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The Legacy of Harry Potter: Charting his global rise and what it all means

What is the legacy of Harry Potter?

by Michael Lanich

In a few days Harry Potter will officially come to a close, almost exactly 4 years after the final book Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was released.  The second half of its digital adaptation which is premiering on July 15, is gearing up to possibly be the biggest movie of the year.  When the lights finally go out on the series, people will move on with their lives.  There will be no more books or movies to look forward to, but that doesn’t mean there is nothing left to talk about.  In fact you could say that the discussion about Harry Potter has just begun.

While chatting with a few friends recently, the subject of what exactly Harry Potter’s legacy will be was brought up.  Long after the peak of its phenomenal decade plus run as the biggest thing in books and movies, will kids recognize words like quidditch, muggle, and even Harry Potter himself?  How relevant will Harry Potter be when our grandchildren are old enough to read the series?

But in order to hypothesize what its impact on pop culture will be in twenty years, first we must assess its legacy right now when its popularity and relevance are still undeniably high.  To understand, lets take a look back at the beginning of this incredible phenomenon and chart its global rise to power.

In 1999 it was Chicken Soup for  the Soul books, Tom Clancy thrillers and other adult fare which dominated the New York Times best seller lists; not children and teen-oriented books.   While the rise of Harry Potter began in 1996 with the publication of the first book Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, it wasn’t until 1999 that the full impact of the series was truly being felt in the United States.  At one point in late 1999, all three currently published Harry Potter books dominated the top three spots simultaneously, with sales of just one of the books beating out the combined sales of the rest of the top ten easily.

Such was the total domination of Harry Potter on the New York Times best seller list, that in 2000 a seperate children’s book list was created so that room could be made for other worthy books.  It was a controversial move often criticized for not giving future Harry Potter books the ability to gain official recognition as a New York Times best seller.  Nevertheless sales continued to skyrocket.

In 2001, the digital adaptation of the first book in the series, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone opened late in the year.  Buzz was higher than any movie in recent memory, including the new Stars Wars movie a couple of years earlier.  Fans young and old lined up around the block, with some even dressed for the occasion as witches and wizards.  The movie was a financial success and while there were some qualms about the movie’s length and the script adhering too closely to the book, most critics gave the movie favorable reviews.

In the 90’s the internet was in its infancy.  Most sites were pretty basic in both content and design, but by the early 21st century, it was apparent that it was maturing.  Fan sites and their respective fandoms have always been a major force behind movies, books and television and the internet was a way for these fans to connect.  Harry Potter was no different.  Much like the television show Lost (ABC) whose fan base debated and theorized the show endlessly online, Harry Potter’s fans did the same.  Each book brought on a fresh wave of theories as to what the plot to the series was, who was going to die, and whether it was Harry or Ron who would ultimately attain the affections of their friend, Hermione Granger.

Thus the overall explosion of Pottermania began to dominate the world.  Terms like global phenomenon were especially apt descriptions  by the time the fifth book, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix was released.  Also the fourth movie was released that year to great critical acclaim and nearly a billion dollars in box office revenue.

Overall, each film and book has been well received critically, which has only enhanced Harry Potter’s sterling reputation.  The books are not vapid, and the movies while filled with special effects, have real substance and merit.  Though there are things missing from the films that some fans may gripe about, overall they are lovingly crafted in the spirit of their respective word-filled tomes.

While the films may be very good, the books of course are better.  They are the standard by which every child or teen-oriented book is viewed.  Passed on by dozens of publishers, who all have lost billions of dollars in doing so, Harry Potter radically changed the landscape in the publishing industry.  Before Harry Potter, children and teen books were considered a worthy area to publish, but it wasn’t a very lucrative one.  After Harry’s rise to dominance over the entire publishing world, suddenly every firm began accepting similar book proposals in the hopes that another diamond in the rough could be found.  It’s been harder than previously thought.  There have been some promising books, but none that have captured the hearts and minds of millions.

But is there anything that can really compare to the trifecta of J.K. Rowlings amazing imagination, vivid characters, and engrossing plot structure?  Furthermore, what exactly has caused the world to fall in love and admire her series so much?

