Understanding Potter’s magical spell as it comes to an end
It’s not every summer we see the end of a cultural phenomenon, but with the release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 on July 15, the saga of “the boy who lived” comes to a conclusion. Not only has the series been an unprecedented achievement in the history of the cinema, but it is the most successful film franchise of all time, racking up $5.4 billion in worldwide box office receipts.
It’s easy to forget that while the first three novels by J.K. Rowling were runaway bestsellers, there was no guarantee that their film adaptations would be equally successful. With a budget of $125 million, Warner Brothers took quite a gamble in making these movies, and while it may seem in hindsight that their risk was minimal they were gambling on three young, unknown actors on whose shoulders the franchise would rest. Had director Chris Columbus not rendered the story in a way that would satisfy the Potter faithful, the studio would now be billions of dollars poorer. One only has to look at the failed Lemony Snicket and Eragon films to see how a “sure thing” can go so wrong.
While the financial aspects of the Potter series are staggering, what’s most impressive about the series from a critical standpoint is the continuing quality of the films. While Columbus will never be mistaken for a great filmmaker, his workmanlike approach laid the foundation of the series in the first two entries and nicely introduced us to Rowling’s vast cast of characters. With the third film, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, the stories began to take a darker turn and director Alfonso Cuaron delivered a visually captivating movie that tapped into the story’s darker themes. Mike Newell and David Yates continued and expanded on the sense of foreboding, with films that became more narratively compelling and adult in nature.
Yet, at the core of the success of the franchise are the stories themselves, pop fiction that speaks to universal themes of isolation, love, death, prejudice and the abuse of power in an accessible and surprisingly effective way. Rowling, and the filmmakers, have pulled off the difficult feat of making what could have been mere entertainments into something that transcends their genre roots, delivering vital and timely messages in the guise of big-budget entertainment.
But we wouldn’t really care about any of this if Harry, Ron and Hermione weren’t such compelling characters and if they weren’t embodied so fully by Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson. What a delight and privilege it’s been to see them grow up on screen. Their genuine performances have made it easy for us to become emotionally invested in their characters’ plights and have contributed significantly in giving the films an emotional pull they would have floundered without.
Most of those who will flock to the theaters on July 15 already know how this saga ends. Yet seeing it conclude on screen will provide viewers with something we constantly crave. We need to be reminded that while we live in a world where despair is rife, love, honor and loyalty are remarkable and precious things. And hope is vital to our spiritual survival. Box office results be damned, it’s Harry’s pure heart that keeps us returning, and I for one am eager to see him be rewarded for his sacrifices.
Contact Chuck Koplinski at firstname.lastname@example.org.