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Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Across The Pond And Beyond: Harry Potter And The Philosopher's Stone

Every writer dreams of getting his or her big break in the world of literature.  Whether their ambition is to have the top-selling book on the New York Times best-seller list, or simply just to have anybody read their work, those who are serious about the craft will try anything to get their name out there.

In some ways, it's one of my main motivations towards starting up this blog in the first place.  I have quite a lot to talk about, and I'm ready to just let it hang out there for people.  Sometimes, I hope that something that I say here really resonates with someone, or lets them know that there may be someone who has gone through exactly what they have.  In a few cases, the subjects I choose for blog entries might inspire some thought-provoking discussions.  In fact, there's been a couple of entries on this blog that have inspired a lot of comments on my personal Facebook page, which have undoubtedly given me some new angles to look at.  In fact, I've been thinking of creating a fan page for this blog, just to give more people the chance to read it and comment.  What do you all think? 

Of course, nobody said that the whole pursuit of writing as a sole career would be easy.  Would it be my all time dream to make a good living as a writer?  I'll admit would be my ultimate dream come true.  I'm well aware that the odds of some publisher locating this blog and signing me up for a million dollar book deal is less than one per cent.  However, I'm a firm believer in the quote 'you'll never know unless you try', so this blog is my response to that quote.  It may help my work get discovered, and it may not.  At least I'll enjoy the process for however long it lasts, right?  That's ultimately what's important in life.  Passion for your work.  I certainly wouldn't be spending so much time writing if I didn't enjoy doing it.  I have always loved writing stories and using my creative juices to make up stories and entries, and I imagine that I will continue to do it until I take my final breath on this earth.

The author who I am featuring in this particular blog entry was one of those writers who never gave up on her dream and ended up having huge success with it.  What's interesting about it is that she managed to come up with the idea that made her a millionaire during one of the hardest periods in her entire life.

The journey for her began in 1990, on a train ride between Manchester and London, England, where a 25-year-old woman named Joanne Rowling was struck with a sudden idea for a novel.  During the four hour ride, she was bombarded with images and visuals of wizards and magic.  In her visuals, she pictured a young boy attending a school of wizardry for the first time, and from there, she had formed a full length story in her mind.  Upon arriving back home, she immediately wrote down those ideas as soon as she could, thinking that she could write a captivating story.

Over the next few years, she was dealt a lot of horrible blows.  She had lost her mother just months after she came up with the book idea.  She had a marriage that ended, and she was left to bring up a daughter as a single parent without a job.  She was forced to rely on government benefits packages to get through, and was diagnosed with depression.  It was not a good time for her on the personal front.

In her creative mind, however, she couldn't have been more inspired.  Drawing from her personal tragedy and hardships, she used some of that emotion to bring rich, deep, characterization of all the key players in the story.  She continued to work on her manuscript tediously, even resorting to writing chapters in coffee shops and delicatessens while trying to get into a course to become a teacher and supporting her toddler aged daughter.

By 1995, she had managed to finish her very first manuscript on an old typewriter, and with help from Bryony Evans managed to secure a literary agent to represent her.  She was rejected by at least a dozen publishers before being accepted by a small publishing company by the name of Bloomsbury, along with a £1500 advance for the manuscript.  Part of the reason why the publishing company took a chance on her was because the chairman's eight-year-old daughter had read the first chapter and wanted to read more, but he wasn't sure if she could make it as a children's author.  Luck was on her side in 1997 though.  The Scottish Arts Council had given her a grant to continue writing, and in June of 1997, her first book officially hit the shelves in her native UK.  In 1998, the book had garnered so much interest in the UK that an auction was held in the United States for the rights to publish the book overseas.  Scholastic Inc. had won the auction after paying $105,000 for the rights to the book, the first fortune that would come her way.

That book was Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone.  (Or, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone in the United States).

Joanne Rowling decided to use the pen name of J.K. Rowling, for fear that had she used her full name, she might not have been taken seriously because she was a woman.  In the end, would it really have mattered though?  The Harry Potter series became a global success, selling over 400 MILLION copies, and as of March of this year, Rowling's net worth is around the tune of one BILLION dollars.  Not a bad achievement for someone who just eighteen years ago was just scraping by.

She just didn't get rich through her books alone.  In 2001, the books began to be made into movies, all of which were blockbusters at the box office.  The final movie of the series was released on July 15, 2011, and already it has been receiving much critical praise. 

Part of the reason why the movies inevitably became as successful as the books was due to the fantastic casting of all the actors in the films.  Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, and Daniel Radcliffe as Ron Weasley, Hermione Granger, and Harry Potter respectively made the books come to life with their accurate portrayals of the characters.  With a time period of a decade in between the first movie and the last movie, we literally watched all three actors grow from preteen children to young men and women.  The fact that all three actors speak so highly of their roles, and have had nothing but fun bringing the world of Hogwarts to life just adds to the magic and beauty behind each Harry Potter installment.

