Chuck Palahniuk got it right. Yes, we’re the middle children of history. ‘No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our Great War’s a spiritual war… our Great Depression is our lives. We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won’t. And we’re slowly learning that fact. It’s a generation of constant recycle wearing Che Guevara t-shirts with a vague idea of what revolutionary means. We see history repeating itself and have no common threads; we’re kids growing up in a world with no reference points or sign posts to guide us. But if we have one milestone in history, one thing we’ll be remembered for is probably going to be that mania called Harry Potter.
Everyone has a Kennedy story; people remember exactly what they were doing when they heard of JFK’s assassination, or a Pink Floyd story – finding answers in walls. Well this lot of us – we all have a Harry Potter story. When you mention these two words, you’re going to be subjected to – the first book was the best… no the third… no the seventh, but the movie was horrible, they’ve ruined it, how could she kill Dumbledore – you get the gist. It’s become inescapable like Bush or Presley – your opinion does not matter but you will have one and these people will continue to thrive regardless of how much or little you think of them. So here goes my story, I bought the first book when there weren’t long lines or life-size posters; it was an innocent little book lying on a plain looking shelf at the bookstore. The second I saw at the library and said to myself, I’ve just got through one of these things – don’t think I can make it through another and saved my precious library card. By the time I read the third there was a bit of a buzz around the book and I could count five whole people who’d read it in my class.
So when Harry was 11, so was I, when he was 12, so was I, when he studied for his O.W.L.s, we struggled with our boards, when he was 16, so was I and when he reached his final year so did I – of course he dropped out of school – something I wish I could’ve done. The point I’m trying to make is that we’re the true children of Harry Potter, if you would have it that way. When they talk about those kids who grew up with him – it’s us they’re referring to. Sure, we’ve read all the books and seen the movies – but would I have continued to do so if he hadn’t become a global giant? Would I really have thought of him as much or had as many discussions about the plot and characters if everyone else wasn’t? Would I have stood in lines for the fifth, sixth and seventh books if my younger sibling wasn’t? The answer in all honesty, is probably not.
I’m one of the lucky few who got away just in time, the movie stars are not my visuals for the characters, when I’m reading I don’t picture them, I have my own Harry in my head. Sorry Daniel you might be a decent bloke (who has no hassles displaying his goods to the world – subtle reference to Equus here) but you’re just not Harry to me. And as for Hermione? Forget about it Emma. Hermione is the poster girl for the girls who aren’t on posters – who’re intelligent, independent, free thinking, kind and brave before being thin or pretty or popular or photogenic. I mean this in the nicest way – but Emma you’re simply too pretty to be Hermione.
It’s been a decade since the first book came out and you can’t look at the Potter phenomenon insularly. It has to be seen in context – a decade which saw two twin towers come down and a ubiquitous hotel heiress emerge defining new levels of frivolous. A decade where hard and soft news have gotten entangled, we’re more likely to see Jolie on CNN talking about fiscal deficits and Beckham on E news than say, oh I don’t know – ESPN. I’m not going to insult your intelligence or mine by calling Harry Potter escapism. It is not. Sure the world’s not a very pretty place but the books didn’t work because we had nothing to ‘hold onto’. Potter is the old fashioned good vs. evil, students tussling with professors, poor lonely orphan boy with the world’s burden to bear, it is all that but it’s not mega successful because of that. I can only say this, that it continued to do so well is because it’s original, it’s fun, and at the core – it’s good story telling.
To really understand Harry and the accompanying mania, we have to start with Rowling. It’s easy to assume we know her, a very ordinary English woman with talent and imagination lying latent, who just got stupendously lucky. Before we pass judgement based on her earlier life, what’s really worth studying is how she’s handled global fame after the books. To write under such pressure, with all eyes on her – when kids in Nairobi and Boston, Tokyo and Toronto, Rio do Janeiro and Oslo are waiting and reading, must’ve been nerve racking. But she steered Harry – not the franchise but the character steadily and solidified his position in our hearts without sinking down to appeal to the lowest common denominator.
Now Rowling is obviously a very rich woman but how much money does she really have? With Bloomsbury, Rowling has a share of profits which effectively means that for every book that’s sold a percent is going into her pocket. She’s worth approximately 1 billion dollars, while the Potter franchise is fifteen times that amount which includes box office collections, book DVD and soundtrack sales and the upcoming theme park. More money generated by the movies, merchandising and royalties from the books will continue to roll in for the rest of her life. Yet, Rowling has admitted more than once that she is uncomfortable with just how much money she has. She’s tried consistently, with her lifestyle and those of her children to live a simple life. Her money goes to two major charities. Rowling is not overbearing or flamboyant; she gives her money away quietly and with genuine affection and concern for the causes without photographers and news reporters. Her public appearances are restricted to literary events and book readings. We needn’t doubt Rowling’s credibility, we might continue to hear from her and she will continue to write – but we can be sure we won’t suddenly see her on billboards asking us to drink more coke. We like her for staying undercover and for being loyal to her characters. If we were outraged when Sirius died or when Dumbledore was betrayed, we marvelled in the next book how she fit the pieces and that escalates her genius – how she tantalisingly plays with our minds, how cleverly she weaves her story.
Talking of the final book, the cherry on the cake, the star on the Christmas tree – there’s two things she had to do without. One, there was no Hogwarts which is a monumental part of the narrative. Two, there was no Dumbledore which no one was yet willing to accept. In spite of or maybe because of this – the seventh book is, well, it’s a badass of a book. With each book Rowling raised the stakes, it got meaner, people actually died, there was no kidding around – there’s a real war out there and it’s free for all. What she managed to do with the finale was raise it up a notch – the complexity of the plot, the depth of the relationships, the battle scenes, and of course the loose ends that fit like a jigsaw. As mammoth as our expectations were and as discernible our scepticism – she placed this book just out of reach for the two of them. She ended it on her terms and in retrospect there really could have been no other way. The story so to speak is complete. I for one feel the closure not the vacuum – it was fun hanging with Harry and ok to go along with the hoopla but it’s over now and rightly so. Is this potter bashing? I’d say I’m an avid reader without being a fan. Sorry but I just don’t have it in me to beat this old friend of mine – not even now that he’s become too cool for me.