A long time ago, I told my children that we wouldn’t watch the Harry Potter movies until Isaac had read the books first. He didn’t have to finish them all, you should understand, but each movie would be watched only after Isaac had finished the relevant book. The goal was to encourage Isaac to dedicate himself to reading a longer book and to apply a bit of peer pressure. This was before we figured out that peer pressure doesn’t really work on Isaac (I’m so proud, and a little annoyed)….
Anyways, Isaac recently discovered audio books, and now we’re off to the races. All of this to say–
We watched Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban the other day.
Alfonso Cuarón directed this installment, and I found it to be appropriately arty. I liked looking at this version of Hogwarts a bit more than the previous Chris Columbus renditions. And all this has me thinking about Harry Potter again.
Harry Potter is part of a resurgence in young adult literature. It might even have been the leading edge of that resurgence. (I don’t know enough to say for sure.) A common theme of these new young adult novels is the “coming of age”, the point where a person crosses over from childhood to adulthood. It’s a powerful theme and one that is obviously resonant with the target audience. The Harry Potter series is an especially good example of this theme, executed fairly skillfully. Each book in the seven-book series is a single school year, starting with Harry as an eleven-year old kid and moving through his teen years to his becoming an adult and shouldering those responsibilities in the final book. Additionally, there’s almost an assumption that the target audience of each book is the same age as Harry in that book. This means that the subject matter continues to grow and mature with each installment, becoming deeper and, honestly, harsher.
Part of how this manifests is the gradual emergence of a backstory that Harry and his friends are initially unaware of, a story in which Harry’s dead parents figure prominently. Over time, Harry and his friends come to understand the sacrifices made by their parents’ generation and rise up to take their place to finish the work that they started.
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is where this backstory really begins to leak into Harry’s life. This is the point where Harry begins to be exposed to the history that shaped his life, as the players in that history return into his life. This is the point where Harry begins to understand that his life is shaped by the choices of those who came before him, choices made before he was even born.
It’s a powerful moment in the story, and it’s a powerful moment in every person’s life, when you begin to see how you fit into a larger whole. It’s a big part of growing up.
And it totally didn’t engage me.
As we were watching the movie, I realized that the story wasn’t speaking to me. Again, I’m not faulting the execution. The story is skillfully crafted, and the film was a joy to behold. But the story is aimed at people in a different season of life than mine.
I have been recently revisiting a couple novels by Tim Powers that I read in my youth. Last Call is about the battle to become the mystic Fisher King, played out through bizarre Poker games and post-modern vision quests in the wasteland of Las Vegas. Declare is a Le Carré-style Cold War spy novel about a Cold War era struggle between Britain and the Soviet Union to exploit the power of the djinn that inhabit the Middle East.
I’m not even sure that these brief descriptions do them justice. And I’m realizing that I had absolutely no frame of reference to appreciate these novels when I read them twenty years ago.
Both novels have middle-aged men as their protagonists. Both of them have lived long enough to have made poor choices or have traumatic events in their past. Their current lives are not shaped by their parents’ pasts. They are shaped by their own pasts, defined by the wounds and regrets that they have already experienced. And now, their current choices are defined by an ability (or lack thereof) to overcome their own regrets about their pasts.
They are novels for an older audience, not for children on the cusp of youth but adults who have lived long enough to wonder if they can undo the damage they have done.
I’m not a young man anymore. No, I’m not old, but I have enough life behind me to have my own personal history, my own wounds, my own regrets. And right now I wonder if I will be able to overcome those regrets, or if they have to define me forever. These stories I am reading resonate with me, because they hold out hope that there can be more than my past.
At the same time, my older children stand on the verge of adulthood. They are emerging into a larger world and finding their place in it. And for them, Harry Potter is an excellent story, helping them to understand their own lives as they move into their futures.
And for that, I am glad.