The Potter of Gold

by Alma A. Hromic

November 26, 2001

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The first time I ever heard of a little boy named Harry Potter was walking through the streets of Oxford, England, with a friend whom I hadn't seen for some time, and seeing whom had played no small part in my decision to visit the United Kingdom at this time. We had one day we could spend together, a handful of hours, and there we were in the City of Dreaming Spires, talking animatedly as we caught up on each other's lives, when she suddenly turned sharply into a bookshop on a street corner.

"Sorry," she said, "won't be a tic. Looks like the Harry Potter book is in."

There he was, the wizard-child with the round spectacles, large as life on a cardboard display. Little did I know how far he would go in the space of a few short years. Indeed, the meteoric rise in the fortunes of Harry Potter has been nothing short of magical as and of itself. There have been few other characters in the entire history of children's literature who have transcended that genre and become as popular as Harry Potter - with adults as much as children.

I did not pick up a Potter book in Oxford. In fact, the first time I read any of J K Rowling's books was when they were handed to me by the young son of a friend with whom I was staying for a couple of days in June 2000. The boy almost insisted that I finish the Potter books — the first three, at that time, book 4 being just a large marketing event looming on the horizon — and I did so with a remarkable degree of ease and pleasure. The books were quite simply thumping good tales, competently written, engaging, and overall classed in that small number of books which, originally written for children, manage to keep adults happily amused and occupied without the sense of reading "kids' books." By very virtue of all this the Potter books were a curious anachronism - because books like these had gone out of fashion and the MTV generation required action figures and blood-guts-and-gore anime (in short, easily mentally digestible, ten-second bursts) to keep themselves entertained. As an editor in a major international publishing house, a few years ago, I recall having a dispute with my superior about the kind of stories accepted for publication in a series of books called "Blasters," which appeared to concentrate on giving their intended readership — the 9-to-14 age group — something they could pick up, absorb in a single short flash, and then dump without regret.

"But this won't keep them reading," I argued. "This kind of thing won't make them want to pick up another book, another story, when they finished this. All they'll do is go back to their Nintendo."

But keeping the kids reading wasn't our concern, apparently. The "Blasters" series delved into nothing at great depth and apparently this was its strength — the very shallowness of it. This, apparently, was the way the intended market was perceived. Shallow minds with a limited attention span.

When the Harry Potter phenomenon hit the literary world with the force of a Category 5 hurricane, everything I had ever said about "Blasters" appeared vindicated. Harry and the "Blasters" books shared the same market — but Harry was a throwback to an earlier, slower, more thoughtful time. There was a development of character here, and this took a number of pages to establish — the books were not lightweights. The novels had to have been perceived as a risk by their publishers — and yet they took off on a Nimbus 2000 broomstick and never looked back. Harry Potter had hit a spot, and made his own mark on this world. In the process he made his creator, single mom waitress-turned-writer J K Rowling, into a multimillionaire author and a household name. There's nothing really extraordinary about the Harry Potter stories — but in a world of the mediocre they stand out like a white light, and it's almost churlish for any other would-be writer to resent Rowling's success when all she did was resurrect, from an almost moribund state, the idea that CHILDREN WILL READ WHEN PROVIDED WITH A GOOD ENOUGH STORY. This was precisely my point with "Blasters" — the kids who pick up Harry Potter won't drop it and go back to a computer game afterwards. They'll look around, instead, for something else to read. This is a Good Thing. For this alone, Rowling deserves all the kudos (and the dollars) that she got. This is a writer who has single-handedly changed the face of publishing today — children's literature, sure, but the ramifications could be vast. Children who read grow up into adults who read.

The latest incarnation of Rowling's young hero is the Harry Potter movie, which opened to rave reviews and record-breaking box-office receipts on November 16, 2001. The film, which cost more than $120 million to make, grossed $93 million in its first weekend; not only does it look likely to recoup its massive costs within its first week, it's already looking ready to topple all other movies at the #1 spot as the highest-grossing movie of all times (thus finally sinking the "Titanic"). I went to see the movie on a Saturday matinee, the day after it opened in the United States; the cinema was packed, with the audience ranging in age from about six months (a babe in arms) to graybeards. The children were remarkably well behaved and quiet, except for the irrepressible "THAT is SO COOL!" overheard a couple of rows back from where we were sitting after a particularly sparkling special effect. The Harry Potter movie is a Big Success.

