Monday, July 11, 2011

Life After Harry Potter?

July 15 marks the end of an era--a nerdy 14-year epoch I like to call the Harry Potter years. This Friday, the final Harry Potter movie will hit the screens and leave all of us Potterites with little lightning bolt-shaped holes in our hearts. There will be no more books; no more movies. All we’ll have left to fill the void are fan sites like and disturbing fan fiction bordering on underage porn. I’m scared to see life on the other side.

In 1997, when the first book came out in the U.S., I was a freshman in college, and about the same age as the fictional characters in the books, who were born in 1979 and 80. I had never been deeply entrenched in fantasy outside the standards--my exposure was mostly restricted to The Chronicles of Narnia, The Hobbit, and Susan Cooper’s Dark is Rising series. But with Harry Potter it was love at first read. There was something so clever, so charming about the tale, and it hit on my oldest and dearest fantasy--to be found by a stranger and told I was magical.

As a child, I was already firmly convinced I might be a wizard, part elf, or (best yet) a fairy. I waited and waited to have that Buffy the Vampire Slayer moment when a wizened mentor came to declare my mole a mark of great things to come. Unfortunately, no one came. And I really had few moles to speak of. Finally, I just stopped waiting and packed my dream away, like Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy--childhood relics better left to memory.

Harry Potter dredged up that fantasy, and apparently revived it for countless others as well. If Gen Xers and Ys are, as they say, a bunch of coddled narcissists, it makes sense we’d all be waiting for confirmation of our specialness. Raised to believe we were blindingly unique and talented, that we could do anything we put our minds to, there’s a crippling level of let down involved in growing up and pushing papers like meaningless drones. The Harry Potter series, which came out when many of us were in high school and college, carried us into the real world with a renewed secret wish that despite appearances, we might still be special. And really, for anyone with a B.A. or Masters, waiting tables or working night shifts at FedEx Kinko’s, there is a sense of magic masked by mediocrity. The temptation to yell, “But really, I swear I’m actually smart,” as you’re dressed down by yet another condescending customer, is an impulse of the mentally caged. Harry, a magical kid trapped in a Muggle world, is the poster-child for all the menial monkeys with a host of tricks up their sleeves.

When I first read Harry Potter, I thought about how much the books would resonate with kids, who, like Harry, are often powerless, friendless, and feel like outsiders. Despite what Hollywood would tell us of childhood and adolescence--that the world is divided into confident, mean popular kids and hopeless nerds, most kids fall somewhere in between. Nearly everyone, even those Queen bees and jocks, are pretty insecure, and everyone feels alone sometimes. The Harry Potter books tap into those emotions--the feelings of isolation, fear, friendship, first loves, and longing that are so heightened as we’re growing up.

As the years went on, though, and I grew older along with Harry, I came to see just how universal these themes are, long after the days of voices breaking and getting breasts. Harry Potter, who was mistreated, misunderstood, and forced to sleep in a cupboard under the stairs--could be any aspiring indie rocker or artist, struggling to get that first break, eating top ramen and couch surfing to survive. Harry’s dynamic with his friends and enemies, too, is only too reminiscent of the workplace, with its complex hierarchy of alliances, backstabbers, and brown-nosers. Harry’s dalliance with Cho Chang, and his fitful longing for Ginny Weasley, who he fears pursuing for a misguided “Bros before hos” mantra, might as well be swapped for any grownup relationship dynamic.

The truth is, middle school and high school, whether magical or not, is frighteningly similar to adulthood. Maybe that’s why so many of us can’t seem to divest ourselves of young adult fiction. Whether Harry Potter, Twilight, or The Hunger Games, human dynamics are just as real in adolescence as they are in later years, maybe more so.

What makes the Harry Potter series so powerful, however, is the fight between good and evil. Like much of the best fantasy, most notably The Lord of the Rings series, the characters’ emotional drama is interwoven with something greater than themselves--something that demands sacrifice and courage, and selflessness. Unlike the Twilight series, which are ultimately centered on the self, and on more personal struggles played out in a smaller, more intimate sense, Harry Potter is about the macro--the struggle for all humanity, for agape, for freedom and love on the grand scale. Without a fight of this magnitude, all the angst is just so much whining. With it, each step on the journey is fraught with meaning.

The Harry Potter books started out as cute, clever books for young adults and those of us, like myself, who can’t seem to leave the genre. By the end, though, they were something more. They were darker, deeper, more lush, more angry. They made me weep on several occasions. The movies on the whole have been poor facsimiles, but I’ve enjoyed them, nonetheless. Sure, I’ve been known to throw a wall-pounding fit post-midnight show for a couple of the films, particularly the Goblet of Fire, which got so many things so impossibly wrong. But the fact that I keep going to the movies is a testament to my ongoing hope they’ll finally capture the true magic of these books.

The last movie, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I, was the closest Warner Brothers has come to giving me that desire. Slow, dark, and as cerebral as the WB can allow itself to be, I came away wishing they’d turned many of the books into two movies. From the fifth book on, the movie’s lengths seemed impossibly restrictive. From what I’ve read about The Deathly Hallows Part II (on Mugglenet, I’ll admit it) I’m bracing myself for some level of disappointment, not all of which can be borne by Hollywood. I’ve read the books so many times I could run a trivia night at our local pub. I am, if it’s possible, a Harry Potter historian by all rights. No movie, unless I was allowed to direct it myself, could possibly live up to my expectations. Isn’t that what we all love about books, after all? That our fantastical minds concoct intricate mental images from each page, down to the ticking of clocks and smell of bacon? To read is to take ownership. Much like Bastian in The Never Ending Story, we ultimately craft our own visions through our imaginations.

I’m not expecting miracles and I won’t demand perfection from this, the final Harry Potter film. If anything, I’ll let it stand as a marker to the end of my young adulthood. When I started Harry Potter I was still a teenager, lying in my sleeping bag with a cup of hot chocolate on a Spring Break camping trip. Now I’m 32 years old and a mother to my own little magical beast. Watching her, seeing the sparkles in her eyes and her bawdy little laugh, I can’t help but imagine a day when a bearded gentleman in a long cape will come to her and tell her of her powers. Maybe I’ll have a second chance to see this fantasy finally come true. Just in case, I’m buying her a wand.

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