Harry Potter’s Literacy Legacy

This post is a part of the TNGG Harry Potter Countdown. All week we’ll have Potter-themed posts, leading up to the final review of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2. Three days to go! Read other posts here and here

Somewhere over the Rocky Mountains, an 11-year old looked out of the airplane window and began weighing the pros and cons of being an orphan wizard. On the one hand, I’d have awesome magical powers and a future in a quaint world of titillating possibility; but I would have to say goodbye to my doting mother, snoring softly in the seat next to me. I decided my only option was to turn back to my new copy of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and savor every page.

Harry Potter, by latern light

Innumerable other young adults spent their adolescent summers growing up with Harry, projecting their senses and sentiments into his bed-headed consciousness. For a while, a secret intangible network – not unlike the surreptitious codes of J.K. Rowling’s wizarding community – connected our generation through a shared knowledge of this inter-dimensional literary portal, through which we could escape our (most likely banal, suburban) reality and join the imaginative ranks who co-constructed the elaborate mystique of the world Harry lived in.

The series provided our generation with crucial rites of emotional development: coping with the suffocating anticipation of each installment, we learned patience; having never heard the name “Hermione,” we bravely sounded it out erroneously and learned to alter our inner narrations; faced with Harry’s insurmountable obstacles, some of us learned the humility to decide that, well, we may not have been sorted into Gryffindor after all.

But most importantly, Harry Potter and Rowling proved that kids still had beautiful and compelling imaginations – why else would they cast off their plastic/electronic/pixilated shackles and pick up a tome? In a crisis of literacy, the Harry Potter series gave us hope that books still carry sacred weight as tools for learning and reflection, even as our society self-reflexively remarks upon each generation of increasingly irreverent brats.

Then the capitalists capitalized. Although we were a crop of brats who (surprisingly) still loved books, film industry honchos cashed in on our demographically astounding devotion to Harry and suddenly the HP craze was reborn as a film franchise. I’m not arguing that books ought to be sacrosanct documents of a concrete narrative, but in deciding what Harry Potter et al would look like the films in fact ossified the aesthetics of Rowling’s admirably limitless world. No longer was it up to each of us readers to imagine his/her own HP universe – the pesky, too-real visages of Daniel Radcliffe and Alan Rickman began to leak into your mind’s eye, paralyzing the enveloping warmth of imagination and severing your cherished intimacy with the characters.

It started to feel like you were reading notes for the screenwriter.

Harry Potter and the Winter Nights

We still saw the movies, however, and in enough number to justify the splitting of the final book’s adaptation into two parts. But in this way our generation continued to learn through Harry Potter: a book is sometimes better than its movie version. Woah. Realism set in as we realized that nothing is so pure that it is left untouched by avaricious opportunists, especially those who roost in Hollywood.

We also learned that we, as teenagers, are the most vital population in the American economy. The Harry Potter films paved the way for what is now a pandemic, wildly lucrative book-to-screen adaptation franchise. Since The Sorcerer’s Stone in 2001, Hollywood has co-opted numerous teen fantasy series including the following:

The Lord of the Rings Trilogy (2001 – 2003)

The Chronicles of Narnia (2005)

Eragon (2006)

The Golden Compass (2007)

The Seeker (2007)

City of Ember (2008)

The Twilight Saga (2008 – 2010)

Percy Jackson & the Olympians (2010)

The Hunger Games Trilogy (2012)

The book-to-film pipeline is so securely fastened in America that the value of books (and therefore, reading) that the Harry Potter series reaffirmed is now in a precarious limbo as any thrilling, best-selling Young Adult fantasy novel or series is immediately optioned for a film version.


Implying that “kids these days” share the boorish mentality that ordains, “Why read the book when I can just wait for the movie?” is pejorative and hypocritical, as I am celebrating the Harry Potter series for its polemical symbolism against similarly condescending rhetoric from our parents. What we can infer, however, is that it is quite likely a sad era for young book lovers, now that our admittedly beloved and well-executed Harry Potter film franchise is coming to a close, for many of the adapted films of the moment don’t do justice to the wild imaginations of children. Hopefully, for today’s 11-year-olds, each of these adaptations is a disenchanting lesson on the incomparable enchantment of their own minds.

Alejandro Gomez I was born in the blond sunshine of southern California, and reared in the blond Scandinavian casserole of suburban Minnesota. My parents are neurologists, and so I love my brain for all of its wackiness and resent it for all of its neuroses. I feel exactly the same way about America, which is why I like to write about it. Twitter: @deaddad

View all posts by Alejandro Gomez

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