The children who eagerly devoured the first Harry Potter book back in 1997 are now, like Harry himself, young adults. Seven Potter books and subsequent films have defined an era-the books selling more than 400 million copies in over 60 languages while the movie adaptations have earned more than $2 billion in worldwide ticket sales.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, the eighth and final film of the series, hit theaters July 15, and with it we say goodbye to Master Potter, watching him take his place with Frodo Baggins and Luke Skywalker as epic heroes who have helped shape a generation.
Despite some controversy in Christian thought over J.K. Rowling's wizard-centered setting, Harry Potter has had his effect on the world not because of the series' magical conceit but because of a universal and profound story: that of a boy growing to manhood and accepting the responsibility to resist evil, even at great cost. In the hands of Harry, Hermione, and Ron, wands and spells take the place of guns or light sabers, but the values of freedom and justice remain the same.
As the film picks up the story, the evil Lord Voldemort has taken over the wizarding world, imposing his racist mission and arbitrary terror over formerly free wizards. Severus Snape, a bitter teacher and murderer of the wise wizard Dumbledore, controls the Hogwarts school. Harry and the rest of the resistance have been forced underground.
Harry heads for a showdown with the dictator in a raging battle with Hogwarts as its backdrop. He learns that his destiny merges with that of Voldemort in a different way than he had supposed and that Snape's secrets hold the key to the entire series.
With a villain bent on eliminating mixed-blood wizards and an Anglophile setting, the series echoes the story of World War II, with ordinary Hogwarts students and teachers cast as the everyday heroes of the Battle of Britain. The power of Rowling's work lies in that while it's Harry's story, it's also the story of Neville Longbottom (Matthew Lewis), a clumsy boy who stands up to Voldemort even when all hope is lost; or that of Dumbledore's angry brother who comes through in the end; or that of many other wizard heroes who perform above the call of duty, some losing their lives. Another character emerges as an even greater hero, all the more so because he hides his bravery from the world and allows others to think ill of him.
Like the books, each movie has turned more serious, more mature than the last. Director David Yates infuses this film with dark settings and bleak images, the ethos of France before D-Day. Some images will be too much for young children: Voldemort walking with bloodstained feet past the bodies of his victims, a murder heard and seen in shapes through an opaque window. The film is rated PG-13 for sometimes intense action and frightening images (it contains one minor profanity and no sexuality).
The effects and acting are top notch, with a vast cast providing well-developed background characters. Daniel Radcliffe as Harry, Emma Watson as Hermione, and Rupert Grint as Ron have perfected the roles that have defined their young lives. Ralph Finnes creates an iconic villain in Voldemort and Michael Gambon embodies the very picture of wisdom in Dumbledore. Next to Harry, however, the best character is Alan Rickman's wonderfully complex Snape.
A two hour and five minute film cannot capture the richness of even half of J.K. Rowling's thick book. Storylines are truncated, such as those of Remus Lupin (David Thewlis), a valiant werewolf, or conflicted Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton), Harry's schoolboy nemesis. The movie emphasizes horcruxes (important talismans) over the powerful objects called hallows, which fans of the book will recognize as diminishing Harry's choice of whether or not to take possession of the hallows. Like all the films, the final adaptation is made for fans of the books and will confuse novices. This one, however, with its universal themes of sacrifice and heroism, as well as big payoffs in story, does the best job of the series.
The film does magnificently capture the emotions of the book in tear-inducing moments when friends and even rivals stand shoulder-to-shoulder to fight for decency against impossible odds. Although moral choices seemed murky in the beginning of the series, by the final chapter, each character must choose whether to stand on the side of justice, succumb to fear, or embrace the power of tyranny.
From freeing the slave elf Dobby to rescuing an abused dragon to opposing Voldemort's campaign for "pure blood" wizards, Harry and his friends consistently choose the side of decency.
In the early books, Harry sometimes chooses selfishly and arrogantly overestimates his own importance-all the while wishing to avoid the responsibility life has placed on his shoulders. By the end, Harry, for the sake of his friends, knowingly and willingly chooses sacrifice. His yearning for glory has been resisted, his desperation to escape responsibility conquered. He is willing to lay down his life so others may live in a just peace. Like Frodo Baggins of The Lord of the Rings, he decides to walk away from the tremendous and attractive power he has won at great cost.
Though magic spells and fantastic creatures may have been the trappings that initially drew fans into the series, what ultimately makes it an enduring favorite is that it glorifies heroes who know right from wrong. If Harry Potter's stratospheric sales are any indication, the kids are going to be just fine.