Harry Potter and the Infinite Sadness
Or, why watching movies about teenage wizards depresses the hell out of me.
I possess many embarrassing qualities, as I suspect is true of all of us, but most pertinent to this here newsletter is the fact that watching the Harry Potter movies makes me deeply, ridiculously sad. Not because the films themselves are especially depressing — though, beginning with Goblet of Fire, they kind of are — but rather because, as a friend so eloquently put it once, “magic isn’t fucking real.” I know this, you know this, and the world keeps spinning just fine despite it, but every time I revisit these silly movies I can’t help but wish it were.
And when I say sad, I don’t just mean a little bummed out. I mean the rest of my day is consumed by melancholy and I feel a sense of loss as soon as the credits begin to roll. Does this suggest I’m emotionally stunted in some way? Most likely. Do I care to reflect more deeply on the reasons why? Not particularly.
I suspect I’m not alone in this, especially as Avatar depression is a well-documented phenomenon and escapism is one of the main reasons why anybody goes to the movies in the first place. Who hasn’t emerged into the sunlight after a matinee and felt a little disappointed that the real world isn’t as magical as the one they just spent the last few hours visiting? (This is part of why I mostly see movies at night — the effect is somehow worse when it’s still bright out after the credits roll.)
Part of it is the fact that I didn’t just grow up with the books; I grew up with the three main actors. I was born in 1988, as was Rupert Grint; Daniel Radcliffe followed in ‘89, Emma Watson in 1990. What I’ve found is that to watch, say, Goblet of Fire isn’t just to wish that the world it depicts were real — it’s to wish for a kind of timelessness that allows you to return to the world you inhabited when you first saw it. Harry Potter’s trio of main characters grows up onscreen throughout these eight movies, making the series nostalgic by its very nature.
Which is why, despite having greatly enjoyed the books between the ages of 12 and 19, when I first read them as they were being published, I’ve been reluctant to revisit the series since Deathly Hallows concluded it in 2007. I rewatch the movies every so often, including the time I was tasked with ranking them when Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them was released, but long assumed that rereading the books would produce an even more acute sense of longing. Eventually my desire to to cocoon myself in my favorite fictional world became stronger than my hesitation, however, and so it came to pass that at the beginning of the year I decided to reread every book and rewatch every movie.
I was right that revisiting the books would be just as much of a bummer, but only partially. As with the movies, the first three novels don’t make me sad at all — they’re fairly lighthearted jaunts that don’t off any major characters. They’re also relatively self-contained, with each offering a degree of narrative closure that the next three don’t even attempt. That they’re so bright and happy only makes the latter half of the series’ tonal shift — and surprisingly high body count, including the goddamn owl — all the more difficult to reconcile.
Even so, revisiting all seven novels along with the corresponding adaptations dampened the effects somewhat — in the beginning because I knew I had more to look forward to whenever I finished one, and in the end because I’d spent the last two and a half months completely immersed in this world. The most acute form of Harry Potter Sadness, I’ve found, comes from watching one of the latter installments after a number of years away from the franchise and then immediately entering the real world.
The actual deaths of actors like Richard Harris, John Hurt, and especially Alan Rickman hasn’t helped, nor has J.K. Rowling’s recent emergence as what can charitably be described as a problematic fave, but the mere passage of time is HPS’ main comorbidity. I’m even more obsessed with the Lord of the Rings movies than I am with Harry Potter, for instance, but because the entire trilogy was released in the span of two years and didn’t feature anyone my age I don’t have an emotional comedown after rewatching the extended editions for the umpteenth time.
11 years passed between the time I first picked up the first book and the final movie’s end credits, meanwhile — literally half of my life up to that point. This year marks a full decade since those credits rolled for the last time, and magic still isn’t fucking real. What else is there to do but wait a few more years before getting on a broom and taking this trip again?