Friday, July 29, 2016

Priori Incantatem: Harry Potter Memories – Chapter Six: Expelliarmus!

With the publication of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child on the immediate horizon – a play that is effectively serving as the eighth story in the Harry Potter canon I am republishing what remains one of my favorite articles I have ever written: Priori Incantatem: Harry Potter Memories. This piece was originally published in seven parts in November 2010, anticipating the theatrical release of “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1.” It was my final major statement and reminiscence on the Harry Potter series I love so dearly. Thinking this might be the case when I wrote it, I chose to focus on my memories of the franchise, in sequential order, to give the reader a sense of how I experienced this unique period in pop culture history. It is among the most emotionally open, honest, and confessional piece I have ever composed – closer to autobiography at times than review or analysis – and I therefore hold it very close to my heart. Over the next few days, all seven pieces will be published here on the site, leading up to the release of The Cursed Child on Sunday. Enjoy…

Continue reading after the jump…

Chapter Six: Expelliarmus!

2006 marked the first Potter-free year since the series had begun, without any new books or movies to entertain fans. During that time, Potter-mania remained prevalent since, with just one book left, readers were on the verge of learning how the series would end. The gripping conclusion to Half-Blood Prince, wherein Severus Snape kills Albus Dumbledore, had launched discussion about the final chapter into the stratosphere, and hype for book 7 was off the charts long before a release date was announced. After all, killing Dumbledore was nothing like killing Cedric or Sirius; killing Dumbledore was akin to killing Ron, Hermione, or Hagrid, and if one beloved main character had already been murdered, that meant anyone was fair game in book 7.

Speculation fueled anticipation, and anticipation turned into record levels of excitement; by the time I got out of middle school, it seemed like little else mattered. The eve of the final battle was fast approaching, and in the summer of 2007, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was completely redefining the notion of ‘hype.’

Readers worldwide theorized about all the mysteries the book would resolve and what would happen to their favorite characters, conjecture encouraged in America by Scholastic’s creative “Soon There Will Be 7” marketing campaign. In addition to the usual contests and giveaways, they also revealed seven questions that fans apparently most wished to see answered in the final book:

1. Who will live? Who will die?
2. Is Snape good or evil?
3. Will Hogwarts reopen?
4. Who ends up with whom?
5. Where are the Horcruxes?
6. Will Voldemort be defeated?
7. What are the Deathly Hallows?

I remember seeing a poster of these questions at Borders one day and being thoroughly underwhelmed. The first question is extremely broad; the third is inconsequential since, at the end of Half-Blood Prince, Harry made it clear that he would not go back to Hogwarts no matter what; the fourth, while important, makes the series sound like a soap opera; and the sixth implies that there might be some sort of alternate dimension where the story ends with Voldemort cackling in triumph atop the bodies of all the dead heroes. Were these really the questions die-hard fans wanted answered the most? I had to laugh. This epitomized the Scholastic marketing I had seen since I was seven: Cheesy, innocent, and lovable in its own weird way.  

Other than chuckling at Scholastic’s questions, I felt separated from the hype; I did not want to participate because it seemed surreal to me that Harry Potter could be ending; at the time, I was 14, and had been reading the books for over half of my young life. It seemed like Harry Potter had always been with me, and now the series was coming to an end, leaving my life too soon. I had grown up with these books, alongside Harry, Ron, and Hermione, and now their journey was ending, just as a monumental part of mine, High School, was about to begin.   

And so I approached the end with both fierce excitement and surreal melancholy in my heart; as the weeks passed, however, that melancholy started to dissipate. Though a part of me never wanted the series to end, a greater part desired to know who stole the Horcrux Dumbledore died for, what Snape’s true allegiances were, how Harry would finally defeat the Dark Lord, and most importantly, what would happen to all my favorite characters. At the end of Half-Blood Prince, Harry made a decision to leave the whimsical world of Hogwarts behind and bravely face these mysteries and the dark path they created, a decision readers had to mirror. Like Harry, I did not want to leave Hogwarts forever, but as we both matured, we realized that in the end, resolution, not whimsy, bore the most meaning.

Before that resolution could arrive, however, there was another major Potter event to enjoy: “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix,” the fifth film adaptation, hit theatres on July 11th, 2007, just ten days before the publication of Deathly Hallows. I was in my last months of writing for the Colorado Kids, since that October I would turn 15, the official cut-off age for employment as a youth journalist. I was already preparing for the transition; the Colorado Kids had now turned into YourHub NextGen, a child-friendly version of YourHub, an innovative community journalism site that operated in conjunction with The Denver Post and Rocky Mountain News. I had been invited to start writing for the adult YourHub once my NextGen tenure ended, and to seamlessly make the transition, I began posting articles to both Hubs simultaneously; my review of “Phoenix” became my third ever post on a blog I wound up maintaining for years to come.   

