Watching the seventh movie, made me go back and read the books again. Although I have re-read almost all the books several times, it really amazes me that these are still as engaging as in 2000 when I first started with the series.
In this post I will attempt to analyze the first book and a bit of the series and why it works. After all, fantasy fiction genre has a lot of literature to its credit – what was so unique about Harry Potter that it “revived” the reading culture, spawned a multi-million dollar movie franchise, gave a new life to fantasy literature and basically created history. Yes, savvy marketing and media generated hype for sure – but there is surely more credit to be given.
Let’s take a look at book one specifically. The book starts with an unusually quiet scene in a non-descript suburban neighborhood with something extraordinary going on – a cat that can turn into a woman, a flying motorcycle, an orphaned child and old man who most definitely is a sorcerer. You have to know what comes next! So in the very first chapter an interesting premise has been established.
Then the theme of the series is established in the first few chapters – “underdog wins the day”. No matter how many books and movies use this theme, it always works. Even though Harry Potter is this really famous wizard and is a celebrity – he is still the underdog. Its remarkable how JK Rowling creates this dual persona for him – super famous wizard since 1 year old, but orphaned, abused as a child, love hungry, dying to be someone. He comes to Hogwarts with no advantage – right from the beginning your heart goes out to him and you want him to win.
The third thing that interest you are the characters – for me a book never works if I can’t somehow empathize with the characters. And it’s easier said than done. JK Rowling does that with not just creating one but several immensely pleasant characters. But mostly she creates three very likeable protagonists – again not easy.
Harry, by the age of eleven, has had a pretty miserable life. It’s high time he was happy. As a person he is quite nice – he is witty, intelligent, a little rebellious, eager to learn and so desperate to be loved. He may not be the perfect role model like “Hermione” but he has his heart in the right place – he inherently wants to be good. He is a believable hero.
How can you heart not go out to Ron Weasley – the youngest of six brothers, always getting hand me downs , destined to be friends with the most famous wizard in school – always living in the shadows. In spite of his disadvantages, he is friendly, kind and fiercely loyal.
And then there is Hermione, my absolute favorite character of the book. She may be slightly bookish and very competitive but she is intensely loyal, earnest, generous and the most compassionate of the three. She has the most defined moral values and sees generally sees things in black and white unlike her two best friends. Without her brilliance and presence of mind, Harry and Ron just can’t get very far.
Hagrid and Dumbledore are also very important characters in the first book. I believe that these two characters sort of fill the “paternal void” in Harry’s life as they mentor him through his first year at Hogwarts. The fact that they knew his parents also ties them to Harry strongly
The other ingredient to the story is the magical world that JKR creates – Hogwarts is fascinating and your mind leaps and bounces as you try to create mental images of moving pictures, hidden staircases, dark dungeons and the great hall. Wouldn’t a place like Diagon Alley be fun and entertaining? The attention to detail in creating this other world makes you almost wish that it was real.
The last but not the least, and what I believe is the defining reason as to why everyone is hooked from Book 1 is that, at the end of the day the saga of Harry Potter is really a puzzle. Every chapter in the first book reveals little pieces of the puzzle, and as we will read ahead, every book is a huge chunk of the larger story, but the complete picture remains elusive till the end. As you read book one, there are so many questions to be asked – Why did Harry survive Voldemort’s attack? What was stolen from the safe at Gringotts? Why does the sorting hat suggest Harry be in Slytherin? What is the significance of The Mirror of Erised? Why does Dumbeldore see socks in it? Why is it “curious” that the wand that has chosen Harry is the twin of the wand that left the scar on his forehead? Will Voldemort return? What is Snape’s agenda? What were Harry’s parents like? Why did Voldemort attack Harry? What is Harry’s destiny?
Some of the questions get answered in the first book and others later. And sometimes, there are people, incidents and conversations that seem irrelevant but make much more sense later on.
The Philosopher’s Stone’s main purpose is to basically lay down the main characters, relationships, plot and landmarks for the larger story to unfold. It’s a very good start to a very entertaining story.
If you are interested in the movies, do check out my review of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part