Staying wild about Harry

By MARTIN SIEFF, Senior News Analyst  |  Nov. 26, 2001 at 7:11 PM
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WASHINGTON, Nov. 26 (UPI) -- The "Harry Potter" movie has confirmed its juggernaut status and still reigns supreme over the nation's box office after its second weekend in release. It probably won't quite topple "Titanic" as the top draw of all time, but don't rule out the possibility.

What can be predicted is that "Harry Potter" will score a Round One knock-out in its much anticipated Christmas holiday season clash with "Lord of the Rings," and will confirm visionary author J.K. Rowling's superiority in every sense over J.R.R. Tolkien's almost half-a century old cult classic.

Children's fantasy is one of the most lasting, unpredictable and -- to adults -- bizarre forms of artistic creative endeavor. It is impossible for literary pundits or corporate analysts to predict what will prove popular. Unlike television cartoon series or movies, which usually replace each other with bewildering frequency, popular books tend to entrance entire generations and hold their appeal for many decades at a time. Many of them prove as lasting as only the very greatest of classic literature does. And occasionally, classic children's movies like Pinocchio, Dumbo, Snow White and the Wizard of Oz transcend their own time and place to reach that plateau of transcendent immortality too.

It is early days yet to be certain that Rowling's "Harry Potter" series will meet that test in both print and now on the big screen. In both areas, that's the way to bet.

It is an elitist -- and largely a leftist progressive -- myth that great, lasting literature is usually misunderstood, reviled or ignored in its own time and that it only achieves widespread popular recognition long after a prescient, cultivated elite has taken it for its own.

Sometimes that does indeed happen. But not always. The classic works of Charles Dickens, Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Leo Tolstoy and the pioneering science fiction masterpieces of H.G. Wells a century ago were enormous best-selling hits long before serious critics condescended to notice them.

Superficially, Harry Potter's challenge to Tolkien's Hobbits and his Dark Lord, Sauron, is that of an upstart contender against a long-reigning, beloved and secure champion. The Lord of the Rings trilogy, after all, over the past half century has established itself as one of the best-selling series of all time. And for all their phenomenal sales over the last five years, the durability of the "Harry Potter" canon is yet to be confirmed. So how can we be so sure that the Harry Potter series will not go the way of, for example the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or Yogi Bear (the cartoon character, not the truly legendary New York Yankees catcher Yogi Berra he was loosely named after)?

Well, to loosely paraphrase Leon Trotsky, the children of the world over the past five years have voted with both their feet and their pocket money to embrace young Mr. Potter, the real boy against Frodo, the adult hobbit who only looks like a boy. The old champion is dead. Long live the new one.

And the pattern of box office receipts for Harry Potter suggests that the "Fellowship of the Ring" live-action epic set for release in December is up against a tough squeeze play.

On the one hand, the pull of "Harry Potter" to successfully attract repeat showings from its adoring young audience is so great that it looks likely to successfully erode first view ticket sales for "Rings".

On the other hand, how you gonna keep them down on the farm in Ol' Middle Earth after they've seen Hogwarts?

"Harry Potter" creates a vivid, recognizable world for children around the globe with which they can readily identify. It is set in a supposedly contemporary England but actually an idealized dream England combining every real elements of English society of the last three or four hundred years. And it is overwhelmingly very much the "real English" world of 1850 to 1950, a world of puffing steam trains, clean scrubbed young children in school uniforms going to traditional schools of ancient tradition whose buildings were neo-Gothic in design.

For every child below the age of 11, this world has enormous mythic resonance and it was a true act of genius on Rowling's part to make this school world the stage for her tales of wizardry and magic. Because for every small child, their teachers and school surroundings, their loyal friends and feared sneering rivals and bullies are the stuff of myth and every event has the potential to be suffused in magic.

Tolkien's Middle Earth has none of that. To children of 1950s and 60s America, growing up in a -- supposedly -- secure but dry technocratic society, it had the appeal of far-off wonder. But it had no areas of coincidence or familiarity that they could relate to from their own lives. It was a long -- a very long -- and enthralling fairy tale. But it benefited from lack of any direct competition. Nothing like it had been done for well over a century since the days of Hans Christian Andersen. And Tolkien, a pedantic early English scholar at Oxford University, was very deliberately turning his back on a contemporary scientific and rationalistic civilization he despised to find refuge in a dream construct world of the imaginary past.

But now the world of Middle Earth is going to have to play cinematic catch-up to the very different world of young Mr. Potter and it looks likely to lose.

Where Tolkien was only the master of fantasy, Rowling is the mistress of both contemporary reality and fantasy. Her work appeals to both worlds. And it appeals to a youthful audience very different to the sheltered and security, arrogant and sneering young Baby Boomers of the 1950s only too happy to sneer at the scientific advances and cultural conformity that cosseted them in unprecedented comfort and security.

Today's children are simultaneously doted upon by their parents -- those same Baby Boomers who themselves sighed over Tolkien's Hobbits all those decades ago -- and surrounded by fearsome new insecurities. Rowling offers them a dream world of reassuring sameness and security, yet one recognizably linked to the values and realities of their own. That is likely to prove a far more potent draw than the aging magic of Frodo and his friends.

Also, it is a world where dangers are very imminent and real, with lasting and horrific consequences. Harry grows up a lonely orphan, cruelly set upon by his uncle, aunt and boorish cousin because an evil wizard murdered his parents soon after he was born. To children now embracing Harry Potter in the months after hundreds, if not thousands, of children were orphaned by the destruction of the World Trade Center Towers in New York City that is a world they can identify with only too well.

Loyal partisans of the hobbits will indignantly reject this view. But in the best tradition of analytical journalism, this observer has to admit his own bias. I'm just wild about Harry.

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