I saw the film early at a press screening, again at the AMC Highlands Ranch theatre. I did not go in extremely excited; most of my anticipation was reserved for the final book, and at that point, I had become disillusioned with the “Goblet of Fire” film and was wondering if the filmmakers could effectively rebound. With low expectations, “Order of the Phoenix” astonished me; my jaw dropped early and stayed suspended throughout. It was a truly amazing experience, a movie that captured the essence and emotions of the novel so well that the amount of material cut was a total non-issue. 

In fact, when I walked out of the theatre, I told my brother it was my favorite Potter film yet, perhaps one of the best movies I had ever seen. That opinion was tempered over subsequent viewings, but overall, my initial reaction has not changed. Director David Yates and his team flawlessly captured what makes “Order of the Phoenix” a powerful story: The theme of one generation passing on the torch to their heirs, either willingly (Sirius encouraging Harry and friends) or grudgingly (the formation of ‘Dumbledore’s Army’ to rebel against Umbridge and the oppressive ministry), came through just as effectively as it did in the novel. The acting, especially by the core trio of Radcliffe, Grint, and Watson, was better than ever, and the many fantastic visual moments, like Dumbledore and Voldemort’s unbelievably cool wizard’s duel, made this an unforgettable cinematic treat.

After seeing and reviewing the movie, however, my attention returned in full to Deathly Hallows, now only a few days away. We were not making the trip to Canada this year, so for the first time in seven years, I would be home in Colorado for the release of the new Harry Potter book. I initially planned to attend the midnight launch party at my local Barnes & Noble, but one day, my Dad came home from our grocery store with a better idea. It turned out that since King Soopers was open 24 hours a day, they too would be releasing the book at midnight. Figuring that most people do not buy books at the same place they buy their eggs, we were sure the crowd would be miniscule. So on the eve of July 21st, 2007, we headed over to King Soopers, waited in a short, twenty-person line, and were home with the final book by 12:30 AM.

Before I began reading, the surreal ‘this-can’t-really-be-the-end’ feeling I had in the preceding weeks returned with a vengeance. I was holding in my hands the last new Potter book I would ever buy; this really was the end of an era, and a part of me never wanted to start reading, knowing that if I embarked on this last journey, I would eventually have to say my goodbyes.

But temptation got the better of me, and as I began to read, any feelings of melancholy were instantly washed away. All good things must indeed come to an end, and though it was the last time I would ever do so, I was still reading a fantastic new Potter book, and that meant all was right with the world.

That night, though I meant to read only a little before going to bed, I instead stayed up until three in the morning to devour the first 85 pages. I imagine my thought process sounded something like this:

Ooh, there’s Snape…villain or hero? Why did he kill Dumbledore? Is Dumbledore really dead?  How could you, Severus?! Oh, look, they’re at Malfoy Manor, and all the Death Eaters are there with Voldemort. Good God, he’s really evil…I can’t wait to see Harry defeat him! Well, I think I’ll stop for the night, but—look, here’s Harry, saying goodbye to the Dursleys. What a surprisingly touching scene! Well, I am tired, I should probably—the Order has arrived, and Mad-Eye has a plan! But boy is he paranoid. I mean, seven Potters? That can’t be necessary, this is the beginning of the book, no one is going to die yet—OH MY GOD!! HEDWIG! NO, J.K. ROWLING, HOW COULD YOU? A little part of childhood just died, and—HOLY CRAP!! GEORGE LOST AN EAR? WHAT THE HELL?!! Well, I guess it can’t get any worse, unless….MAD-EYE MOODY WAS MURDERED BY VOLDEMORT! NOOOOOO!!!!  THE GREATEST AUROR OF ALL TIME IS GONE!

Hey, look, it’s three in the morning. I should definitely go to bed now…must…resist…urge… to…continue……

J.K. Rowling knows how to make a grand entrance; not only is the opening material unbelievably gripping, epic, and sad, it also sets the perfect tone for the rest of the book. This is a relentlessly dark novel, and Harry’s journey to destroy Voldemort’s horcruxes seems to grow more hopeless with each passing page. With no Hogwarts and no classes, the structure is entirely different, and when I first read the book, that came as a shock; and that’s exactly why the story is so effective.

