Note: This originally ran on June 26, 2017.
Harry Potter And The Philosopher’s Stone, the first book of the seven-part series, came out 20 years ago today. It would take a few years after its quiet release to build up its fandom, eventually gaining so much popularity that midnight release parties were held at bookstores, one of the greatest gifts pop culture gave a group of young, bookish fans. Today The A.V. Club reflects on what Harry Potter means to us.
I first read Harry Potter And The Sorcerer’s Stone in fifth grade, two years after it came out. The delay meant that I grew up in tandem with Harry, roughly matching ages as I grew and subsequent books were released. Maybe that’s why I have such strong affection for the series: What other set of books did I literally grow up with? I’d classify the first three in the series as children’s books, with the turning point at the end of book four tipping the series from child to young adult, with tinges of horror. J.K. Rowling has said that the main theme of the books is death, and as the books grew darker I grew older, enough to appreciate the content for treating its readers like people who grew up—real people, in other words. Unlike series like The Baby-Sitters Club (where the cast is perpetually frozen in time) or The Chronicles Of Narnia (where growing up is actually bad) Rowling aged up her main characters and treated her readers the same way. I reread the series once a year or more, and I love seeing Rowling’s writing go from great and charming in book one to masterful by book seven. I think some of my fierce love for the series is helped by the fact that I’m not into the rest of the world’s material: I couldn’t care less about the films, didn’t care for The Cursed Child, and stopped going on Pottermore when it started feeling like a spin-off-verse instead of supplemental to the original trilogy. It’s easier to love those seven books when they’re self contained in their own magical little world. As an adult, the series itself still resonates.
I started reading the Harry Potter books for the first time in fourth grade and fell in love with with them. I would stay up way past my bedtime (sorry mom and dad) promising myself “just one more chapter” and end up reading 40 to 50 more pages. Captivated by the the world of witchcraft and wizardry, I eagerly awaited my Hogwarts letter on my 11th birthday and dreamed of becoming friends with Hermione Granger. Sadly, neither of these things came true. But Harry Potter and the characters J.K. Rowling created did give me a sense of belonging and friendship. Hermione made it okay for young girls to be the smartest in the room, speak out in class, and unapologetically stand up for themselves. Harry showed me what it meant to be courageous and stick up for others, even when it’s hard. And Ron displayed a fierce loyalty and friendship that I still admire. But what I’m most thankful for, no matter how cheesy it sounds, is that Harry Potter made reading cool, and my love of storytelling continues today in part because of this series.
My initial encounter with Harry Potter is not unlike many of fans of the series. I was 10 when I read the first book and I never looked back. As a child and adolescent, I was most fascinated by the mythos and the world the characters inhabited—like many fans, I unapologetically waited for my letter from Hogwarts, practiced the incantations in my parents’ backyard, and obsessed over the unanswered questions of Potter universe (seriously, why didn’t Dumbledore just teach Defense Against The Dark Arts himself?). As I entered adulthood and the number of times I’ve re-read the books enter unhealthy levels, I’ve come to appreciate them for the characters they present. J.K. Rowling’s genius extends past just world-building, into creating amazing characters who, for me, stand the test of time. And for that, I’m grateful.
I lived in England the year I was 20, during which time my parents moved from Dallas to Indianapolis. So when I came “home” for Christmas break the following year, my senior year of college, I knew nobody and didn’t have any ties—but my mom had bought me the first three Harry Potter books, knowing only that I loved kids’ fantasy books and that they were pretty popular. I began reading The Sorcerer’s Stone the evening of December 31, 1999. When my dad, who worked in tech at the time, came home at 3 a.m. after working Y2K, I was nearly done with The Chamber Of Secrets. I went to bed for a few hours, got up later that day, and spent New Year’s Day reading Prisoner Of Azkaban. Even though I was (barely) an adult when I first read them, they gave me the kind of friendship and comfort that you get from some books when you’re lonely as a kid. They brought back recent memories of living in England, though sadly my living quarters there were a little more cupboard-under-the-stairs than magic castle. Even the first three books, written for a younger audience than the rest of the series, built a fully absorbing world that anchored a brief period of limbo in my life.
As someone who’s dealt with mild anxiety issues for most of his adult life, I’ve gotten pretty good at finding tricks that distract my worried brain so I can actually get some sleep. Sometimes that means doing mental math, sometimes it’s weird puzzles, and sometimes I like to play around in fictional universes. Which is a roundabout way of saying that I write Harry Potter fan-fiction in my head. Bad shit, too: self-inserts, bogus time travel plots, every variety of Mary, Marty, or Gary Stu. I would never in a million years commit any of it to paper (although if anybody wants a story idea where the prime minister of England boobytraps his office to capture the minister of magic on one of his unannounced visits, hit me up), but J.K. Rowling’s world is so big and weird, filled with so many contradictions and surprisingly nuanced characters, that it’s become a peaceful place for my mind to play when it’s trying to unload the stresses of the day. (Also, it means I can remove Harry himself—the permanent wet blanket hanging over the Potter universe—in favor of some smarter, less sports-obsessed boy wizard who just happens to resemble my younger self. It’s win-win!)
