Star Wars was the game changer.
In 1977, a generation of children walked into the movie theater wanting to be firefighters or astronauts or racecar drivers. They walked out wanting to be filmmakers. The movie defined a generation, and defined the art that a generation produced. You can see the influence of Star Wars in the work of everyone from Peter Jackson to Kevin Smith, Stephen Colbert to Simon Pegg, Daft Punk to Jedi Mind Tricks, and countless more creators. Hundreds of amateur filmmakers have gotten their start in the Star Wars sandbox, creating parodies, sequels and songs about the series.
But while Star Wars was a box office juggernaut, it still managed to be a personal experience. For the the budding nerds, artists, writers and filmmakers who grew up in the 70’s and 80’s, Star Wars was the story that everyone loved, or hated, passionately enough that it shaped their lives personally and professionally.
For my generation, the yet-unnamed children of the turn of the millennia, that story was Harry Potter. This isn’t meant to diminish the impact of Star Wars, of course, I ran around playing with lightsabers and trying to talk like Darth Vader as much as any other kid. But it wasn’t really ours, there was nearly twenty years of expanded universe to work through by the time we got on board. Harry Potter was the series that my friends and I grew up with, that aged with us.
I was seven when I read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. It was 1998- and a relatively inauspicious beginning to a love affair. My father bought me a copy, prefaced it with the assurance that “they were very popular in England,” and began reading. After he dozed off during chapter one, I liberated the book and read the next three chapters. By The Chamber of Secrets, I had given up on my slow-reading parents, and read the whole thing on my own. With the fourth book, The Goblet of Fire, the series was officially famous. Bookstores started holding release parties, and all of the internet (by which I mean the three sites my parents hadn’t blocked on AOL) was aflutter with speculation over who was going to die. I carried the massive doorstopper of a book around for the rest of the summer, weighed down even more by the beach sand that had accumulated in the margins, until the spine finally split and it fell into three pieces.
Shortly after my eleventh birthday (where I was disappointed to discover that I hadn’t received an owl from Hogwarts), I saw my first Harry Potter film. I hated it. It wasn’t my Harry Potter, it was stiff acting and boring “action” scenes and odd line readings. For years afterwards, my friends and I would do impressions of Daniel Radcliffe, and his habit of repeating other character’s lines, only with more emphasis. (“You’re a wizard, Harry” “I’m a wizard?”, and so on.) It wasn’t really fair, but kids rarely are. With all of my middle-school wisdom, I figured that the movies were a bust- but I was wrong. Over time, the films (and my prickly standards,) changed. The actors matured, the directors found their footing, and I warmed up to the strange, shadowy world of Hogwarts the film portrayed. The movie world of Harry Potter became as familiar and comforting as the book, despite their differences.
Soon, the films were as a vital part of the Harry Potter experience as the books. The series worked like a training exercise for budding young cinephiles, like myself, who would gather online to examine every production detail, discuss every casting choice, and decry every digression from the books, no matter how minor. The films introduced us to actors like Alan Rickman, Emma Thompson, and Brendan Gleeson, directors like Mike Newell and Alfonso Cuarón. And, of course, the films were actually good- rather than sit back on the laurels of the book and let the money flow in, Warner Bros went out of their way to make the films something special in their own right. They showcased the talents of actors our own age along with venerated professionals, and captured the tone and life of the original books. Heck, sometimes they even improved on them (I’m looking at you, Order of the Phoenix. There’s only so much CAPSLOCK angst a girl can take.) Most importantly, the films were not afraid to change. They proved that the text was not some sacred canon to be replicated word-for-word, but rather, like Star Wars, an open world for filmmakers to experiment in and explore, a launching point for other adventures. That was a lesson that we fans took to heart.
When Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince came out, I was fourteen lost in Barcelona, and had to hunt for an English-language bookstore. Like most teens, I was desperate to distance myself from my childhood, but Harry Potter was different. It was a book series that had grown in complexity and maturity as we had aged, introducing characters with moral ambiguity and moments of shocking darkness. So when Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was finally released, I was proud to wait in line at midnight with my friends, even poofing up my hair so that I could dress up as a convincing Hermione. While the last book marked the official end of the series, the promise of future films kept the franchise from feeling as though it was truly finished. Now that Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 is coming out Friday, we’ll be able to see the series’ cinematic legacy. But I’m far more interested in seeing the personal legacy.
My story isn’t everyone’s story, of course. Some people learned to read with the Harry Potter books, or came in to the series late, or were introduced to the series by the films. Many people picked up their first Potter book when they saw how much their kids loved them. Others had to hide them from parents who disapproved. And a great deal of people read a couple of books, decided that they didn’t like them, and are still wondering what all the fuss is about. But it’s fair to say that most people in my generation have been influenced by Harry Potter, and many of the people who are going to become my generation’s artists, writers, musicians, and filmmakers will have the same connection to Potter that I do.
There are already some incredible, and Star Wars-esque, examples of people drawing from Potter for inspiration. Darren Criss, the latest Glee heartthrob, first achieved internet celebrity by writing and starring in university productions of A Very Potter Musical and A Very Potter Sequel, full length musicals that affectionately parody the series. Emerson Spartz created Mugglenet, one of the foremost Harry Potter news sites, at the age of twelve. Now, at 24, Spartz runs an additional six websites and reached #2 on the NYTimes children’s bestseller list with What Will Happen in Harry Potter 7 – Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Falls in Love, and How the Series Finally Ends, which he coauthored. Young fans have formed “Wizard Rock” bands, like Harry and the Potters (or their musical rivals, Draco and the Malfoys), and have continued to make music even after the end of the series. Authors like Sarah Rees Brennan (The Demon’s Lexicon trilogy), Cassandra Clare (the Mortal Instruments series) and Jaida Jones (Havemercy, Shadow Magic) all got their start, and built their fan bases, writing fan fiction for Harry Potter.
Harry Potter fans have also made their mark on the world of the internet. Neil and Emmy Cicierega have been creating the intensely popular “Potter Puppet Pals” videos since 2003- their most famous (and catchy) video, “The Mysterious Ticking Noise,” has over 100,000,000 views on Youtube. Brad Neely, creator of The Professor Brothers and the memetic Washington song, admits to never have seen a Potter film or read a book, but still drew from Harry Potter for inspiration. He first achieved internet acclaim by creating the hilariously surreal alternate audio track for Sorcerer’s Stone, “Wizard People, Dear Reader”. It would be hard to find a webcomic artist, graphic designer, or starving artist today who doesn’t have some Harry Potter fan art buried in a DeviantArt somewhere- the most successful example would probably be Makani, who became popular enough to get her a job at video game company Valve.
This group of talented young people are just the tip of the iceberg. As the Potter generation ages, there will only be more artists, writers, and filmmakers who come forward to make their mark. Outside of the creative sphere, Potter fans are entering the world of academia, of fashion, and, occasionally, of internet entertainment journalism. Star Wars was able to captivate the imagination of a generation with just three films, in under six and a half hours. Harry Potter has had thousands of pages and eight films to do the same. The kids like me who grew up with Harry by our sides are about to step out into the real world- and bring Harry with us. While Harry’s saga might be drawing to an end on Friday (at least, until the inevitable remake in five years), we’re going to be feeling the effects of J.K. Rowling’s stories for years to come.
And I couldn’t be more excited to see what happens.