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Will Potter films have their own legacy?

“Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone’’ introduced audiences to (from left) Daniel Radcliffe as Harry Potter, Rupert Grint as Ron Weasley, and Emma Watson as Hermione Granger. “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone’’ introduced audiences to (from left) Daniel Radcliffe as Harry Potter, Rupert Grint as Ron Weasley, and Emma Watson as Hermione Granger. (Peter Mountain/Warner Brothers)
By Rick VanderKnyff
Globe Correspondent / November 14, 2010

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Authors imagine. It’s their job. In some cases, they build a whole world from the ground up — as J.K. Rowling certainly did in her phenomenally successful Harry Potter series. Readers imagine too, filling in the parts of that world the words only suggest.

For the first few years of Potter mania, from the UK publication of “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone’’ in 1997 through “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire’’ in 2000, the field was wide open for the shared imagination of author and readers. When Hogwarts was all in the mind’s eye, no two versions were quite alike, and each new reader who entered Rowling’s wizarding world found it ripe for both discovery and invention.

That changed when the movie versions began to land in 2001, arriving like an echo two or three years after each book’s release. Moviemakers imagine, too, but it’s their job to fill in the details for us. How exactly does that house on Grimmauld Place make itself visible? What does Diagon Alley look like? How about Dumbledore’s office? And, for that matter, what do Harry, Ron, and Hermione really look like? Now we know; or, at least, we’ve been handed a version that can be hard to shake.

And so, the most successful book series in history (some 400 million volumes in 67 languages) begat the most lucrative international film franchise ever (as measured in pure box-office dollars). The last book in the series came out in 2007, and now, right on time, the movie series is set to come to its own protracted close.

Warner Bros. has decided to split the last book, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,’’ into two movies, the better to tell the sprawling, 759-page story and, presumably, to squeeze out a few more golden galleons along the way. Part one opens Friday; part two is expected to open next July.

The books seem assured a lasting legacy, but how about the movies? Do they stand on their own as cinema, or are they skating by on borrowed magic? Do they add to the books, or supplant the reader’s own imagination? For parents new to the Potter world, do you introduce kids to the books first, or the movies? Consider this the reflections of one muggle parent, Potter fan, and film buff.

I’ll say up front that I love the books. Not necessarily for literary merit (I think they’re great yarns, but I might never have thought to pick them up if I didn’t have kids) but because the stories and characters became such an integral part of my parenting years. My wife and I are pop-culture skeptics, at least when it comes to how we raise our two sons (born in 1994 and 1998), and Harry Potter gave us a full-blown media extravaganza we could buy into without too much trepidation.

We read each book out loud as a family, even when the boys were well able to read them solo, and even when the books began to expand to Tolstoyesque proportions. I took a couple of days off work when “Deathly Hallows’’ came out, and we turned off the phones, stayed away from newspapers and the Internet, and powered through the book in one marathon four-day reading session. We were that worried about accidental spoilers — and that anxious to learn how it all ended.

But it has been about more than books, of course. Parents of Potter fans know the litany: Potter-themed Halloween costumes and birthday parties, the wand duels and the midnight book-release parties. In my house, there was that curious anticipation when both sons neared their 11th birthdays — a mix of preteen pragmatism (they know there’s no such place as Hogwarts) and a remaining glimmer of hope that maybe, just maybe, an owl would be arriving with a message for them. My older son also credits the first Harry Potter computer game with turning him on to gaming.

The movies only amped up the Potter hype. We thought seriously about avoiding the first, “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.’’ We had the first four books under our belts by that time, and my then-7-year-old had started reading them on his own. The movie posed a dilemma: Would seeing it only spoil things?

We went anyway. And after about 15 minutes (during the initial Norbert scene in Hagrid’s hut, to be precise) he quietly asked if we could leave the theater. “I think I like using my imagination better,’’ he told us later. (Now that’s magic.)

As a family, we’ve since made our peace with the movies, and we’ll be seeing the new film in IMAX as soon as we can get in. The films have gotten better over time — darker too, but that reflects the progression of the books. And as kids get older they develop that capacity for separation that helps them enjoy the spectacle of the movies while maintaining a deeper affection for the books.

Rowling reportedly pushed for Terry Gilliam as director, but we got Chris Columbus instead for the first two movies (“Sorcerer’s Stone’’ and “Chamber of Secrets’’) — long on wonder and faithfulness to the books, but ultimately thin on story and character development. I recently watched the first film on DVD with my younger son, and he condensed the whole experience down to about half an hour, skipping from favorite scene (Diagon Alley!) to favorite scene (Sorting Hat!). Movies one and two are like illustrated pop-up books, and what fans tend to like about them is the way they make the Potter world come to life.

Director Alfonso Cuaron took the closest thing to an auteur tack with “Prisoner of Azkaban.’’ I liked the movie at the time, but the rest of the family resolutely does not, and for the primary reason that the movie makes Hogwarts look decrepit and, frankly, a little depressing, with the warm, fire-lit glow of the first two movies traded in for a palate of various shades of steel gray.

Mike Newell took the reins for “Goblet of Fire,’’ but for me the series started to really gel with “Order of the Phoenix,’’ directed by David Yates, who stayed on board for “Half-Blood Prince’’ and now both installments of “Deathly Hallows.’’ Working with screenwriter Steve Kloves, who has been aboard for all but one of the movies, Yates manages to create real, full-blooded cinema experiences with some terrific action scenes and a sense of the character changes that Harry and friends experience (and which are explored at length in the books). Yates is perhaps no visionary, but he knows how to make a movie that stands on its own, and he has brought a welcome consistency to the second half of the film cycle.

The Potter movies have issues — that lack of overarching, connecting vision is one, especially when compared to that other recent fantasy cycle, Peter Jackson’s “The Lord of the Rings.’’ But the Potter films have virtues too, starting with some ravishing set designs, the cream of British acting talent (topped by Alan Rickman’s turn as Snape, with an honorable mention to Imelda Staunton’s Umbridge), and a group of appealing younger actors who started as children and managed to convincingly inhabit their roles (and robes) over the long course of filming the series.

As of 2011, there will be a new generation of fans who don’t have to wait for either the books or the movies. (Too bad for them — that anticipation was a large part of the fun.) I have read comments from new fans on some sites who recommend seeing the movies first and then reading the books. The movies, they reason, are like a shorthand introduction to the plots and characters; saving the books means you get to sit back and savor all the details after that first brief taste.

I still say, especially to parents: Read the books first and let young readers fill out that imaginary world for themselves. A firm rooting in that self-made world will help allow them to view the Potter movies as just one more imaginative take on the books’ world, and one they can compare to their own equally valid version. There is nothing my sons like better after watching one of the movies than discussing how scenes were left out or changed — and how they might have done things differently.

Rick VanderKnyff is a senior producer for MSN.com. He can be reached at knyff1@hotmail.com.

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