I think I was the perfect age for Harry Potter when it came out. My mom picked up the The Sorcerer’s Stone for me almost as soon as it had hit America, having heard the good buzz, and I read it when I was a couple of years younger than the protagonists. (That’s a great age at which to read Harry Potter because it allows for the hope that one day your Hogwarts letter might arrive too.) Of course around the time Harry got angsty so did I—in my own strange way—and I decided to let an obsession with Lord Of The Rings surmount my enjoyment of J.K. Rowling’s wizarding world. I decided that LOTR was for grown-ups and Potter was juvenile and derivative, and turned up my nose at my peers. In retrospect I fully admit that this was perhaps the most childish strategy. Eventually, I got over myself and gave myself permission to be enchanted again. There’s a lot I truly do love about Harry Potter, including the fact that Hermione was a role model for unapologetically ambitious frizzy-haired girls everywhere. However, I’ll always remember that time I acted like a dick about it.
Whereas beloved books, movies, and other pop culture ephemera can be fun diversions adding splashes of color to everyday life, Harry Potter has always been more, a behemoth presence informing my life, even now. For years, family parties saw two dozen cousins all exhaustively discussing whether Michael Gambon was a worthy Dumbledore, or who “R.A.B.” might turn out to be in book seven. Summers were spent in anticipation of the film and book releases, and I spent more than one with a homemade “NO SPOILERS” sign around my neck at graduation parties. There was always an urgency to stay tapped into Harry’s story and to see him through his predestined slog, because it was ours, too. On the other side of it, after all, we had grown up across many more years than he had. And what I found in that world was more familial than fandom.
For someone who has read most of the Harry Potter books multiple times and definitely seen all of the movies more than once, I have weirdly conflicted feelings about the series today. I still love everything up to the fifth book, and love that one most of all, but it felt like the last time Rowling was truly having fun with her characters, rather than tidying up plot strands and confirming lore. The only legitimately good movie, in my opinion, is the third one, and thereafter they felt increasingly soulless to me, the stars’ best efforts be damned. The mythology’s weirdly infantilizing co-option by the left, particularly following Trump’s election, has made it feel extraordinarily uncool to still ride for the series in many circles. And yet: I think the stories are too damn good, the characters too rich, to be stymied by these memes or even the cottage industry of sequels and prequels and amusement parks that have spawned around them, leaching them of their primal power. In another ten years, we’ll still be reading the books, and, at their phoenix-like core, they’ll still be damn good stories. That’s evergreen.
For me, Harry Potter doesn’t mean much outside of being the first time I tried to read a book in Spanish. I’ve written before about how I have avoided the books out of spite, largely because the increasingly Potter-versed population of the world was driving me bananas in the mid-2000s with exhortations to read the damn things. So I never have. I also gave up on the films after leaving the fourth one having little to no idea what was going on with all the subplots, which seemed to require some base level knowledge of the books. So I live in a world blissfully ignorant of Harry Potter. Except, when I was struggling to learn a second language, and went to Guatemala for a month in hopes of becoming more fluent, I was handed a copy of Harry Potter Y La Piedra Filosofal, and told its simple prose was a good place to practice. I got through a couple of chapters, but unfortunately returned to the States having not improved my chops enough to get into it with a dictionary on hand to look up seemingly every other word. So now that damn kid wizard just reminds me how far I still have to go in my Spanish studies.
Truthfully, I’ve spent most of my life only dimly aware of Harry Potter. Look, the first book was released when I was 19; I couldn’t have been less interested in a boy wizard’s exploits than if they had been sung by Sarah McLachlan. Eventually, I even took a sort of cruel pride in my ignorance because of how much it annoyed some of my former A.V. Club coworkers. But a couple of years ago, when my wife was crazy pregnant and we were basically spending every weekend indoors, we finally watched all of the movies on cable, and I actually found them… pretty fun? I realize this isn’t especially revelatory—one of the world’s most beloved adventure series is pretty fun!—but frankly, that’s all I’ve got. I certainly don’t begrudge my current A.V. Club coworkers their intense fandom (lord knows I’ve made enough Star Wars or Seinfeld references around here that garner only blank stares), but mostly what Harry Potter means to me is that I’m fucking old—old enough to experience a generational divide over a work of pop culture that was so clearly formative for so many other adults, but that almost completely passed me by. Anyway, I’ll let you kids get back to talking, and just disappear like a magic… potion or whatever.
Piggybacking a little off of what Sean just said, I’ll confess that when I think of Harry Potter, I mainly think about the unstoppable forward march of time—the fact, in other words, that we’re all destined to get fucking old, faster than we could want or imagine. One of the things fans of the books always point out is that J.K. Rowling wrote them in such way that the prose seemed to “grow up” with readers; if you were around Harry’s age when the first book hit stores, you could count on each new installment keeping pace with your reading level, straight up until a final book pitched more to teens than to tots. Now, I’ve only read the first in the series, and that was as an adult, but the passage of time is probably even more pronounced in the Harry Potter film series: In a way, to watch the series is to see the child actors who play Harry, Ron, and Hermione literally grow out of childhood, shedding physical hallmarks of adolescence one lavish blockbuster at time. (And if you want to get really morbid about it, they’re also a record of the dying process, too. R.I.P. Richard Harris.) I was about the age Harry is in Deathly Hallows Part 2 when the first film hit theaters; I may not have “grown up” with these characters, but I definitely watched them grow up—and the fatalism of the franchise is only enhanced by the realization that every new movie was taking them closer to adulthood, and me further away from childhood. That’s a lot scarier than any giant snake or Dementor.