Books & Commentary & Movies 21 Jul 2011 08:40 am

They’re just wild about Harry

Here is this week’s column, as published in The Alliance Review on July 21, 2011.

Records for “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2″ are falling faster than a quidditch player without a broom.

The eighth and final movie adaptation of the seven-book series by J.K. Rowling raked in $168 million in the United States last weekend, enough to dethrone previous record-holder “The Dark Knight.” Worldwide, the boy wizard’s last bow has made $475 million so far, as pent-up demand for one final visit to his imaginary world brought out fans in droves.

It’s no wonder Harry Potter has been a license for Warner Bros. to print money. Scratch semi-literate people of a certain age (say, between 16 and 26) and just below the surface you’ll likely find that Rowling’s creation was a big part of their formative years, either through active participation, bemused sideline spectating or open scoffing. One way or another, they’ve dealt with Pottermania.

Yes, the books have older fans, but like the “Twilight” series, Harry’s adventures are the special province of youth. Adults don’t have the same affinity for the material as somebody who has aged along with the characters — and, in the case of the movies, with the actors who play them.

I don’t think it’s an accident that my Advanced Placement classes of the last few years have been filled with disproportionately large numbers of Potter fans. The books are a rite of passage: Every year or so, a new brick (those things are heavy — kids should receive gym credit just for lugging them around) was released into the world, and bleary-eyed kids would wait in line to get their copy and then spend half the night reading. Their goal was to finish the book the way most of us finish ice cream cones — in two or three compulsive gulps.

One mother I know even paid to ship the last novel to her son at a remote scouting camp so that he could read it at the same time as his peers. I find that level of devotion heartening, a sign that reading isn’t a casualty of our quick-fix, instant-gratification society, after all.

I can recognize the impact of the Potter phenomenon, even if I can’t share it. My own attempts at reading the books have been unsuccessful. I can’t get past the first one, and when people tell me to be patient, that it gets better in the third installment, I am baffled: This is pleasure reading, people. What’s the percentage in slogging through hundreds of pages in the hope that the situation will improve? When there’s no test at the end, readers should bail on books they don’t like, period.

Yet I recognize in Harry Potter similarities to my own communal reading experiences as a boy — the Edgar Rice Burroughs’ novels of Tarzan and John Carter of Mars, the early novels of Stephen King, the comic-book adventures of Daredevil and Wolverine, and Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings.” My friends and I devoured them openly during evenings, weekends and study halls, and surreptitiously during classes, passing along dog-eared copies and cogent, sometimes biting assessments — “Just like the last one,” “great action sequences, man,” “too long,” “too short” or “too (fill in your own adolescent critique here).”

What was different, with everything except the comics, was the sense of the adventures being written and published just slightly ahead of our reading. Burroughs and Tolkien, after all, were long dead when I started reading them. What was also missing was a way to instantaneously connect with fans around the world, to be part of a family of readers who worshipped at the altar of Middle Earth or Barsoom (Burroughs’ name for Mars). As teens, we knew such fans existed, but in those pre-Internet days, they were impossible to find.

Not so for Harry Potter. The books have straddled the analog-to-digital hijacking of our social lives, coming at the perfect time to benefit from chat rooms, websites and online fan-fiction treasure troves. Finding fellow Potter fans wasn’t — and isn’t — difficult.

Then there are the movies. I remember agitating over whether to see Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings,” not wanting to surrender my private Middle Earth to Hollywood. Eventually, I did, and as much as I enjoyed it, I’m still not sure it was the right decision: I find it hard to erase the silver screen versions of hobbits, elves and ringwraiths when re-reading the books.

This hasn’t been a problem for most Potter fans, who take the films in stride as inevitable extensions of the reading experience.

Everything about Harry was the perfect storm of synchronous marketing — the books were a few volumes ahead of the movies, the movies fueled interest in the books, and each new installment (print or celluloid) fueled the fire, brought new fans into the fold, and reinforced Pottermania. The genius of Rowling was writing fast enough to keep up with the kids, aging her characters as her readers aged, and knowing when and how to pull the plug.

I wonder how many fans who cut their literary teeth on the novels will go back later and reread. What will they find?

Undoubtedly, their experiences will be tinged with nostalgia, so they will always view the series through rose-colored glasses. Today, Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” is still my favorite book, hands down. Would it be if I were reading it for the first time at age 43? Probably not.

The real magic of Harry Potter and J.K. Rowling may be that they made reading hip and relevant again, at least to those lucky enough to experience it as it was happening. But will they have a lasting impact?

To those who absorbed the Potter culture through their skin, they already have.

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