Monday, June 26, 2017

20 Years of Harry Potter

It was 20 years ago today that Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (retitled Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone for some odd reason in the United States) was published in the United Kingdom. It would mark the debut of  what is the most successful book series in any genre. Approximate sales were 504 million copies worldwide as of May 2013. Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone and the books that followed it in the series would lead to a highly successful series of movies, beginning with Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone in 2001. It would also lead to a series of amusement park attractions at Universal theme parks under the collective name "The Wizarding World of Harry Potter", the first of which opened at Universal's Islands of Adventure in 2010. In 2016 a play, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, opened on the West End in London. There have also been games and further works set in the Harry Potter universe (the book The Tales of Beedle the Bard and the film Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them), as well as tonnes of merchandise.

Harry Potter was conceived by Joanne Rowling while on a train from Manchester to London King's Cross in 1990. Over the following five years she planned out the series of seven books. After finishing the manuscript for Harry Potter and the Philsopher's Stone she sent the first three chapters to a number of agents before one finally asked to read the rest of the manuscript. It was eventually accepted by British publisher Bloomsbury. Published on June 26 1997, it became a bestseller very quickly. It repeated its success when published in the United States in 1998. It was not very long before it was an international best seller. If anything, the following books in the series would prove even more successful. The last four books each broke records as the fastest selling books in history. In the United States alone the final book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, sold around 11 million copies in the first 24 hours of its release in the United States alone.

Because of the phenomenal success of the Harry Potter series it is difficult to adequately assess precisely how much impact it has around the world. The series certainly inspired a number of imitators, both in books and film, including the "Charlie Bone" series of books, the "Vampire Academy" series of books, and yet others. More importantly it inspired a bit of a boom in young adult novels. In the wake of "Harry Potter" there would be published a number of highly successful series of young adult novels, including the "Artemis Fowl" series by Eoin Colfer, the "Hunger Games" series by Suzanne Collins, the "Mortal Instruments" series by Cassandra Clare, and the "Percy Jackson" series by  Rick Riordan, among others. Many of these series would in turn inspire their own series of successful movies.

The Harry Potter books may have had more impact than simply inspiring a new boom in young adult novels. A Pew Research Centre study in 2014 indicated that individuals under 30, precisely those who grew up with Harry Potter, read more than those over 30. A study published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology in 2014 found that reading the Harry Potter books made individuals more tolerant of groups that have generally stigmatised in society.

Whether or not the Harry Potter series makes it readers more tolerant individuals, it certainly has made fantasy literature more mainstream. While there have certainly been highly successful fantasy works before the Harry Potter series (The Lord of the Rings chief among them), arguably it was the Harry Potter series that made it acceptable to talk about fantasy books in polite society. Quite simply, in 1987 I would get odd looks if I started talking about Frodo and Sam. In 2017 most people wouldn't think it odd if  I started talking about Harry and Ron.

Regardless of the impact of the Harry Potter series, the biggest question may be why they were successful. In my humble opinion the chief reason for their success is that the books actually transcend generations. They are not simply "Young Adult" books. Like other classic books written for young adults (such as The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Expéry, A Wrinkle in Time by  Madeleine L'Engle, The Outsiders by S. E. Hinton, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl), they can be enjoyed by adults as well. All of these books have something in common. All of them are deep, complicated works that are not afraid to shield children from some of the uglier aspects of life.

Indeed, the Harry Potter books deal with themes not often encountered in children's books at the time Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone was published. At the heart of the series is classism and racism. The wizarding world of Harry Potter is not one where tolerance always prevails, with pure-bloods sometimes discriminating against half-bloods or, worse yet, the Muggle-born (and Muggles, those who lack any sort of magical ability, as well). There are those who have seen the Harry Potter books as a metaphor for Nazi Germany or Fascism in general.

At the same time that the Harry Potter books address issues of classism and racism, they also promote tolerance and diversity. Hogwarts is a multi-ethnic and multicultural institution. Individuals of various ethnicities, cultures, and faiths all attend the school. She even created a bit of a controversy when she revealed that Albus Dumbledore was gay.  What is more, J. K. Rowling gave the world one of the strongest female characters in children's literature. Hermione Granger is intelligent, resourceful, level-headed, compassionate, and fiercely loyal to her friends. If the Harry Potter books are popular with many young women, it is perhaps because in Hermione they have a very good role model.

All of this makes for some very serious material to appear in books meant for young adults, but then J. K. Rowling did not shy away from the harsher aspects of life even though she was ostensibly writing children's books. Harry Potter's life with the Dursleys can only be described as abusive. Worse yet, throughout the series several characters die. Indeed, in the final book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, several beloved characters were killed off. Prior to the Harry Potter books it was rare that anyone died in young adult novels and rarer still that several would die throughout the course of a series.

While the Harry Potter books have had their detractors over the years, there can be no doubt that they are among the most successful books ever published. While the total extent of their impact on popular culture is probably impossible to calculate, there can be little doubt that that impact is very great. One has to suspect people will still be reading the "Harry Potter" series twenty years from now.

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