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Harry Potter is bigger than Jar Jar.
What? You thought I was gonna’ go Jesus? Puh-leaze – The Beatles cornered the market on that brand of blasphemy decades ago. Me – I’d rather go bigger and take on The Force. It’s a slow news week and I can stand to take on a legion of jumping-mad Jedi, presuming they can stop fiddling with their lightsabers long enough to put me in that Vulcan Mind Grip they seem so fond of.
(… and that’s how you initiate a snark attack).
Truth be told, I am a Star Wars fan – although not a rabid one, which is curious considering the direction I plan on leading this post.
See, I’m of the mind that there exists a pivotal point in every boy’s life where whatever fascination we fix upon at the slight gulf that spans between age 6 and 10, we carry with us, in some fashion, for the remainder of our lives. It’s that token that keeps those who desire it later in life – young at heart.
I’m sure the same concept exists for girls but I can’t really write from experience. Oh sure, I grew up flanked by two sisters and a Mom who made sure I was awash in a Sea of She every single day – in hopes that their combined estrogen would somehow coax me to close the toilet seat (or hell – even open it) – but I haven’t a clue whether they keep cherished memories of Malibu Barbie.
But try as hard as they might to get me to play with Ken, I grew up loving boy toys. And I was five years old when Star Wars first hit the multiplex. By the time I turned six, Kenner had blanketed store shelves with the first foundations of George Lucas’ gathering empire.
See – that guy was smart. 20th Century Fox may have taken a gamble on his modestly-budgeted western in space but they thought they were playing their cards right when they accepted his pitch for a lower director’s salary in exchange for marketing rights to every little critter that scrawled across his film fantasia.
But Lucas was a world builder and wasn’t afraid to dream bigger. More importantly, he remained in close communication with his inner six year old – and he knew exactly what type of tale could charge a little boy’s imagination for life. He said as much on the liner notes in the original First Trilogy VHS collection. He was writing new fairy tales for a new generation of young people.
It was an expert gambit that changed movie merchandising forever and built Lucas’ empire.
An empire that struck my brethren and I at exactly the right moment – that magical period between the ages of six and ten. And while I may have explored the woods surrounding my neighborhood seeking a dinosaur inhabited Lost World – and thus found more kinship in Lucas’ other creation, Indiana Jones, I was as six-year old boy as the rest of them, so when I found myself in a hospital; recuperating from a tonsillectomy and running a die cast landspeeder across my bed; I was keeping as close an eye out for sand people as I did the nurse and her next round of meds. I certainly felt something stir within. What scientists label neurons and synapse, I call the spark of imagination. That’s the elixir Lucas was peddling.
Lucas hooked a whole generation of kids who had yet to be inundated by a legion of licensed Everything. Star Wars was the trailblazer.
And those little boys grew up and harbored one thought:
“I can’t wait to share this with my kids.”
The second that sentence crosses your mind, the creator has won. They’ve got a fan for life and have crafted something that will span generations. It’s what every work of art lives for – infinite life-time longevity.
For the longest time, Star Wars was the only heir apparent.
But I think J.K. Rowling may have successfully challenged the throne.
First off, there’s room enough in this galaxy for both of ’em. In fact, one would argue, there would be no Harry Potter if there was no Star Wars. They both trade in magical artifacts, weird creatures, wizened wizards and portentous prophecies. Then again, neither one would exist without Frodo, Rudy and the rest of those meddling hobbits.
And that’s the point of storytelling and myth building. It’s the age old tradition of spinning common yarns – passing them down – thereby influencing future storytellers who pick up the mantle and add their own voice to the recall. Star Wars is a distillation and reconfiguration of the things that excited George Lucas as a youngster – with The Lord of the Rings, The Seven Samurai and Hollywood Westerns playing equal part in the inception. Lucas took that which he loved so much and spun his own yarn.
Rowling has done the same – taking in some of the more famous archetypes from Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings and stretching all the way back to Arthurian fantasy and Greek Myth and constructing her own universe. Sure, there’s tell tale signs of its construction but taken as a whole, it’s her own creation. True artists lean on what they know and love to help lay the foundation. The hard work is in coloring the canvas – in adding the details. And creators like Lucas and Rowling somehow make it all look easy.
To this day, it was Lucas who lorded over all with his singularly amazing feat of building Star Wars – what really could and should have just been a niche title that appealed to six-year old boys and sci-fi geeks of all ages and somehow transcended the target demo to appeal to the mainstream. Star Wars is a household word. That’s the easy part. The fact that most parents can reference Boba Fett is more impressive.
It’s the same cache that Harry Potter enjoys. If you were to name drop Dumbledore in a crowded room, most of the masses would know who you’re talking about. The reason is simple.
Harry Potter is the first fiction in three decades to completely do what Star Wars did – only a hell of a lot faster.
It melded itself to the marrow of an entire generation. And it’s all in the timing.
