Harry Potter: A critical Examination of a Pop culture Phenomenon from Publication to Disneyfication.

Abstract:  Harry Potter was a remarkable success and its popularity continues after the last books conclusion but now it exists as a moment in popular culture, as a popular film series, and an amusement park. What does this mean for the longevity of the books themselves? I will attempt to answer this question by looking closely at the strengths and weaknesses of the story and how those strengths and weaknesses carry over into various adaption’s, including the films and amusement park and further how the reader responds at various levels to the story and the phenomenon.


   The protagonists; Harry, Ron and Hermione as well as and to a lesser degree the supporting characters quickly find themselves immersed in a world where magic is more commonplace than is common sense. There are rules which are set forth early on but they are immediately ignored while the adult figures are either ignorant of the transgressions or complicit in their being broken to begin with. This is one weakness of J.K. Rowling’s story and serves to mar an otherwise stellar work of imagination. Perhaps this could be forgiven but we should we look closely at what it means for literature as a while.

   The power of rule-breaking and the wisdom gained from subverting the rules, even when done so to meet a greater end comes only with the full knowledge that the penalty is both real and measurable.  But in Harry Potter’s world, beyond an initial awareness of the rules there seem to be no real consequences for breaking them at all, beyond what consequences come as a direct result of the actions themselves. Hogwarts, a school has areas forbidden, dangerous corridors, dark and enchanted forests and yet the students either sneak away with no real fear of being caught, or they come into possession of some magical device which allows them to come and go unnoticed. To give the proper credit by the last books in the series Rowling’s seems to have found greater narrative ability and the results were much more complex, emotionally engaging stories ripe with consequences; decision’s made, and second guessing. There were direct, measurable consequences which are illustrated well after the heroic trio flee into exile after losing the battle to Voldemort and his dark forces.  The books are darker, more mysterious and certainly more layered though at times one must wonder if Rowling is writing for a reading audience or a theater going one. Certainly by the stories conclusion it is the film adaption’s which have become the driving force for the direction of the books. They begin to read like scene set pieces directing special effects and they have a script like quality which diminishes the overall impact. Only time will tell how lasting the Harry Potter phenomenon will be. At it is without a doubt  phenomenon more than a literary benchmark, a part of popular culture inseparable from the marketing tie ins, video games, toys, wand replicas and now Disney Worlds own amusement Harry potter amusement park.

   There are moments in which Rowling’s displays a real creative genius especially the way she uses tired old magical story concepts in very new ways and in the way she employees names to great effect. . Her gift lies in the whimsicality and cleverness of language, no small feat for literature of any kind.  She rarely invents out of whole cloth, her creations can be found in many and various sources but it is the way she borrows them that is worth note. One early example is the local shopping district, a sort of magical Soho where one might acquire wands, flying brooms, messenger owls, potions, tomes and other sundries of the enchanted world. Had Merlin or Gandalf left the adventurous life to pursue mercantile careers they likely would have come to Diagon Alley. The name is a play on the word diagonally and is both a literal name and sly reference to the way one might meet the world of the supernatural, it is common is tales of ghost encounters to see an apparition out of the corner of your eyes, or diagonally. This becomes clearer as the story unfolds and we learn that the magic world is hidden from the sight of muggles, the human, non-magic using inhabitants of the Harry Potter universe. Muggle is another of her many clever word tricks. A muggle recalls the term Mug, a British pejorative used to describe someone who is easily fooled. Perhaps it is this playful language quality, clever names and curious sounding words, most of which have some counterpart in British slang making them even more curious to American ears. And there is no doubt the Harry Potter stories are popular.  However that popularity may prove an obstacle no amount of magic can overcome.

   When the Harry Potter and the Sorcerers stone first appeared it struck like lightning and ignited an inferno of interest the likes of which had not been seen before in the publishing industry. In fact their arrival was less like children’s books and more akin to the American arrival of the Beatles. Readers, who had gone far too long with mediocre books clamored for something new and original and the publisher quickly took advantage of this turning the books into a mass media franchise modeled after the success of Star Wars.

   Readers will likely forgive weak writing, plots borrowed from countless other stories and a conclusion designed to play well on the big screen but the question for the literary critic is will they revisit the actual stories? Any fan, and most everyone else can tell you the basics of Harry Potter but a careful examination reveals an interesting truth. What most people know of the stories comes from I actuality the films, and there are some key differences, which are worth noting but outside the scope of my current scope. It is this fact which leave me to believe Harry Potter will be remembered as a cultural phenomenon and a marketing landmark but will unlikely be remembered as a contribution to literature. No doubt the books will continue to be sold, though more and more they will be as accessories to the films and will not hold the same admiration, if not outright obsession as they did for those initial admirers.  In the end the books were written for children but were embraced by adults at a time when literacy was waning in the face of the internet. But most telling perhaps is this…Disney depending on ones point of views the great bogeyman of literature or the vehicle by which literature is perpetuated into a modern information driven culture has crafted an enclosed, self contained amusement park modeled after J.K. Rowling’s creation. For the price of admission you can play simulated quiditch, wander the halls of a pasteboard Hogwarts, and even drink officially licensed butter bear. J.K. Rowling’s creation, good or bad, and I will leave that up to the individual tastes of the reader, or more to the point the audience, began with a bit of much needed enchantment but through a combination of vanity (forgivable for an author), marketing driven mania and an overall lackadaisical approach to reading a line was drawn that ran from the first Harry Potter book straight through the films, a line that culminates in a gift shop where overpriced merchandise replaces the collaborative space that should exist between the reader and the author.  That alone diminishes what the books, through real cleverness and ingenuity could speak to the reader.  Walt Disney entertainment, the final arbiter of enchantment in today’s world now has the reigns of an otherwise remarkable story and While J.K. Rowling’s may hold creative control over her concept anything she chooses to do with it in the future must compete with the Disney vision and that is a formidable thing to stand up against.



Further inquiry


Reader response to the books contrasted to the larger marketing phenomenon


How does the marketing, including product tie in and film adaption’s of Harry Potter compare with Alice in Wonderland, Beatrix Potter and the Wizard of Oz. All three took advantage of their popularity to springboard into other areas. Lewis Carroll did it as a harmless aside. Beatrix Potter did it as means to more fully control the thing that was completely her own. L. Frank Baum did it unapologetically to keep attention in his Oz stories alive. His was a strange dichotomy between a man who wanted to stop writing Oz and a man who belonged to his creation and could not escape it.


What makes Harry Potter so much more successful than C.S. Lewis’s Narnia series today? Why did people embrace the Potter films but were only luke-warm towards Narnia?

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One Response to Harry Potter: A critical Examination of a Pop culture Phenomenon from Publication to Disneyfication.

  1. Alma says:

    This is very interesting. I never got past the 3rd book and it’s probably because by that time I started to feel a little icky about the whole thing…like the whole HP phenomenon was starting to take on a life of its own that had little or nothing to do with how I actually felt about the story. It’s like everything I thought was beautiful about the books was replaced by some giant marketing scheme. It’s too bad but I will say that the first Harry Potter book, I will always remember…and I’m probably going to read it again soon, at the age of 22. (I read it when I was about 11). The first 3 books were great.
    But very good article, I think it brings up very interesting points. I also liked your comments about rule-breaking and consequences, that was something that bothered me as well about the books.

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