all, these battles are make-believe…but you, the reader, when the book shuts, must return to a non-magic world equally dark, but much more real. Just like Harry, fans with pleasant childhoods have grown up to find themselves in a place where life carries far more weight than their childhood ever did.
The archetypes of childhood and adolescence have given some fans a blueprint for maturing they could relate to and find comfort in. Hermione made it brave to be book smart; Neville (Matthew Lewis) showed the weak could become heroes; Molly Weasley (Julie Walters) brought sympathy to the overbearing mother; Snape brought love and complexity to our enemies. For fans dejected with modern life and the entering of adulthood, Hogwarts will always be a sanctuary awaiting them – a safe place where help will always be given to those who deserve it.