'Harry Potter': 5 Things to Know Before Watching 'Deathly Hallows'

The first installment of the final movie comes out today. A guide to bring you up to speed.


Warner Bros. Pictures

When J.K. Rowling recently mentioned on Oprah that she could write more Harry Potter books, Harry Potter incarnate—a.k.a. Daniel Radcliffe—freaked out. "Oh God, she promised me categorically that there wouldn't be another book involving Harry," he said. "I think 10 years is a long time to spend with one character."

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It has indeed been a long time. Many of us have spent more than a decade with the series, truly growing up with Harry Potter. I have been a fan almost since the beginning, taking the books with me as I moved from my awkward teenage years to my slightly-less-awkward mid-20s. A lot has changed since the first Harry Potter book was published in 1997—let alone since the first movie came out in 2001. For all the media phenomena we have to obsess over today, nothing from the same time period has yet proved to be as enduring as Harry Potter.

Regardless of what J.K. Rowling may or may not write one day—and she has pledged that there will not be any more movies—it certainly feels like the beginning of the end. The first part of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows finally hits theaters today. Part two will follow in seven months. As muggles around the world gear up for the final chapter of the epic children's series that's hardly a children's series anymore, even the most ardent fans might need a bit of a refresher course. Even if you haven't devoured (and re-devoured) the series, here are the most important things you need to know before you watch the movie:

1. This is an epic battle of good vs. evil. Harry Potter might have started out at an elementary school level, but it concludes with a clash between light and dark no less potent than anything you might encounter in Tolkien. Lord Voldemort (played with eminent creepiness by the eminently creepy Ralph Fiennes) is the darkest of dark wizards, and he has been gaining power steadily throughout the series. He is now on the brink of conquering the wizarding world (and destroying the muggle—aka: non-wizarding—world). Because of a confusing but accurate prophecy, Harry Potter is the one wizard who can truly destroy Lord Voldemort. To say that there are bumps along the road is an understatement. Fortunately, Harry is aided by his trusty friends: brainy Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) and stalwart Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint). There are dozens of other characters (many of them played by England's finest actors; with the exceptions of Judi Dench and Helen Mirren, there are few great English thespians who haven't made at least a cameo appearance in the films) but the bulk of Deathly Hallows Part 1 will be about Harry, Hermione, and Ron.

2. You won't see much of Hogwarts. Even as the books became progressively darker, there was always unifying factor of their reassuring main setting: The Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. This enchanted boarding school was a haven, both for Harry, who had never had a true home before Hogwarts, and for all the students, who were protected by the powerful magic surrounding the castle and by its headmaster, the great wizard Albus Dumbledore. By this point it's hardly a spoiler alert, but Dumbledore died at the end of the last book/film. Bereft of his teacher, Harry Potter makes a bold decision: to leave Hogwarts in a quest to destroy Voldemort once and for all (more on the specifics of that in a moment). In spite of Harry's protests, Ron and Hermione join him. Sometimes there are good reasons for dropping out of high school.

3. There will be blood. And not just the blood the trailer editors magicked off Hermione's hand for the June preview. We already know J.K. Rowling isn't shy about killing off beloved characters. But even before the climactic battle that will be taking place in Part 2 next July, important people will die. Whether or not you decide to bring tissues is your decision. But given my teary reaction when reading and re-reading the book, I will be packing Kleenex.

4. Part 1 is going to be action-packed. In more ways than one. One of those ways is not the way you're thinking. (Although there will be a little more romance between Harry and Ron's sister, Ginny; and—it's about darn time!—between Ron and Hermione.) While director David Yates and screenwriter Steve Kloves are saving the epic smackdown for Part 2, that's about all they're saving. Part 1 is slated to cover a full two-thirds of the book. Which means that the movie will have a lot of plot points to cover, and many if not climactic battles, then at least extremely important skirmishes.

5. In a world full of magic, two magical entities will prove particularly important. The first are the horcruxes, which are basically small pieces of a soul that have been placed - through dark magic, of course—into an object. The goal is to achieve immortality: as long as the horcruxes remain, the person whose soul they contain cannot die. In this case, the fragmented soul is Voldemort's, and horcruxes number seven. Harry, Ron and Hermione leave Hogwarts in order to find and destroy the remaining horcruxes (several have already been destroyed).

The other magical entity is the titular Deathly Hallows. We haven't encountered them before, and their importance will slowly be explained as the film progresses. Keep in mind that what seems like a myth will prove to be very much fact.

A final note: The movies have gotten progressively better—much better. I loved the books from the very beginning. I took a while to warm up to the movies. But each film has been an improvement on the ones that preceded it—and the last couple have been truly excellent. The two installments of Deathly Hallows promise to be even better.