Harry Potter, 20 years later

16 December, 2021

In the late summer of 2009, when the movie had already been running in cinemas for a while, I convinced my dad to go to Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince at Cinema Pro together. I already knew what was going to happen at the end of the movie; as for my father, this world was very new to him. Except, of course, for the satanic hysteria surrounding the series, which periodically rekindled with each new release of a volume or movie. I don’t remember much of that day. I know I found the cinema interesting – it was clearly different from the mall cinema where we used to go. I also remember an oversized movie poster in the foyer. And a few bits from the movie. But memory is a strange sieve: that’s because, instead, I remember very clearly what happened after the movie: I walked home with my father and, on the way, I got a shawarma from a deli nearby, and later, a Schweppes Mandarin.

One of the scenes in Boyhood (dir. Richard Linklater, 2014) shows Mason, the young protagonist of the film, along with dozens of other children, at one of the launch events of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince taking place at midnight. The scene is short, observational-like and decorative, but it manages to capture the Zeitgeist quite accurately. Obviously, in Romania, things happened a little differently. But even here, for everyone in my generation, whether fans of the series or not, Harry Potter has been a given, a constant.

And, yes, I remember all sorts of moments like the one at Cinema Pro. The excitement at the release of the last volume at Gaudeamus. Or small snippets from the movies, which I would catch on TV; as for the last part, that I watched in a poor quality, a camrip version from torrents. Discovering the magnificent Flash game with Obama Potter, and now the disappointment, after recently looking for it, that it is no longer available. The countless online quizzes that would sound something like “Tell us what your ideal breakfast looks like and we’ll tell you which Hogwarts House you belong to”. The educational experiences, if we can call them that, of those fanfic stories on the Internet. And all the other events and non-events, discussions and debates related to the Harry Potter series.

Image from Boyhood

Last month marked the 20th anniversary of the first film in the series – Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. In the United States, India, and the Philippines, the film was released featuring Sorcerer, instead of Philosopher, in the title, following the model of the American edition of the book (apparently “philosopher” would have been too complicated a word for pre-teens). Fortunately, in Romania, the film was released as Harry Potter și piatra filozofală, which is fairly close to the original title. Even before its release, the film was an announced success: the Harry Potter mania, far from reaching its peak, was in full swing. For a while, Steven Spielberg himself considered directing the film but later dropped out of the project, stating in the New York Post that the film isn’t challenging enough for him, that working on such a project would be like “withdrawing a billion dollars and putting it into your personal bank accounts”, and adding that he believes he has “a responsibility to tell stories that are more authentic”. A number of other directors were considered for the movie (Terry Gilliam, Jonathan Demme, Mike Newell, Rob Reiner, Tim Robbins, M. Night Shyamalan and Peter Weir, to name a few), but the studio decided to go with a safe option: Chris Columbus, more of a craftsman than a wizard, recommended by his previous popular hits, Home Alone and Mrs. Doubtfire. Nevertheless, Columbus’ film has many elements that make it a strong favorite among many fans of the series. I do not share that view, but I understand where it comes from: there is a certain novelty and naivete that make …Philosopher’s Stone very easy to love.

Here we should stress something that is usually valid in the case of long-running series: the viewer has that feeling that they really know the characters and that they have a personal bond with them – in other words, they witnessed their entire coming of age process. Unlike a movie like Boyhood, which I mentioned above, whose whole raison d’être comes down to this otherwise highly effective artifice, in which the actors are filmed over a decade, the Harry Potter series does not seem to strive for an authentic portrayal of its characters growing up. The elements that discuss this process, although not missing from the movies, are conferred only secondary importance. Yet one of the main attractions of the Harry Potter series is, in my opinion, precisely the chance of watching them growing up, something we witness throughout the series. And, true, there is something endearing in noticing when the voice of one of the characters has gotten deeper, for example. And I think that many Harry Potter fans prefer this first film also because of that: because the protagonists are more lovable when they are young, with their big eyes and easily impressed by any spell, however simple, than when they are a little older, hormonal and heartbroken. And their acting efforts, which often comes as really thick, give the film its own charm, because of this exact feeling of a personal bond between the viewer and the young actors. But we’ll get back to that.

