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When Harry met America

Observer Viewpoint | Monday, November 21, 2005

There aren’t many things that can keep a recently-turned-21-year-old like myself away from Thursday night’s sacred shrine of strobe lights, shadow dancers and fake IDs: Club Fever. Apart from an F-5 tornado slicing through downtown South Bend or a hippie nudist colony taking over campus and forcing everyone to drink electric kool-aid and dance naked to Enrique Iglesias music in the brightly lit Stepan Center, there is no excuse for skipping a Thursday night grind-fest at the Feve.

Nevertheless, last Thursday rolled around, and I found myself anxiously seated in a packed movie theater awaiting the midnight premiere of the newest Harry Potter film: “The Goblet of Fire.”

The funny thing is, I wasn’t alone. Hundreds, if not thousands, of other self-professed nerds and losers had logged on to Fandango.com days in advance to purchase their tickets to one of the numerous midnight showings in the area, and most of them still arrived hours early to the theater (some wearing witch hats and robes and dozens sporting Hogwarts-style polo shirts) so that they would get a seat that would put them at eye-level with Hermione Granger’s A-cup “muggles.”

Best of all, in my particular theater, there were no more than a handful of people under 14 years old in attendance to watch a movie about 14-year-old witches and wizards who – when they aren’t battling the forces of evil – gossip and cry about who is taking whom to a school dance. Needless to say, this sort of teenage drama is not the subject matter you would expect an audience of 18-30-year-olds to yell and whoop about in a movie theater at two in the morning on a Club Fever night.

How, then, does one explain the adult fascination with the Harry Potter series? Why do millions of middle-aged Americans admit to stopping their work lives to devour J.K. Rowling’s 800-page novels when they are first released? Why does the Harry Potter series rank nearly as high as the Koran on the reading lists of Islamic terror suspects at the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay? Why do the first three Harry Potter films all rank in the top 15 on the all-time worldwide gross charts? Why would I choose a romantic evening with Albus Dumbledore over an incoherent orgy of booze at the Fever?

Some avid readers would argue that Rowling’s stories are simply so magical and full of childhood adventure that they have bewitched America under a spell worthy of a Hogwarts classroom. Still, as exciting as her tales are, Rowling’s novels do not even come close to matching the adventure and magic present in Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” series, nor do they compare to the child-hero stories of C.S. Lewis’ “Chronicles of Narnia.” And as far as literary value is concerned, Rowling certainly won’t be seeing herself on a list of finalists for the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Why, then, have Harry Potter and Ron Weasley replaced cocaine and coffee as the most addictive substances in America? And why would grown men and women sacrifice their dignity to show up at a movie theater dressed as storybook characters? It’s not like average American adults (English professors aside) go parading around town dressed as Hamlet or Jay Gatsby or Emma Bovary – and those are at least respectable literary figures.

The popularity of the stories is also certainly not driven by a fascination with the social commentary imbedded within the plot: the racial undertones that accompany the poor treatment of “muggles” and “half-bloods,” the slap at aristocratic supremacists like the neo-Nazi Malfoy family or the attack on materialists like Harry’s gluttonous aunt, uncle and cousin, to name a few. If Americans really reacted this strongly toward social commentary, there would be much higher sales of Al Franken and Rush Limbaugh masks during the Halloween season.

Why, then, would a series of novels by a formerly unknown British woman convince an American society that is usually too lazy to skim 800-word newspaper columns to read (and re-read) 800-page tomes of literature?

It cannot possibly be a result of the outcry from conservative Christian groups and Bible freaks around the globe who accuse the Harry Potter series of encouraging children to give up God for the Wicca life of hex signs, cauldrons and broomsticks. If Americans truly only read books as an act of rebellion against the authorities who attempted to have them banned, then Vladimir Nabokov and J.D. Salinger would still be household names like Rowling’s.

The way I see it, unless Rowling truly is a witch who signed her soul away to the devil in return for international fame and fortune, Harry Potter is simply one more example – like “Star Wars,” hula hoops, and “The Da Vinci Code” – of overzealous people turning a cultural success into a social obsession by squeezing every bit of life out of it while it is chic. Consequently, by 2010, after the final Harry Potter movie is released and the world tires of consuming her stories, J.K. Rowling’s name will inevitably fade away into an abyss of nothingness.

Like her own villain, Voldemort, and scads of other material fads, she will become “She-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named.”

Joey Falco is a junior American Studies major. His column appears very other Monday. He can be contacted at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.