So, since we're truly at the end of an era with the second part of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows in theatres and cinemas all over the world, I figure that I'd use this blog entry to look back on how the whole Potter-palooza began.

Now, I've mentioned before that the first book in the series was released in 1997 under the name Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone.  That name holds true for the United Kingdom, Canada, and presumably most of the world.  In the United States, the title of the book and the movie was Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone.  Why the reason for the name change?  It's hard to say.  On a personal note, if I was eight when the book came out, I'd probably pick it up more if it had the sorcerer title.  At eight, I wasn't quite sure what a philosopher was, but I sure knew what a sorcerer was.  I had read enough Sabrina The Teenage Witch comics to know that by heart!  However, with absolute honesty, I think that the name should have stayed the way it was originally meant to be, which is why I titled this entry the way that I have.

That, plus I'm Canadian, and that's the title we associate with Harry Potter's first year, so there.  :)

Since we're talking about the first book/movie, I figure I'd drop a little bit of a confession here for all of you.  Around November of 2001, I was invited to go to the premiere of the first Harry Potter movie by a friend of mine named Kitty.  Kitty had an extra ticket available, and she wanted to know if I would like to go.  I never turn down a free movie, so I agreed.  It was the premiere screening in Ottawa (where I had lived at the time), how could I resist?

The only thing was that I was kind of a 'muggle' about the whole world of Harry Potter.  I hadn't even so much as read a paragraph of a Harry Potter book, let alone the whole book itself.  By the time the first film debuted in North America on November 16, 2001, J.K. Rowling was already halfway through the Harry Potter series in book form, and yet, here I was going in to see the film adaptation of a book that I had never read.  I was worried that I wouldn't like the movie, or that I would sleep right through it.

Of course, neither one of those things happened.

I suppose that you don't need me to repeat the plot too much, as anyone who has seen at least one of the movies or read one of the books knows exactly what exactly happens to our young wizard.  Harry Potter's parents were James and Lily Potter, a pair of wizards, making Harry a pureblood wizard.  Tragedy struck when Lord Voldemort slayed Harry's parents.  He had tried to kill Harry as well, but something prevented him from doing so.  Harry Potter was left with a scar on his forehead in the shape of a lightning bolt as a souvenir of the battle, and Voldemort was rendered powerless.  Over the next ten years of his life, Harry was forced to live with his aunt and uncle.  Problem was that Harry didn't exactly like his aunt and uncle, nor did he like his bratty cousin, Dudley.  Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon showered all their love and devotion to Dudley while treating Harry horribly.  In fact, when Harry kept getting letters in the mail, Vernon did everything in his power to keep Harry from getting them.

However, in this scene from the movie, Rubeus Hagrid comes to visit Harry Potter to not only reveal that he has been accepted as a student at Hogwarts School of Wizardry, but to give him a little birthday gift.

Don't worry...the badly spelled cake is just one of the gifts.  Hagrid reveals to Harry that he is in fact a wizard...a fact that his aunt and uncle kept a secret from him for his whole life.  It is here that Hagrid delivers the news that he has been accepted into the Hogwarts School of Wizardry.

Since the school is a school that offers residency, Harry makes no hesitation in choosing to go.

After a quick trip to Diagon Alley, and an even quicker withdrawal from Gringott's (where Harry discovers that in wizard currency he's almost as rich as Bill Gates), he buys all the school supplies he needs, such as a magic wand, a book of spells, and an owl named Hedwig.  From there, he boards the train to Hogwarts at King's Cross Station from the hidden platform of 9 3/4.

It is on the train ride that he meets up with two very special people.  The first person he meets is Ron Weasley, a little red-headed boy from a very large pure-blood wizarding family (all the Weasley children have, are or will be attending Hogwarts as the series continues).  He has a sense of humour, and is often the one who makes the wittiest remarks.  He also introduces Harry to the delicious world of wizard candy, such as Bertie Bott's flavour beans, and chocolate frogs.  Harry also meets Hermione Granger, who was born to a pair of muggles.

(Muggles are people who can't use magic or wizard spells, in case any of you were wondering.)

Despite Hermione's parentage, she is one of the more intelligent of the group, always looking for extra credit assignments, and thirsting to find knowledge.  She can come across as a bit of a know-it-all, but deep down inside, she means well.

