Friday, August 01, 2003

Potter Not Just For Kids

Originally published in The Vanguard, the student newspaper for The University of South Alabama

Another summer has come and gone, and with it, the box office smash hits. Now, in the middle of the hottest month of the year, when we would all love to be in the icy movie theater, sipping our Mr. Pibb and munching on greasy, buttery popcorn (extra butter please), we are stuck with few entertainment options.

We could watch TV, but most of the new fall shows have not started and we are tired of reruns. Watching "The O.C." only takes up one night a week, so what do we do with the other six? We could go to the mall, but we are all broke from paying tuition and buying school books. (Why one teacher wants to assign six books for one class is a rant for another day!) It looks like it is time to fall back on a classic form of entertainment that provides both an escape from real life and intellectual stimulation: books.
For this week's column, the Casual Critic seeks to dispel any rumors or misconceptions about a very popular series involving the adventures of a boy called Harry Potter written by J. K. Rowling.

Most of you are rolling your eyes and shaking your heads. You're saying, "We're college students, far too mature to read children's books." Well, you're wrong!

Harry Potter is not just a series for kids. In fact, the percentage of adults reading these books is comparable to the percentage of kids. And they are not just adults with kids.

The adult themes in this series have never been more prominent than in the most recent book, "The Order of the Phoenix." More importantly, the number of adults hooked on the series has never been more obvious than at the midnight book release parties of this book earlier this summer. The Casual Critic counted about an equal number of young adults without kids and children with their parents. Yes, I was there at midnight with all the kiddies and their moms, though I wasn't dressed up as a witch like some people my age!

To further cement my place in the geek hall of fame, I will admit I was wearing a T-shirt I made with the Hogwarts crest on the front. But why is this series so universally popular?
Children love these books because they show a world full of magic and possibilities. The spells are fun and interesting, the trials and tribulations are parallel to those children face in school, and the friendships are faithful and loving.

Adults love them because they are given a reminder that there is magic in the world. The possibilities adults tend to forget as they age and the imagination they do not regularly exercise get a work-out. Speculation about what will happen next in the series is a favorite activity among adult Potterholics, and it is done with gusto.

Of course, Harry Potter was intended at first to be a children's series, but is has evolved into modern classic literature. Remember Tom Sawyer? Anne of Green Gables? Any of the fairy tales Disney has made into animated features? These are children's stories that became classics for adults as well.

For the uninformed, I will now offer a little synopsis of the Harry Potter series thus far. Don't worry, I'll try not to spoil anything for you if you are planning to read the series.

"Harry Potter and the Sorcer's Stone" is the beginning of the saga. Harry is a young English boy who is just turning 11 when he finds out he is a wizard. He had lived with his aunt and uncle most of his life and was told his parents were killed in a car crash. This is not true. Harry's parents, Lily and James Potter, were actually involved in an effort to defeat the most evil wizard who had ever lived, Lord Voldemort. When Voldemort tried to kill the infant Harry, his magic bounced back on himself and he was assumed dead. Harry survived the death curse with only a small lightening-shaped scar. He discovers the real way his parents died from Hagrid, an employee at Hogwarts. Hagrid is the person who shows Harry his first glimpse of the magical world. This world is only accessible only to those who have the ability to see it. Harry is one of these magical people.
He goes to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, which is much like the boarding schools in England. He meets a boy his age named Ron Weasley on the train to school and they become friends instantly. Harry discovers everyone in the wizarding world knows his name and wants to see his scar. He is a legend in a world he has never even been a part of.
During his first year at Hogwarts, Harry learns a great deal about the wizarding world. Though some of this knowledge comes from Hogwarts teachers, most of it originates from Hermione, a girl in his year who is very intelligent and well-read. Harry, Ron, and Hermione have some great adventures in their first year. To find out more about them, read the book or rent the movie! Admittedly, the first book's audience was children, but it makes for a very quick read and a great escape.

The second book in the series is called "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets." Also aimed at a younger audience, this book goes through the second year of Hogwarts and involves another adventure. This time, Harry wonders about his ancestry and hopes there are no skeletons in that closet. He agonizes about his place in the wizarding world and tries to prove himself brave and noble. He manages to save the day with intelligence, magic and sometimes pure luck, much in the same was as in the first book. One of the most touching ideas in this book is the fact that true loyalty is rewarded, something we would all do well to remember in daily life.
The third book starts to deal with meatier issues and is easier for the adult reader to sink their teeth in and enjoy. There are many opportunities for analysis in the symbolism and subtle hints dropped by the clever Rowling about what is to come. "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban" begins with the summer before Harry's third year at Hogwarts. He is now 13 years old. He learns about a man named Sirius Black, who escaped from the wizarding prison. All the adults around Harry think Sirius is planning to come after Harry and try to kill him because they believe him to be in league with the evil wizard, Lord Voldemort. I don't want to say anything else because I fear it will spoil the book, but let me assure you, it is a favorite among many adult fans because of the surprise ending. A movie version of this book is being released June 4, 2004. By all accounts, this movie is incredible!

Book four is called "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire." If you haven't already caught the pattern, it spans Harry's fourth year at school and he is 14 years old. This book is a bit different. There are not a lot of classroom scenes and there is very little interaction between the three kids, who are still friends, but have some rocky moments in their relationships in this book. It mostly focuses on what is called the Tri-Wizard Tournament. It is an Olympic-like contest with 4 contestants and somehow Harry's name was chosen even though he did not enter. That mystery is revealed in the last pages of the book, so I will not share the information here. The tasks the competitors have to perform are difficult and the reader often wonders how Harry will pull through. He manages, as always, to come out on top. Unfortunately, this book ends on a very dark note, setting the tone for the next three books. The evil wizard, Lord Voldemort returns.

The most recent release, "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix," came out this summer. It was a best seller before it was even published. This book is dark and at times, scary. Harry is now a full-fledged teenager, at 15 years old. He went through a traumatic experience the year before and he has come out of it much moodier and more serious. Phoenix was actually quite hard to read because all the characters had such a hard time with their lives at some points. The reader cannot help feeling horrible for the characters and what they are going through. It is beautifully written and still has all the wonderful elements we Potterholics have come to expect from Rowling, including the snappy dialogue between the three friends. Harry, Ron, and Hermione have to help each other deal with all the difficulties they face during this book, and I think their friendships are going to be stronger for it. The last chapter in this book is called "The Second War Begins." This says all it needs to say. The sides of good and evil are setting up for a major battle, much like the first war in which Harry's parents lost their lives.

There is no word yet on when the sixth book will be published or even what the title will be, but I guarantee you there will be many adults joining me at the bookstore at midnight when it is released. I hope this review has convinced you that you need to be there too.
One of the greatest stress relievers we can have is to get lost in a good book. The entire Harry Potter series offers the escape we need when the stress of classes and jobs gets too overwhelming. So take some time out this year to get lost in the halls of Hogwarts and learn that there is some magic in the world, even if it is only within the pages of a well-written book.

Note: The sixth book in the series is called "Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince," and is being published in July of 2005.