Next month, filmgoers will say a final farewell to the Harry Potter saga. What is about these serial films that hold our interest?
It's less than a month to the last Harry Potter film. Among fans, the anticipation is mounting in direct proportion to the gloom of having to say a final farewell. The virtual world is abuzz with speculation, trailers and the “latest” latest poster. It's a date we've been building towards since 1997 and J.K. Rowling's first book in the series, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone.
Some say Pottermania is the first true crossover phenomenon of young adult fiction devoured by adults. By dint of reviewing books and movies, I stumbled across Harry, before he became “the” Harry Potter. Those first two books were simpler than what followed, but so magical; characters, a world and a cleverly plotted story with which you instantly fell in love. I remember excitedly buying copies and dispatching them to my then-young niece and nephew, who bought into their addictive spell; as did their grandmother.
Harry was just 11 then, and unaware of his dual destinies: in the wizarding world as the boy fated to battle the wickedest wizard of all time, Lord Voldemort; and in our world of muggles or non-wizarding folks to star in the second most lucrative franchise of all time. With this eight film (HP8), the Potter franchise could well overtake Star Wars, at least until George Lucas re-releases the six movies yet again, in 3D.
We escaped the horrors of retrofitted 3D with HP7, as the studio couldn't get it done in time, but aren't as lucky with HP8; even though producer David Heyman has defended the conversion, saying the format adds to the “epic and operatic” tone of the film. Epic is a good description of the Potter saga; also, it's a great story.
Just to take the example of my family, that's a simple explanation of why three generations of us got hooked, and stayed fascinated. The books grew in complexity as Harry grew up and we felt a sense of investment in the characters; mourned as much-loved ones died and Harry's fate hung in balance, celebrated when love, loyalty and humour triumphed.
I've always believed that Harry appeals to our secret dreams of being special; in the discovery that he isn't an “ordinary” lad but a wizard of extraordinary powers, Harry is that innermost fantasy played out to the nth degree.
Harry Potter repackages the old ideas in a contemporary bottle — such as how bravery is the act of being completely true to oneself when confronting challenges; or how love has transformative power; or how having good friends is quite the most important thing of all. Harry is the latest version of the Joseph Campbell model of the hero that recurs over and again in different guises in our myths and literature whether as Moses or Luke Skywalker.
The movies — that so far have grossed well over US$6 billion at the box office — already had a readymade audiences thanks to the popularity of the books, but I have met fans who only found Harry Potter onscreen; they are lucky in that they know no plot spoilers, yet unlucky in missing out on some engrossing literature.
But it's not just Harry, cineplexes bear testament to other long-running film serials. What keeps our attention? I'd argue that the answer varies with each franchise, even while there's a common thread of pleasure at revisiting old friends. Many long-running franchises work because you know what you're going to get. It's the reason that a successful artist is forced by the market to keep churning out more of the same — it's an easier sell. So the Fast and the Furious franchise — the latest being Fast Five — promises and delivers some hot action by good-looking bodies, and we're still just talking about the cars. In its way, the hugely successful Star Trek films too are a concept franchise about futuristic adventures in space.
Then there are the heroes whom we can't get enough of; the Bond movies — 22 of them, so far — top that particular list. The actual actor playing James Bond changes but our appetite for the agent with the license to kill transcends such adjustments. This is probably true of some superhero franchises, especially Batman – thanks to an excellent rebooting of the tale from Christopher Nolan.
By contrast, in films such as the Mission Impossible series, it's the actor that pulls in the crowds, rather than the character he plays; the fourth in the series, due at the end of this year, is a litmus test of Tom Cruise's continuing box office appeal as an action star.
Some don't work
I suspect, though, that certain franchises continue thanks to sheer laziness on the part of the studio – if you have money-spinning, readymade, characters, why go to the trouble of inventing fresh one? Audiences respond with — a misguided? — brand loyalty, and feel obliged to buy tickets. How else can we explain why, despite critics and audiences groaning over Shrek outlasting its welcome, it ranks among the top ten franchises? Or the baffling existence of Pirates of the Caribbean Part 4, when Pirates 3 was acknowledged as an unmitigated disaster?
Though Shrek or Pirates do have character progression, Harry Potter is unusual for it stitches together all eight movies within the arc of a grand narrative. The loose ends are tied, and storylines move towards the one inescapable event of HP8, the epic battle between Harry and Voldemort. For those who simply can't understand this very-real excitement over what's just a make-believe tale, I always wind up repeating what Professor Dumbledore says to Harry at one point: “Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”