A generation moved by magic
Before she became one of the most popular authors in the world, J.K. Rowling was traveling by train unsure about her future. Ultimately, she created a story that would shape and inspire a generation — a magical tale about a boy wizard.
Rowling penned a story for her audience of eventually billions that took place in a wizarding world of magic. The protagonist, Harry Potter, grew up over seven years in seven books at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry as he fought against dark magic, saving the world from the evil plans of Lord Voldemort.
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The popular book series grew into a billion-dollar film franchise, a theme park, a Broadway play and countless other merchandise for fans who connect closely to Rowling’s world. More than 160 million copies of the “Harry Potter” series have been sold in the U.S., and more than 450 million have been sold worldwide. The series has been distributed in more than 200 territories and has been translated into 68 languages.
On Nov. 17 the first film of the five-part spin-off “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” will premiere in theaters. The highly-anticipated movie has received 100 percent rating from Rotten Tomatoes, a movie review website. The worldwide box office money made from the eight Potter films nationwide so far totals at $7.7 billion.
The largest audience for Rowling’s Potter world is college-age Millennials, because of their age when the series was released.
Chances are you could not find a Muggle alive today who has not heard of Rowling’s world she has expanded during the past 20 years. But for the Millennial generation specifically, the series is something that has been with them as they grew up with the beloved characters. Whether a casual or devoted Potter fan, most Millennials have never known an adolescent or adult life without Harry.
For students on Central Michigan University’s campus, the impact of the series can be seen in the CMU club Quidditch team, a sport adapted from the Potter books. In addition, there is a chapter of the Harry Potter Alliance on campus, that identifies with Rowling’s message of love and overcoming evil and are inspired to perform charity work in the name of their favorite books.
In the classroom, students can enroll in a class dedicated to analyzing the series and traveling across the world to countries where scenes of the story take place in the books and films.
More subtle demonstrations of the devotion of college-age Harry Potter fans shows when students sport maroon and gold striped Gryffindor scarves around campus, tattoos of Deathly Hallows symbols on their body, or wear Dumbledore’s Army pins on their backpacks.
More than nine years have passed since the last Harry Potter book was released, but the popularity of the Harry Potter franchise including theme parks, movies, video games and other merchandise shows the fan base that grew up with the series is still loyal to Rowling’s stories.
The Harry Potter Generation
The adventures of Harry and his friends growing up with problems most young people face was something Rowling’s audience related to and still continue to love.
Despite the fact that he teaches a class based on Rowling’s life work, Professor Joseph Michael Sommers said he is surprised by the success the Potter franchise continues to experience.
“To a certain degree, I’m slightly flabbergasted the Millennials are still so impacted by (Harry Potter),” said the English professor. “(Rowling) is quite possibly one of the most important children literature writers, which is not to say she’s one of the finest.”
Although he enjoys Harry Potter books, Sommers said he appreciates the prose in her adult mystery novels, the Robert Galbriath series, more than the seven Potter books.
“There are so many greater books Millennials could have attached to,” Sommers said. “But (Rowling) has a distinct voice, a specific writer’s voice which is something we don’t see that often.”
More than other authors that people compare Rowling to, like J.R.R. Tolkein who wrote the “Lord of the Rings” series, Sommers said Rowling speaks to the Millennial generation much more effectively.
“Rowling hits that beautiful medium where you can fall in love with her voice, fall in love with her creations, and she’s not opposed at going in and tugging at all of your heartstrings,” he said.
Most people are fans of the series because of the strong multi-layered characters Rowling has created for her audience.
“I love how she portrays her female characters,” said Madison Frye, a Grand Rapids junior. “They’re all super strong and smart. As a little girl being shown those characters, it was beneficial for me because that’s not what you usually saw on TV and in books.”
In addition to writing strong characters with powerful messages in the Potter books, Ken Jurkiewicz, professor of film history, genres and theory, said Rowling benefitted from having a “built in audience” that grew up with the characters as the books and movies were released.
“(Millennials) grew up with Harry Potter,” Jurkiewicz said. “As they grew older, they knew that Harry was getting older too.”
Farwell senior Travis White sees this as one of the main reasons he connected with the series growing up.
“We grew up when Harry Potter did, and so we had that sort of connection with him that almost seemed as if we were in his world,” White said.
Reading the books multiple times is common among most fans of the Harry Potter books. For Cedar Springs freshman Erika Cardinal, it’s therapeutic to retreat to her favorite series whenever she’s going through a tough time.
“Harry Potter is really important to college-age people because it’s something we can have with us in times of turbulent change,” she said. “There’s lots of instances where I’m really unsure and don’t know where my life is going. I think Harry Potter is something that is a constant. My books are a constant, my knowledge and want to learn is a constant.”
The books have also been a constant for Eric Scull, who got involved in the fandom and started working for the largest Harry Potter fansite — Mugglenet in 2002 and has since been a host on the Potter podcast, Mugglecast.
“When people turn to Harry Potter like I know I do, it has a lot to do with the people who you shared the experience with, the people in the fandom, the friends I’ve made through Harry Potter,” Scull said. “There’s no stronger way to break barriers between people that I’ve found besides a shared love of Harry.”
Cardinal said she connected to the books because of their mulit-faceted themes that run through the narrative — some meanings have become more apparent to her as she rereads them. Examples she gave of this were how Hermoine was called a “Mudblood,” meant to be a slur because she wasn’t considered a traditionally “pure born” witch because of her muggle parents.
“Yes, Harry Potter teaches you about the power of love in this magical world,” Cardinal said. “But it also taught an entire generation of kids that it’s OK to not always trust the media and sometimes the government is corrupt. The people in power don’t always have your best interest at heart.”
Rowling took children’s literature to the next level, Sommers said. The professor, who took students on a study abroad trip to Europe to visit “Harry Potter” movie locations last summer, said Rowling has built a body of academic importance around the fantasy series.
“She spins a good yarn but is heavily dependent on many other writers. She’s an inter-textual writer,” Sommers said.
Rowling also made political comment on what was going on politically in the real world when her books were released.
“When you can cross-pollinate what’s going on politically, culturally and literary, it’s an escape but it’s not too far of an escape — it culturally informs (readers),” Sommers said.
Scull agreed in the way the series has culturally informed its audience, saying complex characters like Albus Dumbledore teach children to not take things at face value.
“Learning the people you care about most are merely human, is such a renowned global message that it is essential to the growth of an adolescence person,” Scull said. “It makes the series timeless and infinitely acceptable.”
The next chapter
With the premiere of “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find them” coming to theaters midnight Nov. 17-18, Potter fans will have a chance to go to their first midnight movie premiere since 2011.
Although the series of five movies will take place in Rowling’s magical world, the first of the new saga is reported to take place in 1920s New York City. The new movies are also not adaptations from prior books by Rowling, even though they do use information from Harry Potter’s textbook “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” that Rowling published as a companion book to the Potter series.
The author wrote the screenplay for the first film and said she plans to do the same for the rest of the movie series. This is the reason most fans feel confident the new movie will be a success.
Even though Rowling is involved, Jurkiewicz pointed out that writing a book is much different than writing a screenplay.
“When you read a book, the writer strings words together in a certain order and you have to read line by line, page by page,” Jurkiewicz said. “But with a movie, the director has got to string images together in a certain order to get an impact on the audience. Movies are a narrative art form, they tell stories but it has to be through pictures, which has all kinds of implications.”
Despite questioning why the producers of the films have given away major plot lines to the films, Scull is optimistic about Fantastic Beasts.
“It’s exciting because she’s excited about it,” Scull said. “Just how enthralled we are with her creative process I think is something all Harry Potter fans share.”