Every fad eventually fails. Some fads burn brighter than others, but in the end they all meet the same inevitable demise. Does anyone still remember sillybandz, Justin Beiber, myspace, Walkmen, or psychodelia? These crazes swept the western world at the height of their reign, but are now considered obsolete. However, there are a few exceptions to the rule, cultural phenomenon that have far surpassed their expected shelf life. These exceptions all have a few things in common, they resonate ideas that are universal and relatable to everyone, no matter their gender, age, or race.
A prime example of this trend is the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling. In its time, the Harry Potter franchise (which has grown to include seven books, three companion reads, eight films, eight video game, and 400 additional licensed products) was called “the biggest phenomenon in kids’ publishing for decades” (Vancouver Sun) and is still thought to “strike as deeply as the most timeless fairy tales” (Maclean’s Magazine). Such dramatic praise isn’t an exaggeration either, when taken as a whole the Harry Potter series is the most read series in the world (excluding holy works and Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung) with 400 million copies having been sold worldwide. Despite the fact that the credits closed on the last movie 2 years ago and the final book was published more than 6 years ago, the franchise is still going strong, a net worth of $15 billion strong to be exact. Across the globe Potterheads and envious muggles (one of the only words invented for pop-culture to be added to the Oxford Dictionary) alike have flooded conventions, movie theatres, bookstores, and even theme parks earning Harry Potter its title as a classic novel and a must read. The series is in fact so popular that the final book sold 11 million copies within the first 24 hours of its release and made J.K. Rowling the only author to ever become a billionaire.
The irony of the series’ success is that J.K. Rowling found it nearly impossible to get a publisher to touch her work. The manuscript was dismissed by 12 separate publishers who claimed it was much too long and complicated to be a children’s novel and therefore unlikely to earn them any money. Nigel Newton of Bloomsbury Publishing only agreed to look at it as a personal favour. Even then he merely offhandedly gave it to his eight-year-old daughter. She fell immediately in love with the series and the publisher decided it was worth a shot. They went on to become billionaires. Despite the series’ rocky start, Harry Potter has now become a household word in over 60 languages, including Ancient Greek. Other YA novels have tried to garner the same lasting legacy as Harry Potter, Twilight and The Hunger Games to name a few, but ended up falling flat on their face. So what is it that gives Potter its magic hold over audiences?
The first and most obvious reason of course is that Harry Potter allowed readers an escape into the realm of magic, while still being a relatable, coming-of-age story. Rowling never trapped her characters in a phase of eternal youth. Over the course of the seven novels the characters grew with the readers, maturing and aging, learning the same life lessons the readers were encountering in their own lives. At the beginning of the series the main characters start out as shy, nerdy, losers. By the last book however, they are indisputably heroes in the reader’s hearts. Most people go through this same transition; every person must (unfortunately) cross the awkward teenage years to become an adult on the other side. Harry also dealt with real and serious social issues including love, prejudice, courage, friendship, right versus wrong, good versus evil (and more importantly finding the ability to discern just which side it is your standing on), admitting fault, and ultimately mortality. J.K. Rowling has stated many times that the overarching theme was how to deal with life and inevitable death, saying that she started it all with the death of Harry’s parents and ended it with the Deathly Hollows which represented the conquering of mortality. These are all issues that everyone faces in their day-to-day lives. Rowling addresses them with tact, hidden behind the veil of fantasy so that they are easier to deal with. It is because of the complex nature of the books that no publisher wanted to touch it, it is also for this reason that the audience expanded well beyond just children to include adults. Young readers devoured the fantastical elements and could find themselves in and grow with one of the characters. Adults had the capacity to grasp the more subtle working of the piece and found themselves entranced with that. By making a piece that didn’t shy away from life’s struggles but instead embraced them and made them easy to understand, J. K. Rowling created a piece that was truly timeless.
Just being relatable, however, isn’t enough to break into the record books. Rowling had to do something very few authors have the courage to do: she created an entire world from scratch. The series could never have garnered the same success had it been set in a regular boarding school, regardless of the use of magic. What Rowling did was create an entire civilization with its own laws, history, celebrities, inventions, and culture. Not only that, but this microcosm fit seamlessly into our world, giving the entire book a sense of realism. So as fun as it was for readers to explore the limits of how the magic could present itself, it was still familiar. The Wizarding World was officiated by the Ministry of Magic, whose government set-up is comparative to our own, yet had a unique quirkiness, only being able to gain access by flushing oneself down the toilet for example. Then there were the toys the characters had at their disposal that many muggles would kill to have access to in their own life, like the invisibility cloak and time turner to name a few. The use of the time-turner in the Prisoner of Azkaban in particular was flawlessly devised to give readers and movie-goers a delight in the second reading to see all the foreshadowing they missed the first time around. Rowling is famous for this foreshadowing, briefly acknowledging spells, potions, and trick artifacts in the beginning of the series that would never actually come into play until the end. This ability to so utterly and completely create a setting and plot that never negates or unravels itself, but instead leaves the audience entirely immersed and in awe, demonstrates an advanced level of planning and literary prowess whose rarity still leaves a lasting impression with its readers today.
Moreover, Harry Potter became so popular that to most, the franchise wasn’t just a work of fiction; Harry and his world was real and tangible. People everywhere were legitimately concerned with the boy wizard’s well-being, discussing the characters’ lives and tribulations with more intensity than they would discuss their own lives. At the height of the series, children were actually fearful of uttering the Dark Lord Voldemort’s name. Even today people gather around the world to celebrate Harry’s birthday. Author Larry Thomas suggests that one could “mention the name Harry Potter in just about any country in the world and people will not only recognize the name, they will know more about him than they do the key political officials in their governments.”. This is in part, why the books sold so successfully on the first night: to miss out on reading the series or to risk the book being spoiled had serious social implications. Harry Potter was a major classroom and office topic. Anyone who wasn’t reading the books was subsequently excluded from having friends. Humans are social creatures. That’s why peer pressure works. It is for this reason that the series is often accredited with saving reading. Harry Potter was first published at a time when reading was becoming passé, a thing of the past, being quickly replaced with newer inventions such as the television and the computer. Harry Potter not only made it cool to read again, he made it necessary for social survival. This is hands down the number one reason Harry Potter outlived being a fad. To read, watch, and experience Harry Potter wasn’t just a passing dream, it became embedded in the social structure of the world for over a decade. Children living in those years grew with Harry, and now they are passing his stories on to their kids. Social indoctrination isn’t easy to forget and neither is Harry Potter.
When familiarity of the characters and their struggles is combined with the giddy feelings of exploring a new place, the result is a franchise unlike any other – a franchise that becomes the basis for friendships and the ascension of the social ladder. Man creates fads because no one wants to be different or separate from the group. More often than not the general public becomes quickly bored of these crazes and move on. Every now and then though, society touches upon something that touches the hearts of minds of every man, woman, and child. Something that captures their imagination and refuses to let go. Yes, it’s rare, but when it’s achieved, well that is something truly magical.
Photography Courtesy of Matthew Jacula