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'Harry Potter' generation says movies, books will endure

13 years after the first book, original fans are now in college.

Layne Lynch
Ellen Cameron, a UT freshman, visited the Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Orlando, Fla., over the summer.

When it comes to Harry Potter, his magic is more than just make-believe.

Over the years, readers' imaginations have conjured the hope that if they wait long enough, a white owl will deliver their acceptance letter to Hogwarts, the school of witchcraft and wizardry. Some even imagined which "house" they would move into if they could ever be so lucky to escape the "muggle" world and venture into the fictional world that author J.K. Rowling created for those coming of age 13 years ago.

Those first fans are now college students, and for some students at the University of Texas, Harry, the main character of the series, isn't a mere fictional wizard prodigy, confined to the page.

As Potter struggled through his childhood, experienced those angsty, awkward teenage years,and finally arrived as a wiser young man, readers felt they were not only along for the ride but also growing up alongside the wizard.

The release of the first movie in the two-part conclusion, "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1," on Friday signifies for some that a chapter of their youth is closing and that the doors of adulthood are busting open.

"The end of it all is depressing. Harry Potter has been a part of my life since third grade, and I've always had something to look forward to, whether it be a book release or a midnight movie premiere," said Louisa Tao, a junior business major. "The end of the movies signifies the fact that I, like Harry Potter, have grown up. I don't know if there will ever be something like that again in my life."

Tao remembers stumbling upon the first book, "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone," with a graphic of a young boy with a lightning bolt scar riding on a broomstick, in her school library. She, along with many of her classmates, picked up the book and began her 13-year adventure.

"It was one of those series you couldn't put down, because J.K. Rowling does such a good job of being suspenseful until the very end," she said. "When I was young, I didn't get the big picture. I didn't think of the characters on the human level that I think of them on now, but now I realize it was this separate world I would escape to. Those characters became real to me."

In 2001, that first book was translated onto the big screen, and Ellen Cameron, now a college freshman, remembers carpooling to that midnight premiere with her neighbor. Cameron secretly borrowed her father's gold and red tie to dress as a member of the Gryffindor house. Since then, Cameron has made it a tradition for each movie to dress as one of the eccentric characters, such as Luna Lovegood and the ghost Moaning Myrtle. For the last movie, she plans to dress as Dolores Umbridge, a corrupt minister of magic.

"I'm going to miss sharing that experience you share with the rest of the audience. 'Harry Potter' became this sort of cultural inside joke," Cameron said. "For other movies, you have two or three members of the audience dressing up. At 'Harry Potter,' you have 80 percent of the audience in costumes."

Over the summer, Cameron took a trip to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Orlando, Fla., and discovered that the world she had imagined had become a beautifully constructed reality. She encountered the colossal open gates of Hogwarts, rode every roller coaster and sipped a butterbeer (a butterscotch drink) from Three Broomsticks, one of the park's restaurants. "There are no words to describe what that experience meant to me," she said.

The popular culture connections to 'Harry Potter' are many: online communities such as Mugglenet.com, quirky musicals including "A Very Harry Potter Musical" (put together by a group of University of Michigan students) and touring bands such as Harry and the Potters.

The University of Texas even has a Texas Quidditch team whose stated purpose is to "celebrate the Harry Potter universe." Quidditch is a sport played in the books, with two opposing teams of seven players flying on broomsticks. The Texas Quidditch team's broomsticks, however, stay grounded.

"I think it is one of those things that, like 'Star Wars,' will always have this presence in our lifetime," Cameron said.

Philip Nel, the director of the children's literature graduate program at Kansas State University, introduced a "Harry Potter's Library" course to the university in 2002. He has witnessed how what he calls "the Harry Potter generation" has evolved. In his first class, only half of his students had either read the books or seen the first movie. Today, an average of 28 of the 30 students have read the series and seen the movies before they step foot in the classroom, Nel said.

"This generation is the Harry Potter generation. They are literally Harry's contemporaries," he said. Nel also said he thinks "Harry Potter" has received early affirmation as being a classic series novel.

"I'm weary of saying that, but that's what it is," Nel said. "To fit as a classic, a book has to be passed down through generations and receive the support of critics. 'Harry Potter' has already done that."

The dreaded comparison to the "Twilight" vampire books and films (also aimed at young adults) stirs up some "Harry Potter" fans, but Nel said there is one key difference.

"\u2009'Twilight' is a simple plot-driven romance with a narrative," Nel said. "\u2009'Harry Potter' has nuances of romance, a strong narrative, ongoing mystery, high fantasy and an entire invented universe that Rowling has created spanning from geography to the mythical names of the characters"

Gerald Rich, an economics major at UT, said he is still bitter after losing a costume competition at the midnight release of the seventh book, "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows." Dressed as Sirius Black, a dark but courageous wizard from "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban," Rich wore a black robe with a homemade Azkaban prisoner sign and emblazoned Black's prisoner number, 2323, onto his chest with a marker. Rich came in a close second.

And even though Rich feels as though he is too old now to dress up for the movie premiere, he said his generation will always relate to Harry.

"We all escaped to this realm of nerdiness, always on the tipping point of maturity," Rich said.

Claudine Lucena, a biology major, said that each time she reads the books, she discovers a newer and deeper appreciation for the series. At several movie releases, Lucena dressed as a member of the Ravenclaw house. She feels as though she can identify with members of the house because of their tendencies to be "brainy and quietly shy."

"J.K. Rowling starts out writing a children's book, and then you realize that the issues she confronts are so relevant to us at each period in our lives," Lucena said. "These past two decades have been the Harry Potter decades."

Over the summer, Lucena commemorated the final book by throwing a costume party that included food from the books. She constructed chocolate spheres with legs to resemble Hogwarts' chocolate frogs, made licorice wands and recalled a failed attempt to make butterbeer.

Lucena has traveled to places such as King's Cross station in London to visit "Platform Nine and Three Quarters," the train stop to Hogwarts, which is actually just a cart embedded in the platform wall. She plans to make a trip to the Orlando theme park with friends to close the chapter on "Harry Potter" and on her childhood.

"It feels like the end of an era, " she said, "But I think it is one of those things that I think will never really disappear. My kids will read those books."

llynch@statesman.com