Earlier this week, I received a media request from a website that is focusing on Harry Potter over the next few days. The question they wanted me to answer was this: Will Harry Potter have the lasting power with audiences that Star Wars has had?
Star Wars first became a sensation in 1977, with the release of A New Hope. More than thirty years later, young children like Katie still become passionate fans of the story. Will children born in future generations be as Potter-obsessed as they are Star Wars-obsessed?
It was an interesting question, one to which I think the answer is yes.
I asked my husband, Andrew, what he thought, and he observed to me that “Harry Potter will always belong to the people who read the books as they came out, the ones who had to wait months and years between each book, just as Star Wars will always belong to the people who remember waiting for each movie to come out.”
There is a generation of teenagers and twenty-somethings who have quite literally grown up with Harry Potter, along with the very actors and actresses who were featured in the eight Harry Potter films.
One of our favorite babysitters, Gwen, is a recently graduated high school senior, and several days ago, she posted as her status update to Facebook, “Tears already. Harry Potter, don’t leave me.” Potter has accompanied her through her childhood and adolescence, a constant escape into another world when the stresses of growing up in this world proved to be too much.
Yesterday, Andrew and I went with our very dear friends Steve and Loren to see the final Harry Potter movie, and I saw more than a few teenagers in the audience shedding tears of grief. As we walked out, I heard one boy say, “What will I do? I don’t have any new Harry Potters left to look forward to.”
I think about this sensation as it pertains to my own daughter. Katie, well known at age 7 for her Star Wars fandom, is also an obsessed Potter fan. She had her first Harry-Potter-themed birthday party at the tender age of 4 years old, when she insisted that her birthday cake say “Happy Birthday, Hermione.”
She even made us sing “Happy Birthday, Hermione”, much to the confusion of all the other toddlers and to the appreciative amusement of their parents. (She had a second Harry-Potter party when she turned six).
How, one wonders, did a 4-year-old develop such an attachment to Harry Potter? In the same way she developed her love of Star Wars. She noticed that we, her parents, were absorbed by the story. At the time Katie turned four, we lived next door to a Borders, and Katie had seen all the posters announcing the arrival of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. She had heard Andrew and me talking at length about Sirius Black and Bellatrix Lestrange as if they were our neighbors.
Just as children absorb their parents’ prejudices, so too do they absorb their parents’ passions, and Katie became a Potter fan by osmosis.
But her fandom, like her fandom of Star Wars, can never be as deep as those of the people who had to wait for each installment of the story. Due to her extreme youth, Katie was unable to read the Harry Potter books as they were released. She was not even born when the earlier books came out.
As a result, when Katie is ready, she can sit down and read multiple Harry Potters at once. Like the people who discover a television series after the first season, she will be able to sit down to a binge of Potter films, one after another, hooked on the drug of a good story.
When future generations finish Book Six, they will be able to pick up Book Seven immediately, never knowing the agony we felt as we waited all those many months to find out if Snape was good or evil. Oh, the hours of debates we had, a cultural experience that future generations cannot relive, because the answers are already known.
Our children's children will love the books, but they will never own the books in the same way as we. They will never know what it was like to see people everywhere reading the same book at the same time in the days after a new Potter was released. On the bus, sitting at outdoor cafes, strangers became comrades as we gave each other knowing smiles, nodding at the book.
In a time when people log on for connectivity and communicate largely through texts and emails, there was something tangibly poignant about sitting in the theater yesterday and physically sharing a cultural experience with our friends. People clapped as momentous scenes occurred and laughed together at the rare comic moments that diffused the tension.
Andrew recalls similarly waiting in long lines to get into the theatres to see The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, sharing the anticipation and excitement with the fellow Star Wars fans that had first been hooked on the story when they saw A New Hope. Dressed in costumes, anxious for the opening credits to pass, they hung onto every word.
Katie, a devoted Star Wars fan, has never had to speculate and wonder about what would follow A New Hope. She has never turned to the stranger sitting in the seat behind her after the movie and said, “That was awesome!” I think this is one of the reasons why people love attending sporting events; it gives them a chance to feel a connection with fellow fans in a real world instead of a virtual one, an increasing rarity. How amazing that, in the past week, a story was what brought so many together.
There are certain aspects of the Star Wars and Harry Potter stories that are similar, and there is an unsurprisingly high crossover in their audience. Luke and Leia are raised apart, adopted into common families, not knowing that they are actually a prince and a princess.
Harry Potter is raised by muggles, not knowing until age 11 that he is “the chosen one.” These storylines play into the fantasies of all children, but they strike a far more responsive chord with Katie, who was adopted and thus harbors even more relevant secret fantasies about who she might be.
In another similarity, the characters unite across species. Luke and Leia join forces with people as well as other beings and creatures to fight an epic battle of good and evil. Harry, who joins forces with witches and wizards, also teams up with other creatures and beings to fight an epic battle of good and evil. Both stories feature betrayals and characters that turn to the dark side. In fact, both stories use those exact words – The Dark Side.
There is another characteristic that both stories share, one that strongly accounts for the fandom of as many women as men – women play a role in the triumph of good over evil. It’s not easy to find many stories that feature strong, smart women, but both Princess Leia and Hermione fit the bill.
Consider in Star Wars:
- In Episode V, it is Princess Leia who coordinates the evacuation of the rebel base on Hoth, staying until the last ship has left.
- In Episode VI, Princess Leia kills Jabba the Hut, using the chains in which she was confined to strangle him.
- Also in Episode VI, Princess Leia fights alongside Han Solo during the battle of Endor, continuing to fight even while wounded.
And in Harry Potter:
- Hermione is the one who know how to get past Devil’s Snare in Book 1, allowing Harry to complete his search for the Sorcerer’s Stone.
- In Book 3, it is Hermione who figures out how Dumbledore wants her and Harry to use the Time Turner to save Sirius and Buckbeak.
- In Book 7, it is Hermione who makes the decision to stay with Harry in his pursuit of the Horcruxes, even when Ron, her love, abandons them in frustration. This is the most impressive action of all, because it separates Hermione out from decades of silly female characters who put romance as their top priority. Hermione, ahh Hermione, is no Disney Princess seeking to please a man above all else. Rather, she sacrifices her loyalty to Ron by choosing to stay and help Harry in the fight against Voldemort. She is the best role model I could ever pick for Katie, a girl celebrated for her brilliance instead of her body, worshipped for her smarts instead of her sexualization.
Beyond offering strong female characters, both Star Wars and Harry Potter have staying power because they have inspired the creation of websites, blogs, video games – entire communities online are devoted to perpetuating the fantasies in these stories. And for newly grieving Harry Potter fans, the Internet provides a way to keep the story alive, even after the last book has been written and the last movie released.
Only time will tell if future generations will love Potter as much as they will undoubtedly love Star Wars, but my guess is that the teenagers of today will pass their passion onto their kids, linking their own past and their children’s future to the love of the triumph of hope and goodness.
Little girls who are tired of mindless ditzy main characters will continue to embrace Leia and Hermione, the women who helped defeat the Dark Side. The bullies are powerful, and the costs are high, but ultimately skill and smarts combine with the ultimate motivating factor of Love to overcome Fear.