Chris Columbus: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone | (2001) featured image

Harry Potter and the Death of Childhood

J.K. Rowling’s globally popular Harry Potter series, and the many films it has spawned, were planning the funeral for childhood all along.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone
Chris Columbus
Warner Bros.
29 March 2022 (UK) | 15 April 2022 (US)

The Uncertain Space
Between Fantasy and Reality

The other key explanation for Harry Potter’s sustained impact on fans and pop culture is its integration into our everyday lives. This has allowed fans to remain in the wizarding world long into adulthood through other immersive formats. As the series’ popularity catapulted in the late 1990s, the rise of the internet and technology provided even more ways to engage with the Harry Potter stories.

Since the books and films were released on a similar timeline (unlike, for example, The Lord of the Rings films), fans were able to experience both formats concurrently. Awaiting the next release, Potterheads wildly speculated and plotted their versions of future events in online communities. Harry Potter ‘fanfiction’ became a sensation, allowing fans to become active participants in the expansion of Rowling’s fantasy. Fans communicated worldwide, formed new plots and romances for their favorite characters, and gained praise from fellow fans for their contributions to Harry Potter, accruing ‘cultural capital’ for their knowledge. This reached such extremes that some critics and fans condemned the constant changing and reframing of the actual series, also known as ‘retcons’.

Indeed, the fan craze was so great that the hyper-fame of the cast caused a loss of innocence.

Daniel Radcliffe admitted the burden of ‘being Harry Potter’, eternally seen as a child actor, pushed him to alcoholism. Meanwhile, Emma Watson’s emergence into adulthood was met by an influx of sexualisation, as with so many women in Hollywood. Perhaps the biggest revelation of the ‘Return to Hogwarts’ reunion was that Emma and Rupert Grint almost quit the series due to the difficulty of adjusting to fame.

The crossing from fantasy into reality is also seen through actress Evanna Lynch, who was swept up in a magical ordeal to be cast as Luna Lovegood. A superfan of the series who wrote fanfiction and used sites such as Mugglenet, Evanna wrote letters of appreciation to Rowling about the series. The two became pen pals. Seeing an open audition for the role of Luna, and with no acting experience beyond school plays, she was cast over thousands of other girls. Suddenly, like magic, she was flown from the Harry Potter posters in her room into the world of Hogwarts, if you will. Alongside the cast she once read about obsessively, Evanna was becoming her favorite book character. It was a miracle that spoke to the ethos of the story: if you love something enough, anything is possible.

In the past decade, Harry Potter attractions at the Universal Studios theme parks have also brought fantasy into the real world. Fans can visit Hogwarts Castle, walk Diagon Alley and drink butterbeer at Hogsmeade – each detail exact to Rowling’s vision. These attractions have been so popular that they have revitalized the theme park industry. When Universal Studios Orlando opened a Potter World in 2014, total park attendance increased by 29.6% in the first four years. This provides a whole new kind of participation for fans, drawing physical and sensory connections with the series as if wizards themselves. Blurring the lines between fiction and reality as they walk through the spaces of their childhood, fans simply can’t seem to get enough.

The online era of Harry Potter fandom was cemented with the launch of Pottermore in 2012 (now Wizarding World), which Rowling said allows fans to “share, participate in, and rediscover” the Wizarding World through online user experiences. This included a Harry Potter encyclopedia, visual adaptions, interactive storytelling, and fan communities, allowing fans to boost their wizarding knowledge. Information and items could be ‘unlocked’ by finding hidden objects on the site, like a video game. In 2015, after announcing the Fantastic Beasts franchise, Rowling took Pottermore a step further. Users could be assigned to a house through a Sorting Hat quiz, do word searches and puzzles, join the official online fan club, read news, and shop for merchandise.

Most of all, it provided new content from Rowling herself. New additions, such as the backstories of Mrs. McGonagall and the wizarding school Durmstrang, gave fans valuable new insights. Other additions, such as how wizards relieved themselves before muggle plumbing, bordered on the absurd. The most well-known revision was during a 2007 Q&A when Rowling announced, “I always thought of Dumbledore as gay”, spurring a media frenzy. Giving new details about the characters and world meant the author was providing new ‘canon’, but through interviews and Twitter instead of books.

Changes may keep the Wizarding World up with the times, but they also risk vandalizing the original world that fans hold dear. A generation of adult Potterheads may find their relationships with the series changing through more critical eyes. While the theater play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (Jack Thorne, 2016) received praise, its screenplay was criticized for inconsistent plot points and claims it read more like fan-fiction than the real tales. In it, the original timeline of Harry Potter is twisted on its head. This includes going back in time to save the murdered Hogwarts student Cedric Diggory (from Goblet of Fire), who then joins the Death Eaters – Voldemort’s followers. It also includes Voldemort defeating Harry in the Battle of Hogwarts from The Deathly Hallows. The Hollywood Reporter called it “…less an original story than a remix of the existing Potter mythology.” Rowling was also only a co-author of the screenplay. With a new HBO-live action series in talks and the open-world game Hogwarts Legacy scheduled for release this year, fans may have to prepare for a Wizarding World without its original creator. 

As many fans now become the parents, teachers, world-setters, and authority figures, a new generation of Harry Potter fans embarks on their journeys through a different time. As the encyclopedia for the youth becomes a relic of yesterday, what many fans are left with, in every read-through or movie marathon, more than anything, is mourning for their own past.

The perpetual state of COVID-19 has loomed over our world like a dark mark for two years now, and home isolation too greatly resembled Harry’s room under the stairs at 4 Privet Drive. The need for a place to escape was greater than ever. For all that are discouraged by these new realities, Harry Potter will always be there, waiting, serving as a stark reminder of the wonder and magic still hidden out there in ordinary life.

Works Cited

Erikson, Erik H. Childhood and Society. W.W. Norton. 1963

Erikson, Erik H. Identity: Youth and Crisis. W.W. Norton. 1968.

Clark-Lempers, Diana, Lempers, Jacques and Ho, Camilla. “Early, middle, and late adolescents‘ perceptions of their relationships with significant others”. Journal of Adolescent Research. Vol. 6. No. 3. 1991.
Green, Lelia, and Guinery, Carmen. “Harry Potter and the Fan Fiction Phenomenon”. M/C Journal. Vol. 7. No. 5. 2004.

Rubin, Rebecca. “‘Harry Potter’ Turns 20: Director Chris Columbus on Working With Young Daniel Radcliffe and Why He Wants to Adapt ‘The Cursed Child’”. Variety. (undated).

Smith, David. “Dumbledore was gay, JK tells amazed fans”. The Guardian. 21 October 2007.