'Harry Potter': Why It's So Hard to Say Goodbye

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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.

Her concern for house elves—magical creatures who are essentially wizards' slaves—started out as comedy and ended up as the early articulation of the novels' great moral concerns for equality, as well as one of the most moving sequences (and some of the best writing) of Deathly Hallows. Ultimately it is she, rather than Ron or Harry, who undergoes real and prolonged torture at the hands of the Death Eaters, and it's she who survives that torture with her dignity and her friends' secrets intact.

The things that make Hermione a scold, a nerd, a pain, a victim in the early pages of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone are the things that make her a heroic, lovable woman. What changes is how she expresses her intellectualism and her social convictions.

But for me, Hermione has never been as vibrant on screen as she was on the page. Emma Watson's fine, but she's not my Hermione. Watson's too pretty, too fashionable, not quite as awkward as the Hermione who lives in my mind. The tweaks to her characterization are a perfect example of the basic problem with the movies: they nail down the details of the books in a way that subverts the inventive experience of reading, even as they revisit the basic events and characters of the books. The movies take the characters out of my hands, so sweaty with tension during my midnight read of Deathly Hallows that they stained the hard cover. They condense Rowling's stories, trim details. And even more importantly, they're almost too exact, creating a definitive visual version of people and events that on the page we were free to interpret for ourselves.

There's no obvious Potter successor, a piece of art or artist with appeal across generations and geographical lines. Popular art this big, and with this kind of sustained success, comes along only occasionally. The last boy to be as famous and as enduring as Harry Potter was Michael Jackson. Both the economics and the sexual violence in Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy limit the novels to readers of certain ages and inclinations. No matter how awful being orphaned is, reading about that doesn't prepare you for revenge by means of sexual assault, and the Malfoys' basement has nothing on Nazi sex dungeons.

Stephenie Meyer's Twilight books are hugely popular, but they're a more condensed series with smaller conflicts, fewer characters, and a less-developed magical universe. Those limitations—not to mention the series' obsessive focus on romance and proscribed gender roles—mean the Twilight novels have less to offer a smaller audience. And these two very different series were first published in 2005, a full eight years after Harry Potter first hit shelves in the UK. It's not clear that either will have the same cultural resonance or staying power.

In the end, those of us who grew up with Harry Potter may have to settle for an epilogue of our own, when we can introduce a new generation to Harry, Ron and Hermione for the first time. We can never experience that first rush of love again. But we can pass a good literary legacy on to those who can.

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Alyssa Rosenberg is a culture writer with The Washington Post.

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