It was ambitious for JK Rowling to launch a seven-part series. That’s the hard part. The completely knee-quaking, gutt-wrenching ordeal would come later.
In order to completely hook a generation of kids and get them to promise themselves – “I can’t wait to share this with my kids” – meant that Rowling needed to see this thing through to its conclusion in timely fashion. No futzing around for decades like Stephen King did with his Dark Tower series.
Rowling got kids reading that first volume in 1997 (and that was just a handful of British school children as the first run of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was tiny). The seventh and final book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was released to mammoth midnight crowds on July 21, 2007.
She grabbed a generation of kids at the tender age of 10 (and slightly older) and brought them through the tween years, the teen years and finally – young adulthood. Had she deviated from her plan and took a few years off between volumes; she’d likely retain a healthy fan base but not the fervent masses that made sure this enterprise crossed generational boundaries.
To do all that in a decade is awe-inspiring.
And by hooking the kids, she roped in the grown-ups who wanted to see what all the fuss was about. It’s the same tact that aided Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series – a set of “will they or won’t they” trashy romance tales aimed squarely at teenage girls who grew to love and desire sullen vampires so much, their Soccer Moms had to read all about it. And then the cult of Team Edward and Team Jacob sprung up around it.
But that series lacks the magic elixir Harry Potter and Star Wars promise. The cross-over appeal to hit people of all ages who yearn to sip a bit from that fountain of youth. The adventures of Luke Skywalker and Harry Patter make us feel young again.
It helps that Star Wars grabbed a generation of boys who never really had a war to call our own and make us grow up a little bit quicker than we’d like.
My Dad had Vietnam – though he’s not a Vet. Before that, my grandparents faced Korea. And World War II. And World War I. And all of those global calamities served to band brothers and push them into the big scary world at tender young ages. My Dad’s generation and all those before him grew up fast and furious.
My generation had the fiction of a war fought a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. It took decades before we knew real horror and by that time, the cultural consciousness had set in. When we hit the sands for the first Desert Storm, it was the MTV war – fought largely by drones and computers. It wasn’t until this past decade that legions of young people really got a look-see into what true atrocity is. But even then, there’s never been a draft and without that specter staring us down, kids grow up a lot later in life.
So, that’s another reason for Star Wars‘ lingering hold upon its target demo. We took a little bit longer to mature and held onto our playthings a little longer. Some might say ’til their dying day.
Harry Potter is not birthed in the horrors of war even if its tale grows darker the deeper you dive into it. If anything, its narrative arc mirrors the chronology of growing from adolescence to adulthood – with the later novels giving our heroes some real life-changing dilemmas to solve. But I’ll save that pulp deconstruction for the pop psychologists.
The truth is that Harry Potter has successfully vaulted the velvet rope that separates generations. A legion of children grew up on it and because of it, grew to re-embrace reading (a nice little bonus in our techno-crazed society). Their parents picked it up and recommended it to their Book Clubs. College kids wanted to keep up with the kiddies and found a well-thought out fantasia to craft their own obsession. Besides, Gandalf is getting a bit Gray.
Then there’s casual fans like me who came to the series late (it took a one year layoff from work before I finally set my sights on the novels); but found it was time well spent. And despite the fact that I didn’t read a single volume until every last one had been published – IN PAPERBACK – I still knew my Bernie Bott’s Every Flavor Beans from my Nargals by virtue of seeing each flick.
Hell – neither my wife or I had read the books but we found the movies to be a perennial treat; our little tradition that began before we had kids. Once the family began to flourish, we’d find ourselves saying:
“I can’t wait until the kids get older so we can share this with them.”
And that’s where Rowling wins. She’s had the benefit of massive success on both fronts. She crafted a wondrous fantasy that through seven successive volumes in ten short years kept every thread tied. More importantly, she stuck the landing and sent fans out with a hopeful glimpse of the future – providing enough empty canvas at its conclusion for fans to draw from their own imagination and paint their own paths forward.
And she’s been hands on with the movie side – which has grabbed a greater slice of the population – bringing in the casual fans who never touched the books. The films have paid great tribute in their adaptations. The two sides compliment each other nicely, and as far-flung as the novels will run; the movies will keep stride and enjoy a nice healthy shelf life. These are our Wizard of Oz – fantasy flicks that shall emerge annually and delight audiences for decades to come.
And then there’s the merchandising. It’s ever-present but not obnoxious and it serves to give fans that tactile connection to a world they can only know on the page, the screen and their imagination.
Success on all three fronts leads me to read the tea leaves and see that Harry Potter will one day eclipse Star Wars. It lacks a Jar Jar. It’s fan base has never railed against anything the creator did in service of the story – unlike Lucas who has been under siege ever since he made the mistake of trying to tell us how it all began.
My hope is that Rowling doesn’t feel the need to tell us what happens next… unless a story calls out – begging for life.
As far as I’m concerned, she brought us to a fitting conclusion. Leave it to us to carry the torch and keep the fires burning.
After all, I can’t wait to share this with my grandkids.