This year marks the 20th anniversary of the first film in the 'Harry Potter' series, 'Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone' (or 'Sorcerer's Stone' if you are in the United States). I have very clear memories of seeing the film for the very first time - that rush of nervousness and excitement at seeing the world of Hogwarts brought to life on a gigantic screen. By the time the film was released at the end of 2001, 'Harry Potter' had become an inescapable electricity. There were only four books published, causing widespread speculation at school over what would happen next, and we were hungry for anything that would allow us further access into this strange, witty and exhilarating story. All we had were these four books, no merchandise or video games or vast online communities. This film was the signal that all this was about to change, and we couldn't have been more enthusiastic.
In the 20 years since, 'Harry Potter' has grown from one of the great publishing success stories of our time to an industry unto itself. Its presence and persistence in popular culture is assured and its reach is vast, arguably beyond what anyone would have expected back in 2001. In that time, the driving force of its popularity transferred from the books themselves to the films, offering a more accessible avenue into the world and stories and making it one of the most successful franchises in film history. In those two decades though, it's hard to deny that the magic of the 'Harry Potter' series has been, and continues to be, tarnished. Its creator has since spoken actively against the trans community, in a manner that felt like a betrayal to her millions of young LGBTIQ+ fans who used her work as an escape from the cruelties of this world. The series has been merchandised and franchised to within an inch of its life, to the point that its presence is now as much a frustration as a wonder. The beautiful finality offered by both the books and the films did not satisfy the insatiable thirst of fans, merchandisers and studios - and as such, 'Harry Potter' has transformed from a revelation to a nuisance.
My own personal relationship with 'Harry Potter' has certainly changed in that time. I went from the teenager yelling and gasping as he read the books or pouring over every tidbit of news for the film on Dark Horizons or losing my tiny mind over the film itself, to deeply resenting the whole thing. I've always loved the books, and likely always will, but the complex themes around mortality, loyalty and integrity that enchant me about them seemed to be swallowed up by all the useless pieces of plastic found in supermarkets with a 'Harry Potter' logo attached to them. There's also a strong link to nostalgia with this property, something I've personally always found baffling. The 'Harry Potter' stories are about the process of growing up, the rocky and, at times, frightening transition from childhood to adulthood, and yet they have become symbols of the rejection of growing up. Because of this, because of the fact that 'Harry Potter' is just everywhere all the time to the point of exhaustion, I'd decided that the films were responsible for all this and, with a few exceptions, had diminishing merits.
It had become a bit of a parlour trick to trot out my theory that the 'Harry Potter' films were a prime example of how not to adapt a literary property, that they were more focused on the spectacle and hitting narrative plot points rather than integrity of character and theme. My friends would roll their eyes every time, and in my arrogance, I would dismiss that reaction as yet another example of our cultural sickness of worshipping at the altar of nostalgia and childhood. I was doing the exact thing a film critic should never do - dismiss the opinions of others. As I began to realise this arrogance, I decided that the right thing to do would be to revisit the films myself and see if I could still back up my assessment of them. And so, at the start of July, on the day that Melbourne entered its fifth COVID-19 lockdown, I closed the shutters and turned the television on, and over the next six days, revisited all eight of the 'Harry Potter' films.
As it turned out, my opinion had been (mostly) full of shit. To my surprise, I found myself glued to the screen, becoming progressively more and more invested in these characters and this telling of the story, consistently impressed by its craft and surprised at just how thematically rigorous the series actually was. Some of my past criticisms still stood ('Philosopher's Stone' is a mostly dull, colour-by-numbers adaptation, 'Goblet of Fire' is a tonal mess, and the writing from Steve Kloves is, across the board, functionary at best), but others fell swiftly and silently away. I'd started my marathon with strong scepticism, and finished it thoroughly converted.
One could argue that the films have suffered a similar fate to the books, with the preposterous levels of merchandising and franchising of 'Harry Potter' drowning the high level of craft and the thematic and emotional integrity of the films themselves. In an interview mid-way through the release of the books, the author was asked what the series was about. Her response was that the series was about death. That has always stuck with me as an astute description of what makes the books so arresting and emotionally satisfying; that they are engaging with an enormous but connecting human experience - our relationship with the concept of death, our own death, the deaths of others, how we respond, how we comprehend, how we face it, how we reject it, how we come to peace with it. Now watching the films as a complete creation, you can see (even in the chaos of its adaptation) that these ideas are still there, but that the film has an avenue of its own to explore, one that is just as powerful and as devastating.
