"Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" flew into theaters on owls' wings 15 years ago this week, just over two months after 9/11.
The first film based on J.K. Rowling's wildly successful book series offered a modicum of escape amid a terrible period. Yet its story of good, evil and all in between, even played out largely through children, offered a reminder of the turmoil outside the theater.
The British author’s new "Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them" movie series arrives Friday – not, thankfully, in the wake of more unfathomable terror. Still, "Beasts" dawns amid a new era of uncertainty and fear among many on both sides of the Atlantic.
Once again as Thanksgiving approaches we turn to Rowling, whose wizardry rests in transporting us to another world without letting us fully forget our own.
Unlike the "Potter" flicks, the new series isn't based primarily on books, giving us little knowledge going in. The bigger differences come in time and place: The story of Rowling’s new hero, Newt Scamander, kicks off with his adventures in 1926 New York, just three years before the Great Depression triggered the darkest period of the previous century.
Depression-World War II-era tumult inspired J.R.R. Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" books to which Rowling's writings are sometimes unfavorably compared. Her Hogwarts might not be as complex as Tolkien's Middle Earth. But she tackles the linked threats of fascism (Voldemort and his crew) and intolerance (the oppression of Dobby, the hate directed at "mudbloods") on her own terms.
Her stories – and her messages – are accessible and deliver an emotional wallop, thanks in great part to her young protagonists.
It seems we can expect similar themes to emerge through Scamander, who lives at a time when hate forces wizards into hiding. As Rowling recently told The New York Times: “I hope when people see the movie, they will understand that it grew out of things that are very important to me in the world at the moment.”
The first "Potter" film made more money than any movie released in 2001, edging out “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.” It also heralded years of Thanksgivings and summers of new installments, culminating in 2011’s “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part II,” that year’s highest grossing picture.
"Beasts" reportedly is the first of five films, promising years of magic to come at a time when we could a spell from the muggle life.