It was July 19th, 2011. It was finally Monday, my day off from camp counselor duties, and my fellow Monday day off-ers and I hopped in a car and drove the 45 minutes to the nearest movie theater 3 towns over. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 had come out 4 days before, on July 15th, and to not see it was to opt out of one of the biggest moments of our young lives. It wasn’t even much of a decision, really, how we would spend our day off. I don’t even remember discussing it. Because while we’d been waiting 4 days for this moment, you could also say we’d been waiting 10 years. We had grown up with Harry and Ron and Hermione, and we had imagined ourselves in their shoes; sure, nothing as exciting or magical as being “the boy who lived,” ever happened in our lives, but when we thought about Hogwarts it sure felt like it could. Harry Potter, the books and the movies, had inspired the imaginations of a generation. It had taught people how to read, it had given millions of children a shared, magical experience. And in July of 2011, it taught us how to say goodbye.
Nowadays, with cinematic universes and endless reboots, the concept of an “ending” feels a little quaint. Even famous recent finale’s like Avengers: Endgame were finale’s in name only; a slew of follow up films had already been announced, and some even featured the characters we lost in that film’s climax. Even the Harry Potter franchise itself has been pulled out of the grave for prequel films, endless character updates from it’s now controversial author, and even a hit broadway play that revisits its characters shortly after the moments of this films’ lovely epilogue. Nothing really ends, not any more, which means the cathartic satisfaction of an ending has been somewhat lost to history. But at the time, in 2011, we didn’t know what was to come, so that’s exactly what watching this movie felt like. It felt like an ending.
I was 8 years old when the first Harry Potter movie came out (and when I started reading the books, which my mother insisted I do before I was allowed to see the movie), just 3 years younger than the 11 year old Harry, and I turned 18 just a couple months before the final film came out and ended his story at 17 (or 36, depending on how you define “end”). When that last film came out I had graduated High School a month before, and in a few months I would be leaving home to start college in a brand new city in a brand new state. That camp I was working at, the one where I had been a camper for 7 years and a counselor for two more, would become something of the past after that summer. And that wasn’t too unlike what Harry was going through. Hogwarts, the place where he’d found his true self, had been left behind at the end of Order of the Phoenix. He would return in Deathly Hallows Part 2 as a different person, an older person, come back to protect the place where he’d grown up. And the movies had grown up to, letting this finale be a darker, deeper, and more melancholy beast than the glittery kids movies of the decade before. Normally the franchise rule is more of the same; keep giving people more of what they paid for last time in hopes they won’t feel cheated. But the audience had grown up with Harry and his friends, and they were ready for something that had grown up with them.
It’s hard to remember now just how much of a phenomenon Harry Potter was, what with Marvel sucking up all the franchise oxygen in the room and the source novel’s author offering poor take after poor take, but for many people it truly defined their childhood. The books, first released in 1997, sold like gangbusters, the running line being they got the world’s children interested in reading again. A film of course came shortly after, with Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s (or Philosopher’s, depending on your point of view) Stone hit theaters in December of 2001 (not to worry, a 20 year retrospective to come), and it was a massive hit, making just under $1 billion at the box office. Sequels were of course greenlit, and for the next decade Harry Potter was a staple of the US box office charts. They received positive reviews too, for years ranking as the only franchise without a less than positive rating on Metacritic (a record trampled by the spinoff films, of which the less said the better in this writer’s opinion). But even this was no match for the finale, the film we’d all been waiting for.
When Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 hit theaters, it set a record for the highest worldwide opening weekend in history. It went on to become the highest grossing film in the franchise by far, the highest grossing film of 2011, and the 3rd highest grossing film of all time behind only the two James Cameron epics, Titanic and Avatar (a record it has now lost to various Marvel and Disney properties in fact, if not in my heart). It also received stellar reviews, ranking on metacritic as the best reviewed wide-release film of that year, beating out major Oscar contenders like Moneyball, Hugo, Midnight in Paris, and The Descendants. To make a long story short, the film easily met, if not exceeded, everyone’s wildest expectations. It was a fitting conclusion to the most magical series ever put on screen, and basically everyone loved it. Why? Because it knew exactly what it was – a conclusion. It knew that even if we didn’t want to say goodbye to our heroes, it’s what we needed. More than a movie itself, it’s a parade of farewells and celebrations of the people, places, and stories we’d grown to love over the better part of our lives, but it doesn’t feel like a gimmick. As much as we hate to go through it, we wanted to say goodbye to these people because we want them to move on to greener pastures. And most of all this came in saying goodbye to the famous faces that had BECOME these characters.
Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint, our three heroes that we had watched grow up from adorable little kids to burgeoning adults, deserved the chance to move on with their lives. After some momentary panic that they would leave the franchise somewhere around the 4th film, they had all decided to stick it out and see this thing through. The fact that they all developed into talented, working actors is really a stroke of luck that can’t be underestimated. But what made Harry Potter so special was always more than these three, it was the full world of characters played by brilliant british character actors, moving in and out of our story, playing their role but doing it with flair. Nearly every major recurring character gets at least one big moment to remind us why they were so special to this world while also hinting at the deep well of contradictions that made them feel so alive.
There’s Dame Maggie Smith’s imperious Professor McGonagall admitting with a smirk that she’s “always wanted to use that spell”, or Julie Walters’ Molly Weasley, maternal warmth personified, shouting with a snarl “not my daughter, you BITCH”. There’s the shy Neville Longbottom, getting a chance to save the day, reminding us that with a different twist of fate he may have been the boy who lived. Michael Gambon gets to return in a dreamlike sequence as the one and only (sorry Jude Law, RIP Richard Harris) Albus Dumbledore, justifying the passion of every kid who loved Harry Potter like he was a real boy with one of Rowling’s most touching lines; “Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?” Even Lavender Brown, a secondary love interest from several films ago, gets a moment to show that she gave her life in the battle of Hogwarts – I always find this moment deeply affecting, not because I felt so much love for Lavender Brown, but because by showing her sacrifice it makes me think of the hundreds of Hogwarts students we never got to know who sacrificed their lives for the good of the wizarding world (yes it’s happening in my head, but that doesn’t mean it’s not real, ok!)
And then of course there’s Snape, played in all 8 films by the late, great, Alan Rickman. The evolution of Snape’s arc was one of the biggest talking points when the book came out, and it’s a doozy. The reveal *SPOILER ALERT*, that he had been a double agent for Dumbledore all along gutted a generation of fans. This awkward man with the greasy hair had accepted all our hate and frustration in exchange for working in the shadows to protect us, to protect Harry, all because of the girl he’d once, and would always, love. Rickman, who was cast before this twist of fate was revealed to readers but was famously one of the only people told of the characters’ true motivations by Rowling, gives a deeply felt performance. All his resentment and cruelty to Harry is still troubling, but infinitely human. There was a small, but vocal, campaign to get Rickman a supporting actor nomination that year, even more vocal than the usual Best Picture buzz that went nowhere (despite being one of the best reviewed films of the year, cough cough), and it’s hard to argue that he didn’t deserve it.
Rewatching this film for the purposes of this article, it became clear to me how much the film really is just about wrapping everything up. We hit the ground running, picking up exactly where the useful if a bit rambling Deathly Hallows Part 1 took off, and get going from there. We watch Harry accomplish his series of tasks that we know he has to accomplish before his final battle with Ralph Fiennes’ villain of all villains, he who must not be named, Voldemort. There was no other way this could end, and no other way it should. Harry brings the golden snitch, the emblem of some of the most magically fun moments of the first films, to his final do or die battle. “I open at the close” it says, and we really were at the close. I was sitting in that theater at the close of a lot of things in my life, a lot of really big things, but still the close of Harry Potter felt bigger than any of them. It felt like I was saying goodbye not just to a chapter of my life, but to a world I’d carried with me for years. Back then the end really did feel like the end, and in a way we were better for it. I got to say goodbye to Harry, and know that he was going to be ok. In the slightly corny, if still incredibly emotional satisfying epilogue, he sends his kids off to a safe and happy Hogwarts, and he, Ron, and Hermione are all ok. The famous line goes, “all’s well that ends well.” And, well, at the end of Harry Potter, all was well.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 was released on July 15, 2011. It is currently available to stream on Peacock and wherever you rent digitally.
Photo courtesy of Warner Bros Pictures