Harry Potter is a phenomenon bigger than anything we’re likely to see again in our lifetimes. It’s a tale that has stretched out over a decade, a thing which has entertained and enraptured people of all ages, races and genders. But why? What is it about a simple children’s book that created such a worldwide phenomenon? Well, now that it’s over, both book and film wise, maybe I can try to answer that.
I’ve said this before. I’m not some kind of Harry Potter super fan. I enjoy the movies, yes, but that’s about where my experience stops. But let me tell you about my experience watching the last Harry Potter movie ever. I went with a group of people, two of them girls around the age of 20 years old. They were dressed in Slytherin robes. They got these robes when they went to the Harry Potter theme park in Orlando, Florida. They also had wands. They got these wands at the theme park as well, in a recreation of the same shop where Harry got his. While waiting for the movie to start…we got there two hours early, of course…we read aloud The Tales of Beedle the Bard, which was the book seen in Deathly Hallows. One of our group, a guy this time, dressed as Hagrid last year when we went to see the first part of Harry Potter’s last tale. And we were not alone in all of this wizard stuff. There were people dressed up and talking about muggles and potions and things which confused and frightened me.
So why does all of this happen? What is it about the Harry Potter tale in particular that causes such a reaction from an entire generation of people? I just missed the age limit of Harry Potter, being too old to get into the first book. But the age might be the first big thing to look at. Now, as I said, the age range of the group of friends I went with was around the early 20’s. That would put them at the same age as Harry Potter when he first began to have his adventures in 1997. Or 1998, depending on which country you are in. Harry began his tale at age ten, which would put his age right at the age these people got in on it. So what, you may ask? They were the same age as the protagonist. Other books have young heroes. Ah, but here’s the thing. Harry Potter grew up.
Let’s look at other forms of entertainment that kids like. Spider-Man, for example. Yes, he’s a young guy, in a lot of media representations starting as a teenager and staying that way for quite a while. Or Transformers. Kids love the large Optimus Prime, but they also love the kid friendly and young at heart Bumblebee. But here’s the difference. Marvel will never let Peter Parker grow up. They had the devil erase his marriage and make him seem younger when he got too mature. Bumblebee will never grow up because…well, he’s a giant transforming space robot. But the kids who read Harry Potter, they got older with him. He went on fantastic magical journeys, but he also had the regular problems that a kid growing up had. The same kids who started reading from book one had the exact same journey as Harry did in several important ways. By the time the final book came and Harry was all grown up, so was the loyal audience who had been there from day one. The end of Harry’s childhood signaled the end of an entire generation’s childhood. That’s a powerful thing right there.
What also helps Harry Potter resonate in that special way is that it really is quite a simplistic tale. Its just straight up good versus evil. Voldemort has no greater ambition than just being a freaked out evil super wizard. The simplicity of Harry Potter may seem trivial to some, but it also makes it accessible to pretty much everyone. This accessibility doesn’t just come in the form of the story being for everyone, but helps in letting people into the world J.K. Rowling created.
The wizarding world is a fascinating place. Even as someone who isn’t a huge Harry Potter fan, I can appreciate all the time and effort that went into creating this place which is not a place. Rowling created a living, breathing world, a place that had its own traditions and customs, places of renown and people to respect or fear. Each time you read one of those stories or watch one of the movies, you feel like you are going someplace. You see these characters again, visit these places again, and you feel as if you are visiting old friends in their homes once again. It’s somewhat similar to Lord of the Rings in this way. It just completely encapsulates the reader or viewer. This is one of the things that makes the last movie so effective. You are forced to say goodbye to these people, these places. Their story is over. No more going back for you who have been here from the beginning.
Which brings us back to the original point. These movies and books are a generational thing. I enjoy them, but they don’t capture me like they do my slightly younger friends. This is their thing. And this, I think, is the answer to the titular question as to why Harry Potter is such a big deal. It’s their Star Wars. It’s what they grew up reading and watching, slowly taking root deep into their brains. When I asked my fan friends to put as bluntly as possible why they like Harry Potter, the answer basically boiled down to something simple for each of them. “It’s just a fun story.” And there’s something quite magical about that. It’s hard to come up with a story that everyone can enjoy. It just makes the reader feel good to read it, the viewer feel good to watch it. It’s escapism at its finest, and I think that might be enough.