First off, in my opinion the greatest thing J.K. Rowling has ever done in creating Harry Potter’s world, is taking those cliched images of wizards and witches we all have seen growing up, and using them as the base of her mythology.  For instance,  as children we see wizards clad in robes while casting spells with wands.  Witches wear black robes with pointy hats, ride broomsticks and make potions in cauldrons.  They cut up herbs, use eye balls and other unsavory items to make their brew.  These are things most of us seem to know by ages 10 or 11, which is probably when most kids began reading the first book. This bedrock of familiarity in my opinion has always been the key to Harry Potter’s success.  Our ability to instantly understand part of Harry’s world on some level, makes the transition easier than in other fantasy novels.  This particular aspect seems to have been ignored by most people I talk to.  It’s a subtle move on her part and a clever one as well.

Magic of course plays a big role in the books.  At times cute and fantastical, at others dark and foreboding, this area of her world opens the imagination of readers.  There are hundreds of examples to choose from, but for my money it would be a three-way-tie between Harry blowing up his Aunt Marge, Harry creating his patronus to ward off a multitude of dementors, and Dumbledore’s battle with Lord Voldemort.

But magic in terms of spells are only a part of this world.  Talking hats and paintings, flying broomsticks, and magical creatures like unicorns, centaurs, Basilisks (giant snakes), mermaids, Trolls, and Hippogryphs are just a few of the many amazing things that populate Rowling’s work.  While she borrows liberally from mythology, she uses it in the most charming and sometimes supremely clever ways in her books.

Her characters are the gateway to this wonderful world.  Even to those who have never watched a movie or read a book, Harry, Ron, Hermione, Dumbledore and Voldemort are all names they will recognise.  Written with depth, wit, and at times real words of wisdom, her characters, big and small are all vivid creations that come off of the page better than most.

The series opens with the double murder of Harry’s parents which is why the theme of death hangs over the series like a funeral. J.K. Rowling used the death of her mother and its effect on her as the catalyst for the series; something that was originally not planned early on.  Other important themes threaded throughout the series include free choice, prejudice, the corruption of power, and the apathy of those in power.

Dumbledore served as Harry’s benevolent and wise mentor.  Along with his quirks and power was his penchant for delivering some real words of wisdom.  Perhaps the most important line in the series was uttered in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by Dumbledore in which he said “Dark and difficult times lie ahead. Soon we must all face the choice between what is right and what is easy”.

That J.K. Rowling is an intelligent writer who knows the subtle and yet gaping canyon between these two choices is admirable.  That she could find a way to make it as integral a part of the series as anything else is something most authors could not have done nearly as well.  Part of her legacy and that of Harry Potter’s is in the attempt to get across some big ideas that are smart, challenging and not commonly seen in books of this type.

It cannot be overstated just how much of a cultural touchstone Harry Potter has truly become.  Not to simply regurgitate facts here, but over 450 million copies of the novels (second only to the bible) which have been translated into 67 different languages, have made their way around the world.  One estimate has it that anywhere between 750 million to 1 billion people have read the novels.  That at least roughly one-tenth of the world’s population has read Harry Potter is something that is almost too amazing to comprehend.

Quidditch has been a fan favorite since the first novel.  These days however Quidditch is being played all across the United States as well as some other countries.  There are currently hundreds of teams at college campuses across the country.  Such is the popularity among both fans of the novels and those who don’t read them, that there has been some legitimate talk of it possibly becoming an actual collegiate sport.

Yes, I said that . . . an actual sport governed by the NCAA that was created in the mind of an author of these books.  It’s such an unbelievable achievement that is nearly beyond words.  High school teams are also lobbying for the game to be adopted as a sport played across the country in high schools.  At first this notion was laughed at, but each year brings hundreds of new teams wanting to play.  There is even a Quidditch World Cup being played in New York City each year.

As the internet, video games, and television have  grown and spread over the  years, it was noted that children were reading less.  Harry Potter helped to change that by getting kids of all ages who might not normally read books to pick up the first book and give it a try.  J.K. Rowling found a way to tap into a combination of magic, a Dickensian hero, and an imaginative world that kept  you enthralled from start to finish.

