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Now and Then: Growing Up is Hard to Do: How Harry Potter Won a Generation of Fans

Thompson on Hollywood By Matthew Brennan | Thompson on Hollywood November 14, 2011 at 1:19PM

Now and Then: Growing Up is Hard to Do: How Harry Potter Won a Generation of Fans
Harry Potter
Harry Potter

With the release of “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2” on Blu-ray and DVD, the age of Potter — seven books, eight films, seven video games, a theme park, and every other auxiliary you can think of — is reaching its terminus.

There’s a moment near the end of “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix,” the series’ foreboding fifth installment, that has always seemed to me near-prophetic. In the darkest bowels of the Ministry of Magic — the aptly named Dept. of Mysteries —lured by Voldemort’s trap and their own essential goodness, Harry and the gang attempt to fend off a cadre of pale-faced villains. Ginny Weasly, Ron’s little sis and Harry’s sometime-love interest, winds up her arm and thrusts it forward with the crack of a powerful spell. And then a faint rumbling, growing louder, roaring like a tsunami: the room, for all intents and purposes, in crumbling around them.

Young Harry Potter
Young Harry Potter

The thrilling dangers of the Dept. of Mysteries are a metaphor for the series as a whole: it began somewhat faintly, gathered steam, built almost to a sense of the inevitable. All you could do was get out of the way.

But in catching up with the series again, the inevitability factor takes on a different character than I once thought it would. At first glance, the books and films seemed enlivened by the ever-darkening tone, moving inexorably from the minor family-film chills of “Sorcerer’s Stone” to the apocalyptic battle royale of “Deathly Hallows.” Director David Yates, who helmed the last four films, encouraged this reading by deepening the hues and shifting the heart of the action from the warm embrace of Hogwarts to the mean streets of London. And the best film of the eight remains Alfonso Cuaron’s “The Prisoner of Azkaban,” a time-traveling tour de force of adolescent anxiety.

But I’m convinced that, for all the magical hardware on offer in the Harry Potter films, the wands and spells, dragons and death wishes are action-movie cover for what’s really going on. Discounting Michael Apted’s astonishing but not-much-viewed “7 Up” series of documentaries, it’s rare — unheard of, really — for an audience to be able to track its own milestones in the faces on screen.

When the first book arrived on the scene in 1997, I was 10. When the last film was released on DVD last week, I was 24. Almost exactly contemporaneous with the students of Hogwarts, my generation sees in them, I think, something more than characters who’ve grown and changed over the years: we see ourselves. We see the nerves of starting at a new school, the glee of making fast friends, the vagaries of teen angst in every possible permutation, from the romantic to the rough-and-tumble. Maybe it’s not just a prophecy of magic I remember from that scene in the Ministry of Magic — it’s the enduring truth that the Harry Potter series gets at, whatever the flaws in its linguistic or cinematic ambition.

This article is related to: Reviews, Harry Potter

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Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.