Harry Potter is a multi-billion dollar phenomenon. It has probably made more money and penetrated into the popular consciousness more than anything else I’ll talk about on this blog with the possible exception of Star Wars. I think the real turning point of the phenomenon, the moment that it truly broke the bonds of the fantasy genre and the juvenile audience was right around 2000, when Goblet of Fire came out and the first film went into production. At least, that’s when I first heard about it, and it’s about the time that the awards I’m covering took notice.
The novels follow an orphaned and neglected boy named Harry Potter as he turns eleven and discovers that a) magic exists, b) he can do magic, c) he’s expected to attend a school for wizards, and d) he has a destiny as the unwitting defeater of the evil Lord Voldemort. It’s a perfect wish-fulfillment scenario, but it also allows Rowling to play with some of the tropes of urban fantasy, an area where I think the films have focused more. In the novels, it’s almost suburban fantasy, as the real world (or “muggle,” in Rowling’s parlance) contrast is the suburban, dull, and downright abusive Dursley family.
Each of the seven novels in the series focuses on one year of Harry’s school at the wizard school Hogwarts. I think this might be Rowling’s most brilliant conceit, as it gives her a sold formula to follow or subvert as needed, and it allows the series to grow and mature along with its protagonist. The early books are short and clever, but fairly childish. The latter books are heavy, and filled with character deaths and epic battles. The two award-winning volumes slide right into the middle at three and four, which results in a nice balance of light and heavy, and this is probably my favorite era – the formula hasn’t broken, but it’s maturing.
Prisoner of Azkaban may be my favorite for this very reason. It manages to maintain some of the series' early innocence and charm, but the threats seem more real than ever, and Rowling does a great deal of world-building that hints at the magical world outside of Hogwarts and gives some more background to some of the characters. Sirius Black, a key follower of the dark wizard Voldemort, has escaped from the nototious Azkaban prison. He betrayed Harry’s parents, and there are hints that he is coming to kill Harry himself. Meanwhile, Dementors, the grisly and ghostly guards of Azkaban also frighten and endanger Harry as they hunt for Black. There are the usual number of intricate, interlocking mysteries that you get in a Harry Potter book, as well as some of the usual magical gadgets; this has my favorites: an interactive map of the school grounds and a limited time travel necklace that Rowling puts to great use.
It may be obvious by now, but I am a fan of these books. Rowling is a great plotter, and she reweaves some tired fantasy tropes into something that feels both original and classic (I’ve heard it claimed that these books rip off Earthsea and/or Ender’s Game, but I don’t see it. The school setting is old and oft-used, and the mood is completely different. Orson Scott Card sure seems convinced though!). The prose makes for a fast-paced read, though it can get a little precious, even for a children’s book. Still, the books are fun and exciting, and I think they offer plenty for adults. But you’ve probably already read them, so you don’t need me to tell you.
I also want to mention that the film version, directed by the excellent Mexican filmmaker Alfonso Cuaron, ifantastic. By far, it’s the best of the film versions, as it steers away from the childish schlock of Chris Columbus’s first two films and creates a new visual style that clearly influenced all of the subsequent films. He really plays up the urban fantasy elements, and his Hogwarts is more spacious and engrossing. It was nominated for a Hugo in 2005, and maybe should have won (actually, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind should have won, but that’s a debate for another day). I highly recommend it.