Hordes of Stanford students will queue up at midnight tonight for “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part II,” the final act in the franchise’s 14-year grip on the pop cultural consciousness. While countless fanatics of all ages will also be lining up across the nation, it’s this specific college demographic – late teens to early 20s – who will likely be blubbering the worst when the screen fades to black.
The series debuted stateside in October 1998 to mild fanfare. It took nearly a year before “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” built enough momentum to top The New York Times’ bestselling fiction list, but it wasn’t long before the ticking Potter-mania time bomb exploded.
“Potter’s” safe, classic themes – a chosen hero risking everything to save the world – contributed to the series’s broad appeal. Flipping back through “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” it’s always a little surprising how simple and chapter-book like this first installment was (not to mention how short). We were fortunate enough to be at the right age (elementary school) to fully appreciate it. That’s the beauty of Rowling’s writing. It matured alongside us, adding increasingly adult and complex themes as we learned to understand them, all without losing the compulsive readability established in the first novel.
The “Sorcerer’s Stone” film adaptation was released three years later, introducing the famous faces who would become indelibly linked with their characters. It added another extension of the “Harry Potter” universe; on top of Rowling’s characters, we could now track the growth of the actors who portrayed them onscreen. It led to odd juxtapositions between cinematic magic and reality from pleasant in-character revelations – Emma Watson’s going to Brown! – to more startling ones like Daniel Radcliffe’s recent revelation about overcoming an alcohol problem.
While the films may not be perfect (the first two come off as particularly clunky in comparison to their sleeker successors), it’s rare that a movie adaptation complements the original novels as well as the “Potter” films do. That’s thanks in no small part to the cast, which maintained as much consistency as humanly possible down to even the most minor characters. The adult supporting cast slowly turned into a veritable cavalcade of Britain’s finest actors. Dumbledore was the only real shake up; Michael Gambon never quite captured the headmaster’s twinkle as wholly as the late Richard Harris.
“Harry Potter’s” generational resonance is what allows it to tower over other popular fantasy series like “Chronicles of Narnia,” “His Dark Materials” and, arguably (these may be fighting words), “The Lord of the Rings.” These characters conjured all the spells and went on all the adventures you ever dreamed of. Yet, despite “Potter’s” magical escapism, you can relate to it on every level. It’s our generation’s “Star Wars” with the vulnerability of John Hughes’ seminal teen films all wrapped up into one. Except none of those other decades ever had a wildly adored franchise that sustained its popularity across more than three or four films, let alone seven books and eight movies.
And it’s not just blind adulation but more a respectful awe. At the midnight premiere for “Deathly Hallows: Part I,” the crowd waited in line for hours before taking their seats, buzzing loudly with excitement the whole time. But as soon as the silvery “WB” logo appeared onscreen, the entire theater fell into a reverential silence, so quiet you could hear a wand drop.
The length of the series has granted fans a weird sense of nostalgia. We underwent the same life experiences as the characters – adolescent angst, wanting independence, romance (albeit in a duller Muggle world) – but the 10 years it took for all seven novels to be released allowed us to grow up with the characters while also keeping the earlier books nearby as instant windows to the past. By the time the “Deathly Hallows” book was published, we were already nostalgic about the first time Harry and company boarded the Hogwarts Express – and so were the characters in the story.
Now with the final film hitting theaters tonight, some may bemoan the death of their childhood, but it’s not like the movies or books are disappearing forever. We’re lucky to have had something as all encompassing as “Harry Potter” define our childhood, but after 14 enjoyable years, it feels like the end advertised in all the posters is a natural one. “It All Ends” tonight, and it’s been a great run, indeed.