I didn't want to read the Harry Potter books. They were trendy, and worse from the perspective of my teenaged self, they were my little sister's novels. But one late-'90s summer on a family hiking trip out west, I ran out of things to read, and raided her backpack for Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. I remember the heat and the red rocks on the edge of my vision and the book and its sequel squarely at the center of it. For more than a decade since, I've read the novels almost in a panic as soon as they were published, had heated discussions about them, even reported on a charitable movement based in Harry Potter's values. Harry Potter hasn't just been a series for me: it's the cultural framing device of an entire generation.
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J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter universe has remained an essential cultural phenomenon, depopulating owls in India and fueling a massive amateur fan fiction industry. With the Friday release of the first movie based on the final novel in the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, that phenomenon is finally beginning to draw to a close.
The Harry Potter movies have always been a pale substitute for Rowling's novels. Nevertheless, for years after that final book's publication, the movies have promised us something more, something new from the Harry Potter universe. And after next year, when the second and last installment of Deathly Hallows comes out, we can't expect anything else.
It's not immediately clear why Harry Potter should be as dominant as the series is. J.K. Rowling's prose is a simplified Dickensian stew of signifying names and workmanlike exposition. Her writing is clearly and deeply informed by her work with Amnesty International, but her scenarios don't map neatly onto contemporary politics. Her juxtaposition of some of the key concepts in the novels is more original than the concepts themselves.
But what Rowling has done, and done better than any popular author of the era, is to give us the best years of her young heroes' lives, from 11 to 17. There's a preciousness and a specificity to the characters in the moment Rowling's provided for them. As io9's Charlie Jane Anders writes, "Does anybody want to read about a married Harry staring down middle age?" It's for that reason that Rowling's epilogue to Deathly Hallows was simultaneously so correct and controversial. For Harry, Ron and Hermione's work to be significant, it has to be permanent, or near enough. We want to know that they win, that they live peacefully and happily ever after, but there's something a little depressing about seeing the characters in early retirement after their adventures end at age 17 after the defeat of their great enemy, in cheerful and mature stasis by 36.
They burn so brightly before that retirement, though. Rowling's greatest gift is a subtle balance in characterization. Unlike Twilight's Bella Swann, an intentionally blank canvass, or Lisbeth Salander, a collection of arcane traumas, readers can love Rowling's characters for precisely who they are.
My great love is for Hermione Granger, one of Harry's best friends, a girl born to human parents with magical abilities, who I believe is perhaps the greatest and most progressive popular romantic heroine of a generation. When makeover narratives were the single most prevalent romantic storyline in popular culture, Hermione got the guy in the library, dressed up for the Yule Ball, and returned placidly to her regular routine. Hermione didn't transform herself because she never particularly felt the need to be transformed.