In the avalanche of moody, broody online clips heralding the release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1, there’s a segment more overtly melancholy than the rest. It’s a scene of Harry (as played by Daniel Radcliffe) standing at the graveside of his parents, James and Lilly Potter, in a churchyard on Christmas Eve. The setting immediately conjures other holiday-time tales of familial woe and loss. This is the sort of cold epiphany Ebenezer Scrooge had, contemplating his own headstone in A Christmas Carol. It’s the rock-bottom desperation of George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life, rubbing snow off the cemetery marker that shows his own brother, Harry (now there’s a quirky coincidence), drowned at the age of 9.
There’s nothing new, really, in stories of bereavement appearing around the year-end holidays. It’s a perfect fit, since they tie into our longings for connection and salvation. So what is it that makes Harry Potter’s brand of existential isolation so especially compelling? What is it that keeps global audiences coming back to these big-budget movies even when they feel like increasingly rote ritual reenactments of much better books?
In good part it’s because author J. K. Rowling made Harry not just another orphan, but an orphan wrenched as dramatically as can be imagined from parental care. Harry didn’t merely lose his mom in infancy, like Oliver Twist. He lost her, along with his father, to the murderous rage of a megalomaniacal wizard. He didn’t grow up suffering with a merely indifferent adoptive family. He was kept in a cupboard under a staircase—as pathetic a homestead as exists anywhere in children’s literature. And Harry’s not just a Dickensian agent of nuclear-family redemption, like, say, Pip in Great Expectations. He’s the savior of an entire wizarding-world culture, which without Harry as a charismatic resistance leader would succumb to the fascist, racial-purity-obsessed madness of Lord Voldemort.
With this amped-up orphan hero as her foundation, Rowling piled on multiple beloved, tried-and-true themes—and these, too, help make the Potter saga feel like the best of all orphan narratives. The books and movies play primarily like mysteries, since it takes Harry years to unravel clues about his past and about Voldemort’s weaknesses. But they’re also classic boarding-school chronicles, with Harry finding his way around good and bad classmates and teachers. They’re smart political allegories as well, tracing the chilling details of how totalitarian forces can eat away at more tolerant regimes.
Now it’s nearly time to turn out the cultural spotlight on Rowling’s mashup prowess. With the Potter movies wrapping up in Hallows: Part 2 next July, there’s going to be a big blank spot to fill. Need another lost-soul avenger with extraordinary abilities? Look no further than the two leading comic-book franchises. It won’t be long before new cinematic chapters arrive for Batman, whose parents were murdered when he was 7, and Spider-Man, who’ll never get over the killing of his Uncle Ben by a criminal.
This holiday season, there's already an orphan-palooza at the multiplex. Before year’s end, the computer-animated fairy tale Tangled, the action-movie spectacle TRON: Legacy, and the Western drama True Grit will all showcase, with considerable gravitas, spindled kids torn from moms and dads. Circa Christmas 2011, Martin Scorsese will unveil the Parisian-train-station urchin Hugo Cabret in 3-D, while David Fincher physicalizes the brutalization of state-ward adolescent Lisbeth Salander in his remake of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.
Of course, orphan stories generally have the greatest traction during the hardest economic times. That’s why dimpled mop-top Shirley Temple sold so many movie tickets during the Depression-era 1930s. In a new epoch of financial upheaval, we’re likely to go on embracing any number of fresh heart-tuggers about struggling waifs. We’ve come a long way from the comforting image of a cute little girl vanquishing fear by singing about animal crackers in her soup. But in dark days, we’re still yearning for the same essential comfort food: The sight of boys and girls alone in the world, like Harry Potter, finding a way to help themselves while we eat popcorn.
To read our review of Deathly Hallows, and find out why the Harry Potter movies aren't as good as Twilight, click here.