The Harry Potter Universe
This past weekend I sat watching Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them with my wife. Normally my son would watch something like this with us too, but in this instance that was not the case. If you have ready any of my writing here you probably know that sometimes I like to share such things with my son, even if he may not be ready for the content. I fully admit to pushing too hard when it comes to pop culture and wanting him to learn all the lessons and have all the fun that can be had from stories such as these. That’s really what is at issue when I do that kind of, what I call, impulsive parenting; letting my kid jump into something before we really examine what that thing is. Just last week I told him he could see the video for Michael Jackson’s Thriller. I had not seen that in years and within a minute or so I knew it was a mistake. The whole opening for that is terrifying and Max was scared for days because of it. Bad Dad moment.
So my impulse with Fantastic Beasts was that I wanted him to see it, but the reality was I could see it was too much for him. These are wonderful stories that, when used the right way, can be so much more than just entertainment. Well kind reader I am happy to report that I am learning from my mistakes, and as part of last week’s education it was made very clear to me not to suggest that my five-year-old should join us for this movie. Don’t get me wrong there are parts of the it I know he would love. The beasts are amazing, the character’s fun, and the moral take away is terrific…for a 12 year old and even then, there are themes and ideas that might be lost on a kid. So why, in general, do we think the Harry Potter Universe is so geared toward kids?
How to make something for kids and adults
First of all, for a time it’s about kids, at least the first 7 books/movies are, we will see where Fantastic Beasts goes but those, though in the same Harry Potter universe, seem geared toward teenagers and grownups. So it is only natural that we associate the books with children’s entertainment, but let’s face it, they go way beyond just that. Show me an adult that doesn’t love or at least enjoy those stories. There is a universality to them that is obvious looking at the size of the fan base and how careful the studios were when making the movies. They wanted to get it right, or as right as they possibly could.
At what age should your kids explore the world J.K. Rowling created?
My son Max has seen the first two Harry Potter movies, The Sorcerer’s Stone and The Chamber of Secrets, and that is all he will see for the time being. One of the things that is so great about these stories is the way they start as sort of pure adventures that kids of a younger age can relate to, you can see just the surface, or you can go a little deeper, either way works and you walk away happy, and then they grow into adulthood like the protagonists of the title. By the time you get to The Prisoner of Azkaban the main characters have reached the outside realm of adolescence and the ideas, themes and images of the stories get much darker. Here, for the first time, Harry is allowed to realize that the wonder of finally having a “tribe” of his own can be taken away just like his mother and father, there is no permanence. Whether it be his school friends, or Sirius Black, his long imprisoned Godfather, his experience is fraught with not just magical dangers, but life’s danger. He has had nothing to lose most of his life and just as things seem good, and he has something special, he sees the rug can be pulled out from under him. That’s when the real darkness descends. You see it all over the movie right from the introduction of the Dementors, a general dampening in the visuals, less brightness, and more grey in the movie. This visual change is a results from the simple act of growing up, including the way girls and boys relate at that age.
As the stories move on they tend to linger in a feeling that is a pretty good representation of adolescence. It stays in that dusky dark mode from right after the fourth book/movie. In The Goblet of Fire Harry experiences the actual death of someone his age for the first time. So pile on top of that the fact that his life experiences are the cause of said death and you have some real trauma, it’s dark stuff. This is such a huge thing for a young person and it comes out exactly like you imagine it would for the last three (technically four since they split the last book in two) with more loss and confusion about what the future holds.
Without going into too much more story detail, I think the really remarkable thing the series achieves as a whole is presenting each book/movie as a specific part of these kid’s growth. We get to watch them grow and hit millstones that real people hit, albeit amped up for good drama, but the moments they hit are all real; meeting girls/boys, falling in love, losing a friend, simple things that are the biggest in the world for a teenager. Forget about the magic, the creatures, and the adventures for a second and what you have are kids going through the basic bumps of life.
These are stories to give to our own kids as they hit their bumps and experience their dark days and it can be seen as a guide, metaphorically and literally, as to how to get through those things. When Max is old enough, and can read, he will read the books, then I will show him the third Harry Potter movie, and then soon after the rest because once he reaches the age where he is old enough for the third the rest will come quickly enough. The great thing about the foundation of these stories is that, in the end, the whole thing is about love. How we raise our children and what they become. That a boy with no real family to speak of can choose who he is based on the people he surrounds himself with. If you are an orphan with magic powers, a kid growing up with parents scraping by, or a child with all the money in the world, there is a lesson for you in these stories. What a brilliant thing to be able to offer our kids as a guide to living. These stories make so much more sense than so many other things do these days.