Now these millions upon millions of children, teens and adults are moving on to different books.  Harry Potter for many will be the books that served as the series that made them bookworms.  This suddenly ravenous appetite for more children and young adult books has made reading relevant again.  When your young child would rather read his way through an 800 page novel than spend that time on the internet, and then go outside and get some exercise playing Quidditch.  I don’t think you cannot applaud any book series responsible for that enough.

Maybe that is the greatest aspect to the legacy of Harry Potter.  It’s a legacy any author would trade all of their earnings for at the end of the day.

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Does television beat film as the preferred medium for actors now?

Television used to be the minor league.  There was a time when it was the place for actors to attempt to make a living because they couldn’t make it in Hollywood as a movie actor.  History in fact is littered with thousands if not millions of actors who found television as the only haven left for them.  From the 60’s, well into the 80’s, television was considered a wasteland.  Sure, there were a few exceptions like The Twilight Zone, Hill Steet Blues and L.A. Law, but overall it was a low point creatively for the medium.  My how times have changed.

What was once a death sentence has now quickly becoming the place A-list actors and Oscar winners/nominees are heading to find stories they want to tell.  In just the last couple of years we have had **Holly Hunter(Saving Grace), *Laura Linney(The Big C) and *William H. Macy(Shameless) headline tv shows, not because they couldn’t find work but because they wanted to tell stories and inhabit characters whose arc lasts longer than 2 hours.

While creatively tv offers things that cannot be found anywhere else, the pay is also on par with the highest paid actors in Hollywood.  Most big name Hollywood actors command somewhere in the 1-1.5 million per episode range.  Taken over the course of the standard 24 episode count, that’s somewhere between 20-32 million dollars.  Not a bad pay day.

Couple the rise in tv salaries with the decrease in salaries from even the biggest names in Hollywood, and it’s easy to see how the combination of creative and financial opportunities  are luring away big movie talent. There was  a time when actors such as Tom Cruise, Will Smith and Brad Pitt could easily command at least 20 million per movie, but these days studios are either hesitant or simply unwilling to pay that kind of salary for just one person.

While the quality of movies and television vary from year to year, it’s not unreasonable to assess that television is in the midst of a golden era creatively. While we are now reaching the apex of this golden era, it all started with Twin Peaks in 1991.  David Lynch’s landmark series about the death of Laura Palmer, residents dirty secrets and the supernatural happenings in a small town, it is the show that really told networks and viewers that there was room for heady and intelligent fare on tv that leaned more towards sci-fi and fantasy.

Next came The X-files a couple of years later.  Prompted no doubt by the success or Twin Peaks,  the Fox Network was desperate and took a chance on the show which would be their signature hit for nearly a decade.  What at first was a dabble into the realms of sci-fi and government conspiracies became a show about the belief in something unseen.  Like Twin Peaks, it was darker and took chances that other shows would never have done.

As the 90’s progressed, there was an undeniable shift on television as shows started to become grittier.  Storylines and dialogue became less candy coated.  Shows like NYPD Blue showed nudity and My-So-Called-Life in my opinion, still stands as the most realistic portrayal of teenage life ever witnessed on a television.  Internal monologues by the main character, frank talk about sex and an unflinching picture of the hardships of teen life.  It also had the first openly gay character on the show.  The legacy of that show can be seen even today in some of the better teen-oriented shows of the past decade.

The first big show to really announce to the world that television was changing though was The Sopranos.  One of the greatest strengths of the show was it’s depiction of a wide array of characters who all were highly flawed.  Every single character operated in moral shades of grey.  Perhaps these shades of grey and the shows willingness to get it’s hands dirty and bloody by never holding back, is what truly opened the floodgates.  HBO would begin to build it’s brand from The Sopranos and it has never looked back.

Just in the past ten years we have had a glut of unbelievable shows that stand as some of the best ever.  Lost, Made Men, Arrested Development, Dexter, The Wire, Deadwood, Battlestar Galactica, The West Wing, Sons of Anarchy, Friday Night Lights, Glee, Scrubs and Breaking Bad are all examples of shows that have set the bar higher in particular ways.  All of the mentioned programs are varying degrees of excellence and all have made television better.

