Learning Age-Old Lessons About Life From 'Harry Potter'

Last night I took my family to our little neighborhood theater where, with a few hundred other fans,
we watched, or more accurately were transfixed by, the midnight premiere of the final Harry Potter film. My 12-year-old daughter, the biggest Potter fan in our brood, was in full Ravenclaw regalia for the evening, after having spent the last two days in a marathon re-reading of the book on which the film is based.

The audience, mostly older teens who had grown up with Harry Potter, cheered at the moments of triumph, laughed and applauded when Ron and Hermione kissed, and were, for teens, uncharacteristically silent at the moment when Harry meets his destiny. One young man, who'd been acting the part of Mr. Cool for his date all evening, whispered worriedly, "He doesn't really die, does he?"

The last decade has been something of a golden age for family cinema. Pixar, with films like "Finding Nemo" and "Up," set a gold standard for computer animation by conjuring deeply felt and very human characters out of millions of tiny pixels. Japanese director Hiyao Miyazaki elevated anime into an art form with relentlessly imaginative works like "My Neighbor Totoro" and his masterpiece, "Spirited Away."

But nothing has captured the imagination of an entire generation like the Potter books and films, which chronicled the trials of the orphaned boy wizard who must face death, time and time again, at far too young an age.

Much has been written about the surprisingly dark, adult themes of the Potter books, which confounded the received wisdom that said people, especially young people, want escapist entertainment. True, the Potterverse is a wondrous and magical alternate reality. But of course the conflicts the characters must confront - good and evil, life and death - are ones we all eventually face.

I asked my daughter why she likes the Potter books and films so much, when so many characters in them die. "That's reality, daddy," she replied, with the tone of voice she uses when she discovers, yet again, what a dim creature her father is. Then, after thinking about it for a moment, she added, "Maybe, if we watch the movies now, later, when we really have to deal with those things, they won't seem that bad."

I knew what she meant, because I'd been there myself. Thirty-four summers ago, on a hot July night in the Midwest, I saw "Star Wars" for the first time. I was about the age my daughter is now, and from the moment the massive Imperial star destroyer lumbered overhead in the opening scene I sensed something that I would better understand on another night, years later, when I watched as Luke Skywalker tried to save his dying father, Darth Vader.

It's what I was reminded of again last night as we watched Harry, Hermione and Ron: On a warm summer evening, in a darkened movie theater, you can be transported to another world. There, in the space of just a few hours, you can learn age-old lessons about loyalty and friendship, courage and adversity and, most important of all, love.

This column was originally published in About.com