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Looking Fondly Back On a Decade of Potter

By Sarah Carlson | Think Pieces | July 13, 2011 |

By Sarah Carlson | Think Pieces | July 13, 2011 |

You may find it ridiculous, but it’s not hyperbolic to say that Friday’s release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 marks the end of an era. Because for 14 years — 14! — pop culture has been influenced by J.K. Rowling’s The Boy Who Lived. There have only been two years (2006 and 2008) since Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone’s 1997 release in the U.K. that didn’t see a new book or a movie in the mega-franchise. For 14 years, fans have had a new installment to wait for in this entertainment juggernaut that has grossed billions worldwide. And while the continuous cranking out of eight films to keep pace with the seven books has been impressive — and as with the books, the Warner Bros. Pictures films have been increasingly better in style content — it’s the years the series has spanned that matter when you try to understand fans. I’ve spent a decade with Harry Potter, from age 17 to 27, attending every movie on opening night as well as release parties for several of the books. A fan who began the books at age 11, Harry’s age in Philosopher’s/Sorcerer’s Stone and actor Daniel Radcliffe’s age when he first donned the round-rimmed glasses to play him, is now 21. They came of age with Harry — and stars Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson. The hysteria surrounding the series and the many devoted fans’ mixed emotions at seeing it end makes perfect sense. Deathly Hallows: Part 2 is the last entry, the last midnight release, the last thing to count down to. At this point, Harry Potter isn’t just a part of our life experiences; it’s a part of who we are.

A former editor of mine didn’t want to hear this babble four years ago when Deathly Hallows was released. He wanted a column about my devouring the 759-page tome — as well as details on my dressing as Harry himself for the release party at the local Books-A-Million. (The above photo is me holding my copy in the store parking lot that night, not long after I’d run to the car, screaming and covering my ears with my hands to avoid spoilers shouted by punks I was certain would do just that.) The editor wanted some explanation for my devotion, but as I told my ideas for the column before that July 21, 2007 night, he seemed uninterested. Perhaps my anecdotes were too personal for his taste, but if I analyze the time in my life when I first encountered Harry — November 2001, when the movie Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was released — I see my connection to the boy wizard may have begun as something entirely personal.

That film premiered exactly a year after the death of my best friend at 16 in a car accident. High school was a nuisance, something I needed to overcome before college, and the Harry Potter books, of which four had been released, proved a helpful escape. Here was a hero, both a celebrity and an underdog, who was special for his bravery and who was protected by what he would eventually and begrudgingly learn was what matters most in life: love. Additionally, coming just a month after Sept. 11, 2001, the ever-increasing dangers of the wizarding world made sense in comparison to our own. Here was an author refusing to present characters in terms of black and white and routinely driving home the point that confronting evil requires more complexity than seeing it simply as a specific entity to be vanquished. It’s about power. As Professor Albus Dumbledore told Harry at the end of book two, The Chamber of Secrets, “It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.” In an increasingly chaotic and insane world, I turned to Rowling and her tales. There amidst the magic, I found reason. Amidst the political wars of our home, the only group I wanted to belong to was Dumbledore’s Army.

Other fans have similar stories. A 25-year-old I interviewed last week about Deathly Hallows: Part 2 described how she read and reread the Harry Potter books as she was diagnosed with and treated for a brain tumor at 16. It was cathartic, she said. A young woman’s sign at the New York City premiere of Part 2 on Monday said Harry Potter helped her beat an eating disorder. Of course, other fans have no such personal ties, and that’s OK. Many just enjoyed the books and/or movies and wouldn’t dream of wearing a robe and carrying a wand to a movie theater. That’s OK, too, though let’s face it, not as fun. With more than 450 million copies of the books sold worldwide, you’re going to have a variety of readers. But the key is that Harry Potter got so many people of all ages, including myself, engaged in reading. We all saw the books as a form of escapism; we just had different things to escape from. That sense of wonder we felt gave us a chance to have fun and act like kids, now matter our age.

As I attend Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 on Thursday night, having squeezed into a Quidditch T-shirt I purchased as a teenager, I’ll remind myself that even as it’s my last midnight release for the series, the books and DVDs are still on my shelves. They, like any good piece of art, can transport me to Harry’s world at any time. The magic has changed but isn’t gone. Because however fans came to Harry, we’re still his.

Sarah Carlson has a front-row seat to the decline of the newspaper industry and lives in Alabama with her overly excitable Pembroke Welsh Corgi.

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