One of the biggest, yet most unnoticed and subtle shifts in the entertainment industry is it’s targeting of certain demographics.  While it still plays a role in the film industry, there has been an obvious attempt to cater to a wider range of people by becoming increasingly conservative and broad while television has gone the opposite direction.  Television now has the ability to challenge you with controversial shows(Dexter, Weeds, etc.) and showcase storylines and characters that are at times more original than anything we have seen in the movie theatres in some time.

Television is also becoming more segmented and niche-oriented.  Shows are now created to appeal to specific types of people.  HBO builds it’s audience by finding programming that never holds back on violence, nudity and storylines that could never be on Networks like ABC, Fox, NBC etc.

This all leads back to the actors of course.  Television now has some of the best writers and directors in the entertainment industry and now it’s beginning to possess some of the best acting talent that film has to offer.  Ultimately actors want to create indelible stories and characters that are remembered.  The ability to flesh out and grow someone for 100+ episodes of a show is something that film cannot compete with.  Sure, for just  a two hour period, Cinema can still take you places impossible by even tv’s standards but even that gap is starting to close.

This shift in momentum may one day change.  Film may once again gain complete domination but to be honest, I highly doubt it.  I think the amazing depth, writing, characters and stories that tv is starting to show us is just the beginning.  We are just scratching the surface of what is possible in this medium.

One day quite soon you might just be seeing  Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt and Will Smith headlining a show instead of a movie.  It might sound ridiculous but trust me, it’s much less ridiculous and more possible than you might think.

** denotes Oscar winner

* denotes Oscar nominee

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Pondering Dexter: Looking ahead at season 6 and beyond

When I heard about Dexter shortly before it’s premiere around 5 years ago, I was simply curious about the idea of a Miami Metro blood spatter analyst moonlighting as a serial killer.  What was initially a curiosity soon became a full blown love affair.  Since the premiere I have never missed an episode, and while the show hasn’t been fully perfect in it’s five seasons, even at it’s worst it’s still been very good.

I still stand by season five as a really good season.  There were some problems certainly, but I for one loved Lumen Pierce(Julia Stiles) and wished she would have stayed.  But before I continue on this tangent, I better get to the point of this article which is to talk about what we should be looking forward to this season and maybe the season(s) afterward.  So without further ado, here it is:

1.  Deb learns about Dexter and his bloody history:  In many ways, Debra finding this out is the only big thing the show has left to cover.  What will she do?  Will she turn him in?  Shoot her own brother for admitting to dozens of murders?  Protect him like Harry did?

I think Deb growing up and stepping out of the shadow of her father has been almost as fascinating to watch as anything else on the show these last five years.  If the writers are smart though, they won’t telegraph the reveal.  Instead of having it happen in the last episode of the season, wouldn’t it be nice for it to just . . . happen in the middle and watch as the chaos unfolds.  It would be the best decision creatively since Rita was killed.  A gutsy move for sure.

2.  A big baddie developed over the course of two seasons:  Word from the producers of Dexter is that there will be no big baddie this season which is fine.  In seasons past we have had big baddies dominate the storyline, but they are around of course for one go and that’s it.

Wouldn’t it be nice if for once, there was someone who might challenge Dexter for more than twelve episodes?  This person could be a recent cast member who for most of the first season, might not seem like anything more or less than a normal person.  Even Dexter might not get that feeling that this person is more than just a neighbor or fellow employee.

That this person could be revealed to be one bad person at the end of the season would be a shock, plus set up the next season’s conflict and arc between that person and Dexter.  It would be neat to have a big baddie hiding in plain site, just like Dexter hides in plain site at work.  It would be a great move.

3.  New cast members proving to be worth their screen time(Colin Hanks, Mos Def, Aimee Garcia)

Hanks, Def and Garcia are probably the three most surprising choices for guest starring roles in the shows history.  These three may not be unknowns, but they are certainly not a Lithgow, Stiles or even a Jimmy Smits.

