Gryffindor Tower #23: The True Harry Potter Legacy
Harry Potter is headline news today because of the media blitz surrounding the new book. Six weeks later, you won’t hear anything.
–Martin Lindstrom, author, Brand Child
Thus, read an article on CNN.com, a critique of the Harry Potter series and its longevity in the literary world. Ironically, posted alongside the article, a subsection entitled “Potter Magic”, read as follows: Worldwide sales of over 270 million books in 62 languages; worldwide box office sales of almost $2.6 billion between three movies; 10.8 million initial print for book six; over 2000 book launch parties across the world.
What is the meaning of this contradictory column? The author, Parija Bhatnagar, is seemingly trying to discuss the chance of Harry Potter (the books, not the character) surviving after the seventh and final book. Will this phenomenon last? Will generations to come travel to Hogwarts as we do now? Will the imagination and ingenuity of these beloved books be overshadowed in the future? On the eve of what Amazon.com employee Laura Porco calls “the biggest product release ever in America”, I wish only to express my opinion of what will become of Harry Potter and, more importantly, those who have read it.
First, what Mr. Lindstrom claims bears no reflection upon the Harry Potter series. To claim that, in six weeks, no one will be talking about Harry Potter, is an unfair summation of the hype surrounding the book. We must first differentiate between the “media hype”, i.e. the bus advertisements, the television campaigns, etc., and the “reader hype”. The media hype has nothing to do with the story of Harry Potter. Bloomsbury, Scholastic, Raincoast, and the other publishing companies are businesses; their sole aim is to make money. The HP franchise is one of the most profitable business ventures of all time, and therefore it is foolish to assume that any publisher would not put a wholehearted marketing campaign behind the next book’s release. The money to be made is simply a by-product of an amazing story.
Conversely, reader hype is an ever-growing interest in a series of books that speaks to millions in a way that no other story has. The HP books are a tapestry of tales, themes, and truisms that resonate through every person who has ever opened one of J.K. Rowling’s masterpieces; they speak to the child in all of us, dare us to dream, to hope, to live vicariously through an orphaned boy who has nothing but the will to become a better person.
One could argue that, as the HP series grew from a simple manuscript to a worldwide business phenomenon, the books intrinsically lost their appeal. What Lindstrom refers to as the “overexposure” of the brand to kids may be true, but the consequences thereof are completely fabricated. He cites a 2003 global survey of children that claims that 67% of those surveyed believe that the Harry Potter hype is dying. What that, in truth, means is that the Harry Potter franchise machine is fading. Book Seven will presumably be released within two to three years, and therefore it is plausible to assume that, by then, Harry Potter will never again be headline news. However, do we judge the worth of a book simply by media exposure and gross sales? For one thing, Harry Potter will be, more than likely, the best-selling book of all time. It is doubtful that even the sequel to the immensely popular Angels and Demons and The da Vinci Code will be met with such enthusiasm. Take the second Dan Brown novel about Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon, The da Vinci Code. That is an example of a fantastic story horribly written. I am a huge fan of the book myself, but it is simply a story that relies on controversy and scandal to appeal to a mass audience. In ten years, the casual reader will not remember The da Vinci Code, because, in the grand scheme of things, it meant nothing to them but a fantastical reverie, a quick escape from reality. However, with HP, there is no such thing as a casual reader. I dare anyone who has read the entire series to tell me that it has not, even in some trivial way, changed their life. The HP stories are books that, as their core audience matured, the tales matured as well. J.K. Rowling began by aiming at a certain audience, challenging them from the outset, and constantly upping the ante as to the tone, themes, and even syntax difficulty of the books. There is no doubting the current effect of Harry Potter on the world, but how do we measure what Rowling has truly accomplished?
During an interview on the Star Wars DVDs, director James Cameron spoke of how Star Wars affected his life. He basically said that seeing the first movie was a kickstart for him, a reminder that, if he wanted to be a director, he had to stop goofing around and get to it. For me, personally, HP had the same effect. I’ve always wanted to be a writer, but HP was the impetus for me to take my ambition from daydream to reality. I truly believe that the mark of an author can be measured not by numbers, but by meaning. It matters not that every Scholastic and Bloomsbury executive can now get that summer home at the beach, nor does it matter that Warner Bros. can continue to produce record-setting movies that will fatten the wallets of everyone involved. What matters is the effect that reading these stories has on each and every reader. I can predict with a certain level of assurance that there will be, in the next twenty years, a growth in the children’s literature market the likes of which has never been seen. In an article at the Scotsman.com, Arthur MacMillan cites studies that show 48% of children read for fun because of Harry Potter; 84% of teachers assert that HP has helped improve child literacy and 67% say that HP has turned non-readers into readers. Moreover, 41% of children say Harry Potter has made reading cool; 39% say they would miss their favorite television program to read; and 70% of teachers say HP is discussed on the playground.