Image from Harry Potter

Looking back, the casting remains a great merit of the series. Even the issues that appeared along the way were tactfully resolved. A good example is the casting of Michael Gambon in the role of Albus Dumbledore, after the late Richard Harris’ passing; he may not have remained completely faithful to Harris’ acting, but offered an interesting and somewhat more nuanced interpretation of the character. Moreover, the local, British tone is one of the choices that best passes the test of time, and by that, I don’t mean just the cast and the dialogues. The local charm pours into everything related to locations, set design and costumes. And that proved to be an even better choice as, as I said above, the American version of the book had wound up with a non-anglicized adaptation (“translation” would have been a better term, but will let it pass).

The great value of the Harry Potter series to the British film industry is already legendary. But I think the importance and significance of the release of the first film in a wider, international context are also worth discussing. In an article published in Salon ten years after the events of September 11, 2001, critic Andrew O’Hehir talks about several franchises, all of which emerged shortly after September 11: The Lord of the Rings, Spider-Man, and, of course, Harry Potter. O’Hehir asserts that these are the ones, and not films like United 93 or The Hurt Locker, that remain the most relevant Hollywood commentary on the events of September 11. According to O’Hehir, these films, which have in common a “lone hero taking on a sinister inhuman force that initially appears invulnerable”, were the means by which the American public was reassured that they were on the right side. O’Hehir also writes: “If Osama bin Laden had possessed anything like a coherent philosophy, he might plausibly have argued that he was more like Harry Potter or Frodo Baggins, and George W. Bush was more like Sauron or Voldemort. (Then again, if he had possessed a coherent philosophy, he wouldn’t have been Osama bin Laden, and anyway, he could never have grasped that Dick Cheney was the real undead Nazgûl king.)” Moreover, O’Hehir refers to Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle, suggesting that blockbuster movies like …The Philosopher’s Stone “serve not merely as justifications for war but also as metaphors or analogies for war”. And, surely, it’s easy to argue that the movies referred to by O’Hehir were already finished or almost finished by September 2001, but I think there is something about Harry Potter that makes it susceptible to this kind of interpretation. And by that, I mean that Rowling’s series has been infused with the author’s Christian morals from the very beginning — the same morals that, in the meantime, have led to recent controversy over Rowling’s views on trans people. (In retrospect, the satanic hysteria I mentioned above, surrounding the series, turns out it has been misplaced.) The Harry Potter series abounds in Christian symbolism, and the confrontation between good and evil in the first film, with the added safety net of the anticipated happy ending, has an obvious escapist-therapeutic function. And so it is that even the shortcomings of the film, such as the acting or the special effects (which have aged terribly, even compared to the other films referred to by O’Hehir in his article, which came out at the same time), gained a homely and positive valence. I think it would be interesting to also investigate to what extent this therapeutic function manifested itself not only after the events of September 11, but also in the context of the present-day pandemic.

Because, yes, 20 years have passed since the first Harry Potter film, and in time the series has become an unprecedented global phenomenon and a real magical cash cow. It’s been ten years since the last Harry Potter film, but the mania around the universe created by J.K. Rowling doesn’t seem to end too soon, and that naturally leads to saturation. The series’ prequels and sequels have been received in all sorts of manners, both neutrally (see Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and all the controversy surrounding Johnny Depp’s part) as well as downright outrageously (see Harry Potter and the Cursed Child). Not to mention the pastiches such as Percy Jackson (a series whose first film was also directed by Chris Columbus). Or the heavily mocked additions to the canon of the series, which Rowling drops every now and then. And the list could continue. A Harry Potter trivia contest in the form of a miniseries, hosted by Helen Mirren, has just been released on HBO. And on January 1, a retrospective special, which reunites the main cast, is set to premiere also on HBO. And so forth, and so on.

As I was saying in the beginning, for my generation, Harry Potter has been a constant, and it seems that it will continue to be so – 20 years after the release of the first film, it is clear that Harry Potter is not going anywhere. As for me, I missed the train a bit in the meantime – I haven’t seen, for example, the latest Fantastic Beasts movie. But for this article, I started watching the old movies again (yes, it’s weird to refer to them in that way, even for me). So far, I’ve seen the first three films and I’ll keep at it. I think I’ll finish the entire series by Christmas.

Image from Harry Potter

He studied directing at UNATC, where he wrote articles for Film Menu. He also wrote his degree paper on D.A. Pennebaker’s early filmography. He is interested in analog photography and video art. He hopes for a Criterion release of Shrek 2. He makes movies.