The Trouble With Harry Potter

What gets lost in the shift from books to screen and merchandise? The magic.

My mother would have loved Harry Potter. This might not seem like much to J.K. Rowling, author of the best-selling series about the life and times of a boy wizard in contemporary England. After all, she’s at the top of the New York Times Best Sellers list, and her three books to date–a fourth is due out in July–have been translated into 28 languages. Still, a posthumous stamp of approval from Anne Bates Linn (1914-1992) is no small achievement.

Her house was littered with books and strong opinions. My mother scorned Walt Disney long before he knocked the stuffing out of Winnie the Pooh. She loathed the Nancy Drew books (“racist, redundant, and so badly written”), Cherry Ames, the Hardy Boys, and the Bobbsey Twins (ditto). For me and my sister, reading these books evoked feelings of guilt most people associate with larceny.

My mother was equally passionate about her literary loves, which included several books about wizards. She devoured J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings as soon as each book arrived in our local library. Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea trilogy was another favorite. She was fond of Merlin in various forms, especially his incarnation in The Once and Future King, by T.H. White.

The books my mother loved best create worlds so evocative we can lose ourselves in them. Each is a complex and consistent ecosystem rocked by struggles against evil, both grand and mundane. In my mother’s favorite wizard books, as in real life, the grand, transcendent struggle manifests in everyday struggles as well. We recognize in their pages the tyranny of ordinary bullies, the dangerous rigidity of petty bureaucrats, and the tragedy of self-deception or excessive pride. They are essentially honest.

And so is Harry Potter. To paraphrase one reviewer, the Harry Potter books aren’t better than The Lord of the Rings or the Earthsea trilogy, but they deserve to be talked about in the same conversation. Harry is a wizard in training, but Rowling paints with joyful detail the commonplace triumphs and trials of any child in school–tests of friendship and loyalty, games won and lost, struggles with homework, and the ins-and-outs of popularity. The magic she weaves into her books can be alternately playful and terrifying. She moves effortlessly from small delights like candy to ghoulish creatures who thrive by sucking hope and happiness out of human beings.

My daughter, who was four when my mother died, never got a chance to hear my mother’s opinions about books. But now, at 12, she loves Harry Potter, as do most of her friends. So does our downstairs neighbor, who is eight. So does my newly tattooed friend, a sophomore at the University of Chicago. So do millions of readers around the globe.

What’s most amazing about the hoopla around Harry Potter is that it’s for something hopelessly old fashioned: a series of well-written books. At a time when purveyors of children’s culture insist that kids have no attention span, children are mesmerized by 300-page books with no pictures. As advertisers market sex and cynicism to world-weary ‘tweens, nine- to-12-year-olds are losing themselves completely in a magical struggle of good against evil. While media executives insist that even babies need electronic bells and whistles to hold their interest, millions of children have experienced the world of Harry Potter essentially in silence, the stillness broken only by the rustle of pages turning or the quiet murmur of someone reading aloud.

My mother took the silence of reading and the integrity of books for granted. We can no longer do that. The precious quiet around Harry Potter is about to be irrevocably shattered by the click of e-commerce and the jingle of cash registers. This summer a line of Harry Potter back-to-school products is going to hit the market. Next year, the film will be coming to a theater near you, replete with even more things to buy. As the clamor of hype escalates, fans of the series will relinquish not just money but a piece of ourselves to Time Warner Entertainment, owner of the licensing rights. The images we see on the screen will not be ours. They will belong to Chris Columbus, director of the mega-hit Home Alone. Rowling’s title of executive producer could mean the film will stay true to her vision. It could also mean nothing. The $100 million production budget does guarantee lots of nifty special effects and that nothing will be left to the viewer’s imagination.

The experience of seeing a favorite book character look wrong on the screen is as old as film itself. But Harry Potter is expected to be a blockbuster and that means products–lots of them. Trade journals predict that Warner Bros. will spin the film into interactive games, toys, cartoons, and even a theme park. We, and our children, can expect to see images of Harry, his friends, and his enemies everywhere we turn–in magazines, on television, and, until their exclu-sive rights run out, in Warner Bros. Studio Stores all over the world. Under license from Warner, Mattel will produce a Harry Potter doll with a full line of clothes and accessories, and Hasbro has acquired the trading-card and candy rights.

