While channel surfing this past Thanksgiving, I came across a channel airing all of the Harry Potter movies. Wanting to enjoy my day off from classes, I decided to lie back and re-watch all of them. I’ve always been a huge fan of the later movies in the series, and it was fun to re-watch the older ones as a young adult. As I neared the end of my binge session, I began to really think about the difference in tone between the earlier and later movies.
In the earlier films, things were always simple. Magic is portrayed as something incredible and wonderful, the most intense conflicts typically involve quidditch (a fictional sport played at Harry’s school), and the good guys always live to see the next movie. As Harry Potter matures however, so does the story. The later films are completely unafraid to explore themes like love, loss, prejudice, envy, and despair.
My favorite film has always been The Deathly Hallows, Part 1. The film does an incredible job of portraying the overall dread the main characters have to face as the atmosphere around them continues to become grimmer and grimmer.
Thinking of all this made me remember the author behind the books, J.K. Rowling. Rowling is someone who’s always been very open about her experiences with mental illness. She’s casually spoken about her depression and suicidal thoughts on multiple occasions. It was only recently that I realized just how many of those feelings she transferred onto paper.
According to Rowling, her depression started after her first marriage failed, and she was left to raise her daughter alone. As part of an in-depth documentary about her life, Rowling stated: “It was only when I came to rest it hit me what a complete mess I had made of my life. That hit me quite hard… That was characterized by a numbness, a coldness and an inability to believe you will feel happy again. All the color drained out of life.”
In the end, Rowling tried to escape her depression by turning to one of her old passions, writing. With nothing to lose, and nowhere else to redirect her emotions, Rowling wrote, and the end result of that is likely sitting on your bookshelf right now.
Looking through her work again, it’s clear to see just how strongly her own history influenced Harry’s story—the obvious example being how dementors are (fictional) beings who literally drain people of their happiness, similar to how Rowling described her depression. There are also multiple parallels between Rowling’s parents and Harry’s parents.
According to Rowling, writing the Harry Potter series was what saved her, financially and mentally. Her connection to her own work was so strong, that she even grieved following its conclusion. According to Rowling, “The first two days were terrible. I was incredibly low. I was mourning the loss of this world that I had written about for so long and loved so much. I was also mourning the retreat it had been from ordinary life, which it has been.”
Rowling has of course moved on to write new stories since then, but just as her experiences influenced the life of Harry Potter, Harry’s adventures had an influence on her. Just a few years ago, Rowling gave an empowering Ted Talk about the benefits of failure.
According to Rowling, “Had I really succeeded at anything else I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged. I was set free, because my greatest fear had been realized, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.”
Over the years, I’ve met many people who have used literature and writing as a way to express their own frustrations or sorrows. In fact, on my bad days, even I’ll pull out my lucky folder and will look to add a new work to it. There’s no sense in being ashamed of failure, or trying to hide negative emotions. Instead the best thing to do is to find some way to express those feelings, learn from them, and move forward. Who knows, sometimes in the process you’ll end up creating something beautiful.
Hope you all had a lovely Thanksgiving, and I’ll see you in two weeks.