In some ways it reminds me of season two.  No big baddie really, just a bunch of unknown actors.  It’s not a bad thing really, just odd because by now the show is considered one of the ten best shows on tv.

Hopefully these three make the most of their roles and the writers use them to the best of their strengths and abilities.  Hanks appears to be the best actor among them so far.  As I mentioned above, maybe Hanks character could seem innocent and turn out to be a much darker and more dangerous adversary by seasons end.

4.  New cast members that stay for longer than one season:  One of the few gripes I have about Dexter, is that most guest stars never stay beyond the dozen episodes or less they are signed on for.

In some ways it gets harder each season to really care for any of them because you know that there is a good chance that they will be dead by seasons end.  Joey Quinn has stayed on since he started, but most everyone else has died.  It would be nice for someone to not die for a change and stick around.

5.  La Guerta dies!:  Lauren Vélez has done a fine job since the pilot, but her character has been treading water for some time now.  She simply has less and less to do each season and has basically resorted to becoming the fifth wheel in a precint that should be under her control.

I was going to say that either she or Batista die, but I like Batista.  If the writers wanted to, they could easily find some better storylines for him.  It’s a waste to have such a good actor doing almost nothing.  Don’t get me started on the marriage and troubles from said marriage.  It’s ridiculous the lengths the writers have gone to in giving these characters matieral(that sucks)

6.  Storyline inconsistencies from season five get resolved:  Remember the Santa Muerta storyline last season?  Deb’s shooting, or how about officer Cira Manzon?

All three of these events or people simply fell by the wayside immediately at some point.  The Santa Muerta killings and subsequent shooting by Deb disappeared, and Cira Manzon took Debs desk only to disappear completely from about midway through the season and we havent’ see her since.

If there was a major gripe last season, it was storylines being swept under the rug for no reason.  Better pacing and resolution would be nice for this coming season.

7.  Who is Harrison’s nanny:  From what I have heard, Harrison’s Irish nanny Sonya is a much more important character than we were led to believe last season.  Indeed many message boards were rife with speculation as to who she was and what her motives.

Personally, I’m thinking either she’s possibly someone either connected to Dexter in some way, or possibly even some undercover law enforement.  There something unsettling about her.

8.  Lumen Anne Pierce returns:  I realize that this may be wishful thinking, but for once, a guest star didn’t die.  Lumen left after Jordan Chase was killed.  She washed her hands of the blood and decided to leave both Miami and Dexter.

The problem is that I bought her as Dexter’s soul mate far more than Rita.  Dexter could share his life and his darkness with her and she wasn’t afraid of it.  Regardless of how much Rita loved Dexter and vice versa, she could never fully be a part of his life.

I’m hoping that Julia Stiles will come back and complete her arc on the show.  I just feel that if she was never to come back, they would have had her killed.

9.  Season 6’s writing and storyline are watertight:  As mentioned above, season five suffered from a few problems, chief among them were some bad inconsistencies and plot holes, as well as occasionally bad writing.

I’m hoping that this season the writers do a better job of resolving plot holes and keeping the story and writing to the highest level possible.  Fans are not stupid.  We are your biggest fans, but also your biggest critics.  Simply, do a better job!

10.  Dexter dies:  Since around midway of the second season, I have decided that Dexter will not live to be and old man sitting on a rocking chair sipping lemonade, nor will he be an old man killing bad people either.

My theory is that Dexter will continue to evolve, but the tragedy will be that around the time he is able to stop killing or at least has decided to stop and live a normal(ish) life, will be the time when either the police will finally catch up to him, or another serial killer will finally get the better of him.   Maybe some arch nemesis.

Personally, I think Deb will end up killing him.  No, not because she hates her brother, no I think maybe Dexter will either be mortally wounded somehow, or will be arrested and therefore he will be ruining Astor and Cody’s life by being paraded around as the greatest serial killer ever.  Deb kills her brother to save his reputation based on his wishes.

Well there you have it.  Some things I think are feasible, and maybe some are just hopeful wishing.  Give me a heads up about my thoughts and post your own.

Cheers,

Mike

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