Why is Harry Potter so Popular?
This article was originally written in January 2005 and published on the now-defunct pottersplace.org.uk
Now, I’m significantly older than the target demographic for Harry Potter, but I’m not afraid to stick my hand up and be counted. Originally I avoided Potter, thinking it was just some silly kids craze, but when my little sister lent me a copy of Harry Potter and the Philosophers Stone one Christmas when I was lacking reading material, I got hooked.
With Pottermania sweeping the nation, nay the globe, once more I thought I’d try and articulate my thoughts on why HP has been such a phenomenon. The books have sold well in excess of 250 million copies world-wide and the films break records every time they open it seems. It’s even been credited with creating a growth in children reading after so many years in decline. So why has HP been such an overwhelming success?
You could argue that the timing was right and that publishers have now fine-tuned their marketing strategies, something that didn’t exist when many other big name children’s books such as Winnie the Pooh and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe were published. If that were the case though, why aren’t more books reaching phenomenon status? Even the likes of Roald Dahl, whose works are amongst the best selling children’s books of all time, never reached frenzy level sales.
Another reason might be that disposable incomes have grown and that buying books is no longer a luxury - but has it really been a luxury since the middle of the 20th Century? In fact, there are more toys and entertainment systems to drag kids away from books than ever before. As I mentioned earlier, HP has been credited with drawing children away from their games consoles and TV screens.
Perhaps it was the genre? Were there no children’s novels about witches and wizards before? Well, released just prior to HP were titles such as: The Lost Years of Merlin, Shade’s Children and Fire and Hemlock. Then there were books such as: The Chronicles of Narnia and The School of Wizardry, that were published well before Rowling was on the scene, none of these took off. (Note - I will confess that my research proved how hard is it to find listings for any book charts prior the current week’s bestseller list, let alone going back to 1997 – it did highlight that a great many more children’s books appeared and are staying around post-HP though.)
Maybe it was the movies that launched the books to super-stardom? They required technology that was relatively new to help them be realised on-screen and so maybe the books’ predecessors didn’t have this advantage. There also seems to have been a growth in the fantasy film market, with the success of Lord of the Rings a good example. Fantasy had long been a loss-making genre, could the upturn in that have helped? A good idea, but the books sold millions of copies before the HP films were released and Rowling had published four books prior to the release of the first film (which was released in November 2001). The fourth book, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire actually broke records on release day and was a global story, and all this nearly six months before the release of the first film. And fantasy films only really took an upswing with the dual launches of HP and LOTR, which were originally released within a month of each other. Other fantasy films around the time didn’t do anywhere near as well; Dungeons and Dragons, for example, barely made $15 million at the box office, compared with $313 million for Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring and $313 million for Harry Potter and Philosophers Stone. While the books get an undeniable boost in sales from the films, it’s usually fairly negligible compared to the overall sales, the first three topped the New York Times Best Seller list in December 1999 a full two years ahead of the movies.
In fact, if you look at two series that are comparable to HP in terms of type and release dates you can start to see how extraordinary HP is. The Artemis Fowl books, written by Eoin Colfer are lauded as a high-selling series, and while there are currently only three books in the series, it has landed a movie deal and had one of the largest advances ever paid for a children’s novel. Another series, with a film to be released later this year, is A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket (a pseudonym for Daniel Handler). There are currently 10 novels in the series, with spin-off books and merchandise. Both of these series are popular (Artemis Fowl has sold over half a million copies in the UK (source) for example), yet neither has achieved anywhere near the same level of saturation that HP has.
So, with no previous, contemporary or subsequent novels hitting the headlines in quite the same way as HP has, just what is it about the novels that has made them a hit? Well, I’m no literary expert, no critic for the Times, but here’s my thoughts.
Well, obviously there are a number of things. Firstly, there’s the subject matter. Most people are interested in things that are out of the ordinary and witches and wizards certainly fit in that category. In fact, society has an age-old obsession with them. No to mention their magic powers. Kids today don’t see witches and wizards as evil crones bent on sacrificing them to dark spirits, they see them as super heroes in quaint costumes. They can fly, teleport, and perform numerous incredible deeds with a simple flick of their wand. Who wouldn’t want to be able to do that?
Then there’s the attention to detail that has helped to create such a believable fictional universe. Rowling has thought of how everything operates and how everyone got to where they are. Practically every character has a detailed back-story, and they all intertwine to provide a rich tapestry of history. Even the books the children study have been pondered over, whether they bring something to the narrative or not. And Rowling stated in a TV interview that there are details that she has which will never make it into the books. That is some serious pondering, but then, she did spend five years in development before completing the first book.
Another aspect that I think has helped the novels, is the age of and race/species of the main characters. What I mean is that they are of the same age as their target audience and the main roles are all filled by human characters. Take Artemis Fowl for example. The lead character is a boy-genius of the same age as the audience. However, he is an evil genius, masterminding grand schemes, and the head of a multimillion-pound criminal empire. A creative and interesting role, yes, but not much for kids to empathise with. Look at the other core characters and you’ll notice that most are adults (or at least fully-grown members of their species).
That leads nicely on to the development of the characters and plot. Most children’s novels, until recently at least, did not have their characters develop over time. Enid Blyton’s Famous Five and Secret Seven novels have had this accusation levelled at them, with the main characters not seeming to age, living in a perpetual youth. Many of Blyton’s novels are also said to be the repetition of the same, or at least a similar, plot. Christopher Robin in the Winnie the Pooh novels is another example of this. Rowling decided early on that we would follow the characters through their seven years at Hogwart’s School of Witchcraft and Wizardry with a novel for each year. This has allowed readers not only to get to know the characters, but to see them develop as they themselves are developing, while also allowing Rowling to explore their personalities in ever-changing circumstances.
An overlooked aspect of the novels is their dedication to frivolity and fun. The books are laced with funny names and ideas, characters that dedicate their lives to having fun and dropping quips, and magical artefacts that are guaranteed to raise a smile. Even lessons are turned into fun events with people using bizarre curses and spells to make each other dance or make light of your fears. Some fans have even dedicated their time to documenting their favourite funny quotes. This is the sort of thing that makes kids giggle. Many of the other novels that are supposed to be the next Harry Potter simply don’t have this, they’re deadly serious.
Having said all that, the novels’ killer blow perhaps, is it’s grounding in reality. Few novels, fantasy especially, have a sense of reality that anyone can recognise, but HP is based around our own society, it lives alongside it but has it’s own set of rules and regulations, it’s own ministries and government. It’s a world that is recognisable as a modern civilised culture, even if it’s one with a unique slant. Few series have spent time building and exploring how their governing bodies work, what happens if you break the rules, how they deal with criminal offences and offenders. Most modern novels are focused only on the plot that matters, rarely keeping an eye on the bigger picture, but Rowling’s groundwork has paid off and these books aren’t just about a small set of characters set against a much larger and largely unexplored universe. She has brought many different aspects into play, using each novel to bring in information both of the present and the past that will help in the future. This eye on the big and the little has paid off in the stories in much the same way as it did in LOTR and Star Wars.
I can’t say for certain, but I believe that all of these, in whatever quantities, perhaps mixed with a little of ingredient X, has lead to the success of the Harry Potter novels in much the same way as the Colonel’s secret recipe has helped KFC. There may be alternative recipes out there, but only one seems to be finger lickin’ good, and Rowling, whether she knows it or not, seems to have mastered it.