At first, Ron and Hermione have sort of a love-hate relationship, especially in the first couple of movies, but both of them have mutual respect for Harry.  Other characters in the book that the three meet at Hogwarts include Neville Longbottom, an oafish character who is a mediocre student, but is loyal to his friends.  Draco Malfoy appears as Harry's nemesis throughout the books, and his minions, Crabbe and Goyle, are his loyal followers.  As well, you have the faculty of Hogwarts including Minerva McGonagle, the transfiguration teacher at Hogwarts, Severus Snape, a teacher who takes personal interest in Harry Potter himself, and Albus Dumbledore, the headmaster of Hogwarts, who often provides Harry and his friends with words of wisdom.

During the course of the novel, Harry experiences what it is like to be at a school for wizards, and has a lot of fun during his stay.  He gets placed in Gryffindor house with Ron and Hermione, and seems to grasp the schoolwork quite well.  He really comes into his own when he joins the Quidditch team, which was only natural, since his father also played on the team years earlier.  I wish I could find a video with accompanying dialogue, but I think this video explains it all.

Of course, there are some scary moments that Harry must face as well.  When Harry, Ron, and Hermione discover that a three-headed dog happens to be guarding a stone called the Philosopher's Stone (or Sorcerer's Stone in the USA), and that the stone grants immortality to the person who has it in their possession, Harry makes the wrong conclusion that Snape is the one after it to return Voldemort back to human form so that he can finish the job he started in trying to dispatch Harry.

Of course, trying to keep someone away from the stone wasn't an easy task for a trio of eleven year olds.  Not when you had to face challenges like this.

And that's not even the epic main battle for the end of the first book!  But am I going to show you what it is, or tell you how it ends?  Nope.  You'll just have to read the book for yourself.

I will tell you one thing though.  After seeing the first movie, it prompted me to search the library for a copy of the first book so I could read it all the way through to see what parts were cut out from the movie.  That's how good the movie was.  After reading all of the books straight through, I'm proud to say that the whole Harry Potter journey was one worth taking.  Whether you read the books or watch all the movies, I guarantee you that it will be a story that you'll never forget.

J.K. Rowling certainly won't ever forget the boy wizard she created on that train ride long ago.  One could say that the wizard changed her life.

I suppose in this case, Harry Potter spread his magic onto the real world, one child at a time. 

Even us adults can get in on the fun.  I remember five years ago, my sister threw a Harry Potter themed party together for the neighbourhood kids in her area, and all of the family got to play a role.

(I was the Sorting Hat!)

In fact, to close off this blog entry, I'm going to show all of you some pictures from that party five years ago, and maybe it'll inspire you all to come up with your own ideas for Potter parties, now that the series has wrapped up.  As far as new adventures for Harry Potter go, J.K. Rowling is reportedly working on some new material, so never say never.  But, it is a joy to know that so many people have been touched by a series of books in a world where Angry Birds and XBOX 360's seem to dominate the world.

At any rate, here's the pictures of the party from October 2006.

This was the sorting hat prop.  When the kids would come up to the podium, my sister (who was dressed as Professor McGonagle) would put the hat on their heads.  Behind the curtain, I was standing there with a karaoke machine microphone on echo, where I would say "BETTER BE GRYFFINDOR", or whatever house I called.  This divided up the kids into the four houses.

The party took place at my sister's house, and she had every room in the house done up like one of the classrooms, and each person played a faculty member (my sisters played McGonagle and Professor Trelawney, a neighbour played Snape, etc.), and they asked the kids questions about the books and movies to get house points.  Above, you'll see the "Potions" classroom.

At the end of the classroom tours, the points were added up, and the team that had the most points won the House Cup, seen up above.  The year we hosted this party, the Hufflepuff house won the competition, but all four teams did a fantastic job.  They wowed even me!

On any normal day, this would just be a garage.  However, on the night of the party, it was magically transformed into the banquet hall of Hogwarts.  Because the party was before Halloween, we strung up pumpkin lights to pretend they floated above the kids heads just like the movie.  You can even see that the podium looks authentic on a miniature scale.

Sadly, the party didn't go completely perfect.  Because of a thunderstorm that happened while the party went on, we had to cancel the outdoor part.  You can see that my sister has a really big backyard, which we would have used to our advantage.  If it hadn't rained, we would have hung Quidditch brooms from the trees and put golden snitches randomly around the yard.  You can sort of make out a wooden structure, which would have been Hagrid's hut, and there was a small greenhouse out back which would have been the herbology classroom.

Dementor!  Dementor!  This was just one of the many outdoor decorations that we had outside.

Finally, at the end of the night, each kid went home with a special lootbag, filled with all sorts of goodies, such as pencils and Harry Potter stickers.  My sister happened to find some Bertie Bott's Flavour Beans in the States (the ones that taste like boogers and dirt), and decided to mix them up with regular Jelly Belly beans, just to see what the kids would say.  Needless to say, the Bertie Bott's beans weren't a hit, but the party was a huge success!

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