Just as Harry, Ron, and Hermione are out of their element and in over their heads, readers feel disoriented and disturbed, making the trio’s emotional journey all the more palpable. Their guerilla war with Voldemort is horrible, but what made Deathly Hallows such a poignant read is that this is not an entirely unfamiliar situation. Life is full of change, and though both Harry and I would have loved to spend all our lives having fun at Hogwarts, that’s just not how life works. At some point, everyone must leave the comforts of childhood behind and face whatever journey they are destined to take. Harry’s voyage is a far more brutal ordeal than anything most people will ever face, but that concept of leaving one’s comfort zone and facing a new reality is a powerful theme that anyone can relate to, especially if they grew up with these characters. 

The poignancy does not stop there; this is, after all, the final chapter, and that fact is clear from early on. The plot is wonderfully complex, tying up old loose ends such as Snape’s true allegiance (a story as emotional and heart-wrenching as anything else in the series) and introducing new mysteries like the titular Deathly Hallows; it quickly becomes apparent that every one of the preceding thousands of pages in the series was building to this extraordinary conclusion, so when Harry finally steps into the ring with Voldemort, the results could not be any more satisfying. 

Nearly every character ever introduced in the series returns, if only briefly, to play an important role in the story. The strength of the bonds between these characters, forged and reinforced over ten years of publication, is only surpassed by their bonds to the reader, and the greatest joy of Deathly Hallows comes in the closure, sometimes heartwarming and sometimes heartbreaking, all our favorite characters receive.

After all, no story can be compelling without strong characters, and the inhabitants of the Wizarding world are the number one reason why I adored this series in the first place. I fell in love with Sorcerer’s Stone the moment Hagrid got a proper introduction in Chapter Four, and after that I became friends with Harry, Ron, Hermione, Dumbledore, all the Professors, the Weasleys, Sirius, and the numerous other members of one of literature’s all-time greatest casts. As the final adventure, there were many ways Deathly Hallows could have gone wrong, but Rowling avoided all of them by keeping the focus right where it had been the whole time: On the people and relationships that fueled and defined the Potter phenomenon.

I devoured Deathly Hallows over the course of two to three days, and though I did not immediately love all of it, once I finished the epilogue and closed the book, I felt fulfilled. Yes, it was strange to think the story was finally finished, but Rowling’s conclusion was so epic and emotional that I could hardly be sad to see the story completed. When I finished the book, I was sitting on the couch in my family room, and there I spent a few minutes in silence, reflecting not just on Deathly Hallows, but on the series as a whole, thoughts that would ultimately lead to this very article. With the series over, I did not know if Harry Potter would continue to influence my life, but it was as clear to me then as it is to me now that without those books, I would not be the person I am today. 

But as I entered High School and embarked on the next phase of my journey, Harry Potter did continue to impact me; at the time of Deathly Hallows, Harry was still older than I was and thus a role model, but it was clear that without any new books, the day would soon come when Harry would be eternally younger than me. Until that day, I continued to look up to Harry and enjoyed revisiting his literary adventures, always valuing that which I learned from him: Bravery, loyalty, and most important of all, love and friendship even in the face of unbearable hardship. 

I recently turned eighteen, a year older than Harry in Deathly Hallows, but I know in my heart that the series will always be special to me. Harry may not be my ‘imaginary friend’ or role model anymore, but his adventures now serve an equally important purpose. On our roads to adulthood, Harry and I shared in, at least metaphorically, the same trials and tribulations. His story had impacted and been there for me at many of the most important parts of my life; in that way, the tale of Harry Potter is a chronicle of my childhood, one that reminds me to never forget how far I have come, how I became who I am, and all the lessons I learned along the way.

When I wrote my official review of Deathly Hallows in 2007, I thanked J.K. Rowling profusely for the literary genius she bestowed on us, gratitude I must express once more. What she created extends beyond one time, place, setting, or age. The Harry Potter novels cast an eternally magical spell over me, forging powerful memories that will last a lifetime.

Back in 2007, as I sat on the couch holding my freshly finished copy of Deathly Hallows, I thought that the magical fun of Harry Potter would exist only in those memories. But memories can grow and change depending on how we mature and interpret them, especially when new memories are created, and little did I know that some of the best Potter experiences were yet to come.

To be concluded in Chapter Seven: Mischief Managed!

The text of this article is taken from my 2012 book, Fade to Lack: A Critic’s Journey Through the World of Modern Film, available on Amazon and other online retailers.

Follow author Jonathan Lack on Twitter @JonathanLack.

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