By next fall, once the early merchandise appears, children reading Harry Potter for the first time will know what his world looks like be-fore they even open a book. They will be deprived of a chance to conjure their own visions of the Hogwarts School for Wizards and its occupants. Once the film premieres, children will no longer assign their own cadence and movement to their favorite characters.

Children will lose the chance to conjure their own visions of Harry Potter’s world.

These lost opportunities wouldn’t matter so much if other books were achieving this magnitude of popularity. But they aren’t. For most children, Harry Potter has been an oasis of silence in a barrage of corporate noise. A recent study by the Kaiser Family Foundation shows that children consume an average of 40 hours of media a week outside of school. Most of this is electronic–television, videos, computers, and radio. As we bombard our children with images, words, and sounds that leave nothing to be imagined, we are transforming them from creators to reactors. It’s not good for them.

D.W. Winnicott (1896-1971) would have liked Harry Potter, too. The British ped-iatrician and psychoanalyst died long before personal computers, cross-marketing, and video games. Linking creativity to mental health, Winnicott believed that children thrive in environments that have safe boundaries, but do not impinge on their ability to think and act spontaneously. Providing such delicately balanced environments he called “good-enough” parenting. A good-enough parent holds a baby tightly enough for the baby to feel secure and loosely enough for the baby to gesture. As a baby’s gesture brings a response–a coo, a smile, a laugh from a parent–she learns the difference between what comes from her and what comes from others. As her spontaneous gestures and sounds generate warmth and approval from her parents, she learns that she is capable of evoking a response and of making good things happen. For children whose parents hold them too tightly, or who flood them continually with stimuli and commands to react, the cost is high. They never learn to initiate action, or to impact the world they inhabit. They miss the essential human experience of creativity.

With the confluence of sophisticated electronic media technology and the glorification of the free market, it is difficult to provide children with the kind of environment Winnicott describes. American children are assaulted with the noise from advertising and the things it sells from the moment they wake up until bedtime. The space for their ideas, their own images, their interactions with print or pictures shrinks with every blockbuster children’s film or television program–inevitably accompanied by toys, picture books, videos, tapes, and clothing.

The Harry Potter books provide a respite from a culture saturated by commercial, electronic media. Chil- dren get to exercise their own creativity as they interact with J.K. Row- ling’s imaginary world. They haven’t needed Warner Bros. to visualize her words. They haven’t needed a Harry Potter Magic Wand or a Find Your Way to the Chamber of Secrets computer game to enjoy the story. All they needed was themselves and a book. But that is going to change.

It’s not easy to resist the siren song of fame, power, and fabulous wealth. When she sold her first book, Rowling was an unemployed single mother. Still, I can’t help wishing that she had been more like Bill Watterson, creator of the wildly popular comic strip Calvin and Hobbes. Even after he stopped creating the strip, Watterson refused to sell the licensing rights. Somehow he’s managed to resist the lure of an estimated $10 million a year from product sales. I’m grateful to him. The world Watterson created is still unlittered by greeting cards, pillow cases, and ceramic mugs. We enter it unencumbered by interpretations from producers, directors, actors, and art departments.

Meet the Author
J.K. Rowling spent her ‘tween and teen years isolated from the excesses of popular culture. When she was nine, her family moved near the Welsh border, close to Britain’s Forest of Dean–rural, wild, and beautiful, rife with legends and relatively isolated from popular culture. In interviews, she speculates that the setting and the lack of things to do stimulated her imagination.

I wish that insight into the source of her own creativity had enabled Rowling to turn down the Warner Bros. millions. Harry Potter did not evolve from lifetime exposure to television, movies, and the products they sell. His roots are in the silence J.K. Rowling found in the Forest of Dean. He grew in a space she was allowed to fill with her own visions. He grew in the glorious experience–endangered now more than ever–of listening intently to voices no one else has heard.

Susan Linn is associate director of the Media Center at the Judge Baker Children’s Center in Boston and an instructor in psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.