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Wednesday, July 13,2011

The Screening Room

Closing the curtain on a decade of Pottermania

by James Sanford

“Go ahead. Read it. You know you want to.”


 The
boldly lettered posters were all over London, but I never bothered to
notice exactly what they were promoting. Some sleazy celebrity tell-all,
I guessed.


I couldn’t have been more laughably
offbase. The campaign was aimed at adults that were curious about the
“Harry Potter” books, but were afraid to be seen in public with what was
supposed to be children’s literature. So the marketing geniuses at
Bloomsbury Publishing had repackaged the Potter paperbacks in arty
black-and-white covers that made them look like serious stuff suitable
for grown-up eyes.  


The strategy worked: In every “tube”
station, I saw dozens of people eagerly devouring J.K. Rowling’s Potter
novels — and no one seemed particularly embarrassed.


It was late November 2001, and
Pottermania was as inescapable as the percolating strains of Kylie
Minogue’s “Can’t Get You Out of My Head” and the omnipresent magazine
covers featuring current cinema queen Nicole Kidman and pop idol Robbie
Williams, who had recently recorded a duet. “Harry Potter and the
Philosopher’s Stone” (the British title of  “Harry
Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone”) had just opened in theaters, and
shows were selling out around the clock. I had seen the movie a couple
of weeks earlier at a press screening, but my friends Sue and Joe wanted
to go. So we joined the crowd at the Odeon theater in Leicester Square
for a Monday matinee. 


The enormous 1,683-seat cinema was packed
— and there wasn’t a single child or adolescent to be seen. The
audience was made up entirely of people well beyond school age (some of
whom were visiting the Odeon’s bar in the lobby prior to showtime) and
they even applauded politely at the end of the film, in an oh-so-British
way.


If the Disney movies of the late 1980s
and early 1990s — “The Little Mermaid,” “Beauty and the Beast,”
“Aladdin,” etc. — made it acceptable for adults to attend animated films
without children in tow, the Harry Potter pictures completely shattered
any social stigmas associated with going to see what would have been
classified as “kids’ stuff” a generation earlier.


That audiences have continued to support
the series is a testament to Rowling’s imagination and to the
consistently high quality of the films. Some were better than others
(“Goblet of Fire” is my personal favorite), but none of them was a real
turkey of  “Batman and Robin” or “Star Trek V: The Final Frontier” proportions. 


Instead of being ashamed to attend a
Harry Potter flick, many adults wouldn’t dream of missing one. It’s
difficult to imagine another franchise that will fill the gap. In the
past 10 years, the seven Potter adventures (the eighth and final
installment, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part Two,” opens
Friday) have taken in more than $6 billion at the box office worldwide;
you don’t get those kinds of numbers from kiddie matinees.


Analysts could point to a slew of factors
that figured prominently in the Potter success story: a built-in
audience through the books; the terrific young actors Daniel Radcliffe,
Rupert Grint and Emma Watson; the star-packed supporting cast, etc.


But I wonder how much timing had to do
with it. The first Potter film opened barely two months after Sept. 11,
at a time when the world was still coming to terms with scary new
realities and a potentially frightening future. If ever there was a time
for audiences to seek out escapist entertainment, here it was: Who
wouldn’t want to jump aboard the Hogwarts Express and spend a couple of
hours watching brave, bright kids casting spells, battling monsters and
unlocking mysteries?


Warner Bros. has dubbed “Deathly Hallows”
“the motion picture event of a generation,” which may well be accurate.
But what’s most fascinating about the Potter pictures is how easily and
quickly they crossed generational lines. Take a look at the crowds
waiting for “Deathly Hallows” at your local theater this weekend: It’s a
sure thing there will be fans of every age, ready for one final
adventure.


Go ahead. See it. You know you want to.

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