When I was a preteen, I was an avid reader, and I was the subject of many jokes because of it. When I was on the playground, the boys talked about sports and girls, the girls talked about clothes and guys, and the teachers talked to themselves. Even if, in ten years, HP isn’t talked about on the playgrounds, I’m willing to bet that other books will be.
Although I couldn’t find any data on the subject, I’m also willing to extrapolate as to the connection that has been built between children and adults (not only parents, but teachers as well) due to the popularity of HP books. Hop into the MuggleNet forums and you’ll see nine-year-old dance students discussing the meaning of Dumbledore’s Howler to Petunia with thirty-two-year-old accountants; thirteen-year-old Little Leaguers will debate who the Half-Blood Prince is with forty-five-year-old lawyers. The HP books transcend age and therefore build a bridge between the young, the old, and all those in between.
Martin Lindstrom is, in a way, correct. There will be no Harry Potter franchise after the release of both the seventh book and seventh movie. The franchise will fade, leaving many stores packed with Harry Potter t-shirts, bedding, lunch boxes, and other merchandise. However, the legacy of Harry Potter will never die. Says Robert Passikoff, a branding consultant, This brand resonates with consumers of all ages. It is a brand that is well-differentiated, unique and well-managed. The Potter series has longevity. In the same way that people go to buy Mary Poppins books, 30 years from now you will find Harry Potter on bookshelves. Harry Potter is a series of books that, for many, will speak to us in a way unparalleled by anything we will ever encounter.
The simple way in which Harry Potter can apply to all facets of life give the series inherent value. For a religious family, HP can demonstrate the unending battle between good and evil. For parents who want their children taught the philosophical values of ethics, the series illustrates the challenges we all must face in some form. Harry Potter is a series that shows us not only the good that can become of a moral life, but the hardships one will, without question, encounter throughout their lifetime. Rowling does not condescend; she does not speak to us like we are children, painting some characters white and some black; she portrays life as it is, always in the shades of gray that permeate all that we encounter. There are choices made by characters in HP that do not clearly seem right or wrong, but seem some conglomeration of all that can be right and can be wrong in the world. Harry isn’t an angel; he’s a troubled teen with angst and emotion, growing up the way we all do, the way we never stop maturing. No one in Harry Potter is perfect; even the omniscient Dumbledore admits in OotP that he has made mistakes. Rowling’s characters stress, above all, that we are all human and are all capable of mistakes and sins. What she more importantly stresses is that mistakes are a part of life, and that we can either learn from where we’ve erred or we can wallow in self-pity and learn nothing from our past choices. As she so eloquently puts in GoF, the time will come for all of us when we must make the choice between what is right and what is easy. Ethically, that simple statement alone carries so much weight that it can in itself be the basis for a moral life.
In four day’s time, many of you will be waiting in line to pick up a 600+ page book. If someone had, ten years ago, asked me, or you, or a literature professor at Harvard if this would ever happen, the answer would be a resounding and confident “no”. Now, however, we are faced with the largest book release of all time, the continuation of the most popular book series of all time, and the second-to-final chapter of what will be one of the most enduring tales ever told. To Martin Lindstrom, and, truly, to all critics who repeatedly view the HP series as a business venture, I ask you to look not only at this Friday night, but at the legacy of the Harry Potter series. I know I am not alone in the growing number of aspiring writers whose love for storytelling was ignited by Rowling’s masterpieces. The benefits of HP on all readers, but most importantly, on the young fans, will only be truly understood in years to come. In a time when literacy levels are down and most students write at grade levels at least three below what should be normal, the effect of HP on the world will only be fully known when we see what I believe to be the inevitable advance of our society as a whole on an intellectual level.
To all of you who will be reading Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince this weekend, I hope that you all enjoy it, and I hope (although I’m sure “I know” would be a better phrase) that Jo meets and surpasses all of your expectations. I sincerely hope that everyone has a great time getting their books and reading them. See y’all next week.