Harry’s last hurrah

By Lauren Rubenzahl, EdM, program coordinator at Children’s Center on Media and Child Health (CMCH).

Last night at midnight, the final installment of the Harry Potter movies opened in theaters, creating exhilaration and, maybe, a sense of loss for those who have grown up with Hogwarts on the brain and magic in the air.

Since his first appearance in 1997, Harry has cast a spell on the hearts of Muggle children, teens and adults everywhere. The stories have been credited with engaging tentative readers, and with getting them to read longer books than many adults thought they were ready for. But that level of engagement isn’t all magic. It’s believed that Harry’s adventures may be organized in such a way as to better connect with readers on a personal level as they age. With each book, Harry is another year older, the story is longer, and the intensity is greater. Because of this gradual maturation, legions of Potter-ites say they felt like they’ve grown up with Harry.

It’s an interesting story-telling technique, but it could present a problem for some families with young readers who are just discovering the series. When Harry’s adventures were originally released, kids had no choice but to wait the few years in between books; by the time the next one was published, they were usually ready for its content. But now the books are all readily available, so asking a young reader to wait a year or two in between installments could be met with a lot of resistance. What’s more, few parents want to discourage their children’s budding enthusiasm for reading and will allow their children to read the later Potter stories earlier than the author may have intended. (It’s suggested that his youngest readers should be about Harry’s age in any given book.)

For most children, that’s probably okay—especially if you read the books before or with your child, so you can anticipate parts that could scare or confuse her and then have an open conversation about it. But can the same be said for the films? Even if your child is ready to read the more intense books, she may not be ready for the movies—particularly this final episode, which is billed as extremely intense.

It may seem counter intuitive that a child who is ready for a book might not be ready for the movie version of the same story. But, as mentioned in a past Ask the Mediatrician post, books and movies have very different ways of creating worlds. When we read a book, our minds generate the details that are described there—and young readers will imagine only what their brains are ready for. But movies provide all those details for them, which means that a child watching a movie may be exposed to images and sounds that they are not prepared for.

In addition, reading allows children to set their own pace with the story. If it becomes too intense, they can take breaks or even skip over sections. In a movie—especially in a theater—it’s hard to get space from the intensity. The scary parts may be scarier on the big screen, especially because they can seem difficult to escape.

For teens that have read all the books, and those who just enjoy the movies, this final movie could be a fun and era-completing experience (though, of course, it can be scary for someone of any age). But for young children, even those who have read all the books, this final movie may simply be too scary and intense. (Did your child see any of the earlier movies? If so, their response to those film may help indicate whether they are ready for this final chapter.)

If you aren’t sure how your child may react, watch the movie without her first, and see what you think. As a parent, you know your child best: If you think it will be too intense for her, have her wait to see it. To build excitement for that idea, maybe you can make a date for the future when you’ll watch it together—like when the DVD comes out, or after you’ve re-read all the books. Giving your child a sense of when she’ll be allowed to see the movie will give her something to look forward to and might make the wait feel a little more bearable.