At their heart, the 'Harry Potter' films are a portrait of a young person in a state of crisis. If we look at each film as a stage of Harry's development to adulthood, then each stage sees him grappling with trauma, whether that be comprehending the trauma and subsequent emotional abuse of his childhood, the horror of the source of his trauma returning to continue its attack on him, or the realisation of how much of himself he has to lose in order to defeat it. We often talk offhand of Harry as a classic hero, but his origins are less in myth and legend and more so in the burst of genre literature that emerged after the Second World War. His lineage is Frodo in 'The Lord Of The Rings' or Arthur and Lancelot in 'The Once and Future King' - young men whose journey to salvation comes at a great emotional and physical cost. In the books, this is easy to access on an emotional level (or for many people with the fifth book, reject), but on screen in Daniel Radcliffe's quietly brilliant performance, that struggle is made physical. It's written in his haunted expression, in the body language of a young man who would rather be anywhere other than the building nightmare he is trapped in.
The 'Harry Potter' series on film is a constantly evolving entity, but rather than this being to its detriment, it often works in its favour.
Where the first film treats everything with an empty wide-eyed wonder, as the series progresses the lens shifts from the outward magic to the rich inner lives of its characters. The screenplays often threaten to get in the way of this, but the right directorial hands know when to let the visual storytelling take precedence. This is why 'Prisoner of Azkaban' is such an extraordinary film - yes, it is adapting the masterpiece of the series, but it commits to exploring the emotional integrity and the complex relationships between the characters first and foremost. This is the film where we begin to learn who these versions of these characters are, and when David Yates takes over the series, he makes this his primary concern. The back end of the series is a full-throttle dive into the abyss, and the films carefully know when to be funny, when to be tense and when to break your heart.
What also struck me watching the series as a whole for the first time was what a miracle it is that this series exists in this form at all. We talk about the Marvel Cinematic Universe as being a groundbreaking piece of franchise filmmaking in its scale, but the 'Harry Potter' series had an arguably greater mountain to climb. There was no guarantee that the three actors cast as Harry, Hermione and Ron would be as good on screen at 17 as they were at 11. There was also no guarantee they would all even make it to the end. And yet, with the exception of the loss of Richard Harris as Dumbledore, you see practically the same cast follow through on the entire series, films shot over the course of a decade, weathering a cast of children navigating puberty through to adulthood. Just as with the books, these characters are growing before our eyes, but unlike the books, these aren't figures of our imaginations. We have literally seen Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint grow up in front of us, in some cases with us, and in film history, this feels almost singular. Just as miraculous is the artistic consistency of the series. The directors all bring their own texture or approach (in the case of Chris Columbus and David Yates, even changing between films), and yet even those films that don't work as well still feel of a piece. An even greater example is the five composers who crafted the scores for the series. There isn't a bad one of the lot, and there's also a lot of variation between them (Nicholas Hooper especially), but they are all in conversation with one another, bouncing off each other. Even those artists who remained on the whole series, like production designer Stuart Craig, are responding to the fresh ideas and fresh themes of each film. The 'Harry Potter' series on film is a constantly evolving entity, but rather than this being to its detriment (as I'd always assumed), it often works in its favour.
And so, as the credits began to roll on 'Deathly Hallows: Part 2' and I started wiping the unexpected tears from my eyes, I found that my love and appreciation for these films had grown. It turned out that the series wasn't the disaster I had built it into in my head, not the cause of the dilution and exhausting dissemination of 'Harry Potter' into all facets of human existence, but was in fact an honest, passionate attempt to preserve the power of the books and, in many cases, enter into conversation with them, just as a good adaptation should. They are a sweeping epic on the difficult journey of growing up, of comprehending the trauma of our past, on the insidious ways adults make children feel bad about themselves, on the need for safety and connection, on the mistakes we make on the way to understanding ourselves and the need to be made accountable for them, on what it means to be a good person when the world around you is set up to work against that, and on the impossible power of friendship, holding the hands of those you love when the world seems to be crashing down around you.
Great works of fantasy, science fiction or horror speak to the human experience, using the fantastical to help us understand something about ourselves. The 'Harry Potter' series may now be cheap toys and pointless prequels, but underneath all that is that very same conceit, a guide to young people that they can overcome the demons, things can get better and that they are stronger than they think. It's there in those seven miraculous books, and it's there in those eight gigantic films. That's why they endure 20 years later, and why they'll hopefully endure for many, many years to come - the great adventure of being alive.