|By Brett Weiss
Do the words “muggle,” “Voldemort,” “Hermione,” and “horcrux” mean anything to you? If so, you’re hardly alone. More than 450 million copies of the seven-volume “Harry Potter” book series have sold worldwide, and the books have been translated into 67 different languages.
Moreover, each of the first six books in the series has been made into a feature film by Warner Bros. Pictures. The seventh and final book was split into two films, the second of which, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, was released on July 15, breaking the record for first day at the box office by raking in $92.1 million. The film also broke the record for opening weekend at $168.6 million. Of course, this is good news for Harry Potter creator J.K. Rowling, who, thanks to her literary wunderkind, has recently become a billionaire.
Joanne “Jo” Rowling was born on July 31, 1965, in Yate, Gloucestershire, England. When she was four, her family moved to Winterborne (a village nearby), and she attended St. Michael’s Primary School. As a kid, she wrote fantasy stories and was an avid reader, citing Jessica Mitford, author of Hons and Rebels and The Making of a Muckraker, as an early influence.
Rowling later went to Wyedean School and College and the University of Exeter. In 1990, during a delayed train trip from Manchester to London, she began thinking of a story about a young boy named Harry Potter attending a school of wizardry. Shortly thereafter, she started putting her ideas on paper. During the writing of the first Harry Potter book, Rowling’s mother died, a tragedy that has had an indelible influence on her writing — death is an overriding theme in the “Harry Potter” series, and Harry himself is an orphan.
In 1995, after dealing with a failed marriage (to Portuguese TV journalist Jorge Arantes), the birth of a child (Jessica Isabel Rowling Arantes), extended unemployment, and a suicidal bout with depression, Rowling finished her first book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, which she wrote on an old manual typewriter.
The manuscript for Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was rejected by 12 publishers prior to being accepted by Bloomsbury, a small London publishing house. The initial print run for Philosopher’s Stone (1997) was a mere 1,000 copies, half of which were distributed to libraries. Today, a copy of this rare, highly sought after volume in nice condition is worth around $25,000-35,000.
After Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone won the Nestlé Smarties Book Prize, the Children’s Book Award, and the British Book Award for Children’s Book of the Year, Scholastic paid $105,000 for the rights to publish the tome in America, changing the title to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (1998). Earlier that same year, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, the second book in the series, was published in Britain, and it was clear that Rowling had a major hit on her hands.
Over the next few years, the “Harry Potter” novel series snowballed in popularity, with the last four titles consecutively setting records as the fastest-selling books in the history of the publishing industry. In addition to being rollicking good yarns, the books are credited with getting kids (and adults in many cases) to read for fun again.
Kathy J. Wells, author of The Unofficial Guide to Harry Potter Collectibles (2011, Schiffer), wasn’t exactly a child when she discovered the wonders of Harry Potter, but she, like millions of other readers of all ages, was immediately enthralled with Harry and the magical world he inhabits.
“I first heard about Harry Potter through media advertising for the release of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets,” Wells said. “Everyone was thrilled kids were reading again. J.K. Rowling’s story was gaining such publicity, and it was even on the New York Times best seller list — I just had to pick up a copy [of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone]. It was wonderful. I dove into Harry Potter hook, line, and sinker and couldn’t wait to read the next book.”
Throughout the series, Harry finds himself involved in a variety of adventures, including: the performing of magical spells; heroics in the broom-flying sport of Quidditch; endearing (and enduring) friendships with Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger; dangerous quests to find mystical objects; entanglements with the evil Draco Malfoy; all-out battles against chief antagonist Lord Voldemort, a.k.a. “He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named”; and many, many more.
Despite its preponderance of magic, mayhem, and mystery, the “Harry Potter” series is, at its heart, a human story peopled with, well, people, both magicians and muggles (those with no discernable magical abilities). Reflecting on the humanistic aspect of the series, Wells said, “Here was a magical world I wasn’t too young to understand or too old to appreciate. Children and adults of all ages could relate to a lonely, bullied boy longing for a family, a place to belong.”
When asked to pin down her favorite Harry Potter book, Wells was reluctant at first, but ultimately picked the first in the series. “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone will always be my favorite”, she said, “because it introduced me to the Harry Potter environment. My next favorite is Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. The first three books build up to the type of climactic challenges woven throughout all the books. Harry is involuntarily thrust into events beyond his control, demonstrating that courage, loyalty, trust, love, and a bit of magic can beat overwhelming odds.”
Like most hardcore Harry Potter fans, Wells enjoys the films, but prefers the books. “The movies are a treat,” she says, “but they have to condense hundreds of pages into a 150-minute movie, leaving a lot of critical information on the cutting room floor. Above all, I prefer the audio books by Jim Dale. I have listened to the entire series two dozen times and never get tired of it. Mr. Dale’s voice impersonations are perfect. I recall anxiously waiting to see how he would impersonate the voice of the Dark Lord Voldemort.”
Lord Voldemort is indeed a memorable villain, in both the books and the movies, but Headmaster Dumbledore and Professor Severus Snape are Wells’ favorite characters. “Dumbledore personifies courage, wisdom, strength, and kindness,” she said. “He is to the Potter generation what Merlin was to the Camelot generation. Professor Snape’s character changes on so many different levels. Each book kept you wondering if he was really that nasty — all being revealed in the Deathly Hallows. Who would believe that Severus could be such a romantic?”
Regarding the films, Wells has a special appreciation for the “big three” of Daniel Radcliffe (Harry Potter), Emma Watson (Hermione Granger), and Rupert Grint (Ron Weasley). “They were unknown child actors learning on the job, maturing both physically and in acting experience,” she said. “I think they did a great job. It can’t have been easy growing up in that type of spotlight.”
Wells also cited Richard Harris (Dumbledore), Alan Rickman (Professor Snape), Emma Thompson (Professor Trelawney), Tom Felton (Draco Malfoy), and Jason Isaacs (Lucius Malfoy) as favorites. “I could go on, but I really like all of the actors,” she said.
Long before J.K. Rowling became a literary sensation, Wells loved immersing herself in exotic worlds created by such fantasists as L. Frank Baum, George Lucas, and J.R.R. Tolkien. However, nothing compares to her fascination with a certain boy wizard. “As a child, my fantasy world was through The Wizard of Oz,” she said. “Then as a young adult with Star Wars and Lord of the Rings. They never interested me enough to collect, but Harry Potter changed all that.”
The collecting bug bit Wells after the release of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.