This symbiosis actually began before either film debuted. Kids were reading the existing Harry Potter books in droves, and had created quite a buzz about the books, which is what lead to it being optioned for a film in the first place. But since the series was still being written, when the kids were done with the existing books, they began looking at other books in the same section at the bookstore, and they found there were shelves and shelves of stories to explore. They could read other books on magic, or meet dragons and unicorns, discover time travel and go on as many adventures as they wanted. But there was always the series of books that started it all, the series that was also being turned into a film. So thank you to J.K. Rowling for enticing more and more children to read, because it helped so many other authors, including Tolkien, to increase their readership as well.
This brings us to the actual release of the first Harry Potter film in November of 2001. Here we were, transported to a very recognizable England, meeting a comically dysfunctional family, and then we were swept into a very different world, living side by side with the normal one. It wasn’t just that magic existed; it was that everything was magic. Owls delivered mail, motorcycles flew, candles floated, there were ghosts and living pictures and moving staircases and three-headed dogs and Goblins and yet it was all rooted in a school that could have been anywhere in England, teaching any discipline. Reality and Magic living side by side, and it was absolutely enchanting. At the time, I worked with Developmentally Disabled adults and I took a bunch to see Harry Potter. After the film, I asked what they liked best, what character was their favorite. One of the girls just looked at me and said she liked the Castle. Well, I have to agree, Hogwarts is one wicked cool place. But it was clear to me that it was the overwhelming sense that everything was magical that won her over. And I think it was this sense of wonder for the magical that primed the Harry Potter audience for its first visit to Middle-earth in December of 2001.
The Fellowship of the Ring begins in a very different manner to Harry Potter. Instead of opening in a world that looks familiar, you are given the history of The One Ring, and introduced to all manner of magical creatures as they march off to a battle for the world as they know it. Rather than having magic all around us, we are transported to a different type of world, with different types of people populating that world. Harry Potter takes place in a school and much of that feels familiar and personal because it’s the story of one boy and his friends just trying to make it through the school year, while Fellowship of the Ring feels epic from the moment Galadriel begins speaking in the prologue. And then we met Gandalf as he rode into the Shire and we were sucked into this world, it was not some mythical far off land, it was Middle-earth and it was real. Having characters to care about and identify with helped, as it always does with a quality film. As with Harry Potter, I took some of the residents from the Group Home I worked at to see Fellowship of the Ring. In the middle of the film I had to take a few to the restroom and asked one gentleman if he wanted to go. He declined, and then pulled off a ring he was wearing, put it into his hand, then said “Like Frodo” and put the ring into his shirt pocket. I knew then he was hooked, and as chance would have it, we ran into Elijah a year later and I got to introduce them, it was a very special moment, to say the least.
Moving forward into 2002, both film franchises were faced with the prospect of having to overcome the ‘Sophomore Jinx’, something that typically happens to sequels. Of course, being book adaptations, both film franchises had the advantage of the books having come out earlier and already testing the waters. And in reality, the Lord of the Rings is one story broken into 3 books, while Harry Potter is much more episodic in nature. The real challenge for The Two Towers was the fact it was the Middle of the story, and therefore had no real beginning and ending of its own. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets had it much easier. It was a new school year, with new teachers and students tossed into the mix, new villains to overcome and like before, Harry and hisfriends survived it all. But it was becoming clear that there was an over arching arc to the Harry Potter stories, different adventures, but ultimately, the same main villain was at the heart of it all. We didn’t quite see it then, but there was definitely an epic story in the making that was building in a very different manner to what we saw in the Lord of the Rings, which dropped us in the middle of a very long standing battle of good and evil. Both films did well, didn’t succumb to the ‘Sophomore Jinx’ and built up excitement for the next film in the franchise.
So along comes 2003 and this time, Lord of the Rings will be alone during the Holidays, there will be no Harry Potter to join the Return of the King. That’s fine; it was the Lord of the Rings’ turn to prime the audience for a magical event when Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban finally did come out. And since Return of the King was the final story in theTrilogy, it was fitting that it got to bow alone. And did it ever take a big bow, one that led it to the Oscars and made it one of the most successful films ever at the Academy Awards. Not only did it make history for winning all 11 of the awards it was nominated for, but it did so as a Fantasy film.
Now that’s setting the stage for future Fantasy films, one that allows them to have a more realistic approach and to be taken more seriously. By the time Prisoner of Azkaban opened in 2004, Fantasy films had gone mainstream. It’s nothing new, Star Wars is known far and wide, even by people who have never seen it, and yet they can tell you who Luke and Leia are and their relationship to Darth Vader. But now, the success of Return of the King opened things up for Fantasy Films, and Harry Potter really began pushing the boundaries to be taken seriously.
Stay tuned for the third, and final story in this series tomorrow.