In a 2006 interview with Tatler, JK Rowling stated that her Harry Potter stories are “largely about death” and it’s certainly true that over the course of the saga, the bodies of family members, friends and teachers pile up in a manner unusual in children’s fiction. Yet even though there is this ever-present threat, the success of the Potter books and the films they’ve spawned has been nothing short of a phenomenon.
Yesterday, thousands crammed into London’s Trafalgar Square for the premiere of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, the final movie in the series that finds the boy wizard facing his destiny. So what is it about this world, which at times can be so deadly and dangerous, that has captivated a generation of young readers and cinema-goers?
What JK Rowling recognised back in Harry’s first adventure, The Philosopher’s Stone, is that there’s a need in kids’ literature to get rid of the grown-ups. Imagine if cranky Uncle Quentin had joined the Famous Five on their camping trips to Kirrin Island, or if an adult accompanied Lyra as she snuck around the Oxford colleges in Northern Lights.
Back in the 1940s, Enid Blyton used the absence of adults to give her child detectives the freedom to go off and trap smugglers and thieves. But hers are heroes of arrested development, Julian forever destined to be a prepubescent leader of a prep-school gang.
In having Lily and James Potter killed, Rowling liberates her central figure and gives him an in-built independence that wouldn’t seem out of place in a Famous Five tale. The difference lies in what she does with the grown-ups: in Blyton’s world, they’re back at home working or making the supper. In Harry Potter, they’re dead. Gone for good.
This recognition of mortality, instead of being off-putting, turns out to be a highly engaging hook. Harry’s quest over the course of his time at Hogwarts is to vanquish evil, but also to find a substitute father figure. It’s a mission that leads to many casualties, but Harry’s plight and his volatile adolescence are what give the narrative an emotional depth that an audience who are heading towards – and in the throes of – puberty can immediately identify with.
The use of Hogwarts is also central to Rowling’s success, both in the books and on screen. Here we have a boarding-school environment not too far removed from Jennings or Mallory Towers, but again with that sinister JK twist.
While friendships can be forged in the welcoming common room among students removed from the care of parents, the teachers are quickly proved to be an untrustworthy lot, especially the ones who are cowards, sinister agents of the Ministry or harbouring Lord Voldemort behind their turban. With its labyrinthine corridors and hidden rooms, Hogwarts also lends itself extremely well to the big screen, where the school almost becomes a character in itself.
In fact, Rowling’s world with its food, sports, currency, animals and traditions has proven to be a dream for movie-makers. In print, it’s a fully realised landscape, fleshed out to a degree unmatched by any other children’s author – not even JRR Tolkien’s maps of Middle Earth that preface his Lord of the Rings trilogy feel as tangible. And what the films have done is reproduce this magical panorama in great detail to the delight of fans.
What youngsters want to see is a faithful transfer of their favourite text to celluloid. When writers dramatise Jane Austen or Charles Dickens, they know that an adult’s memory of these classics (based on when they read them at college or university) is somewhat hazy, so liberties can be taken. With Harry Potter, though, it was necessary to capture more than just the essence because the words are so fresh in the mind of the reader.
Thankfully, the collaboration between JK Rowling and Warner Brothers has resulted in a franchise that is – aside from a few omissions made to keep running times down – remarkably evocative of the books and therefore one of the most financially successful of all time. Rowling’s singular imagination and the care taken to bring her creation to life mean that it’s doubtful we’ll see its like again.