Geek Speak

Harry Potter Will Always Have a Place on the Shelves...and in Our Hearts

Harry Potter has been gone long enough for a bit of reflection. The final book hit shelves eight years ago, almost to the day. The final film, four years ago. Since then, the world has been largely free of new Harry Potter material, apart from the reams of fan fiction and whatever toys and merchandise have trickled out. That won’t last for long, though — the first of what will likely be many spinoffs is casting now, due to be in theaters in time for the 2016 holiday season. And even now, here in Denver, you can catch our local symphony orchestra playing music from the Harry Potter films on Saturday. Still, this is as long a period of refraction as we’re likely to get to consider the impact and importance of The Boy Who Lived.

I’m way too old to have discovered Harry Potter as part of its target audience, but I had the next best thing, at nearly the perfect time. My oldest daughter was born in 1993, and she found the series around the time the fourth book came out. She was a voracious reader, and she fell in love with the series immediately. I picked it up both to see what had her so enchanted and because I still, even to this day, have a soft spot for kid-lit fantasy. I enjoyed it, both for the fact that it gave us something to talk about and on its own merits. We caught up on what was out within a month or two, and then spent the next seven years eagerly awaiting the next book.

I don’t think the books affected me the same way they did her — how could they? — but seeing her reaction was quite wonderful. In many ways, I got to watch her grow with the books, as they tackled ever more adult themes and got darker and darker, and it was always great to discuss them with her and discover how insightful she could be.

The movies were a far more mixed bag. In all honesty, I haven’t seen any but the second all the way through. The first two weren't bad so much as completely unnecessary, lacking any imagination or spark, serving as bare, functional translations of the books to screen. The scenes and bits I saw from the later ones did nothing to change my mind. I think I was also hostile to the films because they worked against one of the best things about the books: their ability to convince kids who hated reading to buckle down and work their way through quite large and relatively complex stories of their own volition. Some combination of the quality of the books themselves and the immense peer pressure of nearly every single kid in school reading them made them almost irresistible to even the most reluctant readers — that’s some real fucking magic, right there.

While I never added the books to my own all time kid-lit fantasy favorites — Roald Dahl, Daniel Pinkwater, John Bellairs and CS Lewis filled those roles for me — I also never agreed with some of the harsher criticisms of them. JK Rowling might like adverbs a bit too much, and her prose was rarely ever more than solid and functional, but she was a hell of a storyteller. Harry Potter is an epic on scale with any other kid’s fantasy series, up to and including my own childhood favorite, the Narnia series. And considering Narnia is a thinly veiled retelling of the Bible, that’s pretty goddamn epic.

The other criticisms fall flat with me, too. Unoriginal and derivative? Sure, but so is Star Wars. And remember what I said about Narnia ripping off the Bible? Originality is highly overrated; it’s all in the execution. Yes, the books are a little wordy, but kids read them, and that’s what really counts. The message they got, if they were paying attention, was a good one: Believe in yourself, do what’s right even if people around you won’t, make good friends and trust them. I can stand behind all of that. My only substantial personal criticism of the series is that the game of Quidditch makes no goddamn sense at all — it’s really two games, played in parallel, and only one of them matters in the slightest (the snitch one). But I can live with that, too, and by live with that I mean I just skip all the Quidditch parts, of which there are far too many.

In the end, I think Harry Potter will stand the test of time. Not just because they will keep making movies, toys, TV series and god knows what else until capitalism eats itself, but because the books themselves — those seven original entries, regardless of how many more eventually emerge — are well-written, exciting and fun adventures in a beautifully realized imaginary world. And because a billion copies of them exist, too. (Seriously, you can assemble a whole set with one or two visits to any thrift store.) Whether the new spinoff film sucks or not, whether the theme park shuts down, or whatever else happens, as long as kids like magic and stories about standing up for themselves against impossible odds, Harry Potter will always have a place on the shelves, and in our hearts.

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