Potter mania washes over the globe
The book, the film, the chatter

by Judith Reynolds

(Editors’ note: Going above and beyond the call of duty, the Durango Telegraph dispatched Judith Reynolds to the heart of Harry Potter mania – London, England. Her report follows.)

LONDON - The United Kingdom is under lockdown. Not because the latest terrorist incident has scared everyone. It was, after all, brilliantly thwarted by British intelligence. Things have come to a standstill here because of Harry Potter.

On Fri., July 21, the final book in the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, will be on sale, “directly Friday midnight” as the Sunday Daily Telegraph puts it. And then there’s “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix,” which opened in movie theatres world wide a week prior. The country’s going crazy. News about all things Potter has pushed talk about Prime Minister Gordon Brown and “American Idol” gossip to inside pages. Who cares when Harry’s battling Voldemort?

Hallows, known as Potter 7, is the final novel in J.K. Rowling’s series. It has already broken all presale records set by Potter 6. By all estimates, more than £10 million has been spent to keep the ending a secret. Here are a few odd details: A litigation specialist is on duty at London-based Bloomsbury, publisher of the Potter series here in the U.K; British retailers have had to sign documents putting a legal embargo on anyone from revealing the content or selling copies before the official release date; print factory workers have been threatened with job loss if they so much as leak one detail. Similar cases surrounding Potter 6 have worked their way through Old Bailey already. For example, after he admitted stealing pages from Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, forklift driver Donald Parfitt served 180 hours of community service; a year ago Aaron Lambert was sentenced to 4½ years in jail for pinching and selling early copies of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.

To add to book fever, the newest film, “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” opened last week. Before I left for London, I managed to see the movie in Durango. Despite showing in three theatres, one at the Gaslight and two at the High Five, lines were long enough to fill every one. And I saw more adults waiting to see Harry than children. Potter mania is so significant among the adult population that the final novel in the series will come out with a children’s version as well as an adult version. Mind you, only the covers differ; the content will be the same. The plain brown wrapper syndrome? British newspapers speculate that adults don’t want to be seen reading children’s literature.

At a dinner party the other night in Cambridge, that theory came under scrutiny. One guest, a guy with a Cambridge Ph.D. in physics, sheepishly revealed he had seen HP5 that morning. On further questioning, he admitted not taking his children. He said he wanted to see the movie first and take the kids later. He added that he’d read all the books, seen all the films to date, and frankly was a fan. His boldness made it easy for me to admit I, too, was a fan and had seen the movie just before I left Durango for the U.K. It was a relief he brought it into the conversation, and we engaged in some dinner-table criticism. In brief, here’s what I think.

More than anything else, HP5 is a dark coming-of-age story. It focuses on the turmoil and ambiguity of adolescence – set in Harry’s odd, parallel universe. Harry is at one of life’s crossroads, that great bridge between youth and adulthood. And real life anywhere is a troubling business full of disappointments, confusion and moral choices.

Rowling casts Harry’s identity crisis as a Biblical struggle, and like her work in general, it’s one cliché in a cliché-ridden scenario. At a key moment, Harry writhes on the ground sweating with torment, the forces of good and evil struggling for dominance. Snobs will cite any number of horror movie precedents as Harry’s eyes flash on and off as if he were Dr. Jekyll wracked in his epic, internal struggle with Mr. Hyde. It’s old, familiar and great stuff, juicy.

The critics have pummelled Rowling for this kind of melodrama, most notably Yale professor and literary critic Harold Bloom. He has said: “Rowling’s mind is so governed by clichés and dead metaphors she has no other style of writing.”

Well, yeah. And my guess is that one reason adults like the HP scheme so much is that Harry’s world is just enough like our own to make it ring. In Potter land, Hogwarts is junior high school all over again. The Hogwarts Express leaves from King’s Cross Station, the same one here in London where thousands of people go to and from work every day. Years ago when Potter fever began, transport authorities showed some imagination and created a fake brick entry and dubbed it Platform 9¾. You and every other tourist can photograph your family there.

If the Potter phenomenon is an allegory of the rise of Nazism, as many have speculated, it not only has particular resonance for the Brits who survived World War II but those who find themselves allied to a country at war with al-Qaeda today. Over that Cambridge dinner table we tossed about the question: Does every era get the novelists (and films) it deserves? If the Potter phenomenon coincides with the Blair era, which it does almost too exactly (1997-2007), then Brits are wondering if Rowling could be George Orwell’s counterpart in the Churchill era. Something to think about. •