The HARRY POTTER generation

November 21, 2010

I’m 20 years old and two and a half years through college, and somehow I remain captivated by the adventures of a fictional boy wizard. There I was, with some of you, catching “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1” on Thursday night — ahem, Friday morning.

Don’t get me wrong: As films, the quality has been up and down — I’m a film person, and my relationship with “Harry Potter” over the last decade has been love-hate — but there’s no mistaking the lasting power of J.K. Rowling’s saga and how vital the film series’s careful execution has been to the perpetual obsession that hits our generation every year and a half.

We all grew up reading the books; if you didn’t grow up reading them, then you grew up with people who grew up reading them. First published in June 1997 in the U.K. and about a year later in the U.S., the “Harry Potter” series had a good three to four years before its inevitable cinematic adaptation. After that, those who had been content to live on in blissful ignorance of the escalating profile of The Boy Who Lived suddenly didn’t stand a chance.

Everybody — Harry, Ron, Hermione, Dumbledore, Hagrid, Malfoy, even Dobby — they all got faces. Concrete, bankable faces you could put on a poster.

Nine years ago, Warner Bros. released “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” with a huge production budget and even more colossal box office gross. From the very beginning it was clear, if perhaps too clear, that the studio and major players were dedicated to faithfully adapting the novel to the screen.

That dedication, even though the quality of adaptation has been muddled by complaints from both book-obsessed fans and unfamiliar filmgoers, has never faded from what is now the biggest film series of all time.

No “Harry Potter” film has reached — nor will the yet-to-be-released “Deathly Hallows: Part 2” ever live up to — the fantasy adaptation standard set by “Lord of the Rings” earlier this decade. But “Harry Potter” has faced an entirely unique challenge and fitfully lived up to its reputation as the most universal story of the millennial generation.

When each “HP” film promises to show viewers their favorite scenes from the book while keeping the humor and youth of the text alive, fans flock to the theater: somewhat-underwhelming sequel after somewhat-underwhelming sequel, the saga is not only tolerated, but celebrated by diehard fans for at least mostly sticking to the script.

I have never personally been a huge fan of the films, and I’m not especially obsessed with the story as a whole. My interest in the films has always been in the films themselves and not the adaptation therein — I cringe to hear the minor complaints over changes and gaps in the storyline. But despite any frustration different sets of viewers have found in the films, there’s no denying that the entire franchise has been an utter success beyond most realistic viewers’ hopes and expectations.

Part of that success is due to a consistent creative evolution as the films have progressed — from the bright, young and immature direction of the first two films by Chris Columbus to the more advanced, visually daring presentation of the last three by David Yates. The scripts, save for the fifth installment, have been written by screenwriter Steve Kloves with a consistent personality, and have progressed from far-too-juvenile to sufficiently PG-13. Like the characters, the creative efforts have become more mature with each film to suit the series’s aging audience.

All the while, the most important keys in all of this — the faces onscreen — have remained and grown with us. Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson are all household names in our generation, and our connection with them will last beyond the “HP” films. They’ve not only aged in front of our eyes, but matured in talent and ability to appropriately inhabit their roles. They have been the most tangible sign of progression and the most solid connection to its prime viewer base.

And that brings me to us.

College-aged viewers — the ones old enough to remember every moment of the last 12 years of “Harry Potter” but young enough to relate to the boy-wizard’s plight — are the lifeblood of the series, no matter how many times older generations chastise us for obsessing over “a kids’ book.”

Some (older) people really just don’t get it. I’m not obsessed, but I fully understand that “Harry Potter” is our story — we grew up with it, and we’re seeing it reach a fittingly epic end with its seventh and eighth films.

That’s why, if you were lucky enough to catch “Deathly Hallows” at midnight, you likely saw a lot of 20-year-olds like me. The books aren’t children’s books, just as the films aren’t children’s films — at least not anymore. What started with children has followed those children into adulthood and itself grown along the way.

It’s hard to know how we’ll see “Harry Potter” when the films are complete. The range of fandom, from casual viewer to Potterhead, will always have variable opinions of how well the screen fits the story. We imagined Hogwarts before Warner Bros. constructed it, and saw Harry, Ron and Hermione in our minds before Daniel, Rupert and Emma came along. While some people find that the films conflict with their imagination, others revel in the contrast and enjoy the connection the story weaves through its fans.

Beyond any divisions, the saga is ours. “Harry Potter” will always be ingrained in our generation — and even more important, our generation will forever be a fundamental part of “Harry Potter.”

 

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