This month the final film in the multi-billion dollar Harry Potter franchise will be released and I, for one, can’t wait to see it. Yes, I’m one of the worst offenders; a grown man who has voraciously read all the Potter books (some more than once), and gone to each movie on or near opening day to watch the exploits of Ron, Hermionie, and Harry with pure glee. And I make no apologies for it. They’re damn good stories, those Potter books, and they’ve made some pretty decent movies.
I became enthralled with J.K. Rowling’s boy wizard and his friends a little later than most of the rest of the world. It was back in 2000 or 2001 when the entertainment news shows started talking about people lining up at bookshops for the latest entry in the series (I think it was Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, but my memory could be fuzzy on that). And I remember thinking “what’s all the fuss about?” Actually I never really internalize in that kind of speech and my thoughts are probably better described by the internet abbreviation WTF. In any case the lines at Barnes & Noble piqued my interest and a few nights later I found myself reading the first chapters of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone to my kids. Each night I had to go back and search for where we’d left off because I kept reading ahead on my own.
So now that we’re nearing the release of the eighth Potter film (made from a series of seven books; go figure), I began wondering just what it is about these stories that so quickly captured our hearts and minds. What is it that makes Harry Potter so damned interesting to people all over the world? It’s not as though the real meat of the story is anything new. We’ve seen countless orphan children learn that they are destined for something bigger than they’d ever imagined (Luke Skywalker in Star Wars comes to mind, as does Dickens’ Oliver Twist and James from Roald Dahl’s classic James and the Giant Peach). The central conflict that drives all of the Harry Potter stories is one of the oldest of all as well: the battle between good and evil.
In fact, it may be because the themes are so familiar to us that Harry Potter resonates so strongly with audiences around the world. In 1949 the mythologist Joseph Campbell published The Hero With a Thousand Faces, a text which would become known as his seminal work. The book suggests that the myths and legends which defined generations of people and their cultures all share a common theme or themes (Campbell called this the monomyth) and therefore speak to us at a very basic level.
In the introduction to The Hero With a Thousand Faces, Campbell describes his monomyth thusly: “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.” Sound familiar? It should, because this basic description can effectively describe the stories of Hercules, Odysseus, Beowulf, Luke Skywalker, and, yes, Harry Potter. It can also be applied to many other hero stories, most notably the likes of Spider-Man, Superman, and the current comic book flavor of the day: Green Lantern. Many modern writers and artists have acknowledged Campbell’s effect on their work and perhaps the most vocal example (and probably the most well known) is George Lucas who cited Campbell as an invaluable influence on the Star Wars saga. To my knowledge, J.K. Rowling has never stated that she was influenced in any way by Campbell’s work. It is likely, however that she is aware of it and may have read The Hero With a Thousand Faces herself. Or not. She my just have a fix on how to tell an excellent and compelling story. The themes carry across cultures and ages, after all; that was Campbell’s point.
Of course there’s more to it that that. There has to be, or anyone could sit down, go through Campbell’s checklist, and pen a bestseller. There has to be that, pardon the term, magic that an artist like Rowling, or Lucas or even Stephen King knows how to capture that other people do not. And Rowling’s story itself (hers, I mean, not Harry’s) does seem magical. Working her ass off as a single mother trying to support herself and her child, she starts writing this story at night after her regular job, and suddenly she is a multimillionaire. It’s like she’d stopped off at Diagon Alley herself, purchased an especially nice wand, gave it a wave and changed her life.
And I say more power to her. She accomplished something that most other writers only dream about. She achieved an audience. That’s what we all really want. We may say that we write for ourselves or for the sheer enjoyment of writing; and it is true for many – to a certain extent. The money and fame is secondary. We just really want others to read and enjoy what we write. Otherwise it’s little more than literary masturbation. Ugh, I just had an image of getting typewriter ink all over my junk. Not a pretty picture. And I doubt that those ink ribbons would really lubricate all that well.
Okay, I’ve derailed. This was a story about Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part Two and I’ve let it degrade into dick jokes. Not good. It must be time to call it a night. I’ll just tuck that which must not be named back into my trousers, zip up, and bid you all adieu. See you in line at the theater.