It sticks pretty closely to the book, which is important because it deals with characters already so well known and internalized by a generation of children. The actors cast in their roles are almost uncannily perfect — a suitably regal Richard Harris, wrapped in long, snow-white hair and a proper wizard's beard, as the Headmaster of Hogwarts School for Wizards; the inimitable Alan Rickman, whose evil Sheriff of Nottingham so emphatically upstaged Kevin Costner's Robin Hood in "Prince of Thieves," outdoes himself as Professor Snape; Maggie Smith's aristocratic British vowels simply bristle under that pointed witch's hat. The all-important parts — Harry, Ron, Hermione, Malfoy — were naturally filled with faces which were unknown to cinema audiences up till now, but which are unlikely to remain so. Already it is impossible to imagine Harry Potter or Draco Malfoy with any other features than those featured in the Harry Potter movie — and not only because of the movie itself. The merchandising push behind the Harry Potter juggernaut has been, as has been stated in a recent article, "restrained" — but even with such restraint we are talking billions of dollars. Harry Potter mugs, diaries, paper plates, piggy banks, alarm clocks, photo frames, figurines of Hogwarts students, teachers and owls — these, and much more, are already spreading through the halls of Barnes & Noble, Walmart, the local supermarkets. I haven't seen any yet, but it wouldn't surprise me to find out that someone out there is cashing in on removable tattoos in the shape of the famous Potter zig-zag of lightning. There's a HarryPotterOctopus out there with tentacles waving in every likely spot. Few people in any movie-going country on this planet could have been unaware of the advent of the movie; advance ticket sales ensured that the several theatres in American multiplexes devoted to the Harry Potter phenomenon were sold out hours, sometimes days, before each performance. Parents, apparently, took days off to accompany avid offspring to the Harry Potter premiere (and probably bought Coke in a paper cup with Harry Potter's smiling eyes peering out from behind his trademark glasses).

Yes, it's overkill — but it remains true that the basis for all this is sounder than most other fads and fancies that have hit the children's market in recent years. The fact remains that the Harry Potter books are good. The fact remains that the Harry Potter movie is thoroughly enjoyable, and almost frighteningly well done; the Quidditch scene in the movie, a game which is similar to a form of (rather violent) soccer, played on broomsticks, is so perfectly rendered that the viewer finds it very easy to forget that he is watching a splendiferous special effect and is lulled into believing that he is quite simply watching a school ball game (broomsticks notwithstanding). The movie is quite simply FUN, for adult and child alike.

Harry Potter is not a new invention — he is a re-invention of the kind of character that children used to identify themselves with, a character with more than one dimension, with courage, faults, a propensity to screw up like any other kid... but a character who is, in more than one sense, magic.

One could say I was sitting in the Quidditch stands and yelling, somewhat self-consciously, "Go, Harry!" For J K Rowling he might have been something of a Potter of gold at the end of her own personal rainbow. For the rest of us, he's Harry Potter, Hero. Excuse me while I find out if any tickets are available for tomorrow night's performance of the Harry Potter movie.



       Alma Hromic, the author with R. A. Deckert of Letters from the Fire, was born in Novi Sad, Yugoslavia. However she has lived outside her native country for much of her life: Zambia, Swaziland, South Africa, the UK and New Zealand. Trained as a microbiologist, she spent some years running a scientific journal, and later worked as an editor for an international educational publisher. Her own publishing record includes her autobiography, Houses in Africa, The Dolphin's Daughter and Other Stories, a bestselling book of three fables published by Longman UK in 1995, as well as numerous pieces of short fiction and non-fiction. Her last novel, the first volume of a fantasy series, Changer of Days: The Oracle, was published in September 2001 by Harper Collins. Last January, Hromic won the much coveted BBC online short story competition. Her story, The Painting, was broadcast in the UK in the last week of January 2001.

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Published November 26, 2001
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