“Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.” Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone.
Twenty years is a long time. Twenty years ago, Bill Clinton was US President; Tony Blair stormed to victory in the UK General Election on a mandate of things only being able to get better; Katrina and The Waves won the Eurovision song contest. And a book by unknown author, J.K Rowling, called Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was published.
It’s impossible now to imagine a world without Harry, Ron and Hermione, and it’s impossible to let this twentieth anniversary go by without a moment of reflection on the impact of the franchise. In 1997, Bloomsbury ran an initial print run of 1000 books for their new release. In January of this year, the seven books of the series had sold nearly 500 million copies worldwide. So what is it about the series that has made it so successful?
When you listen to people talk about Harry Potter, the first thing you notice is a sense of belonging. The books resonated with people on a personal level. They taught us that it is ok to be yourself, to be different, and that people are incredibly complex. Fred and George are class clowns, but also successful entrepreneurs, and incredibly brave. Luna Lovegood doesn’t care what anyone else thinks. She is completely true to herself. Neville Longbottom is terrified most of the time, but it doesn’t stop him fighting to save the world. The women are smart and daring, and unashamedly so. Readers found heroes and friends within the pages, and it kept them coming back for more.
In the way that good fantasy fiction does, it shone a light on our own world. The slavery of the house elves, the complexity of good and evil. This isn’t just a series about witches and wizards, it’s so much more complex than that. And it doesn’t shy away from it. It was children’s fiction which didn’t talk down to children. No wonder they loved it. It generated a passion for reading in children and young adults who had never picked up a book before. How magical is that? Who could forget the lines of fans queuing up outside bookstores on publication days, dressed up as every conceivable character. And it spoke to adults too. As I alluded to in our review of The Philosopher’s Stone, it is a nostalgic read. But it’s also dark, challenges preconceptions, and generally makes adults think about the world around them, just like it did its younger readers.
And it still has the power to bewitch. Last year, I volunteered at an event run by Felixstowe Library on Harry Potter Night. Actors were dressed up as Hagrid, Snape, Professor Trelawney and Dumbledore, and the entrance was made up to look like Platform 9 3/4. AS we were preparing for the influx of children, Hagrid walked past the doors, and a boy of about seven gasped “It’s Hagrid!”. The magic lives on in the next generation.
The franchise is now so much bigger than the books. The films have been some of the most successful of all times, grossing over $8.5 billion at the box office. And with further films yet to be released, including a sequel to Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, due out in 2018, they aren’t done yet. What I find incredible when I re-read the books is how the actors have become synonymous with their characters. It’s difficult to picture Harry without thinking of Daniel Radcliffe, or think of Severus Snape without imagining the late, great Alan Rickman. Currently in the West End, Harry Potter and The Cursed Child is pulling in the audiences, with tickets harder to grab hold of than a snitch on a particularly stormy day. Meanwhile, you can tour the studios, walk down Diagon Ally, see the Hogwarts Express, drink Butterbeer, eat Every Flavour Beans (including the ear wax ones), even buy 4 Privet Drive (for just shy of £500,000). Who could have imagined this in 1997?
Who knows what the future holds for the franchise. If pottermore.com has taught us anything, it’s that JK Rowling has an unlimited supply of stories, myths and legends. One thing is for certain. Harry Potter will still be read and loved, not only by those of us who love it now, but by future generations too. Always.