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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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